36. Iain Sinclair, London Orbital: A Walk around the M25
After I read Thelma Poirier’s Rock Creek, I found myself thinking about a book that is, in many ways, its opposite: Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital: A Walk around the M25. But how am I going to find time to read Sinclair’s epic 550-page account of a 120-mile walk around London, tracking the route of the M25 superhighway? I asked myself. The answer was simple: I would find the time by finding the time, I would read Sinclair’s book by reading it. And so I did.
It’s a good thing that I read Sinclair’s book, too, because I’ve learned a great deal from it. The territory Sinclair circumambulates is, one would think, an obvious example of space, as Yi-Fu Tuan describes it: abstract, undifferentiated, open and potentially threatening, defined by movement, and (unlike place) unknown and not endowed with value (Tuan 6). The perimeter suburbs of London, and the orbital highway that encircles the city, are closer to what Marc Augé describes as “non-places,” spaces of circulation, consumption, and communication. And yet, I would argue that Sinclair, by walking and thinking and researching and writing about that territory, turns the kind of location that Tuan would describe as obdurate space into place, something experienced “through all the senses as well as with the active and reflective mind” (18). In fact, I think that London Orbital has answered my question about turning space into place by walking. It’s true that walking, by itself, isn’t enough to make space become place. But walking and research and writing (or some other kind of response to the experience, the memory, the narrative of the walk) appears to be sufficient. Sinclair, in fact, discloses his method of working at the beginning of the leg of the walk that starts at the former Leavesden Hospital in Abbots Langley, the point where the previous walk ended: “Since our last visit I’d read up on the history of the estate; I’d looked at maps and plans, drawings by the original architects John Giles and Biven of Craven Street, London—who produced the successful application in March 1868” (175). Later in the text, he’s even more specific: “Memory is a lace doily, more hole than substance. The nature of any walk is perpetual revision, voice over voice. Get it done, certainly, then go home and read the published authorities; come back later to find whatever has vanished, whatever is in remission, whatever has erupted” (272). That process is the source of all of the esoteric historical and literary and biographical and architectural information with which Sinclair layers his account of walking; those elements in the text come from research. No wonder every section of the walk takes place at least a month after the previous journey. The lag isn’t to allow blistered feet to heal; no, it’s an opportunity for uncovering the significance of locations visited on the previous walk, to revisit them if necessary, and to begin writing together memory and fact. However the conference paper I am delivering in Ireland this July at the Sacred Journeys 6th Global Conference begins, I’ve found the conclusion.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. London Orbital begins and ends with Sinclair’s antipathy to the Millennium Dome (now the O2)—both to the architecture itself and to the financial folly of the project. In between, though, the book tracks two separate sets of walks. The first set, made with musician Bill Drummond and photographer Marc Atkins, takes Sinclair and his companions up the Lea River valley, which separates London from its eastern dependencies, past the Lea Navigation canal and the former armaments factory at Enfield (now, like almost every other complex of Victorian buildings in London’s green belt, being redeveloped for housing, despite the contaminated soil on the site). These walks serve as a preamble; they whet Sinclair’s appetite for more:
I think we can assume that we have penetrated the Lea Valley’s recreational zone. Boats. Wet suits. Easy access to the North Circular Road, the broken link of an earlier orbital fantasy. This border is marked by a permanent pall of thick black smoke. Urban walkers perk up; we’re back in the shit. The noise. The action. (60)
The descriptive sentence fragments, the tone of cynicism verging on paranoia: that is Sinclair’s operative mode. Passing the “retail park” where the North Circular Road crosses the Lea Valley, taking in the colours of warehouses and road, of river and sky, Sinclair declares:
I love it. I like frontiers. Zones that float, unobserved, over other zones. Road users have no sense of the Lea Navigation, they’re goal-orientated. Going somewhere. Noticing Atkins, foot on barrier, perched in the central reservation, snapping away, drivers in their high cabs see a nuisance, an obstacle. A potential snoop. They’d be happy to run him down. Atkins sees a speedy blur, abstractions, the chimney of London Waste Ltd blasting steam. (60-61)
I must make a confession: I made an attempt at London Orbital, several years ago, but for some reason was defeated by Sinclair’s idiosyncratic prose. This time I enjoyed its inventiveness. By completing the book, I feel I’ve had a significant change in my perception of Sinclair’s writing.
