Saturday, November 24, 2018

Soft machines for living in

Iain Sinclair, Living with Buildings and Walking with Ghosts 
Published by Profile Books in association with Wellcome Collection

No sooner had Iain Sinclair, apparently tireless writer about London, walker of mean streets, grubber around in corners, tracer of psychogeographical force-fields, and seer of beauty in dilapidation, said his writerly ‘farewell’ to London*, than he’s at it again: walking and writing about the place in an account, made at the behest of the Wellcome Foundation, to explore the relationship between buildings and health. It’s not just London, though, that Sinclair visits. He’s off to Mexico, up to Scotland, and out to Marseille to visit Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation. One almost expects him to reprise some of his visits (made for London Orbital) to the former asylums around the periphery of the capital, but instead, he looks at the site of the Royal Victoria military hospital, Southampton, with its memories of shell-shock. As the title-page of this book suggests, along with buildings come ghosts.

Although a commission, this is an intensely personal book. It comes most alive in the parts (the majority of the book) where he writes about his friends: the hardships they and those around them have faced and the way in which the buildings they occupy and use have affected them. ’Gentle’ is not the first adjective that might occur to one when thinking about Sinclair’s writing – he’s known and savoured for the kind of lively language that threatens to set the page on fire. But gentle, tender even, he can be. Writing about his friend the film-maker Andrew Kötting and his daughter Eden, who lives with Joubert’s Syndrome, Sinclair enumerates the effects of this disorder using the medical terms that it demands (‘hypertonia, ataxia, psychomotor retardation…’) but if this sounds cold, it’s in contrast to the warmth which which Sinclair describes her and her relationship with her father, with whom she early learned to ‘play, collaborate, hug and laugh out loud’. The flat in Deptford’s Pepys Estate that the family occupied when Eden was young might look a cold place too: the area was one in which the council narrowed the rubbish chutes to make it impossible to use them to dispose of ‘inconvenient bodies’. The place is a 1960s mix of low- and high-rise that John Betjeman denounced in a film (flying over Deptford, he concluded, ‘It can’t be right.’) Yet Kötting, his partner Leila Macmillan and their daughter Eden found it a nurturing place, a space they enjoyed living in, where they found friendship and support, and to which they look back fondly.

Sinclair’s book contains several stories concerning people in often challenging circumstances in buildings that might, from outside, seem unforgiving – Emma Matthews and her son Louis in Golden Lane, sculptor Steve Dilworth and his wife Joan on the island of Harris, Jonathan Meades in the Marseilles Unité (which belies its image as an overly hard-edged Corbusian ‘machine for living in’), artist Rebecca Hind at various locations. Sinclair never comes to the obvious conclusions; he doesn’t offer easy answers either. He’s after a more elliptical approach, one that presents the complexity of what we’re dealing with – people, their wellbeing, whole environments not just walls or rooms.

This is a rich book, full of the breadth of allusion that one might expect from Sinclair – Rembrandt, Sir Thomas Browne, W. G. Sebald. It’s studded too with bits of arresting language that make one sit up and pay attention – in a pleasurable way. I relish his turns of phrase, from the disturbing notion of body snatchers as ‘part of the local food chain’, to blazing images like the author burning inside ‘like an owl that has swallowed a firelighter’. It comes, too, with a good dose of Sinclairish appreciation of things ‘counter, original, spare, strange’.† But not just in architecture – in people too. It’s an attitude that is open-minded then, though now and then with a healthy does of scepticism – Sinclair, a doctor’s son, recalls ‘consulting room chatter’ along the lines of ‘Avoid hospitals like the plague’. But it’s animated also by the credo of Simenon’s Maigret and Sinclair’s father: ‘Understand and judge not’. Not a bad motto – for policemen, doctors, architects…and writers too.

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* See Iain Sinclair, The Last London (Oneworld Publications, 2017).

† I’m raiding Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘Pied Beauty’ here – though where Hopkins found beauty in trout and cows, Sinclair’s epiphanies are more likely to occur when encountering rust or flaking paint.


bazza said...

Iain Sinclair is a really prolific writer. (I am assuming that the writer of much London-based fiction is the same person.) I really enjoyed reading your review of this book especially the phrase "threatens to set the page on fire"! I want to read it now!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s ultracrepidarian Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

As an incurable romantic, I imagine the building which would promote good physical and mental health would be less like "a machine for living in" and more like Rose Cottage with a bit of garden back and front, near the shops one way, and the other way near some delicious open countryside for walking in. The old-fashioned textures of brick, stone or half-timber ("timber frame") and wood would be part of it. It would have level access to the pavement, and neighbours who are only too willing to run to your assistance and help you with the wheel-chair, as well as passing the time of day. The same neighbours wouldn't complain if your autistic boy makes loud incoherent noises in the early hours. (They too might enjoy good mental and physical health.) Even the postman would enjoy the street, pushing the letters through the wide non-snappy letterboxes (like some in your blog) and smelling the flowers in the front gardens...

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Yes, it's the same Iain Sinclair. I don't know how much of his work you've read, but I'd certainly recommend London Orbital and Lights Out for the Territory - and then maybe Edge of the Orison which heads out of London towards Cambridgeshire and Northants. The fiction is an altogether tougher nut to crack.

Philip Wilkinson said...

I suppose my own sympathies are nearer the Rose Cottage end of the spectrum that the 'machine à habiter' end too. My own house is a bit like that – stone cottage, jasmine around the door, near shops one way and countryside the other...but with no front garden and steps (many at the back, alas) to get in and out. The immediate neighbours are exemplary in every way. I've lived in dire 1960s flats in my time, but I think I'd get on fine in a well designed block in a city – I'd have given the Barbican a go if I'd had the chance when I was in London.