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#7 Twenty-year Orbit, part 1
Revisiting London Orbital, Iain Sinclair's key 2002 contribution to the genre of psychogeography.
September 13th 2021 saw Greater London’s M25 motorway become, not for the first time, a site of political struggle. Beginning on that day in very late summer, the activist retirees of Insulate Britain (younger participants appeared to be in the minority) conducted a series of road-blocking protests at important junctions, thus bringing key sections of the orbital motorway to a rage-inducing standstill. Their first demand then, and now, was and is that the government fund insulation of all social housing in Britain by 2025. Their second demand was that, by the end of 2021, the government create a plan to fund retrofitting of insulation of all British homes by 2030.
On October 4th, with Insulate Britain’s actions still ongoing, PM Boris Johnson condemned the protesters as ‘irresponsible crusties’ and refused to accept their protest as legitimate. However, the then-Prince Charles said, in a Guardian interview, that he totally understood the frustration with government policy felt by Insulate Britain protesters, but he added that that anger ought to be channelled ‘in a way that is more constructive than destructive’.
On October 6th 2022, the following graced my Twitter timeline:
An examination of the group’s Wiki page reveals, however, that by no means all the ‘crusties’ have escaped punishment: nine were awarded prison sentences in November 2021, followed by a further five in February. There are still trials ongoing.
For those with long memories, Insulate Britain’s actions on the M25 might have recalled the May 18th 1999 truckers’ protest, which saw around 1000 hauliers causing major disruption on the orbital motorway as they slowly circled it, giving vent to their anger at high fuel prices. That was a mere foretaste of the following year’s severe fuel crisis, which hit when identically motivated protests went nationwide (and enjoyed widespread support until the possibility of essential services being affected loomed), eventually forcing the government to make concessions on fuel duty.
Returning to the present, this summer saw high-profile actions on the M25 by new pressure group Just Stop Oil: visibly younger protesters (significantly, some of them were veterans of the Insulate Britain actions) vandalised petrol pumps at motorway service stations and superglued themselves to forecourts. The rapidly evolving priorities of the left, both the British left and the left as a global movement, are visible in this now-exclusive focus on the climate issue, the concern for the poor having been dropped. A break from left-wing tradition, certainly as far as the British left is concerned.
The M25 as ongoing battleground: a political turn that would appear to herald a new chapter in the history of the motorway. No longer just a key piece of infrastructure, but also a terrain to be contested, and contested not just occasionally, but frequently, almost continually. This marks a broadening of the already substantial mythology that has built up around the M25 since its opening 36 years ago.
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The Figure of the Fugueur
Probably no one knows that mythology better than Iain Sinclair, the M25’s premiere mythographer (thanks solely to the remarkable book I’m considering here) and likely the most celebrated exponent of that outsider ‘discipline’, psychogeography. This may be an unfamiliar term to some. Let’s turn to another exponent, writer Robert Macfarlane, for an introduction:
Psychogeography: a beginner’s guide. Unfold a street map of London, place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets; the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Cut for sign. Log the data-stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle, and the record ends. Walking makes for content; footage for footage.1
London Orbital, perhaps Sinclair’s most celebrated work of psychogeography and, according to the author, a ‘documentary fiction’, was first published in October of 2002. Back then the term ‘psychogeography’, though coined by Marxist Guy Debord back in the Sixties, was still yet to become widely known. The remarkable success of Sinclair’s book―remarkable because of its length and density, and the esoteric nature of its subject matter―did much to popularise the concept. Will Self, who declared London Orbital his book of the year, began, in October 2003, a typically eclectic and antic column entitled simply Psychogeography. That same year Cambridge Fellow Robert Macfarlane, whose early prose in particular is quite Sinclair-like, published his first book, Mountains of the Mind, a study of what draws us to prominences. Indeed, the 00s and 10s saw a clutch of emerging British writers putting flesh on the bones of the psychogeography genre in its revised, 21st century form: Matthew Beaumont, Olivia Lang, Nick Papadimitriou, Michael Symmons Roberts, and more. Their combined impact has been such that if you take to a footpath virtually anywhere in London on a day of reasonable weather, the chances of bumping into a psychogeographer (professional or amateur, often with camera or phone in hand) are far from negligible.
Long-time Hackney resident Iain Sinclair, now approaching eighty, is arguably the writer who has taken psychogeography the furthest. Not that he was the pioneer of the ‘discipline’―Debord’s anticapitalist group the Situationists had invented or honed many of the key strategies a few decades before. For the Situationists, psychogeography was a study of urban ‘ambiences’ and an exploration of how city environments might be used for radical purposes. At that point psychogeography was purely political and aesthetic, yet to take on the mystical dimension and rural concerns that the likes of Sinclair would introduce. For their psychogeography the Situationists did not have to invent everything from scratch―they drew much inspiration from the more perambulatory of the early 20th century modernists (eg Walter Benjamin, Louis Aragon) and from the flâneurs and fugueurs (Sinclair’s term) of the 1800s. But Sinclair is the writer most responsible for the concept’s mainstreaming, largely thanks to the commercial success achieved by 1998’s Lights Out for the Territory and London Orbital four years later.
