In Sept 2021, Iain Sin­clair gave a talk to the Blake Soci­ety about how Blake’s poem, The Men­tal Trav­el­ler, became the map and mod­el for a life­time of jour­neys and pil­grim­age quests. The Men­tal Trav­el­ler was an awaken­ing, to be exper­i­enced but not yet under­stood. The poem returned at vari­ous points in the years that fol­lowed, until it was acknow­ledged as the secret code for Sin­clair’s most recent book, The Gold Machine, a late-life exped­i­tion to one of the sources of the Amazon, in the foot­steps of his great-grandfather.

Andy Wilson: The Gold Machine AND the Mental Traveller, an Introduction

Iain Sin­clair, The Gold Machine: In the Tracks of the Mule Dan­cers, Lon­don: One­world Pub­lic­a­tions (2021).
Iain Sin­clair, The Gold Machine Beats… A Jungle Death Photo Album, Cov­entry: Beat Scene Press.
Iain Sin­clair, Blake’s Men­tal Trav­el­ler and The Gold Machine, an impro­vised talk to the Blake Soci­ety, 15th Sep 2021.
The spug­gies are fledged
Basil Bunt­ing,  Brigg­flatts
Iain (with the extra i)
Iain Sin­clair,  email to the author, Sep 2021

The Mental Traveller

The Men­tal Trav­el­ler—a poem from the Pick­er­ing Manu­script, which con­tains oth­er­wise unknown works Blake col­lec­ted in a fair copy some­time in the early 1800s—is one of Blake’s most enig­mat­ic cre­ations. While sec­tions of The Four Zoas or Jer­u­s­alem are opaque, The Men­tal Trav­el­ler com­bines the same obscur­ity with a great clar­ity in the imagery used and con­cision in how it is organ­ised. It is terse and vivid, a knotty con­spect­us of Blake’s cent­ral myth:

Because The Men­tal Trav­el­ler is a rad­ic­ally com­pressed ver­sion of Blake’s most import­ant theme, that of a man’s fall from and return to Eden, and an auda­cious announce­ment of real­ity’s men­tal nature, a mas­tery of its form and its vis­ion­ary con­ceit is, in micro­cosm, the mas­tery of Blake.
Izak Bouwer and Paul McNally, ‘The Men­tal Trav­el­ler’ and Man’s Etern­al Jour­ney1

But there’s danger in even think­ing of sum­mar­ising or com­press­ing Blake, whose com­plex­ity and appar­ent obscur­ity do not indic­ate a fail­ure to achieve the kind of trans­par­ency required of a region­al news report­er, but are delib­er­ate rhet­or­ic­al ges­tures. His work embod­ies mul­tiple per­spect­ives, and uses many voices as part of its fab­ric, which is why all attempts to date to neatly dis­til his sys­tem into a story have pro­duced only shad­ows and projections.

Blake fam­ously sought to cre­ate his own ‘sys­tem’, so as not to “be enslav’d by anoth­er Mans”. But in the next line after say­ing this, he adds, “I will not Reas­on & Com­pare: my busi­ness is to Cre­ate”.2 This is a key clue, usu­ally ignored: Blake’s ‘sys­tem’ is not a sys­tem on a par with oth­er sys­tems. It is unreas­on­able and unsys­tem­at­ic. The myth itself is the art, not just the pic­tures and the texts that dress it up. Blake’s myths line up as stor­ies, but they each also “open up with­in into immens­ity”. His myths aren’t a coded way of trans­mit­ting a stable doc­trine, but portals into the spir­itu­al uni­verse of Blake’s ima­gin­a­tion, a view of the ima­gin­at­ive body of Christ, in which the char­ac­ters (Orc, Urizen, Vala, Enithar­mon and the rest) all have their say, yet rarely can they be assumed to speak on Blake’s behalf (not even Los, an occa­sion­al cipher for Blake as an artist).

The res­ult is that The Men­tal Trav­el­ler can func­tion as a sort of over­clocked con­trap­tion for show­ing its read­er what they most need to see. And that is why it was intriguing to think of Iain  Sin­clair lean­ing into it to tell the Blake Soci­ety what he found there, and how it had led him finally to write his latest book, The Gold Machine.

The Gold Machine

Sin­clair has long been Lon­don’s psy­cho­geo­graph­er-in-chief, comb­ing the city against the grain and sound­ing its depths so his read­ers might exper­i­ence it anew, often sens­ing it shud­der into life in his hands as it gives up its secrets. He haunts lim­nal spaces and times out of joint, all the bet­ter to evoke those mar­gin­al people driv­en and drawn to the edges by history—the ‘can­celled classes’, bohemi­ans, and oth­er peri­pat­et­ics, drift­ers, dream­ers and losers. Hav­ing carved out this space on the back of his engage­ment with the counter cul­ture (record­ing Gins­berg for his 1967 film Ah! Sun­flower) and rad­ic­al poetry (edit­ing the col­lec­tion, Con­duct­ors of Chaos), Sin­clair has pur­sued, tracked and wor­ried Lon­don to bits in works such as Lights Out for the Ter­rit­ory (1997), Lon­don Orbit­al (2002), Hack­ney, That Rose-Red Empire (2010), and The Last Lon­don (2017), among many oth­er stud­ies and essays, and some remark­able col­lab­or­a­tions with Andrew Kot­ting, Marc Atkins, Bri­an Cat­ling and Alan Moore, among others.