The second set of walks is announced near the beginning of the text. During a walk on New Year’s Day, 1998, Sinclair stops for a break and makes a momentous decision:
I sit, comfortably, with my back to one of the piers, munching my sandwiches and deciding that, yes, I want to walk around the orbital motorway: in the belief that this nowhere, this edge, is the place that will offer fresh narratives. I don’t want to be on the road any more than I want to walk on water; the soft estates, the acoustic footprints, will do nicely. Dull fields that travellers never notice. Noise and the rush of traffic, twenty-four hours a day, has pushed “content” back. An elaborate scheme of planting (two million trees and shrubs, mostly in Surrey and Kent) would hide the nasty ditch with its Eddie Stobart lorries, its smoke belchers. The M25 walk was the next project. The form it would take and the other people who might be persuaded to come along, to liven up the tale, was still to be decided. (16)
Sinclair’s 12-part walk (an essential number, associated with literary epics from Homer to Milton) will be, he tells us, a “pilgrimage” (31)—a key word for my work (and for the conference paper I have to write this month). And that walk, and the writing and thinking and research that it occasions, turns that “nowhere” into somewhere, space into place. London Orbital becomes the “fresh narrative” Sinclair was hankering for, the new story the city has to tell.
I read London Orbital without a London street map beside me, and because I don’t know that city very well, many of the place names Sinclair enumerates, rapid-fire, have little significance for me. Nevertheless, you would have to be sleep-reading not to get the gist. Take this example, a description of a highway heading east, out of London:
East India Dock Road, with its evocative name, has a secondary identity as the A13, my favourite early-morning drive. The A13 has got it all, New Jersey-going-on-Canvey-Island: multiplex cinemas, retail parks, the Beckton Alp ski slope; flyovers like fairground rides, three salmon-pink tower blocks on Castle Green, at the edge of Dagenham; the Ford water tower and the empty paddocks where ranks of motors used to sit waiting for their transporters. The A13 drains East London’s wound, carrying you up into the sky; before throwing you back among boarded-up shops and squatted terraces. All urban life aspires to this condition; flux, pastiche. A conveyor belt of discontinued industries. A peripatetic museum, horizon to horizon, available to anyone; self-curated. The wild nature graveyard in Newham. Inflatable, corn-yellow potato chips wobbling in their monster bucket outside McDonald’s in Dagenham. River fret over Rainham Marshes. (45-46)
Is that a description of an edge city or an inner suburb? I’m not sure it matters: what is important is the claim that urban life—and the life of the edge cities through which he and his companion, artist Renchi Bicknell (and occasional walkers writer Kevin Jackson and Atkins) will perambulate—is “flux, pastiche,” a “peripatetic museum, horizon to horizon, available to anyone; self-curated” (45-46). Sinclair and his companions curate their own museums of the territory near the M25; their writing and photographs (for Sinclair is not the only one to respond creatively to this experience) will constitute their individual records of the walk:
Drummond’s account, should he give it, would sheer away from mine. Marc’s considered prints would contradict my snapshots. The memory of the memory slips. We invent. New memories, unaccountable to mundane documentation, are shaped. The dream anticipates the neurotic narrative. (116)
London Orbital does not pretend to objectivity, to facticity, but its subjective account of the walks Sinclair and his companions make is, I think, a true one.
