In a 2007 lecture delivered at Swedenborg House, later published as Blake’s London: The Topographic Sublime (2018), Iain Sinclair concluded,
The golden chain goes on and on, and the words of guidance, the maps we need to follow, are all to be found in the works of the archetypal London writer, William Blake of Lambeth (p. 46).
The comment reprises the imagery from a well-known lyric in Blake’s Jerusalem plate 77:
I give you the end of a golden string
Only wind it into a ball:
It will lead you in at Heavens gate,
Built in Jerusalems wall.
Sinclair has taken up the end of Blake’s golden string in myriad, multimedial ways (indeed he scarcely needs an introduction on a blog dedicated to Blake’s afterlives). So when I began researching Blake’s legacy in self- and independent publishing ventures in London, it was, naturally, from Sinclair that I took up the initial thread. In January this year, we met for an interview over Zoom. You can read the transcript of our discussion below.
Sinclair’s Albion Village Press (1970-1979) is probably the best-known instance of a London small press with Blakean redolences. Primarily, these redolences are apparent in the content of Albion Village publications, for instance Sinclair’s Lud Heat (1975) and Suicide Bridge (1979). The name ‘Albion Village Press’ sounds Blakean indeed, though in our interview, Sinclair clarified that this name was ‘an accident of location,’ siezed upon because he was living on Albion Drive in Hackney. ‘[W]hen you put yourself in the right mindset,’ he mused, ‘the world confirms you in your folly.’ Around the same time as he set up the press, Sinclair had put on an exhibition alongside his friends Renchi Bicknell and Brian Catling, a show that the Whitechapel Gallery, rather reluctantly, agreed to host, called Albion Island Vortex (1974). In our interview, Sinclair characterised the show as ‘an attempted reflection of Blakean pilgrimage and significant topography. The room was divided into walls dedicated to East, North, South, West, with stones and crows and the usual Blakean trappings.’ The spirit of the original show was re-exposed in a recent iteration at Gallery 46, also in Whitechapel, close to the Royal London Hospital. This show was called House of the Last London. It included a sketch-map of various London landmarks, including Nicolas Hawksmoor churches and sites associated with Blake, criss-crossed by so-called ‘lines of influence / the invisible rods of force active in this city,’ roughed out by Sinclair and drawn by Catling, to illustrate Sinclair’s Lud Heat.
Alan Moore, creator of the gothic graphic novel From Hell, has identified Lud Heat and this sketch map as major influences on his work.
Sinclair has since been widely published by mainstream publishing houses such as Granta, Hamish Hamilton, and Jonathan Cape. There is a tension in his career between his beginnings as a self-publishing poet in the countercultural hive of the 1970s and his rise to the status of ‘national treasure’ published by Penguin and the like. Yet Sinclair has also continued to participate in smaller-scale projects, such as the Flat Time House collaboration The Bard (30 January – 8 March 2020), an exhibition combining Blake pictures and contributions by contemporary poets in the sculptural former home of artist John Latham. For the occasion, Sinclair composed a poem entitled ‘Mental Travailers: or, The Battle of the Books,’ which placed Blake and Latham in ‘subtle congress,’ the title riffing off Blake’s poem ‘The Mental Traveller’ from the Pickering Manuscript. Sinclair also described his involvement in a Blakean event at South Bank Centre in 2000, entitled ‘The Tygers of Wrath,’ in which he participated in an audiovisual reading of ‘The Mental Traveller’ alongside poet Vahni Capildeo and artist Brian Catling.
In recent years transcripts of Sinclair’s lectures, such as The Topographic Sublime, have also been published by the Swedenborg Society, edited by Stephen McNeilly, who has shown a particular interest in invigorating the Swedenborg Society’s engagement with Blake as well as its publishing activity. Speaking about these independently published projects, Sinclair said, ‘I’ve always been open to them. If anybody offers an opportunity for obscurity, I’ll probably do it, for whatever is on the table, or nothing, just because I want to do it.’
