Sunday, October 26, 2014

Malcolm Lowry & Iain Sinclair in Liverpool: In Ballast to the White Sea (Lowry Lounge 2014)

The Lowry Lounge

at the Bluecoat

Saturday 25 October 2014

with special guest Iain Sinclair
Iain Sinclair talking about Lowry

The Bluecoat’s annual celebration of Merseyside-born author of Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1909-57), featured the European launch of his 'lost' novel In Ballast to the White Sea, on Saturday 25th October. Along with Ailsa Cox, Bryan Biggs, Mark Goodall, Helen Tookey and Colin Dilnot, I am one of the ‘Firminists’ who ‘coordinate’ the event, though the massive lion’s share of organising is carried out by Bryan. TheFirminist is the work of Mark. This year Colin conducted one of his Lowry walks around the sights and sites of the life and fiction, Bryan spoke and played appropriate music, I interviewed Iain Sinclair, Mark launched The Firminist, Helen Tookey read her new ‘Bellevue Sonnets’ and Ailsa interviewed editors Vik Doyen, Colin Dilnot and Patrick McCarthy. (See postings of previous years here and here. And of later years here. And visit Colin's detailed Lowry website The Nineteenth Hole here.)

Sheet music of the famous song in Under the Volcano; one impressive Firminst discovery. A few years ago we all sang it along to a taropatch orchestra. 

The Lowry Lounge 2014 featured Iain Sinclair talking about Lowry in relation to his 2013 book American Smoke. I introduced him thus:

Good afternoon. I’m Robert Sheppard, one of the Liverpool Firminists dedicated to the continuing promotion of the life and works and beverages of Malcolm Lowry.

This afternoon we are pleased to welcome Iain Sinclair to the Lowry Lounge. Iain is one of Britain’s most acclaimed but independent-minded authors. A poet since the 1970s – when I first picked up on his work, via the poetry and prose volume LudHeat, which today would be called a work of psychogeography, but was then the major exemplar of a ‘poetry of place’. After a period as a bookseller (an important fact) he became a novelist, and White Chappel, Scarlet Tracings traces the bloody trail of the Ripper murders and the even bloodier and occult trade of bookdealing. Downriver is a masterly epic take on Thatcher’s London. Other novels and fictions followed, but he set out – in the ambulatory documentaries about London – Lights out for the Territory, London Orbital, and Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire – and about elsewhither locations – John Clare’s East Anglian landscapes in The Edge of Orison and even the Liverpool-Hull trek which threaded through his demolition of Grand Projects in Ghost Milk – to discover (but also perhaps to invent) truths about these places. 

But there is an essential interweaving of genres in these books. Tucked away under the preliminary reiterations of the title of his most recent book American Smoke is its sub-sub-title: ‘A Fiction of Memory’, which suggests that documentary of the kind written by Iain – which consists of not trusting official guides to places and people or received ideas about culture and nature – but of (usually literally) walking out into the territory and finding out for himself, is partly a fictive activity. Writing the thing makes the thing happen. The sponsored strategy has long been the path to avoid. The most doomed is the most attractive; failure is alluring. Some of you will see a parallel with Lowry here. American Smoke is an exploration of the fact that, as Britons, ‘American Smoke infiltrates our cloudy night’, and Iain explores the American continent – as for Lowry that includes Canada and Mexico – hoovering up his poetic heroes – Olson, Burroughs, Bolano, Snyder – but leaving room for English writers such as Alexander Baron and – of course – Malcolm Lowry. While the book frequently has chapters and passages about each of these heroes, any one of them pops up in unlikely contexts with coincidences, correspondences and parallels drawn or –more mysteriously – found. Again, this suggests that Lowry is more than just a subject; he is a guiding spirit in some ways to this project; these ‘journeys to the end of the light’.   

 Ladies and gentlemen, Iain Sinclair.

