a symposium paper I gave back in 2013; contains some commentary on Prynne’s Plant Time Manifold stuff (though too little discussion of its scattered appearance in Ed Dorn’s Bean News), and the closest thing I can make to sense of Iain Sinclair’s career, as well as his excellent and mind-bending Lud Heat: A Book of Dead Hamlets
‘t=0’: Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat and J.H. Prynne’s ‘The Plant Time Manifold Transcipts’
Iain Sinclair is today primarily famed as a novelist, celebrity perambulator and serial contributor to ‘culture’ supplements. Works such as the 1991 novel Downriver, 2002’s London Orbital (a circumnavigation of the capital along the M25), and the recent anti-Olympics rant Ghost Milk have secured his place amongst the established literate class in Britain, with book contracts and LRB articles on tap. His origins in fugitive, small-press poetry in the 70s have been more-or-less forgotten, and certainly seem of very little interest to those who review and comment on his work in national newspapers, on BBC broadcasts etc.. Whilst Sinclair is still, sporadically, publishing new poetry, his identity as a ‘poet’ has become somewhat obscured by his latter-day success.
In this paper I want to suggest that overemphasis on Sinclair’s prose work gives a somewhat misleading impression of it; that his early work, as a poet in the tradition of Charles Olson, had a deeply formative effect on his future output of all kinds and that we cannot properly understand the novels and ‘documentary fictions’ outside of this context. Specifically, I want to suggest that Sinclair’s 1975 book Lud Heat: A Book of Dead Hamlets is a watershed text which represents the first full formulation of the writer’s trademark melange of London history and myth, psychogeography, and Hogarthian squalor which is now so popular, not only with readers of Sinclair but with those of similarly aligned writers such as Peter Ackroyd and Will Self.
Lud Heat is a hybrid text, containing both brief prose essays and short lyrics; in the course of this paper I will make a case for the consideration of all the book’s texts as ‘poetry’ in a certain sense, and even for the possibility of reading Lud Heat as a single macro-poetic structure operating as a necessary whole. In terms of its ‘content’ the book concerns a few months Sinclair spent as a Parks Department gardener in East London in 1974 and 1975, and particularly the churches in whose gardens and graveyards he cut grass. Becoming fascinated with the eight churches built in whole or part by Nicholas Hawksmoor, surveyor for John Vanbrugh and Christopher Wren, Sinclair builds their hieratic Masonic and Egyptological imagery into a system of speculative ‘lines of influence, invisible rods of force’, enmeshing the city in a sinister web.
This model was later to attract Peter Ackroyd, who in his 1985 novel Hawksmoor reconfigured the architect as a demented Satanist who consecrates each new church with the still-warm blood of a hastily-sacrificed passer-by. The novel is essentially a murder-mystery, as Hawksmoor’s descendent, a detective, attempts to solve a series of murders which seem to have an eerie connection to similar killings in the 18th century… Hawksmoor won a Whitbread Award and a Guardian Fiction prize and was hugely popular. This clearly had an effect on Sinclair, who states in interview with Kevin Jackson that:
[Ackroyd] was able to take elements of Lud Heat, which was a completely obscure underground work, and parley it up into being a best-seller [Hawksmoor], which struck me as extraordinary, and did make me think, well, maybe I can punt this novel of mine in a way that would actually get it published by a proper publisher. (The Verbals, p.111)
The novel referred to here is White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings, published in 1987 by Goldmark. This was Sinclair’s first novel, returning to the London occult with a mythic exploration of the Ripper murders. This novel was itself fairly successful, runner up to the Guardian Fiction prize and set Sinclair on the course to a fame which would flower fully with the publication of Downriver four years later.
Lud Heat was clearly the point at which Sinclair perfected his formula, Ackroyd’s lifting of which opened Sinclair’s eyes to his possibilities as a popular novelist. However, Lud Heat is not just a conspiracy theory (which is the aspect of the text primarily taken up by Ackroyd); it constitutes a sort of thesis about the nature of time itself, one inaugurated around 1975 and to remain with Sinclair in all his later work. It is the fermenting of this formula in Sinclair’s early poetic works and contacts to which I shall now turn, with particular reference to Jeremy Prynne’s ‘The Plant Time Manifold Transcripts’.