The transcript below reproduces our conversation, which wove together many threads of Sinclair’s and Blake’s worlds. As well as describing the projects outlined above, Sinclair spoke about how it all started, for him, in the streets of London’s East End, and how his work continues to be fired up by the ‘tidal’ force of William Blake to this day.
Sinclair’s ‘official unofficial’ website: http://www.iainsinclair.org.uk/.
The Bard exhibition at Flat Time House: http://flattimeho.org.uk/exhibitions/bard/.
The Swedenborg Society: https://www.swedenborg.org.uk/.
Caroline Ritchie: Where are you in the world at the moment?
Iain Sinclair: I’m between worlds… But the place I’m in is Hackney, where I’ve lived since 1968/69. Still in the same Blakean cave. I’ve never shown much imagination.
CR: Which part of Hackney are you in?
IS: It’s Albion Drive—of course it had to be! I guess that must’ve registered subconsciously when we found this place. We’ve been in the same small terraced house for more than fifty years… It’s unusual. The location has gone up in the world. I’m not sure that we have kept up with it.
CR: It is unusual, I think. Especially for one who has made a career out of moving around, being on your feet.
IS: I’ve moved about, but you can only move about if you have somewhere to which you can return. A base. A desk. A few books. There’s some sense of a heartspace in which to sit down quietly, to absorb and finesse materials scavenged from the wider world.
CR: A home base. So this is where you set up the press [Albion Village Press], from your home?
CR: I’m interested to know more about the press particularly. What drove you to set up your own press and did you have a sense that there were other ‘Blakean’ independent publishers at the time?
IS: It’s a long and complicated history. To summarise: in 1967 I made a documentary film with Allen Ginsberg, when he was in London for this great meeting of the tribes called The Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation (for the Demystification of Violence) at the Roundhouse in Camden Town. Ginsberg manifested. He took it upon himself to be a shamanistic prophet-politician, after the fashion, as he saw it, of William Blake. He moved through worlds, as cultural tourist, performer, witness and keeper of journals. He actively sought out the relevant voices of the period as he recognised them – including Ezra Pound, who he met at the Spoleto Festival. Despite Pound’s wartime history, those broadcasts, Ginsberg was eager to put himself at the master poet’s feet in Venice. Ginsberg stayed, for years, on a perpetual world tour. He arrived in London for the Congress, explaining that the source of his inspiration was the hallucination of Blake’s voice in a cold-water flat in Harlem, where he was living alone at that time. All his friends – Kerouac, Cassady, Burroughs – had dispersed and he heard the ‘grave’ voice of Blake, which seemed to confirm him in his identity as a poet.
The conversations that went on at and around the Dialectics event, with the anti-psychiatrists R. D. Laing and David Cooper, with the anarchist teacher and writer Paul Goodman, with the Black Power orator Stokeley Carmichael, all of these experiences had a somewhat prophetic/apocalyptic Blakean context. They fired concepts of an active countercultural community that needed, not only to hold on to the memory of these dialogues, but also to discover fresh ways of producing work. So the Hackney ‘diary’ filming, and writing that had been undertaken in a spasmodic underground way, began to come into focus in the early 1970s.
When we originally moved into Hackney, we lived in a communal house with a bunch of other drifters, mainly from Dublin, where I’d been at university. We launched ourselves on a documentary project of filming and keeping a record of activities, in various media; a record of the area in which we were now living. You could see the influence of all the usual Sixties’ chatter: Situationism, psychogeography, Black Mountain College, the encounter with Ginsberg, Charles Olson. And of course reading Blake.
