The writer, Iain Sinclair, spent last October crossing the waterways of Kent and east London in a swan-shaped pedalo, in what he refers to as a "relevant and absurd" protest against the Olympics. He teamed up with the artist and film-maker Andrew Kötting, who recorded their journey from Hastings, where they liberated the pedalo from its seaside berth, sailing it through to east London and ending, with a bump, against the site of the Olympics. Sinclair narrated, pedalled a lot and chatted with riverside walkers. In one scene a man by the docks warns the pair of the perils of trenchfoot and Weil's disease, offering to wash down, and then amputate, Sinclair's foot.
The author and psychogeographer has spent the last few decades writing about the erosion of identity in his corner of London, in Hackney, where he has lived for the last 40 years. Now, suddenly, international radio and TV companies have been courting him for his outspoken views against the Olympics and the way they have destroyed the area he lives in. The Swandown film is the most recent form that his protest has taken.
It was literally a dirty protest. Kötting refused to change his suit for the entire four-week odyssey, and they were often covered in filth."The mud was so clinging and disgusting — it was really vile. Andrew got wedged into this water barrel and got stuck. We started hosing him off and then a man offered to wash us both down. It was wild and anarchic, and quite fun." After Sinclair and Kötting's jaunt, the people of Hastings witnessed a spate of pedalo-related copycat crimes. "These seaside rowdies thought, "yeah we could nick one," Sinclair smiles. "One lot were caught trying to pedal to France."
But what exactly was the point of this surreal exercise? Identity is tied to place, Sinclair explains, and his place is being eroded. We are sitting in his Georgian house, off a quiet leafy square near Haggerston tube. It's a comfortable family home, though his children have outgrown it. We're sat on snug grey sofas in a small sitting-room. A tray decorated with pictures of herbs balances on a wicker stool between us, holding a hot mug of tea, served by his wife, Anna, who he met at university in Dublin, and married when he was 23. The house was bought for a "ridiculously cheap price like £3000 or something", back in the 70s. Physically, the house itself has changed very little, it's the community and the physical space outside that has shifted, very quickly, says Sinclair.
"If people are telling you a story about themselves, they gradually map their own local territories and know themselves by them. People went out to the Lea Valley [an area at the north edge of Hackney, beyond Hackney marshes, now part of the Olympic site] to escape the density of the street and go into their own reverie in this slight sense of wilderness. Once that went, you'd be walking through a path that was familiar and suddenly there would be a sign saying, ‘you can't go down here, this path is closed' and then there were huge armies of surveillance, security guards who ask, "what are you doing here?" and this is very disturbing not only to your sense of freedom, but your personal identity is invalidated."
Much of Sinclair's work explores the concept that our environment has changed to such an extent that the entire way we think and interact has altered. "I can't beat it, but I feel my interests in life are a kind of dynamic reportage, documentation and going into battle with stuff, so whatever's happening I try to do it. If you decide it's too much, what do you do? you either fold entirely or you go out with a gun. I've decided against that option."
The film, Swandown, is about the "lost communities" scattered along the riverside that have been fractured by the Olympic dream. At one point in the film, near Tonbridge, the comedian Stewart Lee joins comic book writer Alan Moore in the pedalo. Lee pointedly announces: "Iain Sinclair doesn't think anything should be allowed to happen in Hackney without his permission". Is he right? Sinclair laughs. "I don't feel proprietary, but I do feel there is a human identity to the borough of Hackney that's quite peculiar. It was always bloody-minded and difficult, it always stood up to central government. The great panic came for me was when Hackney council and central government were in agreement about this great project. So in that sense I was a totally self-elected spokesman for opposing it."
Sinclair rests with crossed arms and legs, but occasionally, when he jokes, his body-language opens up and he rests an arm across the back of the sofa, his black T-shirt lifts above his waistband to reveal a small hairy paunch, belying his slim, long limbs; the physique of a walker. He rarely smiles, but when he does, it's a wry smile, it appreciates irony and marvels at absurdity. The Olympics and its associated infrastructure projects are providing rich material for him to smile skeptically at.
"Now it isn't anything to do with sport. It's all-consuming. It's bigger than countries. People are hugely upset David Beckham is not taking part, because he's a brand. There's no validity for him taking part as a sportsman, he can hardly move you know! But people think it's a huge mistake because he's part of the Olympics brand."
