Iain Sinclair’s Shoes
An excerpt from Anna MacDonald’s Between the Word and the World
There’s a story about Iain Sinclair’s shoes, and it goes something like this. Let’s say, for the sake of convenience, that we’re in Hackney. Sinclair attends a party where he’s introduced to a woman who also doesn’t know him. I imagine there are pleasantries, those how-do-you-dos and nice-to-meet-yous, those words we throw so casually away as if they don’t matter. As if they weren’t coordinates according to which we navigate the world and find our place within it. Regardless, pleasantries aside, there must be a pause in their conversation. There must be a pause because, Sinclair tells us, the woman looks down at his shoes. Is she struggling for something to say? I don’t think so. I think she’s enjoying herself. I think she’s looking and thinking. I think she’s taking her time, to see. Because, having looked at Sinclair’s shoes — shoes made for walking, shoes that are weathered, scuffed, well-worn, having clearly covered a lot of ground — the woman looks up again, and says: “You must be a writer.”
I no longer remember where I first read this story, nor when I began to notice that Sinclair returns to it repeatedly. But I do remember my first ecstatic discovery of Sinclair’s writing and the moment I recognised that by reading words I was also encountering a world beyond the page. It was in the mid-2000s and I had borrowed a library copy of Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London. The pages were dense with signs left behind by earlier readers: a coffee stain here, a dog ear there, underlinings and marginalia everywhere. Other people had passed this way before me and their lingering traces encouraged an appropriately palimpsestic reading. The book’s opening essay documents an excursion intended to “cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city… from Hackney to Greenwich Hill… along the River Lea to Chingford Mount.” “Walking,” Sinclair writes in those pages,
is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself. To the no-bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin-de-siècle decadence, a poetic of entropy — but the born-again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything.
I’ve always been a walker. Never a bookish child, I wanted to be in the world instead; I still thought of the word and the world as irreconcilably separate, then. Walking was a way of going places — to the park, down the creek, onto the street — alone or with other children (this was a time before the fear of public spaces, before organised and micro-managed “play”). As a teenager, walking helped to salve a restlessness I didn’t fully understand. Less a way of going than an attempt at being still, it became a shortcut to solitude, a space to think teenage things. Later still, walking became a means of discovery, a way of deviating from the paths beaten by collective habits of movement and mind; those routes overwritten by family, friends, school. Now an adult, walking has become many things. It is a way of going places. It can be uncomfortable, boring, dully routine. Sometimes walking is still a way into solitude. But often, I do it without thinking. What I realise now — what, by walking, I have come to notice — is that at some point, I can’t say exactly when, walking and reading, reading and being in the world, became one for me. I read Virginia Woolf and sought to assume the walker’s “central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.” I read Gaston Bachelard on space, on the elements, and especially on poetic reverie, that “triple liaison between imagination, memory and poetry,” that form of “cosmic dreaming” which “positions us in a world.” From Woolf and Bachelard I learned that writing is a road to dreaming the world. But from Iain Sinclair I finally, belatedly, learned to see how the worlds dreamed on and beyond the page bleed into one another. Writing and reading are, first and always, ways of being in the world. They are ways of looking and seeing and feeling and thinking, of experiencing the world in all its dimensions. Writing and reading are ways of looking and seeing and experiencing, again.
So now, looking again at the story of Sinclair’s shoes, seeing it anew as I write it down, I notice that it isn’t a story about shoes at all. I notice that it isn’t, perhaps, even a story about Iain Sinclair. Writing it down, it looks to me rather more like a story of a woman at a party who looks and sees and thinks, who, having observed the world, makes a connection between walking and writing and then puts it into words.