I decided at that point that we would create an independent, survivalist press because I didn’t want to waste any more time banging my head against the commissioning process and the inexorable rise of the arts bureaucrat. We’d all been working in film – as editors, writers, documentarists, whatever was going – and we decided not to indulge in any more meetings: just go out and do it. You have an 8mm camera, you’re on the street recording. I took the same spirit into the publishing. I’d edited and contributed to fugitive magazines, so this was a fairly natural step but it was an important one and it was definitely made under the inspiration of Blake. The Ginsberg film was actually called Ah! Sunflower, after Blake, because that was a poem of his awakening. So there we were: these activities, running alongside whatever labours were undertaken to secure a wage, were consciously a Blakean project. He became the gloriously misread patron spirit of small printers and publishers taking responsibility for their own work and putting it out —distributing, designing, writing, the whole thing. That’s where it started. The ‘Albion’ part was an accident of location – with, I felt even then, some dubious connotations. You can see the same spirit expressed in a different way, across the river, with the activities of Allen Fisher. Mentored by Eric Mottram.
CR: A happy coincidence, that Albion arrival.
IS: Very happy. But it happens, you know, when you put yourself in the right mindset, the world confirms you in your folly.
CR: Do you have a sense that the countercultural current lives on? Or how has that changed in your contact with other small-press and independently published activities? There are two parts to the question I suppose because I wonder how much the ideas behind those organisations have evolved. I know it’s difficult to think about it monolithically. The second part of that is whether you’ve noticed a kind of resurgence of Blake in that context. I’ve only been in London a short time, only about two and a half years, and I’ve noticed a profusion of things—little pamphlets and exhibitions—in the time that I’ve been here, but obviously that goes back to Albion Village Press and other things. But it’s a bit hard to get a sense of what’s happened in between because not everything survives—owing to its nature.
IS: It’s tidal. It comes and goes. The era of Albion Village Press was the residue of the previous era when these things were latent. All those aspects were very much discussed as part of the way society was, and it went from that to a kind of violent moment in ‘68/‘69 when the thing went to the streets and it was all torn up, there was heaven and hell, and the reminder that Blake was also wearing the red cap of liberty at the burning of Newgate Prison and all that. The underlying mood switched from the hippy-ish ecstatic side of it, which was chanting Blake’s songs with Ginsberg’s squeezebox and the rest of it, to this other side, the darkness and the fire.
And then I think, in the ‘70s when the independent presses were most active and evident, it was an idea of actually realising the work that had been latent or superficial in the previous period. So through the ‘70s I think there was a sense of community among the small-press poets and publishers—people like Bill Griffiths and Allen Fisher, both of whom drew a lot on Blake, were substantial London poets who were churning out numerous free-form publications under their own steam in all sorts of ways and distributing them through the network of bookshops like Compendium in Camden Town. Then that moment died, at the end of the ‘70s when the Thatcherite spectre, godmother to Punk, appeared over the horizon. Everything went very hard. The small amounts of public funding that had gone into some of this activity, the small amounts that poets were being paid to give readings, just flatlined, it disappeared. So then the counterculture really went underground and this was a sort of anti-Blakean crisis.
Subsequent to that, I think Blake has re-emerged as a presence, an acknowledged tendency, like the things that you mention—the idea that there are now barely noticed manifestations, little publications, blogs, walks, films and so on, and a lot of people have started to draw on him again. I think he’s come full circle back into active engagement, a tension, but there is also a sense of the brand being approved and sponsored. You always have to take care when your pitch is waved through by the money men. You have a new gravestone set up in Bunhill Fields, there are little groups, we’ve lost the bite of radicalism, although there are certainly individuals out there who are extremely radical and extremely inspired by the most difficult aspects of Blake’s character and life. I think you could look closely at the work of J.H. Prynne. And someone I’ve collaborated with from the beginning was the writer, poet, and sculptor Brian Catling. His huge fantasy-cycle The Vorrh, the second novel of which, The Erstwhile, begins with a vision of Blake—the first chapter is a manifestation of Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar appearing as a reality and establishing the image and presence as a dominant motif. Shirley Collins, I know, was blown away by this prose. The idea of Blake as both painter and poet, a working craftsman, and a maker of beautiful books and illustrations, has consequence. All of that has come back for sure, and that spirit is abroad, in a different way.
CR: Do you have or have you had much to do with the Blake Society? Do you see them as a hub for this sort of thinking?