He recently wrote in the London Review of Books of the competitors caught using drugs, adding to the charade. He wrote "Medals [are] returned by disgraced drug cheats to be passed on to others."
"Many of them have become hugely chemically boosted," he says. "There is certainly a level of legal drug use that can be done to get to the top. It's part of this whole celebrity circus of the world. You know its this state thing that east Germany or China have been force-feeding athletes to get them to perform, and if you put the money in, you will get the results."
He visited Athens to get material for his book Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project, an indictment of the Olympics which examines how a Ballardian landscape is being carved out of a characterful past. "Actually the sites in Athens were very beautiful architecturally, but they were abandoned and useless and that had contributed in a very big way to the economic collapse in Athens. There was a real sense of it being about to erupt." Just as he left Athens, in May 2010, the first of the Greek protests against austerity measures had begun. He sees a mirroring of tension over the Olympics here, but he says, London is robust, it will probably absorb the damage and recover.
"One significant image in Athens was nobody was doing anything in the official areas except for wild dogs and otters and campfires and drinkers and then this bit of old road by the sea that wasn't part of any scheme was now being used endlessly for spontaneous exercise and I hope the same kind of thing will happen here. It will eventually. In the end, it's the force of what people want against what's imposed upon them."
Sinclair has been so outspoken about the Olympics that, he says, Hackney council tried to ban him from doing a reading of Hackney, that Rose-Red Empire, at Stoke Newington Library. Hackney is the first book in a planned loose trilogy that includes Ghost Milk and will incorporate Sinclair's next book, American Smoke, where he explores the American landscape in a similar way. On hearing his comparisons between the Olympic site and war zones you begin to understand Hackney council's reasons for supposedly issuing the ban.
An American broadcaster came to interview Sinclair at Channelsea, which joins Bow Creek and the Lea River at the Olympic site. He told Sinclair he used to be a US Marine, and the area reminded him of Baghdad. "He said: "This landscape is it, exactly. You put barbed wire round this type of building and you put concrete down just like they've done here and this is a hiding cell for malcontents and then you would secure the area with surface to air missiles, just like you've done here, here and here. Add the helicopters and the drones and you've got it all. This is classically an invaded landscape." It is the same sort of process in London 2012, with Dow Chemicals, McDonalds chips, everything has to be paid for by Visa, it's an invasion for the benefit of these huge companies."
Sinclair talks the way he writes, meandering and weaving around a topic. You feel you are walking with him through winding alleyways, sometimes you have to cling on tight to his sentences for fear of not being able to keep up. He references places to describe his thoughts; ask him how he feels about a subject and he will give you an image of a building or landscape that sums up his feelings. It's exhausting, but euphoric, like circling a mountain and finally being rewarded, when he reaches a conclusion, by the view at the top. Does he write for himself rather than a reader? "Absolutely. But that textured way of writing is dying out. The kind of world I'm endlessly going on about is pretty well doomed, but nevertheless I think there are recesses of it worth celebrating."
He refuses to disclose the specific places, other than saying the Isle of Grain is "a beautiful zone and really important because it's the one place that's left. You can almost see people with surveyors' equipment nosing around thinking...sooner or later someone is going to take it." Until recently, another, albeit smaller, pocket of hope existed in the form of a person rather than a place; the "bird man", an eccentric who took over a dis-used bus garage and used it to house his pet birds of prey.
"The bird man had lived down Albion Drive with his hawks and his falcons and owls all living there, and nobody cared. Hackney council let him squat there for 18 years and then he was just forced out. The inside of the old house is amazing. It's got moss growing all over the inside and he painted animals on the walls and there are these shelters he made for these birds in this wild, crazy garden."
Sinclair casually accepts that everything is changing, that the bird men are disappearing — his writing often circles around the theme of impermanence, transience and renewal. The Orwellian dystopia he paints of London's future seems a bit gloomy, but there is still hope, he says. "I don't want this perpetual preservation order. The world changes, but I want that change to be necessary or respectful of what has happened before. Everything changes, and that's quite right."
Road Stories, a book including a short story by Iain Sinclair is available here
Swandown opens in cinemas nationwide across the UK on 20th July 2012.