Iain then spoke freely, making connections between Liverpool and Dublin, bringing in Joyce, Eleanor Philby, and finally Lowry. He read from the opening chapter of Ulysses, the ultimate wandering novel, and noted that the mailboats mentioned were heading to Liverpool. (Having just taught Ulysses I can state that I didn’t get that reference to Liverpool, though the cattle with or without foot and mouth are being shipped to Liverpool, and there are two addresses mentioned, in an obituary in a paper (Canning St.) and the home of the eager hangman, Hunter St. Not enough for a walking tour, like the one conducted by Colin Dilnot on Saturday morning, which I missed, but went on a couple of years ago, here.) Iain read some ‘Lowry’ passages from American Smoke.

After there were questions. These are my notes:

 I’m going to ask a couple of questions and then throw it open to the audience, most of whom are more knowledgeable about Lowry than myself.

1. When I was writing my little book on your work, which begins with the borrowed thesis that ‘all of’ your ‘books are book-length footnotes to’ your ‘other books’, as Nicholas Lezard says – I reached a point where I slammed on the brakes and thought: Malcolm Lowry: ‘The Voyage that Never Ends’, the interconnected nature of the oeuvre! And I paused to look for his presence in the work, and didn’t find it at that point. I know you read Lowry back in your student days in Dublin, but I wonder why it took so long for him to surface consciously. And I wonder what you feel about my suggestion of parallels in terms of scope, style and even attitude between your work and his?

2. You write: ‘I was interested in the cunning ways ML found to lose, burn, scatter his manuscripts, before he had to face the horrors of making a submission, or, worse still, publication.’ I wonder what you think (or possibly can guess what Lowry would have thought) about the efforts of worldwide scholars and local Firminists to find, dampen down, unscatter his manuscripts?

3. Margerie Bonner Lowry is an ambiguous figure in your account, as she is in most. You’ve sold, then bought back, decades later, the same copies of her novels, and you’ve read them. But they seemed to offer you less than you’d expected. Am I right in suspecting that?

I didn’t use question 2. the audience then took over. Iain was engaged and particular in his responses. The impression was of a man who knows there are no coincidences, just correspondences (and there the connection with Lowry runs deepest).

Iain Sinclair signing books

Covers of issues of The Firminist

Copies of The Firminist may be obtained by emailing the editor at After Launch of TheFirminist, edited by Mark Goddall with Helen Tookey reading her poems, In Ballast to the White Sea was launched with the book’s editor Patrick McCarthy, giving a long account of the editing of this incomplete manuscript, followed by Vik Doyen talking about the genesis of Swinging the Maelstrom, which he edited, in conversation with Patrick and Colin Dilnott, and Ailsa chairing. The impressive book is published by the University of Ottawa Press.

Iain Sinclair in convivial mood. Behind him Patrick McCarthy, in the foregound Vik Doyen, top left, Tim Power, whose pictures will be better than these!

After this saga of the state of manuscripts, the meddling of (other, earlier) editors, I walked over to Iain and said, ‘Burn everything!’ (He won’t; it’s already shipped out to Texas.) We chatted about drafts, styles of composition, uses of the computer, etc. This social part (the annual toast to Lowry with mesqual or tequila) was most convivial and the highlight perhaps was talking to The Last of the Lowrys, as I erroneously dubbed him, who was somewhat bemused by our interest in the Black Sheep of his family. He looked like Malcolm so it was oddly moving. (The granddaughter of Lowry’s mentor, Conrad Aiken, was also in attendance.) Then it was off to the Everyman, The Roscoe Head…

In my bag I have three unopened codexes: the novel itself, The Firminist 4, and Iain’s new book, 70X70: Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films.

Read Iain’s poems about that South Coast boozer Patrick Hamilton here. And my much read (or linked to anyway) account of Lud Heat here. And my little-read review of the novel Dining on Stones, here. My account of Sinclair's 'social poetics', 'Everything Connects' may be read here.

My Writers and their Work volume Iain Sinclair is now available from Liverpool University Press, here: Iain Sinclair | Liverpool University Press

'Syphilis Museum', Paradise Street