Much of the territory these walkers cover is part of London’s green belt, land that is, Sinclair believes, under an assault by developers and government rationalization:
In December 1999 the Cabinet Office issued a consultation paper, the green belt had created an undesirable “moat effect.” A moat or ditch or ha-ha to keep out, as architect Nicholas Hawksmoor wrote of the denizens of Whitechapel, “filth Nastyness & Brutes.” The document was, in effect, an early warning on behalf of the developers, the mall conceptualists, the rewrite industry. Government was pure Hollywood: hype, the airbrushing of bad history; dodgy investors, a decent wedge in disgrace or retirement. A pay-off culture of bagmen and straightfaced explainers. (83-84)
The government’s explanation of its proposal echoes neo-liberal rationalizations everywhere:
A sweeping away of fussy restrictions. “A planning system more supportive of an enterprising countryside.” The only way the countryside could become enterprising was to cease to be countryside: to become “off-highway,” a retail resort (like Bluewater), a weekend excursion that depended on a road that we were being advised to avoid. (84)
In order to save the countryside, it must be destroyed. This is, for Sinclair, a disaster: “Metropolitans need this green fantasy, the forest on the horizon, the fields and farms that represent a picture book vision of a pre-Industrial Revolution past” (84). I found myself thinking about Doug Ford’s promise to allow development in Ontario’s Green Belts, and whether populism and New Labour come together at the point where developers make political contributions.
That sense of the green belt’s future, or its lack of one, is a recurring theme in London Orbital; it seems that every estate, every disused hospital and asylum and estate near the M25 is being redeveloped as a housing estate for commuters who will use that expressway to drive into the city for work. Shenley Hospital, for instance, a former asylum whose extensive grounds are being turned into tract housing, occasions these ruminations:
History is being revised on a daily basis, through the northern quadrant of the motorway, by copywriters employed by the developers. “The historic village of Shenley combines excellent local interest with outstanding travel convenience.” Much is made of the “pleasant undulating countryside” and the “fine views northward over the historic city of St Albans.” To qualify as “historic” you need green belt development permissions, new estates across a bowling-green from an old church. History is an extra zero on your property prices. (151)
The destruction of the green belt occasions a certain paranoia, I think, which is reflected in Sinclair’s accounts of walking where no one is supposed to walk:
Whatever it is they don’t like, we’ve got it. NO PUBLIC RIGHT OF WAY. Footpaths, breaking towards the forest, have been closed off. You are obliged to stick to the Lee Navigation, that contaminated ash conglomerate of the Grey Way. Enfield has been laid out in grids; long straight roads, railways, fortified blocks. Do they know something we don’t? Are they expecting an invasion from the forest? (69-70)
One of Sinclair’s early walks took him and his companions from Waltham Abbey to Mill Hill, where German conceptual artist Jochen Gerz (an associate of Joseph Beuys and Reiner Ruthenbeck) was giving a lecture on art in public spaces, and the juxtaposition of hospital and artist brought out Sinclair’s suspicions:
But the hospital block on the summit of Mill Hill is a real marker, generator of paranoid imaginings. I’m always uneasy when covert research, generously funded, starts to cosy up to subversive art. There’s something awkward about the relationship. To access the art manifestation (conceptual corridor, lunchtime lecture) you have to blag your way into the Pentagon, into Langley. Surveillance swipe, signature in book, electronic barrier, phone call to a higher authority. (103)
It doesn’t take institutional security precautions to generate those “paranoid imaginings,” however. Trying to get to the village of Otford, for example, involves dodging speeding cars on a road without room for pedestrians:
Ugly motors eager to do damage. Rage pods caught between hedges. Better to head off, dodging oncoming traffic in the fast lane of the motorway, than stick with the Pilgrims Way. It’s a rat run, the revenge of the commuters. Deserted villages are coming to life: it’s madness, so we’re told, twice a day. And death-in-life the rest of the time. Lights on, blue TV windows, dogs to walk.
We manage to get off the road—which has no verge—and into the fields, the heavy earth, but we’re soon returned. There is no other route. Every third car is a red Jag: either they’ve been watching too many episodes of Morse, or they want to hide the roadkill on the paintwork. Otford, with its quaint High Street, its proudly timbered survivors, its pond and Tudor ruins, is notable, so far as we’re concerned, for one feature: the railway station. (408-09)
I’ve been in similar situations before, walking from Marlborough House into Oxford, where a gap between footpaths meant walking along a road, a situation where speeding cars forced me into a thorny hedgerow; or last summer, trudging on the broken shoulder of Highway 2 towards Assiniboia: the place where every car seems to be aiming right for you, as if every driver is playing a macabre video game in which points are given for each pedestrian maimed or killed. What must make this situation even more infuriating for Sinclair is the fact that the Pilgrims Way is supposed to be a walking route. Clearly not a very good one.