‚Giv­en this, it was a sur­prise to learn that he was going to dust off his pass­port for his next book, involving no less than a trip to the cloud moun­tains of Peru, into the head­wa­ters of the Amazon, on the trail of his great-grand­fath­er, Arthur Sin­clair. Sin­clair Seni­or had set off down the Rio Per­ené to scout the ter­rit­ory in 1891 on behalf of the Per­uvi­an Devel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion, using his botan­ic­al know­ledge to sniff out invest­ment oppor­tun­it­ies. But if you were wor­ried that Sin­clair might be about to cash in his psy­cho­geo­graph­ic­al chips in favour of some more taste­ful, main­stream travel writ­ing, you can stand at ease: the res­ult is as packed as ever with his con­jur­a­tions about mar­gin­al­ity and loss, the demon­ic face of power and the ways in which people are bent—or bend themselves—around it. He mobil­ises his char­ac­ter­ist­ic machine of double takes and dop­pel­gängers, sym­metry, entan­gle­ment and recur­sion, false mir­rors, secret com­part­ments, masks, syn­chron­icity and object­ive chance. And there is no slack­en­ing of his power as a writer either. Who else could have made such a tasty meal of this descrip­tion of din­ner in a nat­ive village?

Lucho… went early to mar­ket and chose an adven­tur­ous range of pre­his­tor­ic mud creatures, all bone and spine, along with address­ing of open-mouthed piran­has show­ing of a ric­tus of needle teeth. The fish shimmered on a rusty grille. They made good smoke, keep­ing vil­la­gers, still occu­pied at a dis­tance, informed about the pro­gress of the meal.

Entitled diners, emer­ging from nowhere, took their places at a table set up in the shack. They received, with nods of appre­ci­ation, deep bowls of thin salty broth in which floated the skel­et­ons of the ancient fish, revived by a potent brew of herbs and veget­ables, and on the point of return­ing to life. After the soup had been gargled and gulped, with com­pan­ion­able lip-lick­ing rel­ish, social dia­logue can begin. A spill­ing plat­ter of guinea pig in pea­nut sauce was reserved for Lucho’s driver, a man from anoth­er place. With a status, through his role in our guides entour­age, closer to that of a time per­son. The broiled guinea pig winks in col­lu­sion on his couch of sticky rice.

That the Per­uvi­an Devel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion was based in the City of Lon­don indic­ates a key point of con­tinu­ity. Sin­clair may have broken phys­ic­ally out of the magic circle that bound him to the M25, wan­der­ing about it like some bon­sai Odys­seus, but set free of it in Peru, he deftly con­nects the his­tory of the older Sin­clair’s exped­i­tion back to the work­ings of the City, in the form of the Cor­por­a­tion. Lon­don cit­izen Joseph Con­rad is invoked, and his depic­tion of colo­ni­al psy­cho­logy laid over events, as is the Amer­ic­an poet Charles Olson (whose poem, The Gold Machine, lends its title), Henry James, Céline, Rim­baud, and host of oth­ers all long at home in Sin­clair’s oth­er books.

Farne wants to heal the tear in the mor­al fab­ric of things her ancest­or had prised open, even if only by a fraction

Along­side Sin­clair on the exped­i­tion was the film­maker Grant Gee, Sin­clair’s daugh­ter, Farne (who has cre­ated a series of pod­casts doc­u­ment­ing the exped­i­tion), and a shad­owy char­ac­ter, The Advoc­ate (like Satan?), con­trib­ut­ing from afar, altern­ately prod­ding Sin­clair on or urging cau­tion, through let­ters and emails. They are led by the loc­al guide, Lucho (“a short power­ful man of the moun­tains… the brujo of adven­ture tour­ism”), who is a vocal and ener­get­ic enthu­si­ast for the poten­tial of cul­ture-tour­ism to trans­form the lives of loc­al people for the bet­ter. Farne is driv­en by a mis­sion to provide clos­ure, bring­ing with her hitherto unknown documents—contracts between the Per­uvi­an Devel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion and vari­ous Per­uvi­an agen­cies, includ­ing the government—that helped under­pin the bru­tal exploit­a­tion of the land and its nat­ive people alike, hop­ing thereby to provide relief of sorts to the people her ancest­or was instru­ment­al in undo­ing, by show­ing them how it was done. In this way, Farne wants to heal the tear in the mor­al fab­ric of things her ancest­or had prised open, even if only by a fraction.

Arthur Sin­clair

The raw mater­i­al of the book traces Arthur Sin­clair’s pro­gress: com­ing from a fam­ily ruined by the High­land Clear­ances, leav­ing school (where he had been taught knit­ting) at the age of ten, he takes cas­u­al work and edu­cates him­self as a bot­an­ist. He then lever­ages his know­ledge of hor­ti­cul­ture to become an agent of investors seek­ing the richest pick­ings to be squeezed from Empire. He takes a ship to Peru, then sets out from the cap­it­al, Lima, head­ing east for the Per­ené river to take him into uncharted forests and the lands of the Ash­aninka people, places where very few Per­uvi­ans them­selves had ever been. We hear his voice through the art­icles he wrote for news­pa­pers at home, paint­ing his adven­ture in terms of the cer­tain­ties of Empire about the bene­fits of civil­isa­tion. He cham­pi­ons the imper­at­ive for the ‘rig­or­ous and sci­entif­ic’ exploit­a­tion of nat­ur­al resources wherever they are (‘for the bene­fit of all man­kind’), and the con­sequent neces­sity for the indi­gen­ous people who had lived among these ‘resources’ at least to make way for this imper­at­ive, if they can­not be made to sub­mit to it entirely by provid­ing its labour power.