In the initial text of Lud Heat, ‘Nicholas Hawksmoor, His Churches’, in which the occult geometry of London is mapped out for the reader, Sinclair evokes Bunhill Fields though Defoe’s Plague-accounts and the death of Milton, ending by describing these as ‘A sequence of heated incisions through the membranous time-layer’ (Lud Heat, p.16). The metaphor active here is a biological one: the figuration of time as having membranes, selective barriers which both prevent and enable passage of material between them, finds further expression later in this text, in which the author addresses the architect’s influences:
And this goes back, once more, to Egypt… not by direct route, carried in migration – the plodding cultural-transfer theory – but by sap connection… archetypal expression of common needs. (Lud Heat, p.32)
In relation to the concept of time as separated from itself by membranes, ‘sap’ is significant since it is the liquid which flows in the xylem and phloem cells of the plant inbetween the leaves and the root, transporting water and nutrients, which are thus distributed and absorbed across membranes. Similarly time is here seen to permeate, in a way simultaneously contained and direct/tactile. Elsewhere in the text, membranes feature as architectural; Hawksmoor is quoted as desiring a ‘Septum or Enclosure… to keep off filth Nastyness and Brutes’ (p.17) for his unbuilt Basilica After the Primitive Christians. In botany a septum is a membrane dividing locules (chambers) inside plant structures, thus both separating and connecting those structures. The churches of Hawksmoor are figured as built with a cellular structure, that is, both as vessels and conduits for ‘heat’, in the form of the transhistorical lines of force, and ‘heat’s analogue ‘sap’.
This presentation of time somehow mimicking the transport of material through a plant points to a crucial literary connection for Sinclair, that with J.H. Prynne. At the time Lud Heat was being worked on Prynne had just finished writing ‘The Plant Time Manifold Transcripts’, which were first made available to a more general public as a postscript to Prynne’s 1974 collection Wound Response. The Plant Time Manifold has a complex publication history: the first Transcripts appeared via Ed Dorn’s Bean News of 1972, the mock-newspaper of several contributors considered to be the ‘secret book’ of Dorn’s Western epic Gunslinger. These first transcripts were authored by Prynne under the pseudonym ‘Erasmus W. Darwin’ (‘W’ for ‘Willbeen’) and number three: ‘Full Tilt Botany’, ‘& Hoc Genus Omne’ and ‘Where Is Now’, the latter of which would reappear with Wound Response as the transcript of 1st July 1972. It is fairly clear from reading Lud Heat that Sinclair had read Wound Response, quite possibly whilst writing his own book; an untitled poem in Lud Heat seems to refer directly to Prynne’s poems of microbiological damage and genetic process:
you won’t shift far
in a single generation, the programming is too tight
the wounds respond elastically (Lud Heat, p.94)
‘The Plant Time Manifold transcripts’, resembles a satirical academic report on a conference on botany and plant morphology, whose content Justin Katko summarises thus:
The basic proposition of the plant time hypothesis is that there exists a form of temporality specific to all plants, wherein the plant’s upper half (or stem) moves forward in time, and the plant’s lower half (or root) moves backward in time. (‘Relativistic Phytosophy’, p.247)
The similarities between sections of ‘The Plant Time Manifold transcripts’ and Lud Heat have not been noticed by critics who have been, in general, more concerned to map the influences on Sinclair’s work (Ginsberg, Olson’s Projective Verse and Lee Harwood’s ‘Cable Street’ (1965) are regularly cited) than to consider that Sinclair was also engaged in a series of more interactive relationships with other poets. Notable in this context are the similarities between the metaphorical structures of time in Lud Heat and Prynne’s precedent text: ‘Time-averaged protein tubes comprise the meshwork of willbeen functioning, held in semirigid array by reverse backflow or “dream membrane”’ (Plant Time Manifold, p.238). ‘Willbeen’ here suggests the paradoxical state of the future as already achieved or performed in the past; again here this impossible-seeming ‘reverse backflow’ of time is mediated by a membrane. Prynne describes a point on the plant where ‘t=0’, where the direction of time (backwards or forwards) is irrelevant, and ‘positive and negative values are set in bipolar orientation; and this sets the epoch for genetic moment: abundant, foliate’ (Plant Time Manifold, p.235). This imagined point of creativity sits at the meeting of root and stem, of forward time and backward time, past and future. At this originary point of plant time, Prynne’s imagined Professor Quondam Lichen states that:
The pre-genetic flux of space-time is thus possibilistic with reference to plus values, allowing the operation of causality but not entailment. The genetic epoch G(t)=0 initiates a determined cytochronology, because almost at once the swarm of positive velocities branch by means of differential acceleration. Only plant systems remain functional on the pre-organic event horizon, that is, continuing to synthesize growth requirements from the pre-genetic space manifold. (Plant Time Manifold, pp.234-5)
‘Possibilistic’ refers here to the second meaning given by the OED under ‘possibilism’, that is, the belief that human freedom is not limited by the natural world. With ‘causation’ (the action of causing or producing) but not ‘entailment’ (involving by necessity or in the form of consequence; also in linguistics, the relationship between two sentences wherein if the first is true, the second must also be true), i.e. there is no compulsion to necessary logical progression. ‘Sap connection’ allows Sinclair, with the aid of Prynne’s plant-time hypothesis, to map a history without ‘plodding cultural transfer’. It presents the ‘abundant, foliate’ t=0 moment of plant time.
