Iain Sinclair

By: Patrick Cates
June 11, 2010

One Sunday in 1998 I found myself in the itinerant audience of a reworking of Brecht’s Seven Deadly Sins. There were seven East London sites involved in the performance, one for each sin. Wrath made its home in a disused boxing gym in Hoxton Square. Two women entered the ring and began punching the crap out of each other. Meanwhile, a mild-mannered bespectacled man dressed in a referee’s white shirt, black trousers and bow tie, stood near them and read to us about the 60s slaying of Jack “The Hat” McVitie by the terrible Kray Twins. The reader, I found out afterwards, was IAIN SINCLAIR (born 1943) and it was Slow Chocolate Autopsy, his series of psychogeographic vignettes about a time-travelling Londoner, from which he read. Despite the urgency and violence of the visual display, I found myself fixated on Sinclair. I had never heard a text at once so ramblingly poetic, precisely prosaic and rich with insider empathy for London. Since writing that flawed but brilliant work, Sinclair has grown in stature as the literary Londoner’s Londoner; Will Self and Peter Ackroyd are just two of his famous devotees. Whether he is describing a doleful walk around the motorway that circles London (London Orbital), telling the life story of the A12, that overburdened artery that joins the city to the North Sea (Dining On Stones), or dismantling Hackney, the oddball London borough where he has lived for 40 years (Hackney, That Rose Red Empire), Sinclair’s eloquent expertise draws us in. He is known by some as a prolific poet and documentary director. But he shines brightest when, blurring the border between fiction and non-fiction, he lays bare the moods, multiple personalities, and layered histories of that most complex of cities.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Dame Darcy, Jacques Cousteau, Irving Howe.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between two generations. Iain Sinclair was born between the Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation (1934-43) and the Blank Generation (1944-53).

What do you think?

  1. Oh, is it Iain Sinclair’s birthday today?

    His book on Hackney had a gloriously controversial birth. First Hackney Council in its wisdom rang Sinclair and offered the use of one of its libraries for the launch event. He accepted. A year later (!!) they rang back and rescinded the offer. This banning was found, following a freedom of information request from the Hackney Citizen, to have been at the request of the mayor, Jules Pipe – because Sinclair had written negatively in the TLS about the 2012 Olympics! In Hackney you aren’t allowed to dislike the 2012 Olympics. Amusingly, it took the council about five months to cotton on after the TLS article.

    I reviewed the book, as it happens for the Hackney Citizen, and had to laugh: Sinclair’s anti-Olympics piece is the least of their worries. He hates the council’s depredations upon the borough with a pure, white-hot flame. It is a glorious, batty, discursive, self-aggrandising, nepotistic, completely authentic, endlessly entertaining and, I think, really important book.

    Many happy returns to its author.

  2. Wonderful, Patrick. I barely know London, but I’m a huge fan of Sinclair, and you’ve put your finger right on why.

  3. Luc: I’m humbled. You’re very kind.

    Ms B: Ha! That story about the mayor sums up the dodginess of Hackney’s leadership over the years. Bravo to Sinclair for shaking things up.

  4. I’m astonished that you managed to write this without using the term “psychogeography” — that’s right up there with writing a novel that doesn’t use the letter “e” anywhere.

  5. Doesn’t “psychogeographic” count? You’re a tough customer, Glenn.

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