Review: ‘Nicholas Hawksmoor, His Churches’ by Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographic poem-essay on the churches of eighteenth century architect Nicholas Hawksmoor is a well-researched rambling, like a map drawn by a madman, a dot-to-dot that spans time, space, religion and reason. Sinclair offers an alternate reading of Hawksmoor’s six churches, superimposing the symbol of Set, tracing the invisible lines of influence, ineffable rods of force, imperceptible poles of vigour? something like that; it’s all a bit phallic.

‘The web is printed on the city and disguised with multiple superimpositions’ writes self-aware Sinclair. It is a difficult piece to read, layer upon layer of histories – ancient, local, criminal – mythologies, literature, fanciful fictions and personal impressions. Imagine twenty articles, on the aforementioned subjects – quotes from De Quincey and Blake, historical and cultural accounts, all written on pieces of tracing paper, laid one atop the other. And imagine now trying to read that chaos. That is the way in which ‘His Churches’ is difficult to read.

Pyschogeography is concerned with overlap: a place (and the reception of that place) is an amalgamation, a sum of all parts and perceptions. This is true to how we experience the world in which we live. But Sinclair’s poem is so densely overlapped that it becomes a chore to pick apart; there seems to be no purpose or point. It’s like mixing all of the paints on the pallet until there is nothing but a brown mess. Density would not be an issue were in not paired with length – it becomes indigestible.

That said, the poem does have its merits. Occasionally, amid the grey overlay of information, colourful imagery emerges: ‘the setting sun and the molten light’, and ‘the dust of wooden voices.’ These moments are welcome respites from the writer’s tortuous weaving, which makes for torturous reading.

One of the most interesting aspects of this piece is its exploration of intertextuality. As I mentioned previously, Sinclair overlays histories, literatures and myths, quoting writers and historians and drawing an intertextual map of London around the six churches of Hawksmoor. This obvious or surface intertextuality is layered (again) over the idea of the city as text(s), as ‘[t]he buildings… yield a further word’, and the mendicants ‘study and inscribe the graffiti with prophetic seriousness.’ The city is there to be read. A parallel is drawn between the intertextuality of reading and the intertextuality of place, specifically place in psychogeography. A place is a text: we read it as a signifier (e.g. church = God, the gothic, death), we refer to its written histories and its oral myths, our memories and associations, and we piece together a fragmented image of the whole, a superimposition of reference after reference, tied together with invisible lines.

Sinclair situates his poem in the genre of psychogeography from the start, beginning with quotes from Thomas De Quincey and W. B. Yeats, two writers who’s works are considered to be early precursors of psychogeography. Sinclair also writes often of William Blake, fever-poet, and towards the end directly alludes to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake’s book of original mythology was clearly a huge influence on Sinclair. The unusual thing is that as Blake influenced Sinclair, so has Sinclair influenced others: the novel Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd, the graphic novel From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, and, probably, the Da Vinci Code, all influenced by this poem. William Gibson called Iain Sinclair his favourite author. I must be missing something here.

Saying that, over the course of writing this review, I have come to almost appreciate ‘His Churches’. It is a fun rewriting of history, an imaginative mythologising of London, with beautiful imagery and quirky grains of information scattered throughout. As a poem, a dense and lengthy poem at that, it requires patience and a little picking apart to find the hidden meaning. A more tolerant or attentive reader might find this this piece rich and rewarding. Unfortunately, despite its merits, I found it very dull. Perhaps a prior knowledge of Hawksmoor or the area of London in question would help one to navigate the piece. But ultimately the whole thing caves in on itself, burying meaning deep beneath the layers. As Sinclair writes, ‘it is there, but you have to dig for it.’ The question is: Is the excavation worth the effort?


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