As a res­ult of Arthur’s efforts, invest­ment in the devel­op­ment of cof­fee plant­a­tions and the infra­struc­ture to sup­port them went ahead, and the Ashininka were ploughed under. As a people, they were reduced to debt peonage—slavery—working on the cor­por­ate cof­fee plant­a­tions or build­ing the infra­struc­ture to sup­port them, or else they were forced deep­er into the cloud forest by the bow wave of approach­ing cap­it­al. One way or the oth­er, they were preyed upon by adven­tur­ers, spec­u­lat­ors, con-men, child-snatch­ing mis­sion­ar­ies and oth­er assor­ted oppor­tun­ists. Their exist­ence as a culture—their beliefs and way of life—was ruined, even though they as a people con­tin­ue to exist, for the bene­fit of the tour­ist trade, shrouded in a haze of legend.

The irony that this son of the High­land Clear­ances ends up lay­ing the grounds for vis­it­ing the same pro­cess of state-sanc­tioned despoil­a­tion on Peru, is not only not lost on Sin­clair, but is exactly the type of cor­res­pond­ence, the elab­or­a­tion of which is at the heart of his work. He traces such echoes and sym­met­ries until they call back and forth to one anoth­er. Sin­clair and his fel­low exped­i­tion­ar­ies are pic­tured as aim­ing some­how to mit­ig­ate the impact of colo­ni­al­ism by flush­ing it out into the light. At the same time, Sin­clair is aware that the exped­i­tion involves its own modes of exploit­a­tion of the Ash­aninka, and extends the injur­ies inflic­ted by his ancest­or as much as it exposes them (“We come as thieves, dis­guised with gifts”). It is cul­tur­al exploit­a­tion in a dif­fer­ent register, but it is exploit­a­tion all the same, albeit not on the scale of the recent cur­rent large-scale influx of Ayahuasca tourists.

The Image Vine: Anywhere Leads Everywhere

For all of the dead ends and tribu­la­tions of the jour­ney down­river, the route is straight­for­ward com­pared to the con­vo­lu­tions of Sin­clair’s telling. He speaks of Bur­roughs’ idea of the ‘image vine’:

Over the com­ing dec­ades he defines his the­ory of the image vine: how one image placed next to any oth­er in a twis­ted DNA chain, snap­shots taped to the peel­ing wall of the latest flop, pro­poses a nar­rat­ive. Any­where leads to every­where. Like the word, the image is a virus.

Sin­clair’s prose weaves an image vine every bit as dense as the vines of the forests he passes through. It is fractal in the way it draws on lay­ers of his­tory, geo­graphy and the poet­ic ima­gin­a­tion to pro­pose a con­crete image of the derange­ment of things. Facts (“the pro­jectiles of ori­gin­al schol­ar­ship”) are duly arraigned and inter­rog­ated. Con­rad’s exper­i­ence as a pilot, and his sub­sequent nov­els; Gins­berg and Bur­roughs trekking across Peru, Panama, Ecuador and Chile in pur­suit of Yage, and Bur­rough’s med­it­a­tions on the cyn­icism of the cor­por­ate exploit­a­tion of the indi­gen­ous sci­ence (The Yage Let­ters); the ‘met­eor that was Rim­baud’, pour­ing him­self through the escape hatch to live as a guide and gun run­ner in Yemen and Abyssin­ia: all of this is set to work build­ing a hall of mir­rors in which his­tory is trapped. This hall of mir­rors, while it is a shad­ow­play cre­ated by Sin­clair, is not a fic­tion, but evokes the real­it­ies of colo­ni­al­ism and per­son­al folly alike. His images, plucked from across the vast range of his read­ing and his exper­i­ence, serve to cap­ture an actu­al­ity: if “any­where leads to every­where”, then every­where leads back here. He puts fic­tion to work in the pur­suit of truth.

The story of The Gold Machine is largely the story of people har­nessed to empire. But, as Sin­clair com­men­ted in his talk to the Blake Soci­ety, while he pro­jects the destruct­ive side of his ancest­or’s pro­ject, and of colo­ni­al­ism in gen­er­al, he is alive to oth­er, more tender aspects: the vis­ion side of it was equally strong. I would­n’t deny that.” The course of his­tory, for all its neces­sity, is medi­ated by people who are not one-sided; it is built of dreams as much as night­mares. But, while his­tory is pro­pelled toward the future in pur­suit of such dreams, it is exper­i­enced and remembered as a chain of catastrophes.

The Weary Traveller Revived

In his talk about the influ­ence of The Men­tal Trav­el­ler on his work, Sin­clair addressed oth­er Blake poems that have stirred him: The Sick Rose, and Ah! Sun-flower, in par­tic­u­lar. It was hard not to won­der wheth­er he wor­ried that per­haps he too was weary­ing, shar­ing the anti­cip­a­tion of the sun-flower, who “countest the steps of the Sun / Seek­ing after that sweet golden clime / Where the trav­el­ler­’s jour­ney is done.” 

