I told you that we would run against the tide, taking deep breaths, ducking under the waves, losing vision. My neurosis persists: the only ways worth negotiating with this world, while still hoping to connect with the rhythms of the cosmos, are by walking and swimming. Which brings me to the haunting complexity of London’s buried rivers. They’re not lost, not at all. Just because you can’t see a thing, as Ed Dorn points out, doesn’t mean that it’s not there. The rivers continue, hidden and culverted as they might be, to flow through our dreams, fixing the compass of our moods and movements. The Walbrook, the Fleet, the Tyburn, the Westbourne, the Effra, the Neckinger: visible or invisible, they haunt us. It is not possible to understand the growth and development of Hackney, for example, without registering the presence of that subterranean river, the Hackney Brook. When you write about a place, the first difficulty is finding a way of developing and delivering an adequate mythology. The model for me has always been William Blake. He’s a craftsman, a working engraver, a free citizen of these streets. In the background is the disputed connection, through his mother, Catherine, with the Moravian Community known to Swedenborg that’s very close to this hall, walking distance, in fact: Fetter Lane. Blake grows up in the shadow of this curious philosophy with which he comes to argue in later life. ‘O Swedenborg! Strongest of men, the Samson shorn by the Churches.’ In old age, journeying on foot from where he lived close to the Thames, tracking the River Fleet to Hampstead, to visit the Linnells, Blake is making a return to source. He is swimming uphill, absorbing the potency of a partly submerged stream; one of the arteries of his city. There is a very particular sense of London and its geography. And underlying all of this are torrential lines of verse in the great epic poems; wild waters of inspiration surging, stalling, tumbling over weirs and falls. Blake uses names, the specific names of modest local places, and promotes them into his own cosmology. ‘Hackney and Holloway sicken’.
– An extract from Swimming to Heaven: the Lost Rivers of London, by Iain Sinclair, is a revised transcript of a talk given at Barnard’s Inn Hall, Holborn on Monday 22 June 2009 entitled ‘London’s Lost Rivers: The Hackney Brook and other North West Passages’.
Swimming to Heaven: The Lost of Rivers of London by Iain Sinclair (Swedenborg Archive, 2013) will be launched on Tuesday 30 July at Swedenborg Hall, as part of the 70×70/Dr Mabuse film event with Iain Sinclair. BOOK YOUR PLACES NOW.