Prynne deeply influenced Sinclair in his early days; he remarks that he found The White Stones ‘amazing’, and soon sought out the older poet’s company in Cambridge:
When I went to visit Prynne at one time there was a typescript on his desk of Hawking’s Large Scale Structure of Space-Time, which looked to me like an Egyptian manuscript, it was all hieroglyphics and symbols. Prynne was sort of translating this, working on it in some way… a poet! The same person who helped to edit and organise late Olson! I thought that this was very extraordinary, and realised that the worlds of science and literature were, at that point, in an interesting dialogue, most of which was based on Cambridge. [Rupert] Sheldrake came along, with his mystical take on Morphic Resonance, which I enjoyed very much. (The Verbals, p.100)
Hawking’s work would resurface in Sinclair’s Suicide Bridge (1979), something of a sequel to Lud Heat. But for the purposes of this discussion the important figure is the biologist and parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake, whom Sinclair appears to have been introduced to through Prynne. Sheldrake, one time fellow of Trinity Hall in Cambridge, was a good friend of Prynne, who helped him to edit and organise his most famous and ultimately fateful book, A New Science of Life: The Theory of Formative Causation (1981) in which he proposed, to great consternation and eventual academic ostracism, the morphological theory which became known as ‘morphic resonance’:
Chemical and biological forms are repeated not because they are determined by changeless laws or eternal Forms, but because of a causal influence from previous similar ‘forms’. This influence would require an action across space and time unlike any known type of physical force. (A New Science of Life, p.96)
The centre of Sheldrake’s theory is the pseudo-spiritualist conception that matter has memory, is even conscious. These ideas had not been fully formulated in 1974, when Wound Response was published, but it is clear that Sheldrake, who left Cambridge for Hyderabad in that year, had discussed them at length with Prynne; the Plant Time Manifold is full of reference to matter (and especially plant-matter) with memory. Quondam Lichen’s address is on the topic of ‘Palaeomnemonic Resonances’ (Plant Time Manifold, p.234), and he goes on to elucidate that ‘As progressive differentiation takes place in the genotypes the manifold feedback loops acquire characteristic species-linked resonance periods or memory cycles.’ (Plant Time Manifold, p.235). The ‘feedback loop’ allows Prynne’s plants to live both backwards and forwards in time simultaneously, living on/in and eating the past as accumulated layers of soil and nutrients. However, for Sinclair they provide a mechanism by which the events of the past (in this instance the architectural weirdness of Nicholas Hawksmoor) can continue to pervade and influence the present landscape. One of the more interesting hypotheses advanced in A New Science of Life is that past forms are somehow immanent in present ones even if the present form is not an exact or complete replica:
by morphic resonance the form of a system, including its characteristic internal structure and vibrational frequencies, becomes present to a subsequent system with a similar form; the spatio-temporal pattern of the former superimposes itself over the latter (A New Science of Life, pp.88-9)
The superimposition or overlaying of the morphic form on the present matter is remarkably similar to Sinclair’s mapping of ‘lines of force’ or ‘ley-lines’ onto the London A-Z as an imagination of the true geography of the city. The city’s history is thus imagined as repressed, not in a psychoanalytic but rather a morphological manner, and close attention to the operation of the ‘membranous time-layer’ is the recommended method by which to release or reactivate that history.
