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Iain Sinclair: Improving the Image of Destruction

EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT: We preview a chapter from Sinclair's contribution to 'Road Stories', a collection of shorts inspired by the 'Exhibition Road Show'

The ancients,’ said Socrates, ‘were uncomplicated, and if a certain rock was known for telling the truth, they would listen to it

John Michell

Now even the squirrels eat muesli, or don’t, or have moved on to more enticing diets. In Hackney, they can afford to spurn the health food option. A conical mound, like vitamin- enriched sawdust, has been set out for the flying rats of the inner suburbs. Then ignored. As I bend forward to stare intently at the paving slabs, the river-patterns of crack, the persistence of weeds and mosses, a creature with a hooped spine bounds forward with a rippling motion, one of those concertina sets of metal rings that snake down childhood staircases. All the discrete points through which the rusty animal passes are preserved in the mind’s eye, wavelike, serpentine. And this episode, the accidental morning rodent, confirms the motif of my walk: a mindless flow against unarguable obstacles, the great rocks and stones that hold down the neurotic spread of our city.

This was my idiot-simple proposition, psychogeology. The beach beneath the pavements. Twenty thousand streets under the sky. The rocks of the geological collection at the Natural History Museum in Exhibition Road, South Kensington, were calling me in. I would come to them, across London, connecting with, recording, investigating – and listening to, that above all – a chain of glacial erratics, Aberdeen granite lumps, public art boulders, rubble, kerbstones, unnecessary cladding, erased memorials, and demolished terraces with the split heads of Coade stone effigies. The stone in our blood, the lime mortar in our bones, takes sustenance from that chain of ancient volcanic and glacial detritus left behind or exposed in public parks. Fossils swim through ocean beds of Portland stone churches and encrust the statues of proud dignitaries. Crude megaliths, pulsing with faint prelapsarian signals, sprawl in shallow grassland declivities. Disregarded by tourists and speeding urban commuters, they bask in the achieved invisibility of things that have always been there with no requirement to make themselves known. Until they are trapped, captured on film, measured and catalogued, removed to the benevolent reservation in Kensington, where crowds wait in an orderly mob, to be granted privileged access. This chambered, post-cultural reservation of rocks was where I was headed on a frisky, blameless morning, under a clear sky and that unwitnessed caul of stars without number.

They call it the Snake Park. And promote it, in a tidy enclosure beneath an elevated railway, alongside all the other parks by which London is now defined and divided: retail parks, theme parks, business parks, car parks. Where a decision has been taken, to trim budget by abandoning grass-cutting operations, a post is driven into the ground announcing: ‘Wilderness Zone’ or ‘Nature Reserve’. There are two kinds of wilderness and you do not want to be caught in the wrong one. An approved wilderness will be demarcated by an orange mesh fence. It looks like a few yards of captured meadow, but is spared human intervention. This is the quotation wilderness, a mental conceit; a framed folk-memory intended to alleviate the brutality of permanent building works, holes in the road, strange muddy wounds allowing the curious a glimpse beneath the surface membrane of London, the dull clays and chalks that sprawl in a promiscuous tangle above bubbling, spitting magma. The bad kind of wilderness is also known as ‘wasteland’, as in: ‘The Lower Lea Valley was a wasteland. There was nothing there.’

This is an extract written by Iain Sinclair from 'Road Stories', a collection of nine short stories, out today. 'Exhibition Road Show' starts on July 28th, 2012. More info HERE