In approaching the latter book he made use of what was, in a way, a version of Macfarlane’s glass and map trick, but on a much bigger scale: the circular line (circular abstractly if not geometrically) drawn on the (Greater) London map in this case being the M252. The 117-mile six-lane (in places eight-lane) highway that rings London at distances of between 12 and 20 miles from Trafalgar Square was opened by Margaret Thatcher (at a still-undisclosed location) in 1986 (an event ‘of tremendous occult significance’ according to Sinclair). Since the Communications Act 2003 the M25 has doubled as a de facto alternative boundary of Greater London.
In what seems to be a bit of myth-making, Sinclair states that his aim with the M25 walks (undertaken mostly in that year of the truckers’ protests, 1999) was to exorcise the malign influence of that vacuous boondoggle, the Millennium Dome. Could this peculiar goal really have been the motivation for the book? I found it interesting to read, in Neil Jackson's 2014 interview with the writer, that the Sinclair who appears in the books is not, strictly speaking, himself, but rather a persona, a version of himself:
In the documentary writing such as Hackney, or going back to Lights Out, there’s a sense of determination; you feel that the words had to get onto the page. Where did that energy come from?
It’s always been there. It’s an aspect of how I look at life - and a compulsion to negotiate my passage through it by writing. It’s taken years to understand the process and to describe it, going from something like a neurotic instinct to simply get the words down, to a fugue-like state of writing as my only way of being in the world. But the ‘self’ in the written material is a ‘formed self’. It’s an exaggeration, it’s not an entire portrait, and of course there are some things I wouldn’t go into - but I’ve created a persona which allows me to write about certain things, certain experiences somewhere between documentary and fiction. And those lines get very, very blurred.3
Needless to say, Sinclair didn’t walk the M25 itself (and had he tried the police would’ve been on the scene to question him and escort him off the motorway pretty sharpish). Rather his M.O. was to tramp the countryside parallel to the road, staying within earshot of it. He rarely walked alone―throughout the book he’s joined by various companions, the most frequent being the artist Laurence ‘Renchi’ Bicknell, an old friend of Sinclair’s. He remembers their early acquaintance in Dublin, over thirty years before the M25 walks:
Renchi laboured under an impossible burden. Laid on him by his peers. Be the painter. Americans with trust funds symphoned the production line. Public-school Englishmen with jobs in the City commissioned portraits. Be the Rimbaud genius. Burn out. Nominate your Abyssinia. Disappear.4
As a late-blooming product of England’s Sixties counterculture, Sinclair is steeped in radicalism and occultism. Though he has written approvingly of various figures in the modernist arts he certainly isn't modern in a way that would be recognised as such by the average Anglo empiricist. Sinclair has spoken of ‘the revealed lunacy of rational men’5, and there is a strong Romantic, anti-Enlightenment current running through his work. As such, the Welsh writer's politics have always seemed to me somewhat hard to pin down, beyond a vociferous animosity for Thatcher and her cronies. London Orbital, though, does offer at least one clue, when Sinclair and Renchi reach St George’s Hill in Surrey. In the 17th century this was common land on which, during the Civil War, George Winstanley’s revolutionary Diggers camped, for the purposes of making a stand and cultivating the ground:
It’s easy to feel sentimental about the one period in English life when we played at being a Republic; court and courtiers were discounted. Splinter groups, fanatics and visionaries of every stamp, took to the roads. Churches and civic buildings were used for debate: hamlet to hamlet, along the Thames from Putney to Kingston. Agitators, appointed by their fellow soldiers, argued against parliamentary orthodoxy. Levellers, Diggers, Ranters. Veterans of the Sixties are drawn to this period, the late 1640s and early 1650s: they know about splits and schisms, expulsion, denunciation. Impotence.6
The Diggers’ philosophy is strangely familiar:
Winstanley received, so he asserted, divine inspiration, while in a trance. There must be common ownership of all means of production and distribution, complete freedom of worship, compulsory education for both sexes. When the voice of God triumphed, the formal authority of the state would wither away.7
Sinclair’s admiration for the Diggers―alongside the Levellers, arguably the first English socialists, and thus the distant political ancestors of Insulate Britain―would seem to mark Sinclair as a confirmed leftist. Yet throughout his oeuvre he shows only a passing interest in 20th and 21st century left-wing politics, and in London Orbital he has nothing but scorn for the ‘Best Value’ initiatives of Tony Blair’s New Labour.