After the preliminary walks in the Lea Valley, the main event commences:
Here it begins, the walk proper. No detours. No digressions. We decided to take Waltham Abbey as our starting point, the grave of King Harold, and to shadow the motorway (within audible range whenever possible) in an anticlockwise direction. We wanted, quite simply, to get around: always carrying on from where we left off at the finish of the previous excursion. From now on the road would be our focus, our guide. We’d snatch days whenever we could (when Renchi’s shifts permitted) and get it done before the millennial eve. (125)
“The structure of our walk is elegaic: discontinued rituals, closed shrines,” Sinclair writes. “The funeral service, the emptied pond. The horse-trough near Theobalds Grove station filled with flower petals. Fenced off monuments and gates that are not gates” (133). But if the walk is elegaic, it is also mystical. Sinclair is a psychogeographer, and as such he has a taste (as does Renchi) for occult interpretations of the landscape: ley lines, fields of force, invisible axes, “invisible threads of influence” (144-45). “The markings on the motorway are shamanic,” he states. “Noise takes us out of ourselves into a dispersing landscape. Giddy, we enter movement. We could do the whole thing here, on the ramp. We could dream it” (133). Or take his comparison between the M25 and Avebury Circle: “Think of the motorway in terms of Maiden Castle or Avebury, earth engines, machines designed to provoke enlightenment. The hoop of continually moving light is a gigantic crop circle, visible from space. A doughnut of powdered glass. A winking eye” (530). Such occult or “shamanic” mysteries provide Sinclair with another layer to go along with the history and art and literature and lives of those who have lived in the places through which he walks; an unnecessary layer, I would suggest, but that’s perhaps a matter of taste and my own lack of faith in such things.
Sinclair compares this walk to walks undertaken by French labourers in the nineteenth century, walks he read about in Ian Hacking’s book Mad Travelers (Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses). That book, he writes, “offered one perfectly reasonable explanation of our orbital pilgrimage: an hysterical fugue—attended by the sort of minor epileptic seizures (electrical storms in the consciousness) Renchi suffered in Dublin” (146). There are no seizures, as it turns out, but Sinclair continues to argue that the notion of fugue is the best way to describe the walk:
I found the term fugueur more attractive than the now overworked flâneur. Fugueur had the smack of a swear word, a bloody-minded Tommy muttering over his tobacco tin in the Flanders trenches. Fugueur was the right job description for our walk, our once-a-month episodes of transient mental illness. Madness as a voyage. The increasing lunacy of city life (in my case) and country life (in Renchi’s) forced us to take to the road. The joy of these days out lay in the heightened experience of present time actuality, the way that we bypassed, for a brief space of time, the illusionism of the spin doctors, media operators and salaried liars. The fugue is both drift and fracture. The story of the trip can only be recovered by some form of hypnosis, the memory prompt of the journal or the photo-album. Documentary evidence of things that may never have happened. The fugue is a psychic commando course . . . that makes the parallel life, as a gas fitter, hospital carer, or literary hack, endurable. (146-47)
In contemporary representations of the fugue, Sinclair continues, “the walker disappears from the walk:
Landscape artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton erase the trauma, along with the figure of the troubled pedestrian. Minor interventions are tactfully recorded; a few stones rearranged, twigs bent. The walker becomes a control freak, compulsively logging distances, directions, treading abstractions into the Ordnance Survey map. Scripting minimalist asides, copywriting haikus. (148)
By contrast, Renchi’s paintings “merge walker and landscape”:
Chorographic overviews, diaries. In earlier times, the brush-strokes were looser, the paint thicker. Walks were shorter, paintings fiercer. As the fugues extended—London to Swansea, Hopton-on-Sea to St Michael’s Mount—the records were calmer; there was more of a narrative element, transit across landscape remembered in chalk, flint, granite, slate. (149)
Sinclair continues to think of these walks as fugues throughout the book, imagining himself as a “mad traveller”: “We were discovering a useful genealogy: gas fitters, painters, novelists. Through the suburbs and night, the motorway verges by day, we were there, heel-and-toeing it, sucking water from a plastic bottle, trying to find some way to unravel the syntax of London” (158). I really like that last phrase; I wish I had thought of it as a way of describing my own walks, here and elsewhere.