Sim­il­arly, while ‘the Gold Machine’ fig­ures in his book largely as an pro­jec­ted and ima­gin­ary engine of wealth, draw­ing the colo­ni­al trav­el­ler on into the mad­ness of ‘the heart of dark­ness’, Sin­clair’s dis­cus­sion of Charles Olson leads one to sus­pect he may even be anxious about his own poet­ic stam­ina. He quotes Tom Clarke on the later Olson: “the alchemy of cre­ation was escap­ing him… Most of all he feared the loss of his essen­tial powers, the pre­cious ‘Gold mak­ing machine ‘in which his poetry was fused.” If that is the case, on the present evid­ence, he has­n’t much to worry about.

From the River to the Sea

Soft Morn­ing City! Lsp! I Am Leafy Speaf­ing
Fin­neg­ans Wake

When I heard that Sin­clair would talk about his work in rela­tion to The Men­tal Trav­el­ler, I assumed he would address the ques­tion that vexes Blake schol­ars as to wheth­er the poem expresses a cyc­lic­al view of his­tory (like the Ved­ic idea of the four-bil­lion-year cos­mic cycle of the kalpa, the day of Brahma, and the ter­restri­al cycles of the divya yugas with­in that, from which Niet­z­sche derived his law of etern­al return). He did not, which is a shame, because I sense an affin­ity between Blake’s view of myth­ic his­tory and Sin­clair’s story-telling structures.

Blake cer­tainly had some­thing like this in mind. He begins the poem with “the boy born in joy”, who is then nailed down upon the rock by “a Woman Old”. The boy grows until “he becomes a bleed­ing youth / And she becomes a Vir­gin bright”. The boy then rapes the woman, as he “rends up his man­acles / And binds her down for his delight.” He then starts to age, becom­ing an “aged Shad­ow”, and “soon he fades”. But then, “A little Female Babe does spring”, who is “all of sol­id fire”. The female grows, and selects a hus­band. But the hus­band then grows young­er, while wife ages, “Til he becomes a way­ward Babe / And she a weep­ing Woman Old.” We are back at the start of the cycle; Blake says in the final lines that “She nails him down upon the Rock / And all is done as I have told.“3—a ricorso almost as bold as that of Anna Livia Plu­ra­belle at the end of Fin­neg­ans Wake.

The Men­tal Trav­el­ler is gen­er­ally under­stood to con­sti­tute a retell­ing of the ‘Orc cycle’, in which Orc is born as the spir­it of free­dom, is bound and tor­tured, but breaks free, only to suc­cumb again as he  trans­forms into Urizen, the dis­mal ‘Nobodaddy’ of author­ity, cen­sure and blame:

The poem… describes a cycle, and while the cycle is not exclus­ively the cycle of his­tory, the lat­ter is the cent­ral form of it. Here the infant Orc begins as a rock-bound Pro­meth­eus in sub­jec­tion to an old woman. At puberty, he tears loose from the rock and cop­u­lates with the old woman, who grows young­er as he grows older, and becomes his wife or eman­a­tion. As Orc declines, his ima­gin­at­ive achieve­ments are com­pleted into a single form or ‘female Babe’… Here the male prin­ciple tends to become young­er and the female more aggress­ive and mater­nal. Orc, now Urizen, dies a seed’s death as the world becomes a ‘dark desert all around ‘, and even­tu­ally re-enters the world of gen­er­a­tion as a reborn Orc.
Northrop Frye, Fear­ful Sym­metry: A Study of Wil­li­am Blake4

How­ever, while Frye him­self nev­er stooped so low, such a read­ing poten­tially con­fuses the husk of Blake’s sys­tem for its mar­row, which then becomes a wretched tale of how the fire of insur­rec­tion inev­it­ably sinks into the sea of reac­tion. This is the view of the bore who tells you that ‘every­one even­tu­ally sells out’, and there’s noth­ing to be done about it. But, in Blake’s vis­ion, the cycles are not strung out on a line like the beads of a neck­lace, rather they are knot­ted as thick as Amazo­ni­an vines, stacked one inside the oth­er like Rus­si­an dolls, and woven togeth­er like the threads of a ship’s hawser: in any case, they are not examples of the sort of iron neces­sity favoured by Urizen..

Upstream by Recirculation

James Joyce imbibed Blake along­side his read­ing of Giam­batista Vico, who had his own idea of the ‘ricorso’, or return of his­tory. He dis­agreed with Vico’s idea that such cycles were mark­ers in his­tory, using them instead as a frame­work around which to wrap his tale (speak­ing of Vico, he told Padra­ic Colum, “I use his cycles like a trel­lis”), while also knit­ting the tale itself out of end­less vari­ations on dif­fer­ent aspects of the cycle. In Joyce, the same ele­ments reappear in the story in dif­fer­ent registers (Ulysses sail­ing around the coast of the Medi­ter­ranean, Leo­pold Bloom wan­der­ing the streets of Dub­lin), mul­ti­plied end­lessly. The same could be said of Blake’s use of the Orc cycle. What Joyce finds in Blake, and puts to work in Ulysses and Fin­neg­ans Wake, is the same poly-vocal­ity, recur­sion and repe­ti­tion that struc­tures Blake’s prophecies.

The res­ult, in both cases, is to intro­duce a new kind of authori­al tact. The read­er nev­er becomes the bene­fi­ciary of some mor­al or polit­ic­al ser­mon, but instead is drawn in toward shar­ing the vis­ion that inspired the author. The intent is anarch­ist­ic, to allow the read­er to find their own way in rather than being led by the nose, which nev­er works any­way, as it requires noth­ing from the read­er bey­ond being impressionable.

