In the mid 1980s I was working as a postman in the Northern District Post Office in London and one of my great pleasures was my weekly Thursday visit to the second-hand bookstalls in nearby Camden Passage where Iain had a stall. I was into weird fiction, crime and books on London and these featured among Iain's interests both as a bibliophile and a bookseller, so conversation was inevitable. I also met Iain on occasions in the HEROES second-hand bookshop in Canonbury Lane. HEROES, run by my friend Alan Austin, was originally a comic store but over the years in morphed into a bookshop as Alan's own interests changed. Not only did I spend a lot of time there due to its proximity to my workplace, it was a meeting place for various like-minded characters such as the eccentric, Dave Giacardhi, and future prophet of Nordic Noir, Barry Forshaw, who managed the more up-market nearby Canonbury Bookshop, both of whom became good friends.
|Bookstall in Camden Passage|
Iain had published some poetry, notably a small volume entitled LUD HEAT which contained a prose poem entitled "Nicholas Hawksmoor, his churches" which proposed a mystical significance to the architect Hawksmoor's London churches. I found the piece inspirational and set out to visit the churches themselves. Heavily under the spell of Iain's writing and Peter Ackroyd's subsequent brilliant novel, HAWKSMOOR (which acknowledged its debt) I found the churches fascinating, not only for their architecture but for the way they seemed to map out much of the mythology and dark lore of London with their echoes of Jack the Ripper, the Ratcliff Highway Murders, Springheeled Jack and cholera. Then came Iain's novel WHITE CHAPPELL, SCARLET TRACINGS which concerned itself with not only Jack the Ripper but the second-hand book trade. One of the characters in the book, a group pf eccentric and somewhat seedy dealers searching for a copy of MRS.BEETON'S CHRISTMAS ANNUAL featuring the very first Sherlock Holmes tale, was based on the very real Martin Stone, another of the Camden Passage fraternity.
You can read more about Martin here :Martin Stone
Back to Iain Sinclair. One day Iain appeared in HEROES and mentioned in passing that he had been down to Stanford Le Hope doing research for his novel DOWN RIVER. I had also been in that town on what is unaffectionately known to residents of south Essex as "The Loop" a weird diversionary branch of the main line from Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness, My quest had been to find the houses lived in by the writer Joseph Conrad. I found the site of his home - a new building at the location of the demolished original, plus an earlier cottage where he may or may not have temporarily resided, During my wanderings I met an old man trimming a hedge who claimed to have been related to John Tunstall, the employer of Billy the Kid, whose murder was the catalyst that provoked Billy into a life of violence. I told Iain the story and sometime later he presented me with an autographed copy of the novel which contained a fantasy of my story somewhat misremembered - possibly intentionally. I am described in the book as "a scholar, an ex-postman" on page 354 of the first edition.
Personally, I do not find Iain Sinclair's books reader friendly. The narratives are oblique, disconnected and, with the exception of WHITE CHAPPELL, SCARLET TRACINGS, I struggle to find anything resembling a coherent plot in what seems like me to be a stream of consciousness. But this does not mean that I do not love them. I read them in a way that, perhaps, Iain intended (I really do not know) by dipping into them randomly. I experience frustration to be sure but I continually find things to interest me, events and situations I recognise. Like Iain I love wandering the streets of London, I love old maps, old churches, eccentric characters. I found that Iain once shared a flat with the late Michael Reeves, the film director famous for WITCHFINDER GENERAL. I knew Reeves reasonably well before his death but did not know of the connection with Iain until I read Sinclair's book, LIGHTS OUT FOR THE TERRITORY (my favourite of his books, with, coincidentally, a title taken from a line in my all time favourite Western). DOWN RIVER also features the first ever railway murder which took place on the Fenchurch Street Line in 1864 and mention of the sinking of the pleasure steamer Princess Alice in 1878 . I was, at the time the book was published, travelling to work everyday on the Fenchurch Street Line. A few years later I met my partner, Theresa, who was related to Long Liz Stride, the Swedish canonical victim of Jack the Ripper. Liz had married one of Theresa's great great uncles and had claimed (falsely) that her husband and daughters had drowned during the sinking of the Princess Alice.
Elizabeth Stride 1872