Reaching Heathrow called to mind, for Sinclair, novelist J.G. Ballard, one of the inspirations for the walk:
You couldn’t help being drawn into the tremble, the jet roar, the throb of traffic streaming in every direction. M4, M25, A4, A30; slip roads, link roads, trunk roads, deleted coach roads. Two hundred thousand vehicles a day used the section of the M25 between Junctions 13 and 14. Ballard was absolutely right: if you set aside human interference (aka life), London was a mausoleum. Kensal Green Cemetery with the walls knocked down. Pompous monuments, redundant public buildings, trash commerce, heritage tags. Oxford Street was a souk. Charing Cross Road a gutter. [new paragraph] The city, in its Victorian overcoat, the muck of centuries on its waistcoat, bored Ballard. He promoted this new place, the rim. The “local” was finished as a concept. Go with the drift, with detachment. The watcher on the balcony. Areas around airports were ecumenical. They were the same everywhere: storage units, hangars, satellite hotels, car hire companies, apologetic farmland as a mop-up apron for Concorde disasters. If you see the soul of the city as existing in its architecture, its transport systems, its commerce and media hot spots, then Ballard’s championship of the suburbs is justified. But they’re not really suburbs if they don’t feed on the centre. The Heathrow corridor has declared its unilateral independence, that’s what makes it exciting. The abdication of responsibility and duty; glossy goods, ennui, scratched light. (214)
Later, Sinclair interviews Ballard. “I don’t need what Ballard says, I know what he says, I’ve read the books,” he writes. “What I need is the chance to pay homage, in the course of this mad orbital walk, to the man who has defined the psychic climate through which we are travelling. It’s a romantic foible on my part, the impulse that once had De Quincey tramping off to the Lake District to make a nuisance of himself in Wordsworth’s cottage” (268).
Ballard is not the only literary figure who ends up in these pages; Sinclair writes about H.G. Wells, George Tomkyns Chesney (author of The Battle of Dorking), William Blake, Bram Stoker, and poet John Clare, who walked 120 miles from London to Northborough without a cent to his name, eating grass, drinking nothing except a pint of beer purchased with coins thrown to him by migrant farm labourers (533). “Fugue as exorcism,” Sinclair writes: “Clare’s walk successfully performed the ritual we were toying with. He’d been in the forest long enough to understand the peculiarity of its status as a memorial to a featureless and unreachable past, a living stormbreak at the limit of urban projection” (534). But there is an essential difference between Clare’s walk and the one Sinclair and Renchi are making: “The Great North Road was still a route down which everything and everyone travelled; coaches, gypsies, farmers, the military, masterless workmen. The M25 goes nowhere; it’s self-referential, postmodern, ironic. Modestly corrupt. It won’t make sense until it’s been abandoned, grown over” (534-35).
That isn’t going to happen any time soon. The walk continues. According to Sinclair,
A good day on the hoof should include: (1) a section of river or canal, (2) a Formica-table breakfast, (3) a motorway bridge, (4) a discontinued madhouse, (5) a pub, (6) a mound, (7) a wrap of London weather (monochrome to sunburst), (8) one major surprise. So far, so good. (230)
The surprise on that day—at West Drayton, near Heathrow—is discovering an unlocked church, which occasions mystical ruminations:
Being inside a church, after the locked doors of the northern quadrant, is a minor shock: the 800-year franchise works its spatial and temporal magic, the narrow building detaches itself form its surroundings, the bluster of West Drayton.
Hats off, from custom or superstition, we creep and whisper. Cruise the usual circuit, interrogating the fabric: in expectation of some clue or sign. Or confirmation. Thicker air. Stone-dust and candle grease. Stained light. (230-31)
On a later trip back to West Drayton, Sinclair was able to climb the church tower, providing him with a panorama of the land to the north:
To see for myself how the land opened out: the path to St Mary’s Church at Harmondsworth. The crop of torpedo graves. The M25 with its constant flickering movement. We had stumbled on an active, but little used, pilgrims’ path. The Avenue. Heading, through a tunnel of pink blossom, towards the motorway and the site of a Benedictine priory at Harmondsworth. The sequestered principality of Heathrow. (232)
I was collecting references to pilgrimages as I read London Orbital, and this is one of the important ones, from my perspective, because here we see Sinclair once again inventing a pilgrimage, rather than confining himself to pilgrimages blessed by authorities—and a pilgrimage in an unlikely place, under Heathrow’s flight path.