My point, nat­ur­ally, is that all this is also true of Sin­clair’s writ­ing. He plumbs the depth of places in order to flush out their ghosts and echoes, to show them both as they are bound up in the moment, and yet also time­less, archetyp­al. As with Joyce, he looks bey­ond the events them­selves to see the under­ly­ing arche­types, of which events are only the shad­ows. In The Gold Machine, it is heart­en­ing to see him still pad­dling his canoe in these waters, still mak­ing his way upstream, toward the source—the one, true Gold Machine of the ima­gin­a­tion, and divine vision,

Andy Wilson
Lon­don
2021-09-25

Iain Sinclair: Blake’s Mental Traveller and The Gold Machine

Talk giv­en to The Blake Soci­ety, 15th Sep 2021.

[Respond­ing to the chair’s intro­duc­tion] Thank you for your very gen­er­ous and inspir­ing intro­duc­tion. I almost feel I should go back and read some of these books! It was intriguing to hear them posi­tioned because that’s what I’d like to do now. You men­tioned The Men­tal Trav­el­ler, which hit me as a four­teen or fif­teen-year-old, and in a way that I did­n’t under­stand then, but I respon­ded to. I think this is the most sig­ni­fic­ant thing to do with poetry: you do not need to under­stand, but you need to exper­i­ence it. And through that exper­i­ence, even­tu­ally, hope­fully, you will under­stand in a new way, because all of your life flows into these mark­ers that you pick up at an early stage and of the many Blake poems that were around this par­tic­u­lar one, mis­un­der­stood but inspir­ing, set up everything that I was going to do.

This is from the Pick­er­ing Manuscript.

The Men­tal Trav­el­ler
I trav­elled through a Land of Men
a land of Men & Women too
And heard & saw such dread­ful things
As cold earth wan­der­ers nev­er knew

What I dis­covered from that, and what became the map of everything that I would do sub­sequently, is con­tained in three ele­ments: shape, move­ment, and place. These are the ele­ments of the poetry that meant most to me. Shape is inter­est­ing. I don’t mean that in the sense of typo­graph­ic­al design—this was a hand­writ­ten poem. Blake was a mar­vel­lous shaper onto the page. The mar­gins of his pages are alive with images and illus­tra­tions, so that often the script is hard to see. But what I felt with this poem when I looked at it was that it was a kind of column that was pinched and squeezed as if by some grow­ing vine that wrapped itself around it, which later would reveal itself to be a DNA spiral.

My travels were held back by the grav­ity of Lon­don to its fringes

It’s the most mys­ter­i­ous poem, and a cyc­lic poem. The ele­ment that gets me first in terms of its shape is this idea that Blake him­self had of open­ing your­self up to a kind of genet­ic pos­ses­sion, in the way that he did with Milton. When he was at Felpham he sees the star of Milton’s laser tal­ent pier­cing his heel, allow­ing him to then engage with and even remake Milton’s great Para­dise poem. I’m not say­ing that any­thing that I did was even remotely the same level, but it was a sense of just open­ing up a series of genet­ic exchanges with the poem, let­ting the poem begin to wrap like a vine and squeeze on my spine and become part of the sys­tem that was a single man, but would become also part of a sys­tem of that man, try­ing to under­stand and move through a city.

The poem had all of those qual­it­ies, the ostens­ible explan­a­tion of the poem, which is quite con­vin­cingly argued by Foster Damon, is that it’s a sort of allegory of liberty and revolu­tion, and that they have a shift­ing engage­ment with each oth­er, between male and female ele­ments. And all of that stands up pretty well, but it does­n’t, to me, get to the ulti­mate fire sources of the poem, which seemed to be a huge sexu­al, polit­ic­al inter­twin­ing, a sort of Jungi­an argu­ment that is haunt­ing in all kinds of ways. Blake goes on;

For there the Babe is born in joy

This could be a ver­sion of Orc, the revolu­tion­ary anim­us of the city.

That was begot­ten in dire woe
Just as we Reap in joy the fruit.
Which we in bit­ter tears did sow

But when we go on from that into the next sec­tion, this is when I began to see glim­mer­ings of some kind of future illumination.

And if the Babe was born a boy
He’s giv­en to a Woman Old
Who nails him down upon a rock
Catches his shrieks in Cups of gold

The gold is a glint. It’s a vein that’s run­ning through the poem.

Her fin­gers num­ber every nerve
just as a Miser counts his gold

I think there is an under­ly­ing meta­phor of alchemy with­in this. Through cyc­lic repe­ti­tion, through a pro­cess that will emerge in a sense, tak­ing you on the Homer­ic jour­ney to com­plete and to come back to where you were at the begin­ning, but to have had all of your molecules rearranged, your intel­li­gence fired, your veins throb­bing. You are a new entity by the time you come to the end of it.

And the idea of the jour­ney, the move­ment, was very import­ant to me. It is the very first ele­ment of being a trav­el­ler. That sight that’s offered up at the begin­ning of the poem. It was, I saw, a fam­ily tra­di­tion that was haunt­ing me. And I had­n’t been able to deal with it. The only fam­ily records I had on my father­’s side of the fam­ily was of a great-grand­fath­er who had grown up in the High­lands, inland from Aber­deen, in a very impov­er­ished vil­lage. His fam­ily were in a bad place after the Jac­ob­ite upris­ing, as a res­ult of the land enclos­ures, and he was forced to leave school at the age of ten and, as he put it, he com­menced his edu­ca­tion, becom­ing a world trav­el­ler. Because a sort of con­di­tion of Scot­tish­ness was to be at home every­where except in Scotland.

