Books: Marks of woe in the East End

Liquid City by Marc Atkins and Iain Sinclair Reaktion pounds 14.95
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The Independent Culture
This is the second published collaboration of photographer Marc Atkins and writer Iain Sinclair. In similar fashion to its predecessor Lights Out For The Territory, it utilises walks through (mainly the East End of) London as a way of providing narratives. Interesting characters, both real and invented, are thrown up on route. Every journey becomes (for the reader as well as the protagonists) an inner narrative, a kind of pilgrimage to self. One moment Sinclair is investigating cabbalistic mysteries, the next talking to Gilbert and George, all this interspersed with Atkins's stunning photographs.

This type of enterprise (the book) tends to begin on an epistemic, practical basis (what do we know of ourselves in relation to our environment?) which then segues effortlessly, if the correct technique/approach has been implemented, into the metaphysical domain. This requires that the walker understands that there is, ultimately, no such thing as the relative world. All is absolute. Therefore any road taken, however arbitrary, will suffice as long as the motivation is sincere. This process was probably best portrayed by the Russian film director Tarkovsky in Stalker.

The title of the book refers to the Thames. In this context we should consider the river as a metaphor, the particular running into the general. The rhythm of the river is also apparent via the ebb and flow in Sinclair's text between real and unreal, past and present. His idiosyncratic approach ignores the subjects other "walk writers" tend to get side-tracked by, while he takes an obsessive joy in the things they totally overlook. He revels in misinformation, both the basking in, and the broadcasting of. Many of his walks are along canal towpaths. These are a godsend to London long-distance pedestrians, because they provide a steady supply of ghosts as well as allowing you to set your own rhythm free of cars and crowds. Another benefit they afford is the ability to sneak up on London from behind, to see the backs of houses, skylines from forbidden angles.

Compared to Lights Out For The Territory, Atkins's photo count has been dramatically increased. In Liquid City he has been allowed to demonstrate his considerable range, from strange, scratchy expressionistic nudes through to awesome, light-diffused London landscapes. As the page is turned the focus shifts from soft to hard; suddenly we are faced by an overwhelming ocean of differing London rooftops, all set in stark relief, the clarity of the (particular) print somehow repulsive. However it's when in impressionistic mode that he's at his best. There's even a foggy homage to Monet taken from Waterloo bridge. Atkins's use of eye, paper and chemicals is an alchemical homage to the mystery of light and dark. Atkins considers London to be the darkest of all cities, hence when he introduces a hint of light its as if the soul has been illuminated. I am reminded of the "dark luminosity" so typical of William Blake's paintings. Sinclair states in the book, typically and perversely, that he considers the photos "more fictional - richer and stranger - than the stories they never purported to illustrate". Indeed many observers consider Atkins's work as essentially dreamlike in effect and approach, whereas the man himself phlegmatically considers he is simply capturing what is really there.

Sinclair feels that his words and Atkins's photos do compliment one another. However, he doesn't believe they need each other in order to work. Sinclair seems to view his world and that of Atkins as (for the most part) running in parallel "I look back on it, despite all the evidence to the contrary, as a collaboration that never happened. A series of accidents that occasionally fused discrete worlds." I must say one gets the impression that they see life in very different terms, which is probably the very reason that their friendship and collaboration works so well. In short, it's a funny old book, neither fish nor fowl, but it does taste good.