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Lud Heat

If you are drawn to English that doesn’t just sing, but sings the blues and does scat and rocks the joint, try Sinclair. His sentences deliver a rush like no one else’s (Washington Post)

Christ Church, Spitalfields as seen by John Piper (lithograph, 1964)

Forty-three years ago British poet Iain Sinclair published Lud Heat, a book that is hard to categorize. I read about it somewhere—God knows what I was reading at the time that would have taken note of it—and sought a copy from the publisher Albion Village Press. [I didn’t know at the time that this was Sinclair’s own press, and that the edition was probably very small.] I sent them payment (at a time when primitive international banking would have been an improvement) and promptly forgot about it. Imagine my surprise when a thin stiff envelope arrived with a yellow-covered copy that still resides somewhere on my shelves, because I had to buy a replacement copy recently for reference. Incidentally, if you should stumble upon a first edition, buy it, because there’s a “true” first edition, autographed, for sale on-line at £750.00.

Its full title is Lud Heat: A book of the dead hamlets and refers to the eastern boroughs of London which have since been combined administratively into the Tower Hamlets; an entirely remarkable district of London that, in 1975, would not have been a tourist destination. Today we would classify Sinclair’s treatment as psychogeography, defined by Guy Dubord twenty years previous as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” For that is precisely what Sinclair has done in this act of literary phrenology, reading the bumps and furrows of his city to find the history lying just below its surface. I was intrigued because English Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor is a principal character in Lud‘s juxtaposition of poetry and prose—Hawksmoor being, then as now, one of the stars in my firmament.

So, what about this psychogeography? If I were a scholar, understanding Agincourt in those terms would be the subject of a conference paper. Sadly, I am not, so for the time being it will remain simply an interesting question awaiting a response, and I’ll conclude here with a lengthy quote from an Introduction to a later edition Lud by Allen Fisher. It’s written in the form of a letter to the author himself:

The more people communicate, by building-environments’ symbolic natures as well as verbally, about their surroundings and social practice, the more they get to know about their place, enabling them to comprehend, thus appropriately deal with, their situations. It becomes increasingly necessary, in a society fashioned into obliged mobility, the jet set and tile economically insecure, to insist that home be made. That we “feel at home” whether as settlers and locals, or as nomads looking for rest in comfortable surroundings. At the same time it becomes necessary not to be fooled by, what at best is, the romanticism, the Ivor Novello, and, what at worst can lead to that blut-und-Boden Homeland propagated by the Third Reich. The necessity to locate, to place ourselves becomes increasingly apparent to people living, as you do Iain, in the throws (sic) of, up against the old walls of a city. When this City—London—is now one borough of 33 held in the name of The Greater Council. The idea of (City), to someone in this situation, becomes of city dissolved, of an amoebic and pulsing cloak moving all bounds of geographic possibility leaving behind most bounds of etymological meaning in the name City. To give sense of emotional attachment to locality, to the knowable and unrepeatable, does not mean to do so as an individual. The territorial ties are not made alone. There are subtle mechanisms at work subjugating our psyches, trying to keep and often succeeding to keep, our senses, awareness at a lower level than they need to be in view of the social and economical potential of our situation. Kant held that enlightenment meant the liberation of people from the bondage from which they were themselves to blame. This is not to suggest that all of you are concerned with is a matter of this rooting, But you symbolic concerns strongly relate to and impinge upon this area. Your work just is not semiotics. But Lud Heat assumes the kind of symbolic value particular architectural forms possess: what associations they are capable of evoking in individuals: what those associations depend on. Symbolic attachment to place, apart from the social relationships of groups, concerns itself primarily in the built urban environment. It is from these building that the energies of the area are—I was going to say, “generated”.

I think I know what this says, but may have to find someone to translate it from British English to American English. As someone—possibly George Bernard Shaw—has observed, we are two nations divided by a common language.

St Anne Limehouse as seen by John Piper (lithograph, 1964)

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