In 1856 my great-grand­fath­er left Eng­land on a four-and-a-half month jour­ney by sea to get to Ceylon, as it was then known, where he becomes some­thing of an expert on plant­ing and grow­ing and soil con­di­tions. And he works there until he’s forty and then thinks he has enough put aside to return to Scot­land to become a writer. And so this germ of hav­ing to write was with me. And the second germ, of hav­ing to travel and roam end­lessly, was com­pletely scaled down. I was nev­er a world trav­el­ler in the way that my great-grand­fath­er was, or even my grand­fath­er, who, as a young man, was a ship’s doc­tor. My travels were held back by the grav­ity of Lon­don to its fringes, but nev­er­the­less, in a sort of com­ic way, hack­ing down the A13 became like push­ing down the Amazon in this book I was read­ing. And at the back of it all again, is this under­ly­ing image that some­thing there in The Men­tal Trav­el­ler is a kind of map of how to chart my own inspir­a­tions and the way I should work.

It was the Rosicru­cian rose. It was the rose of the Enlight­en­ment that was being chal­lenged and picked at

Earli­er on, before this par­tic­u­lar poem set everything up for me, the only Blake I knew were lines from Songs of Inno­cence and Exper­i­ence. Obvi­ously The Tyger’s idea of ‘fear­ful sym­metry’ fits nicely with this idea of shape, which I see essen­tial to all of this. And also move­ment, inas­much as Blake’s tiger felt like a Dou­ani­er Rousseau tiger. It felt, in Blake’s draw­ing, as if it was some­thing that would emerge from the plant house in Kew Gar­dens and move on a tra­ject­ory into the indus­tri­al­ised Lon­don of Lam­beth, and into the river. So there is always the sense of move­ment. So there was The Tyger and, most haunt­ing, was The Sick Rose, which I asso­ci­ated very closely with the poet who was geo­graph­ic­ally closest to me and who I read most intensely at that time, who was Dylan Thomas:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my des­troy­er.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

That to me was very remin­is­cent of, and echo­ing on and draw­ing on, Blake’s The Sick Rose:

O Rose thou art sick.
The invis­ible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howl­ing storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crim­son joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Those two, not quite nurs­ery songs, but songs, infilt­rated me. And they were there on a dif­fer­ent level, in a dif­fer­ent place, to The Men­tal Trav­el­ler, but they kept com­ing back. They were almost a rhythm of walk­ing. Oh Rose thou art sick: every time I felt ill, that came into my head. It was the Rosicru­cian rose. It was the rose of the Enlight­en­ment that was being chal­lenged and picked at, as well as being a proph­ecy of the sense of eco­lo­gic­al doom that was haunt­ing us already.

The third poem of that group that was in my head early on was Ah! Sun-flower. This really opened the gate. I love the way that Blake’s title is ‘Ah’, with an exclam­a­tion, and ‘sun-flower’ with a hyphen. It’s a sun flower, a flower of the sun.

It’s much more than it appears to be:

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seek­ing after that sweet golden clime
Where the trav­el­lers jour­ney is done.

“Sun-flower, weary of time / who countest of the steps of the sun”. All of that helped make the situ­ation ripe when in 1967 — I’ve men­tioned this many times, but it’s, it’s import­ant to me and to what I am try­ing to say now — there was the pres­ence of Allen Gins­burg, who was a great Blakean, in Lon­don for the con­gress of the Dia­lectics of Lib­er­a­tion, and the chance I had to make my first doc­u­ment­ary film, enga­ging with him, and, most import­antly, spend­ing a morn­ing sit­ting on top of Prim­rose Hill with this poet who was wear­ing this bright red silk shirt that had been hand-painted by Paul McCart­ney, and him feel­ing that this was a moment of ener­gies open­ing up in Eng­land. And not only that, but sit­ting on the top of the hill, there was this won­der­ful pan­or­ama of the city.

Allen Gins­berg

We sat there and he remembered Henry Crabb Robin­son say­ing he’d seen Blake as a spir­itu­al sun on top of Prim­rose Hill, and Harry Fain­light, the poet, came along and joined him at that moment. And Gins­burg was very taken with the new struc­ture of the Post Office Tower, which he called a sort of ‘thorned tower’. And the shape of that tower is a bit like the shape of The Men­tal Trav­el­ler. He did­n’t real­ise, I think—and I did­n’t men­tion it—that Rim­baud and Ver­laine had shared a room right at the foot of where the Post Office Tower is now. But I think he saw it as a kind of a com­bin­a­tion of a radio energy — almost anti­cip­at­ing the world of the inter­net, the ulti­mate series of inter­con­nec­tions — and at the same time as a kind of phal­lic monu­ment, maybe a phal­lic monu­ment to Rim­baud and the image of that thorned tower, as he described it, moved across into one of his most Blakean poems, which was Wales Vis­it­a­tion, when in the middle of our film­ing, he took him­self off to Llanthony Abbey in Wales, which I will come to write about some­time later, and went to the top of the hill and had an ecstat­ic LSD vis­ion, in which he describes this float­ing, mys­tic, lamb‑y land­scape in Blakean terms.