England is known for its walking paths, its National Trust-approved green spaces, but Sinclair, cantankerously, wants nothing to do with them:
Why let someone else nominate sites that are worth visiting? If you want a shop, you should find a shop. Sainsbury’s (Cobham) has a better servery than Box Hill. The space underneath Runnymede Bridge is more exciting than the National Trust recommended Runnymede Meadows (with “popular tea-room”). Don’t take my word for it, don’t bother with my list of alternative attractions—Junction 21 of the M25, the Siebel building in Egham, Hawksmoor’s gravestone in Shenley; discover your own. In the finding is the experience.” (318-19)
One unrecognized attraction is a footbridge over the M25 in West Drayton:
The footbridge trembles and vibrates. If it ran across the Thames between St Paul’s and the Tate Modern, they’d close it down. The West Drayton bridge isn’t a tourist attraction, not yet. It ought to be. All the powers and thrones and dominions of transport are here, angelic orders of diesel, jet fuel, crop spray, animal and human shit. Burial grounds of lost villages. The Perry Oaks Sludge Disposal works. (233)
For Sinclair, such places say more about the contemporary moment than Runnymede Meadows. They are the reason for the walk, its purpose and its payoff.
Nevertheless, Sinclair and Renchi occasionally find themselves engaged in “the kind of walking that guidebooks promote” (368). It’s a contradiction, perhaps, but a productive one, I would argue. Those guidebooks include The London Loop, The Green London Way, Country Walks Around London, The Shell Book of British Walks. Sinclair finds the latter “a bit odd,” wondering about how those hikes came to be sponsored by a Dutch oil company. “I’m fond of these books with their selective maps, line drawings that try to look like woodcuts, topographic views,” he writes, describing most of the walking books I own (368):
The walking they promote is benign: it begins at a car park, saunters, by way of a quaint church and some “typical high downland scenery,” to “the highest point in south-east England.” Hikers are discreet, eyes averted from contemporary horrors, tutting from time to time at the excesses of developers or upwardly mobile vulgarians. These are strolls for the visually impaired, guided tours with checklists of flora, fauna, archaeological remains. The walk is an interlude of “somewhere between and hour-and-a-half and three hours.” It’s good for you. And it brings you back to the point from which you set out. To the car. (368-69)
Of course, it’s (at least in part) the “contemporary horrors” and “excesses of developers” and “upwardly mobile vulgarians” that interest Sinclair. Why else walk across St. George’s Hill—once the site of the radical Diggers, now the home of mobbed-up Russian emigrés—despite the high security? Why else, in fact, decide to walk through London’s edges? Why else explore the link between golf courses and the illegal dumping of toxic waste (370-71)? Why else walk where they aren’t wanted?
We are on our own in country that doesn’t want us. It’s a strange feeling, climbing and descending, in and out of woods, views across ripe fields of corn, and being unable to get any purchase on the experience. Our walk is compromised. We’re pulled between the territorial imperatives of Surrey, Kent and Greater London. The old Green Way is barely tolerated, a dog path, a route that might, if you stick with it, offer accidental epiphanies. It’s more likely to lose heart, be swallowed by a disused chalk quarry, an agribiz farm, a radio mast. Some unexplained concrete structure, fenced in, and surrounded by tall trees. (375-76)
They are walking in places where walking is unknown (as many walkers find themselves doing). Renchi asks a girl in a corner shop how far it was to Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s country place. “She couldn’t do distance, miles, metres; didn’t understand the concept,” Sinclair writes (391) She could only report that it was a five minute drive away; the notion of walking there was incomprehensible to her. “These days, as the girl in the newspaper shop so shrewdly recognised, distance has no meaning,” Sinclair continues. “Miles only matter to horses and pedestrians. We have to deal in drives measured by the hour. Units of nuisance between pit stops. Road works, accidents, congestion: a geography defined by junction numbers on the M25” (392).