IS: I’ve been involved with a few events, but I do have a slightly uncomfortable sense that a ‘Blake Society’ is a mirror image of something that doesn’t quite work. Or that it is not essential, to the real business of reading closely. I mean, Blake is outside society—he connects up with the Ancients and Samuel Palmer, but he’s never a significant part of any grouping or movement. He’s an elective solitary, along with his wife. He’s a non-belonger. He draws what he needs from wherever he finds it. He’s greedy for his own interests and he draws on Swedenborg and he draws on Böhme, and he ransacks myth systems and weird beliefs. But he would never takes out membership. If he was invited to join the Blake Society, he would take a very Groucho Marx position on it, I think.
CR: It’s perhaps a similar irony to the one that somebody pointed out about the notion that Blake wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to the Tate show of his own work.
IS: Yes. The one exhibition that he ever had, nobody really came to it. They recreated that in the Tate show, which is the world we live in now, it’s xerox of a xerox of a xerox, reproduced endlessly, until we lose touch entirely with the original dangerous impulse. So the spirit of Blake is just so far away from what the realities of the present world are. But yet people are drawn to him.
CR: It was something I was going to ask you about, this common characterisation of Blake as being, at least in his self-image, a kind of isolated genius and I think the way he presents himself in that way has kind of stuck more than anything else—Blake as existing kind of outside of time and space.
IS: He’s not so isolated. I mean, society is a smaller thing back then. He’s going to the Royal Academy schools, he comes across some of the major players. They know who he is. He’s thought to be a little strange, but his extraordinary talents are recognised, but he just isn’t a joiner, he’s not a mainstream figure. And he’s a working man, a jobbing artist, he has to undertake projects that he wouldn’t choose to do—labours. And he only really leaves London that one time.
CR: Do you think that Blake is a ‘singular’ character? What do you think might be ‘singular’ about him?
IS: I don’t think he’s singular – as an accusation or medical condition. He’s plural, male and female, in the sense that it’s quite a double act with Catherine. It’s this melding. And her role is probably underplayed—perhaps not underplayed at the moment, because there must be a feminist reading to assert that she was doing most of the work, as well as her domestic duties and the support she offered. We know that her spirit was alongside him, they were Adam and Eve in the garden: a joint entity of which he is the fountain and the driven form. But he is quite on his own, in the end, because he is possessed by his prophetic role, he’s arguing with enormous realities—geographical, theological, psycho-political, cosmological. He reads a lot; he’s not an innocent, he has his library and a honed methodology for disputing with the sources that he draws on. He’s in constant debate—he thinks he’s in debate—with Milton, he’s psychically possessed by the genetic exchange with Milton’s spirit, the fallen star that strikes his heel when he’s hibernating in Felpham. He can rewrite Milton and correct his errors. He’s always a contemporary, and not just of people who are still alive. He has a Swedenborgian belief in continuing access to the wisdom of the true seers. His community is living, undead, and future. And yet he’s actually living a very ordinary, very mundane everyday life within the harshness of London as it was then. He experiences and endures the industries around him and the impoverishment and cruelty, the prostitution and the degradation. He’s angry and tender, and he never falls away from his task of producing these monumental texts. Nobody in their right mind, with any kind of notion of ‘career,’ would have laboured, over years, to produced these phenomenal, seething, prophetic epic things. It drains your lifeblood to produce them. And to live with them as caretaker for eternity.
CR: And to read them.
IS: It would take every hour of your life if you wanted to seriously read them and annotate them.
CR: Especially reading from the plates themselves, they’re so crowded, so dense. It’s really quite dizzying.
IS: Well, the most exciting thing about it is that when any other person subsequently, within the same city, starts to think in a very small way about engaging with these kind of things, you very soon find yourself coming back towards Blake and thinking, this is a demonstration of somebody who was dedicated to doing the things we talked about at the beginning: the idea that you are responsible for your own labours, you do it, and it doesn’t really matter what happens beyond that. That’s your only responsibility: to do it.