But what was most import­ant to him was his vis­ion when he lived alone in East Har­lem before this, and he heard the voice of Wil­li­am Blake recit­ing the poem, Ah! Sun-flower, which led him into a peri­od of intense read­ing of Blake and, intriguingly, enga­ging with Eng­lish poets, some of whom were in New York, where he met the poet, George Bark­er, and later in Par­is he met Don Mor­aes. Both of these had first been pub­lished by Dav­id Arch­er, a great pat­ron of poets, who ran Par­ton Press and the Par­ton book­shop. He also pub­lished Dav­id Gascoyne and Sydney Gra­ham. Gins­burg and Corso were invited to Eng­land to go to Oxford, to read, by Don Mor­aes. And they meet in Lon­don when they are pen­ni­less on the street. They man­aged to find out where Dav­id Arch­er is, and he’s not so well off him­self at that time, but he raises some money for them.

he saw it as a kind of a com­bin­a­tion of a radio energy… and at the same time as a kind of phal­lic monument

So there’s that kind of con­nec­tion, a mys­ter­i­ous series of inter­con­nec­tions between these poets, both Amer­ic­an and Eng­lish. Gins­berg told me he was very engaged by the way that the poet George Bark­er had writ­ten in Calim­i­ter­ror, his poem in the 1930s, about Blake, and about a vis­ion of Blake on the Thames, at Son­ning, near Read­ing. Bark­er was there with his broth­er Kit, who was a paint­er. And when I researched it, I found that what they’d been read­ing, intensely, togeth­er was The Men­tal Trav­el­ler. So I man­aged to find myself a copy of Calim­i­ter­ror, which is a nice first edition—I was a book deal­er, so these things are pos­sible — and I came to read it on the instruc­tions of Allen Gins­burg. And this is an Eng­lish poem, by some­body who’s inter­ested in tra­di­tion­al ideas of shape and struc­ture, but is also being pub­lished by TS Eli­ot, and is engaged with mod­ern­ism, and who has this very authen­t­ic vis­ion of Wil­li­am Blake.

It was on Sunday the 12th April
I saw the fig­ure of Wil­li­am Blake bright and huge
Hung over the Thames at Son­ning. I had not had this.
Famil­i­ar with the spa­tial mathematic,
Acknow­ledging the ele­ment of matter,
I was acquain­ted with the make of things,
But not this. I had not acknow­ledged this.
I had not encountered prototype.

I saw Wil­li­am Blake large and bright like ambi­tion,
Abso­lute, glit­ter­ing, actu­al and gold.
I saw he had worlds and worlds in his abdo­men,
And his bos­om innu­mer­ably enpeopled with all birds.
I saw his soul like a cinema in each of his eyes,
And Sweden­borg labour­ing like a dream in his stom­ach.
I remem­ber the myrtle sprout­ing from his hand
And saw myself the minor bird on the bough.

I recog­nized the cos­mo­logy of the objects,
The con­trib­ut­ing and con­sti­tut­ing things,
Which con­tem­plated too close make a chaos,
The glor­i­ous pleth­ora, the para­dise mass, the chaos of
Glory, in which the idi­ot wanders col­lect­ing.
I recog­nized the cos­mo­logy of chaos,
Observing that the con­di­tion ren­der­ing
Chaos cos­mos is the extern­al fact.

George Bark­er

“I recog­nised the cos­mo­logy of chaos”. I mean, this, this was ringing a lot of future bells for me. When the oppor­tun­ity came up from Pic­ador books to do an antho­logy, and I sug­ges­ted an antho­logy of sig­ni­fic­ant poets of the con­tem­por­ary world, but each of these poets, or some of the poets, would also be allowed to make the con­nec­tion to the lin­eage of poets from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions who had meant most to them, and the book was called Con­duct­ors of Chaos. And I see that as a sig­ni­fic­ant ele­ment echo­ing in George Bark­er. And more than that, this line, “I saw Wil­li­am Blake, large and bright like ambi­tion / Abso­lute glit­ter­ing, actu­al and gold” — ‘abso­lute’, and ‘gold’, and ‘glit­ter­ing. There it is again, pick­ing up on me. It seems I could­n’t avoid that. And this was part of some sort of secret cod­ing, a shape that I was unpack­ing through movement.

Place was always easy. I found very early on that to write intensely about place, the very piece of ground on which you found your­self, was going to lead to move­ment, was going to lead to shape. Shape was the most dif­fi­cult for me to achieve. Place was rel­at­ively straight­for­ward. I would always find myself mov­ing on lines of energy, ley lines, whatever you want to call them, towards par­tic­u­lar places, such as the set up of the Hawks­moor churches around Lime­house, White­chapel, and on the High­way, with all of that mak­ing a pat­tern, a shape. And so, that part of it was fine. And the dis­cov­ery of how these poets had dealt with this before was all begin­ning to come together.

It’s that mar­riage of genders, the switch­ing of ages and genders that are part of this DNA spir­al, it cycles around The Men­tal Traveller

