Spatial Stories: Conrad and Iain Sinclair

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NEAR THE START of Iain Sinclair's novel Downriver (1991), on a train out of Fenchurch Street Station bound for Tilbury, the narrator quotes: "And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth." For readers of his previous work - from his books of poems, Lud Heat (1975) and Suicide Bridge (1979), to his first novel White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1988) - this characterization comes as no surprise. Lud Heat explores the energy field produced by Nicholas Hawksmoor's eight London churches, "erected over a fen of undisclosed horrors." As Phil Baker puts it, the disposition of Hawksmoor's churches represents "a sinister occult geometry" that exercises a malevolent influence "that causes violent crime" (2003,: 326, 324, or in Sinclair's own ominous words: "In this air certain hungers were activated that have yet to be pacified." He observes that "The Romans regarded east London not as a place for the living but as a necropolis for the dead" and invokes the Ratcliffe Highway murders and Jack the Ripper. Suicide Bridge takes that exploration further, firmly establishing Sinclair's distinctive territory with its mythography of gangsters and poets. White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, the trilogy's third volume, adds to that mythography the bookdealers and runners and explores the Ripper murders in greater depth: "The zone was gradually defined, the labyrinth penetrated. It was given limits by the victims of the Ripper: the Roebuck and Brady Street to the East, Mitre Square to the West, the Minories to the South, the North largely unvisited" (35). Sinclair's "zone" is not simply topography but a place permeated by historical residues. His contemplation of Dickens and the Marshalsea consciously challenges this: "The past is a fiction that absorbs us. It needs no passport, turn the corner and it is with you" (1988: 63). The spaces of the city are haunted by "the figures of fiction" and by historical figures indistinguishable from fictions. With White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, Sinclair completed a trilogy of poetic projects and initiated a new career as a prose writer.

The novel revisits London of the 1880s - of Sherlock Holmes's A Study in Scarlet (1886), of Joseph Merrick, "The Elephant Man", and of Stevenson's Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1886). In the autumn of 1889, the recently-naturalized British subject, Joseph Conrad Korzeniowski, waiting for a ship, settled into Bessborough Gardens and began his first novel, Almayeris Tolly. In A Personal Record, he describes how he spent this period of enforced idleness, between reading in his Pimilico rooms, looking for work, and in "wanderings about London from West to East and back again" (7, 8). In November, he went to Brussels to be interviewed by the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du HautCongo, hoping for a captaincy in one of their steamers. When he returned from Africa in 1891, he spent March and part of April in the German Hospital, Dalston, which Downriver circles round, suffering from malaria, rheumatism, and neuralgia, and recovering from the trauma experienced in the Congo. As Sinclair puts it, he was "branded with the mark of what he had witnessed, the future" (172). During the summer, he made trips along the Thames Estuary in a yawl, the Nellie, belonging to his friend Fountaine Hope.

When Marlow introduces himself into "Heart of Darkness" with the words "And this also ... has been one of the dark places of the earth" (48), he responds to the primary narrator's evocation of "the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames," with its celebration of "all the men of whom the nation is proud" who had "gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land" (47). He answers this construction of English nationhood and celebration of imperial adventure by returning to the Celtic archipelago nine centuries before the English arrived and invoking the fears and projections of the Roman soldiery as they experience "the utter savagery" of the Thames Valley. …


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