British and Irish Literature Iain Sinclair
Jamie Harris
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0183


Iain Sinclair was born in 1943 in Cardiff, Wales, and was brought up in Maesteg. He attended school in Wales until, at the beginning of his teenage years, he took a place at Cheltenham College (over the border in England). A formative meeting with the Welsh poet Vernon Watkins (for an interview for a school project on Dylan Thomas) set Sinclair on a ceaseless creative trajectory, attending the London School of Film Technique, then Trinity College Dublin (where he edited Icarus magazine). He and Anna (née Hadman) were married in 1975, and would go on to have three children. Following their wedding, Iain and Anna moved to the island of Gozo (Malta), living there for a few years before settling on a move to London in 1969. Following the move, Sinclair took on a series of part-time jobs, which would become mainstays in early authorial blurbs (parks gardener, brewery worker). In 1970 Sinclair established a publishing house (Albion Village Press) from his home on Albion Drive (Hackney), publishing the early poetry of Chris Torrance, Brian Catling, and J. H. Prynne, as well as his own work, including his breakthrough prose poetry volume Lud Heat (1975). In 1972 Sinclair enrolled for a term at the Courtauld Institute, studying for an MA in fine art. In the mid-1970s, while still publishing and writing poetry, Sinclair began a career as a book dealer, an occupation that he would pursue on and off for the next twenty years. If Lud Heat (and Suicide Bridge, 1979) were early evidence of recurrent themes of Sinclair’s work (myth, history, repulsion and fascination with the city), then his shift to writing fiction in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987, runner-up in the Guardian Fiction Prize) and Downriver (published 1991, winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1992) cemented his burgeoning reputation for grotesque, sardonic prose. Another novel, Radon Daughters (1994) followed, but Sinclair’s next breakthrough was the acerbic nonfiction, psychogeographical, Lights Out for the Territory (1997). Several more psychogeographies followed as Sinclair become fully ensconced in the “London writing” scene (even if there was a brief foray into his homeland of Wales in Landor’s Tower, 2001). As Sinclair’s London project was reaching a kind of crescendo (somewhat fueled by the controversy surrounding his anti-Olympics Ghost Milk, 2011), Sinclair was plotting the end of his London project, eventually signaled by The Last London (2017).

General Overviews

While there are clearly links to be drawn between Sinclair’s films, prose, poetry, and photographic output, his is not an oeuvre that lends itself well to the all-encompassing overview. Reflecting the surge in the popularity of Sinclair’s nonfiction at the turn of the millennium, and the concomitant urge to understand and document his “psychogeography” by critics, a flurry of monographs were published. Bond 2005 is an authoritative study of Sinclair’s fiction. Baker 2007 is an excellent starting point for newcomers to Sinclair’s work and some key theoretical approaches. Sheppard 2007 is perhaps the closest to an attempt to discuss Sinclair’s life’s work. Martin 2015 is the most recent study focused entirely on Sinclair, and is a highly theorized yet engaging account of Sinclair’s London project, probing further into the effects of Thatcher and neoliberalism on the city. Although ostensibly a comparative study, Murray 2007 contains some excellent material on Sinclair, especially on his surge in popularity. Anderson 2020 is the most recently published, placing Sinclair’s work (fruitfully) alongside two of his contemporaries.

  • Anderson, David. Landscape and Subjectivity in the Work of Patrick Keiller, W.G. Sebald, and Iain Sinclair. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198847199.001.0001

    Situates Sinclair’s work alongside the filmmaker Patrick Keiller and author W. G. Sebald, focusing on the anxieties of the pre-millennial era. There are two illuminating chapters devoted to Sinclair, the first discussing his earlier work (Lud Heat through to Downriver), and the second reflecting on his more overtly psychogeographical phase, which began with Lights Out for the Territory.

  • Baker, Brian. Iain Sinclair. Contemporary British Novelists. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719069048.001.0001

    Beginning with Sinclair’s roots in 1960s counterculture and the British Poetry Revival, Baker emphasizes the importance of the poetics of space (pace Charles Olson) while also exploring Sinclair’s politics. Includes an in-depth discussion of Sinclair’s flânerie and the roots of his later more formally psychogeographical work in the late 1990s.

  • Bond, Robert. Iain Sinclair. Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2005.

    The first comprehensive study of Sinclair’s writing, dividing Sinclair’s oeuvre into four sections: Lud Heat, White Chappell, Downriver, and London Orbital and beyond. It is both authoritative and invaluable to anyone looking to get to grips with Sinclair, from his style, his use of “real” characters, and the theoretical underpinnings of his later psychogeography. Exclusively focused on prose, even in its discussion of the prose-poetry of Lud heat.

  • Martin, Niall. Iain Sinclair: Noise, Neoliberalism and the Matter of London. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

    Discusses Sinclair’s London project as a charting of London’s descent from former imperial center to its current dissolute neoliberal state, arguing that Sinclair’s refusal to support his work through academia or arts councils places the city’s economic context as fundamental to an understanding of his work. Focuses on Sinclair’s attention to the “noise” of the city space, in the wider context of the imagined frictionless utopia of the globalized city.

  • Murray, Alex. Recalling London: Literature and History in the Work of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair. London: Continuum, 2007.

    Like Bond and Bavidge 2007 (cited under Essay Collections), discusses the relative absence of critical engagement with Sinclair’s work until the turn of the century (in comparison with Ackroyd, for example), as well as the relative disparity in sales and popularity of the two writers, contrasting Sinclair’s engagement with contemporary politics and Ackroyd’s relative lack thereof.

  • Sheppard, Robert. Iain Sinclair. Devon, UK: Northcote House, 2007.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv5qdj21

    An essential companion to Sinclair’s work and career. This book contains a biographical timeline, and a thorough untangling of Sinclair’s intertextuality, contending that Sinclair’s work can be thought of as an “evolving intratext” in which each book functions as a footnote to another.

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