On the way to Otford, near the end of the walk, Sinclair loses his glasses (forgotten on a bench after a brief stop), and his camera breaks. The resulting imagery—photographic and purely visual—strikes him as wonderful, and is worth reproducing at length here:
Focus, which had been playing up since we left Merstham, gave way entirely: into the Valley of Vision. My spectacles were lost, abandoned, and my camera had a bad case of the Gerhard Richters: Richter pastoral. Snapshots with the shivers. The results, from here on, were truer to the way I felt, the way I really saw the road, than all my previous impersonal loggings. Incompetence meant: insight. Inscapes. The photograph of ‘Renchi on the Pilgrims Way’ is a painterly stew, not an identity card. The abandoned blue shirt, hanging across the white ground of the T-shirt, is a squeeze of Vlaminck.
There is liberation in these soft images. The road sign I recorded, PILGRIMS WAY, is now a long thin shape that defies interpretation; you can’t tell if it’s stone or tin. But the green that surrounds it, busy with black smears, white floaters, has a wondrous ambiguity. I’ve never (on our orbital walk) had the courage to let go in this way, the economics of photography require a visible return. I’m only doing it to keep a record of where we’ve been, the provocative details I’m sure to forget. (403-04)
The blurred images his broken camera creates push Sinclair “into territory explored and espoused by visionary filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage” (404). But they do more than that:
The blurred images, first, simplify the narrative—then worry me towards a deeper, more considered sense of place. What doesn’t matter—script, commentary, hierarchy of significance—vanishes. It seems that the “faulty” camera is now dictating the terms: I didn’t pass it over to anyone met on the road, no such person existed. And yet, here we are, developed print in hand: Renchi and I in the same image. Two figures standing in a gap in the hedge. Distance is realised by bands of colour. The white lines on the road float free—like angelic footsteps. The camera, unprompted, has produced a double portrait. (403-04)
“The rest of our walk is recorded on the same terms: soft shapes, ripe colour, more dream than document,” Sinclair concludes (404). Perhaps this episode is a lesson in photography for walkers (like me) who try to record their walks with a camera.
Past Dartford, “a town that can’t be negotiated on foot” (450), Sinclair and Renchi approach the River Thames:
We moved on towards the bridge. Heavy clouds hugged the shoreline, black at base, blooded as the sun climbed above the Littlebrook Power Station. Backlit dredgers. Two skeletal towers, one on each short, carrying power lines. They never fail: river, marshland, the pier that looks like a concrete boat. All the sensory buttons are pushed. Space. Flow. Dereliction. New estates springing up. The thick tongue of oil on the shoreline, its ridges and patterns. (490)
“All the sensory buttons are pushed”: like other walkers, Sinclair is trying to capture the sights, smells, and sounds of the walk. Such sensory data, such witnessing, is a feature of the walk, from its inception to its conclusion at Waltham Abbey on a cold night in December, 1999:
Church and grounds are painted with searchlight beams. Renchi, at long last, pilgrimage completed, finds an unlocked door. We have to witness the astrological ceiling, the wall-painting in the side chapel (a fifteenth-century Doom mural). Unseen, it predicted our journey. In darkness, we set out. And in darkness we returned. (536)
From there, like good Englishmen, they repair to a pub, where they celebrate the conclusion of the walk with double brandies and bandages for their blistered feet.
It’s impossible to summarize a book of such scope as London Orbital, and I have merely scratched the surface of this text, I know. Nevertheless, this book will be important for my research. I intend to follow Sinclair’s methodological example, for one thing. And the freedom of his prose makes mine seem pinched and stultified by comparison. In fact, London Orbital might be an exemplar of the kind of work I intend to do here. I’m going to read Sinclair’s other books about walking as well. But that will come later. My next task is to read about pilgrimage, something I know about as a practitioner, but not as a theorist—which could be a problem for the paper I have to write this month about walking and pilgrimage.
Augé, Marc. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. Second edition, Verso, 2009.
Sinclair, Iain. London Orbital: A Walk around the M25. Penguin, 2003.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.