In this context Sinclair’s occupation as a gardener in Lud Heat can be seen as more than coincidental. Cutting grass and pruning plants, Sinclair not only literalises the ‘field’ poetics of Olson, which both Lud Heat and ‘The Plant Time Manifold transcripts’ share in their inclusion of esoteric learning and free use of the space of the page, but puts himself at the meeting-point of earth and sky which is the point at which, in Prynne, t=0, the genesis of plant-time: ‘This wide-sky space scale is working into the bloodstream. New time vitamins. Necessarily slowing (pulse) to the rhythm of all-day in the open. Earth sucking at his boots.’ (Lud Heat, p.40) Here again time is imagined as organic, ‘vitamins’, and the poet finds himself, like the plant, pulled between the earth and the air, multidirectional, and thus able to take on plant-time’s ‘possibilistic’ relation to time and to history. In ‘A Theory of Hay Fevers’ the poet positions his own body, stricken by pollen and sun, as analogous to a plant: ‘The fevers are a restraint and a cause of restraint: the Reichian diagnosis. What has been held down will flower in that form. Plant birth’ (p.68). The poet’s body, afflicted with foreign humours that remember the ‘sap connection’ of plant-time, becomes the site of a possibilistic creative ‘flowering’ in the form of the city’s morphic field, and of ‘restraint and cause of restraint’, a realisation of the city’s true form as a multi-directional historical receptacle.
In ‘Closed Field, The Dogs Of The Moon’, Sinclair quotes the Parks Department Manual he is given on taking a job with his local council, specifically the section regarding concern over the ‘Writing of Books’ (‘7. Writing of Books. While occasional literary or artistic work is permissible, special consideration will have to be given to the writing of books for payment on subjects relating to an Officer’s of employee’s work for the Council.’ (‘Closed Field, The Dogs Of The Moon’, p.39)) guidelines the poet cheerfully ignores; indeed there is even a moment of black humour in the reference to ‘books for payment’, nodding to Sinclair’s fugitive literary and commercial status at this stage in his career. It is notable that Sinclair was not, at this point, even considering winning any serious remuneration for his efforts with Lud Heat; he published the book himself, in an edition of a few hundred, and gave most away to friends or contacts.
One reason why Sinclair was not looking for major publishers for the book may well be that he considered himself to be working in a poetic tradition in which established publishing-houses had historically had little or no interest. This tradition was that of Olson and the Black Mountain school, and the burgeoning British answer to that movement centred around Cambridge and magazines such as The English Intelligencer and Grosseteste Review. Hawksmoor’s work, characterised by ‘incredible culture grafts, risky quotations’ which tie pagan imagery such as the obelisk and the jackal, and Masonic symbology, into Christian architecture reflects in its interdisciplinarity and catholicity the absorption of biomorphic and phytosophical learning by Prynne in ‘The Plant Time Manifold transcripts’, or of Egyptological and occult learning by Sinclair. Lud Heat’s author sees in Hawksmoor’s architecture an analogue of his own poetic practice as outlined in Olson’s Projective Verse, which encourages an prospective and all-encompassing, and so transgressive, approach to the construction of the literary text, one which allows all of Sinclair’s work, even his prose, to aspire to the condition of poetry. Olson writes in that essay that ‘the poem itself must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy discharge’. Under this understanding, Sinclair can read the alignment of energy or ‘heat’ between Hawksmoor’s churches as the creation of a poetic field. Thus Hawksmoor parallels the possibilistic (‘possible structures’), open-field approach to poetics Sinclair inherits (with some caveats) from Charles Olson. The whole of Sinclair’s later work is organised on the speculative historical/mythic basis first devised in Lud Heat, a basis deeply indebted to Sinclair’s poetic background and to his connections with Jeremy Prynne specifically. This counter-factual, liberated approach to history can be felt at the very beginning of Lud Heat , as the ground is mapped for us: ‘We can mark out the total plan of churches on the map and sift the meanings. We can produce the symbols of Set, instrument of castration or tool for making cuneiform signs. To maim or to mark. The shaman is eunuch.’ (Lud Heat, p.16)
Finally, to speculatively suggest that, in Prynne’s terms, Lud Heat is the ‘genetic moment’ for Sinclair, the point at which t=0; this moment or momentum, looking forward and back, goes on to fundamentally infect or inform his future work, but also to retrospectively infect his early work, much of which is now forgotten, out of print and sadly unread, eclipsed by the novels. Not only this; a whole school of writers grow on the back of Lud Heat and Sinclair’s later adaptations of its themes, from Peter Ackroyd through Will Self on to Robert MacFarlane. Perhaps this is how we ought to esteem Lud Heat; recognise it as a text which ‘sets the epoch for genetic moment: abundant, foliate’