CR: You’ve written a few times about that walk that Blake describes that Los does around East London. Could you talk a bit about what interested you about that passage?
IS: It felt like a special recognition, a set of instructions to be followed: lines of intention and desire. Or a confirmation that I was living in the right part of London. A district, at that time, very much on its uppers. It was struggling and my immediate surroundings were run-down, still in a post-war slump. When I look at the footage that we were shooting, parts of London were neglected, here was a blitzed city, and even a Victorian city, that’s the sense I got. And then I started to read this battered old red-covered collected edition of Blake—I see in the front that I bought it in April 1971—I started to plough through it and then stumbled on those lines from Jerusalem about ‘Till he came to old Stratford, and thence to Stepney and the Isle of Leutha’s Dogs, thence thro’ the narrows of the River’s side,’ etcetera etcetera. On one level we have a set of topographic instructions for a day’s walk, and beyond that the nudge that changes your life. Of course I immediately had to march out of the door and head off. This was particularly relevant because I was working at Chobham Farm in pre-Olympic, very much pre-Olympic, Stratford. I was loading and unloading containers of sheepskins from Australia. And reading Blake and Dante and Kerouac at the same time, and I thought those lines in Jerusalem were a timeless coding of the energies of London. They fired up everything I attempted. Suicide Bridge, which I was working on, concurrently with Lud Heat, was adapted into a sort of Blakean commentary—a xerox of a Blakean sketch—in which his characters from Jerusalem were manifested in the myths of the contemporary city.
CR: There are two things there, because this wonderful passage is Blake’s writing of the city and his imaginative geographies, while also being literally an actual, recognisable place. And then meanwhile I wonder how important the places where Blake himself lived and worked have been to you. Have you felt compelled to visit all of them and look around? And how has that fed into your work?
IS: Strangely, yes, I did go round all the London addresses associated with Blake. They did not mean that much to me. Essentially, these were now dead places. You go through parts of Soho and down to Lambeth and on to Felpham, even to the cottage. I walked down there with Brian Catling and somebody rushes into the garden and tells us to bugger off—they don’t want anybody sniffing around for Blakean traces. So the actual places themselves meant very little to me. I paid my respects to them; I hoped, especially in Lambeth, Hercules Road, to get some charge, but no. Quite the reverse: from what was written, from reading Jerusalem, all the instruction, all that energy, everything I needed was in the poem, and it didn’t have to be too literally interpreted, but it would fire my own way of reading the city, in terms of Hawksmoor churches, autopsies and the rest of it. All of this emanates from the conviction that London is a living, organic entity with lines of light and force pouring out in every direction. And from that, I moved on, becoming interested in Swedenborgian concepts that Blake and his family had been associated with as part of their inheritance. And then it was more literally a topography of sacred places in East London: Wellclose Square, the Swedish church, and the ground where Swedenborg came to shore. They fed into a plural, layered version of a contemporary London made from all of these other strands of past and future that are still active and still accessible.
CR: It’s interesting to build up a map in part incorporating some of the things that Blake himself recorded. I wonder if you think what Blake is doing is mapping? Or what do you think that he can tell us about that kind of activity, and the epistemology of mapping, that, say, ‘scientific’ maps from the period might not tell us or might not invite?
IS: It’s a very interesting question. I think his mapping is richer than any scientific mapping of the time because it takes the terminology of the map and turns it into some post-biblical, post-apocalyptic wonder in which places like Stratford, merely by being named, become part of a pilgrim’s progress. I was always interested in this relation of Blake re-working Bunyan and being connected with Bunyan and then discovering Bunhill Fields, the old plague-pit, and finding Blake and Defoe and Bunyan in a posrthumous triangulation, talking to each other. That small burial ground of non-conformity then became the launching spot for most of my walks, and for a mythic sense of the whole island of Britain, through Defoe’s strategic journeying and through Bunyan’s belief that the physical experience of a working guy selling pots and pans can lift into a divine progress towards the shining city on the hill. Those urgent and inchoate visions fed, by way of Blake, into any writing that I attempted to do.