But whatever the case, the crucial point for me is that Sinclair stands staunchly for the particulars of place, the primacy of the local, against the homogenising, deterritorialising forces of what Jean Baudrillard called ‘the global’8, that advancing order of things that in London Orbital is perhaps best represented by Heathrow and its environs:
On a bridge over a tributary of the Colne, stamped with a brightly gilded crown from the reign of William IV (1834), we watch an airbus skid over the protective fence of the Western Perimeter Road. Heathrow is its own city, a Vatican of the western suburbs. London flatters itself in insisting on the connection. The airport complex with its international hotels, storage facilities, semi-private roads, is as detached from the shabby entropy of the metropolis as is the City, the original walled settlement. They have their own rules, their own security forces, the arrogance of global capitalism. They service Moloch in whatever form he chooses to reveal himself; they facilitate drug/armament, blood/oil economies.
It is in this firm, consistent rejection of the global that Sinclair’s psychogeography is at its most political. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say we’re dealing here with the ‘transpolitical’, to use another Baudrillard coinage. That is, a politics that is outside the conventional left-right frame, and outside of rational political economy. A politics that stands on radically other ontological ground.
Edge of Darkness
The criminal side, the shadow side of existence has long been a Sinclair obsession―since at least his debut novel White Chappell Scarlet Tracings, an excursion into, and modest expansion of, the Ripper’s mythology. London Orbital devotes a considerable number of pages to the violent side of the M25’s history, with one mysterious and disturbing event in 1990 especially standing out. That year the ‘badly mutilated’ body of a woman, unidentified and estimated by a pathologist to be ‘somewhere between 30 and 50’ years of age, was discovered near the South Mimms service station, at that time the M25’s only services:
News of this coincidence, nameless victim and recently completed service station, coming a few years after Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor, with its ritual sacrifices, dead children secreted in the foundations of London churches, provoked all kinds of rumours…
… If vampires are buried at crossroads, stake through the heart, to trap and confuse unresting spirits, then what torment did the South Mimms inhumation represent? A poor soul pitched against interlinked spirals, under and over, the multi-choice channels at Junction 23 of the M25.9
The South Mimms mystery deepens as we learn something odd about a Royal Navy warship, a preserved vessel from the Second World War:
Returned to base in Hackney, I received a letter from the poet and visionary Aidan Andrew Dun (author of Vale Royal). ‘How far round are you on your orbital pilgrimage? You probably know this but when HMS Belfast was moored just up from Tower Bridge its monstrous gun-turret was trained on a service-station somewhere in the north-western sector of the M25, demonstrating a range of twenty-something miles. Dunno what this means. Perhaps some omen of war on the forecourt!’10
I haven’t been able to confirm this, and as ever, the reader does well to bear in mind the book’s billing as a ‘documentary fiction’. Whatever the truth of the matter, Sinclair goes on to explain that:
HMS Belfast was a crucial element in architect Theo Crosby’s attempt at rewiring the Celtic Christian alignments of London (as proposed by Elizabeth Gordon in her inspirational 1914 publication, Prehistoric London: Its Mounds and Circles). Crosby, in a promotional booklet for his Battle of Britain monument (designed with Michael Sandle), worked everything from a point that seemed to have little significance in 1987. By whatever prophetic or occult arts, Crosby chose to launch the psychogeographic redefinition of London’s fields of force from the line of zero longitude (which he called the ‘Turner Axis’). His Speer-derived monument would be sited around Cuckold’s Point in Rotherhithe (the starting place for an historic pilgrimage to the Horn Fair in Charlton). It was, in fact, a precise equivalent (west for east) of the dead ground on which the Millennium Dome would be built (as an unconscious tribute to the spirit of Crosby)…
…’The place is unimportant,’ writes Crosby. ‘So is the alignment and the orientation, the magic rules of the past that governed the disposal of buildings and particularly monuments. They are the cardinal points, the directions of the equinox, the midsummer sunrise, the turning of year, the evocation of growth, the stopping of time.’11
Later in the book Sinclair delves into the uses the South East’s enterprising criminal gangs―no longer based in London’s East End but instead mostly operating out of Essex―have made of the M25. An essay film Sinclair made with longtime collaborator Chris Petit to accompany the book, also entitled London Orbital, includes some fascinating and disturbing material on this subject. Another highlight is a video interview with the seer of Shepperton, JG Ballard. It is that film that I’ll be focusing on in part 2 of Twenty-year Orbit.
Macfarlane, Robert, ‘A Road of One’s Own: Past and Present Artists of the Randomly Motivated Walk’, Times Literary Supplement, 7 October 2005, 3-4, p. 3.
The important thing in these experiments, it seems to me, is that the ground to be covered is chosen for you―the aleatory and the arbitrary are deployed to bypass the confines of rational.
Sinclair, Ian and Jackson, Neil, Improving the Image of Destruction, Post-nearly Press, 2014.
Sinclair, Iain, London Orbital, Penguin, 2003 (Reprint edition), p. 121.
Sinclair, Iain, Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the secret history of London, Granta Books, 1997.
Sinclair, Iain, London Orbital, Penguin, 2003, p. 305, 306.
ibid. p. 306.
Sinclair, Iain, London Orbital, Penguin, 2003, p. 142.
ibid. p. 144
ibid. p. 144, 145