Blake’s London: Iain Sinclair

Swedenborg Archive Series Vol.II, 2011

I had been working as a gardener in Limehouse, and I was cutting the grass of Hawksmoor churches, which were then dirty, grubby and spurned. Vagrants and drinking schools were camped out around the Portland stone recesses like medieval pilgrims or penitents seeking sanctuary and a dole of British sherry, the whole of Docklands, the Isle of Dogs, had failed. The zone was derelict. Thatcherite imperatives would not kick in for quite some time yet. Capital didn’t return to the river until the Heathrow bullion blaggers needed territory in which to invest. So what was the presence of the eastern city? Well, Blake seemed to suggest that it was a figure, a sleeping giant. He imagined a figure of inward, an inward being. This self-forged daemon belonged, I felt, to the ground of London … And for some reason the creation of buildings and structures on the east side of London seemed, prophetically, to suggest a new kind of writing and even a new kind of social, cultural, even biological, development.

Commentators at the time, writing about Blake’s Jerusalem itinerary, said ‘Why Highgate?’ And the reason John Adlard put forward was that Highgate was then on the Great North Road — a road which subsequently moved east and up Stoke Newington and out through Tottenham. But, originally, it came over Highgate Hill — it was the great entrance to the city, even though Blake himself says, repeatedly, that he is uncomfortable in this landscape. Highgate is also connected to various forms of belief in Druidic sites. There were books like Prehistoric London: Its Mounds and Circles, written by Elizabeth Gordon before the First War, that suggested there were triangulations of energy across London, there were paths between important loci on Parliament Hill (with a tumulus), the Penton Mound in Islington, and the Tot Hill in Westminster. A projected triangle enclosing so many of the ancient energy generators of London. And Blake seems to have prefigured a lot of that too, but in a higher register. Curiously enough, there’s this curvature, a swerving away: ‘Highgate thro Hackney & Holloway towards London / Till he came to old Stratford’. Well, this was the sticking point for people who wanted to discuss that journey: ‘old Stratford’, this was really peculiar. Adlard suggests, looking at texts of the time, that Blake actually meant ‘old Ford’, which was a point on the river Lea where Saxon and Viking England divided. A very important crossing point on the Lea and not further east to Stratford.

But, uncannily, old Stratford is now the epicentre of everything, it is the new city, the virtual city growing up around the Olympic Park, the enclosed city with this huge blue fence around it. A city, symbolized by an Australian super-mall, which has taken itself out of the landscape. You could persuade yourself that Blake anticipates, or suggests the terminology for, future movements throwing up heretical temples, retail parks, structures that have to be confronted, discussed and debated. And destroyed. ‘An Abstract objecting power that Negatives every thing.’

BLAKE'S LONDON coverAn extract from Blake’s London: The Topographic Sublime by Iain Sinclair (Swedenborg Archive Series, Vol. I, 2011) RRP £5.95.

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