CR: I read in your lecture on Blake’s ‘topographic sublime’ that the cover of Lud Heat had one of Blake’s designs to the Pilgrim’s Progress on the frontispiece. Is that right, that this connection between Blake and Bunyan was there in your work right from this early stage?
IS: Hang on one second, I’ll show you. [Iain went to fetch the book]. That’s the book, and here’s the image that was the frontispiece. It’s this disturbing image of a burdened figure with this huge knapsack on his back holding a book, bent over… absolutely everything I wanted (and feared)! Alongside a quote from Pilgrim’s Progress. So that’s where it started.
CR: You were also talking in the Topographic Sublime about your friend Renchi Bicknell, who has also been interested in Blake and The Pilgrim’s Progress. Have you worked together on that area?
IS: Endlessly, endlessly. First off, Renchi Bicknell, the painter, was one of the group living in the communal house in Hackney. He was involved in those early projects and illustrated my first books, things like Back Garden Poems. But in the early ‘70s, with Brian Catling also, we just walked into the Whitechapel Gallery one afternoon and said ‘We’re local, we’re producing books and paintings, we want an exhibition.’ And they said ‘OK’. So there was this exhibition called Albion Island Vortex, in an annex of the Whitechapel Gallery. (I wrote about it in a chapter of my little Welsh book, Black Apples of Gower.) The show was an attempted reflection of Blakean pilgrimage and significant topography. The room was divided into walls dedicated to East, North, South, West, with stones and crows and the usual Blakean trappings. Renchi launched a series of major, cross-Britain walks, recorded in paintings. And later in self-produced chapbooks. I had photographs that I’d taken on my travels and a number of paintings. Brian showed needle-fine drawings, places like Avebury and the limestone caves of Gower.
I think it was March and April 1974. The Whitechapel Gallery have a record. They’ve got the relevant documentation in their little library section upstairs there, including a primitive catalogue that we produced. More recently, we recreated the Whitechapel episode, just a year or so back, in a show called The House of the Last London, which was at Gallery 46, in a terrace right behind the Royal London Hospital.
The same people, confirmed in their folly, doing the same things! Renchi in particular has produced his own small-scale Blakean books, including a very nice book about Blake’s engagement with Bunyan. He’d just taught himself etching so he was using difficulty as part of his conversation with Blake and Bunyan, alongside journal sketches from his own epic pilgrimages. It was a totally Blakean contemporary project produced in a chapbook that very few people ever saw. The book was called A Pilgrim’s Progress & Further Relations. It appeared in 2008. And I imagine it’s still available from Renchi (see www.flyingdragon.co.uk).
CR: I haven’t seen it yet! I wonder if I can track it down, I imagine that it won’t have made its way into the British Library or anything like that.
IS: I can show you a copy, if that’s any use. [Iain went to find his copy of the book]. So you get the Blake, you see the interaction with Bunyan and his own pilgrimage texts. Each page is produced as a large-scale etching. He’s never exhibited them, I believe. I was talking about trying to set something up at Swedenborg House, but Renchi hasn’t yet made contact. This is, substantially, a Blakean project, inspired by Gerda S. Norvig’s 1993 book, Dark Figures in the Desired Country (Blake’s Illiustrations to The Pilgrim’s Progress). So anyway, my point is that those connections from way back in the ‘60s are still accessible, through expeditions, walks, discussions and debates. Invisible books are being produced. If you google ‘Renchi Vimeo,’ you’ll find a series of films he’s made of walks, journeys, quests, starling flights, in an updating of a Blakean sketchbook. These are graphic seizures made in motion, on the hoof.
CR: Have you had much to do with Swedenborg House? I know you’ve done a few lectures there and there are a few books that have come from that.
