Monday, 18 July 2011

Vision and Place: Paul Nash & Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair's new book 'Ghost Milk' is dedicated to 'the huts of the Manor Garden Allotments' which, you may remember, were brushed aside in 2007, during the more general bulldozing of the London 2012 development site in Stratford, East London. Of course you can't build an Olympic stadium and all the ancillary gubbins without altering the immediate environment quite substantially, but there was something particularly sad about the destruction of the four-and-a-half acre allotment site on the bank of the River Lea.

While 'Ghost Milk' finds Sinclair at his most incendiary, applying the blowtorch of his furious prose to the 2012 London Olympics, it is this dedication that really struck me. It reminded me that, behind the blistering prose, exhausting digressions and peculiar obsessions that make reading Sinclair a challenge, the self-styled 'Travelodge tramp' is a Romantic with an extraordinary sense of place.

This comes across most strongly in my favourite book of his, 'Lights Out for the Territory', in which ordinary London streets, parks and patches of wasteland are transformed into a strange, poetic realm. He has a sharp eye and a feel for the underappreciated, but what makes this book really come to life is the author's pursuit of private obsessions. He is on a quest, not to fulfil a publisher's commission (as seems to be the case in 'London Orbital') but to find patterns in the city that are intensely meaningful to him and, by proxy to us. I've read the book numerous times, still find it bewildering, and love it partly for that reason. At the same time I think there's a simple underlying premise, suggested by the title, which is from the end of 'Huckleberry Finn', when Huck (the narrator) tells us his book is finished:
Sinclair: the obsessive's obsessive

'But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.'

You get the feeling that Sinclair doesn't want to be civilised and he doesn't like civilisation to be forced on others, hence his furious opposition to the development surrounding the London Olympics. Like the raggedy Huck Finn, the author and his city are already civilised, in their own, homegrown way; Sinclair loves the city as it has evolved, and 'Lights Out for the Territory' is, as much as anything else, about this organic place with its myriad obscure connections.

Avebury in 1905, PA Hooper
When I read the dedication above I thought immediately of another place and time, and an artist with an acute sense of 'genius loci'. When Paul Nash discovered Avebury in the summer of 1933 he was at a low ebb, both artistically and personally. In fact he was recovering from the first major attack of the bronchial illness that would eventually kill him, and had travelled to the Wiltshire village of Marlborough with his old friend Ruth Clark to recuperate.

They took the bus to Avebury and, when they arrived, Nash was transfixed by what he saw. He had spent 20 years exploring his inner visions in the real landscape, finding inspiration in the woods of Buckinghamshire, on the battlefields of the Western Front and on the Dymchurch sea wall. Here was a place at once exciting and strange, where the ancient past lay undisturbed beneath accumulated layers of time.

Paul Nash, Landscape of the Megaliths, 1934
'The great stones were then in their wild state, so to speak,' he later noted. 'Some were half covered by the grass, others stood up in cornfields were entangled and overgrown in the copses, some were buried under the turf. But they were wonderful and disquieting, and, as I saw them then, I shall always remember them.'

Keiller's men raising a stone
By the late 1930s, when Nash wrote this, the landscape of Avebury had been transformed, thanks to the unstinting efforts of Alexander Keiller, the marmalade millionaire and archaeologist. Keiller's aim was both to preserve the architecture of the great stones for posterity and to return the site to something approximating its original state. Stones that had toppled over were set upright, those that were buried were dug up and reinstated, and missing stones were marked by concrete posts. What visitors see today is largely Keiller's work.

I understand that the allotment holders of Stratford will be returned to their site after the Olympics, but this isn't the point. The place, which evolved over time and held within it all manner of stories, memories and ghosts, has gone, as the old neglected Avebury disappeared when the first megalith was re-erected.

RIP Manor Garden Allotments
'But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.'

1 comment:

  1. Personally I'd rather have allotments than Olympics any day of the week...lovely work by Paul Nash and one I hadn't seen before.