IS: Yeah, I have. I was sort of surprised. The former set-up was long-established and rather hidebound, protective of their traditions. There tended to be a lot of older folk around, and then Stephen [McNeilly] came along there, a much younger guy, who, along with James Wilson, opened things up. There were respectful of Swedenborgian origins and scholarship, but were open to other outcomes. They started to invite people like me to engage with their books and objects, even when they were not themselves members of the Church. I did a few things there, performances with Catling, book launches, screenings. I find it a good venue. Swedenborg House have been supportive, and the they produce these really neat little books, for something modest like five quid. They turn them out them at virtually cost price. And I think they’re good, very much part of the spirit you were talking about. The past in the present.
CR: Did they tend to reach out to you? To invite you to do things?
IS: Yes, they approached me initially, because they have a close geographical relationship to the London Review of Books shop. I was doing a reading at the LRB and someone from Swedenborg House came in and said ‘you’ve mentioned Swedenborg in one of your books, in Radon Daughters, would you like to come along and talk?’ Later, I was able to suggest events and they would generously agree to curate them. I did a series of performances and talks after that.
CR: I just remembered that you’d sent me that piece of writing you did for the Flat Time House show as well, which was really terrific, it was a great read. I enjoyed the title [‘Mental Travailers’] especially. Could you tell me a bit about that project and how it came to be?
IS: In the end, that particular project had less connection with Blake than I would’ve liked, but the invitation came about because they knew I was interested in Blake. The guiding spirit was the heritage of artist/philosopher John Latham. I knew John Latham a little, enough to appreciate how wonderfully eccentric and strange he was. His house was up on Peckham Rye and I thought OK.
I visited Flat Time House and gallery and that in itself was enough of a provocation to dominate my approach to the particular project, and the fact that Latham’s own books were still stashed there. You examine these books and appreciate that he operated in that same intense, self-sufficient conviction of the value of his own message to the world, outside present time, that Blake had. That was the spark for me. Latham had undertaken a Blakean commission, but I didn’t find any real strength in that connection—it wasn’t important to him. What I liked about the project was the ultimate gathering in the Flat Time House, when all those involved did their own thing. The poem I’d contrived then disappeared, it wasn’t there. I think about four lines went up on the wall in the gallery, but it didn’t register. Up to now that poem has never been seen. But, with luck, Face Press will be bringing out a very handsome edition of Mental Travailers: or, The Battle of the Books (Blake & Latham in Subtle Congress on Peckham Rye) very soon, in a limited edition.
CR: I went to see the exhibition and saw the extract from ‘Mental Travailers.’ I was working on Blake’s poem ‘The Mental Traveller’ at the time and thought, that’s got to be absolute gold, but then I couldn’t find it anywhere.
IS: ‘The Mental Traveller’ was my start with Blake, as a schoolboy. I just thought that poem was so haunting, so extraordinary. You reminded me that probably the most interesting Blakean performative event that I was involved in was ‘The Mental Traveller.’ There was an evening of Blake celebration, ‘The Tygers of Wrath’, at the South Bank. Jah Wobble was involved. Billy Bragg, all kinds of people. For my part, I picked ‘The Mental Traveller’, and along with Catling, we made a film in which Vahni Capildeo, a young poet at that time, voiced by lip-sync an elderly woman. Intimations of David Lynch! Then the older woman gave her voice to Vahni, voices were exchanged. The old woman becoming the young woman, and all those sexually ambiguous cycles of ‘The Mental Traveller’ were performed. It was quite something. I thought it was one of the best things we’d ever done in terms of Blake. I have a poster for it somewhere, maybe I can dig that out. And somewhere there is a VHS. It may surface one day.
CR: That’s where I started with Blake as well, with that poem. Initially being quite frustrated with it and having no idea what it meant… but it just kind of stayed with me.
IS: I think it was the one I really carried away as a schoolboy. I had no idea what it meant but the theatre of it was just mesmerising. It was a long journey to come back to that poem and then make it the centrepiece of this production that we did.
CR: What do you make of that phrase ‘mental travel’? I think I’ve seen it come up in your writing.
IS: I use it a lot. I use it with the John Latham. ‘Travel’ sounds like ‘travail,’ where travelling has an element of the treadmill about it. Van Gogh on the road to Tarascon.
CR: Yes, a sense of ‘Mental Fight’ and striving that is very much in Blake, but somehow not just ‘mental.’
IS: The presentation of his whole psycho-sexual cosmology is very, very weird, and primal. It’s a savage fairy story, it’s a parable, fierce as the Old Testament, but it’s also got such heat in it.
CR: To circle back to Bunhill Fields—have you gone back there regularly?
IS: About once a month, all the time. I don’t live that far away. In the lockdown it’s very convenient because we can’t really walk very far beyond the city at the moment. Bunhill Fields is a legitimate distance. I like to go there, and sit down under the fig tree. Things have changed with Blake’s ‘correct’ memorial being carried away from Defoe and Bunyan, exposed on the grass. I always knew the old stone wasn’t the right place, but it felt right. It’s slightly less haunted now. I just feel the approval of this group of Blake Society enthusiasts singing and imagining a historic mistake being revised. But I miss the immediate dialogue with Bunyan’s moss-covered, recumbent form. That memorial has its own relief version of the stooped and burdened pilgrim.
CR: Did you go to the unveiling of the new tombstone for Blake and Catherine?
IS: No, I didn’t. I was sympathetic to the ideas behind it, but I just didn’t really want to take part in the ceremony.
CR: You spoke earlier about how back in the ‘60s and ‘70s you felt a very strong sense of their being a kind of Blakean community working with a spirit of independence and wanting to disseminate ideas. Do you think that there is such a thing now?
IS: It’s quite difficult to think of spiky ‘independence’ in terms of a ‘community.’ The terms don’t quite work. It’s a bit like another of my obsessions, John Clare. And especially his ‘Journey out of Essex.’ There’s an active John Clare Society, genuine enthusiasts working to maintain his reputation, yet some of their actions go against his own cunning and husbanded privacy. You have to be sympathetic to the people who want to share a group response, publications, fresh scholarship, but I’m perverse, I feel that I want to stay out of it and leave these peculiar and possessed individuals in their own self-inflicted singularity.
CR: What else are you working on at the moment?
IS: I’ve just finished a big book called The Gold Machine which is set in Peru. I’m wondering about where the germ of this neurosis of writing came from. My great-grandfather, who went to Peru in 1891 and undertook a kind of survey on behalf of the Peruvian Corporation of London, published a book about it in 1895. The same year that Joseph Conrad published his first novel. I’m in an intrigued but argumentative dialogue with my great-grandfather’s book and its consequences. I went on a journey (just before this lockdown moment) with my daughter, an attempt to follow my great-grandfather’s footsteps. My daughter was also fascinated by the whole Peruvian thing, but she wanted to spend some time living with the indigenous people who had to suffer the consequences of the original survey that led to the foundation of coffee plantations. I didn’t glean much of the backstory from reading the original book, but my daughter’s research opened up a big can of worms. I suppose in spirit, in some way, because we were in dialogue with the dead, the undead, and the animistic belief systems of the people we were talking to, that this was another Blakean adventure. So anyway the writing is done and I’m fretting over the maps and illustrations now.
It’s a mainstream publication—you can only have little black-and-white reproductions. It’s not mine, in the sense that an Albion Village Press book could be. With the attendant advantages (payment, distribution) and disadvantages (handing over editorial control and design). I mean, it is my book in the sense that I’ve written it, but it’s also a somewhat involuntary collaboration with business people who think they can exploit this as an item. Apart from that, I do a lot of tiny things, like with Renchi Bicknell, as I’ve just showed you, I always do those because you do them on your own terms.
CR: Have you consistently sought out those kind of projects where you have more say?
IS: I’ve always been open to them. If anybody offers an opportunity for obscurity, I’ll probably do it, for whatever is on the table, or nothing, just because I want to do it.