As well as George Bark­er, there is his great friend of the same peri­od, Dav­id Gascoyne, who was most notice­able for dis­cov­er­ing so much about French lit­er­at­ure, liv­ing in Par­is, help­ing to intro­duce sur­real­ism and sur­real­ist thought to Eng­land, hav­ing the most sig­ni­fic­ant, cata­stroph­ic break­downs and com­ing through to vis­ion again. I was lucky enough to know Dav­id Gascoyne in his lat­ter years, after doing a read­ing with him after he had come out of the hos­pit­al on the isle of Wight, doing a read­ing togeth­er in Essex, in Col­chester, at the uni­ver­sity, and get­ting to know him, and to pick up some­what on his sense of Lon­don as an anim­al iden­tity, as an organ­ic entity, which was the vis­ion of Gins­burg on top of Prim­rose Hill — that this whole city we were watch­ing, this pulsing city, was lit­er­ally alive. The grass was alive. The creatures in the grass were alive. The build­ings were alive. The whole sys­tem of energy was there, ini­ti­at­ing the kind of vis­ions that George Bark­er had had on the Thames. And Blake was really the engine behind so much of that. But Gascoyne, when I began to look at what he was doing in this same peri­od, by 1969 he was mov­ing toward a crisis, a sort of psychot­ic crisis, both with­in his life and with­in his writ­ing. He was read­ing so intensely in the most abstruse sources. Robert Fraser, in his bio­graphy of Dav­id Gascoyne, describes how he con­tem­plates a Gnostic inter­pret­a­tion of Gen­es­is, a neo-Blakean scen­ario, the grand res­ult in tune with mys­tic­al and sexu­al insights of our chem­ic­al sci­ence would be a golden wed­ding. The renewed mar­riage of genders would, he thought, lead to a new age, and he thought it was 1969.

It’s that mar­riage of genders, the switch­ing of ages and genders that are part of this DNA spir­al, it cycles around The Men­tal Trav­el­ler. I have at last ful­filled the pur­pose of the sur­real­ist move­ment,” he said to Pen­rose, “and have achieved super real­it­ies through under­stand­ing the full mean­ing of Blake’s vis­ion of the mar­riage of heav­en and hell, the upper mac­ro­cosm and the lower micro­cosm.” He announced his mis­sion to Lon­don. He was suf­fer­ing a crisis, a break­down. He felt that he had to tell his vis­ion to vari­ous poets, such as Kath­leen Raine, who was sym­path­et­ic but was not there in Lon­don. He decides that, as he knows that Mary Wilson, the Prime Min­ister­’s wife, was a verse writer, maybe she can under­stand what he wants to do. He intends to go to Down­ing Street but he ends up out­side Buck­ing­ham Palace. He gets arres­ted. He’s taken to Hor­ton Hos­pit­al in Epsom.

And there again, this becomes part of the shape of my own jour­ney because, when I did a walk around the M25 motor­way, some­time around the turn of the mil­len­ni­um, we vis­ited this hos­pit­al where Gascoyne had been held in 1969. And of course, this sense of the sup­posed mad­ness of the inner city was being pushed out all the time to the mar­gins, to the edge of the motor­ways. And Hor­ton Hos­pit­al had actu­ally dis­ap­peared. The streets around it at that time were full of patients who had been left as ‘care in the com­munity’, just wan­der­ing, look­ing for the places where they lived for so long. The old grave­yard of the people who had died there was being dug up and turned into a new estate.

And so the sense of a lin­eage going back in Lon­don a long way, even to Gascoyne, was being oblit­er­ated. And I began to think, there is a map, there is a pat­tern, if I can get to it. And the only way I was reach­ing for it was that, every time there was a new cycle in my own work, in which I could feel like a very old man, being caught up with the ener­gies in being put in a golden cup and drink­ing and find­ing your­self new with a new pro­ject, Blake seem to be on hand some­where, from the very earli­est poems around Lud Heat and Sui­cide Bridge. It was almost like the Gins­burg acous­tic voice, it was always there, say­ing “more, more… this is not, you haven’t reached the point of under­stand­ing what you’re begin­ning to exper­i­ence. You don’t under­stand. Find the shape, find the move­ment.”

And so the move­ment became the circ­ling of the M25, which was a very good meta­phor, and it linked up with oth­er things, oth­er pro­jects, one of which was to do with place as a fixed value, par­tic­u­larly Abney Park, the cemetery in Stoke New­ing­ton, which had nev­er quite decided wheth­er it would be a garden or a buri­al ground. I went then repeatedly. I went there first when I was an art stu­dent at the Cour­tauld Insti­tute. I was think­ing, this is all very pleas­ant, but, you know, I have a fam­ily. I can­’t afford to do this. I’m going to have to stop doing this and get back to work. And I walked up to Abney Park to think about all this and wandered around, and it was the per­fect place for it.

And it became a des­tin­a­tion. So when I star­ted a book called Lights Out for the Ter­rit­ory, which was a new way of think­ing about how to write about Lon­don, that jour­ney to Abney Park was the start. And I decided that I had to describe this V‑shape. I’m not quite sure why, but I decided I’d walk to Abney Park and then down to Green­wich Uni­ver­sity, where there was an exhib­i­tion I was sup­posed to see, and then up to Ching­ford, on the oth­er side. And I would write down in a note­book all of the graf­fiti, all of the secret writ­ings of the streets that were there in the course of this jour­ney. So there would be a book of the city, but it would declare itself, I would be more of an edit­or than a writer.

 feel the voices there are very much enga­ging with this Blakean sense of the past and present all inter­weav­ing in a won­der­ful way

And that curi­ously linked up later with The Gold Machine, which was the con­clu­sion of all of these things for me, because the title, The Gold Machine comes from a poem by Charles Olson, the Amer­ic­an poet, the Black Moun­tain poet, who wrote this long series of poems called the Max­imus Poems, that begin very much with the spe­cif­ics of place, of Gloucester, Mas­sachu­setts, of the details of the found­a­tion of that city and how the city faced out onto the great depths of the Atlantic and the under­wa­ter moun­tains and con­tin­ents that were lost, and also faced West, to the fact of Amer­ica, and Olson later came through into a more lyr­ic and cos­mo­lo­gic­al mode at the end of the poem, the poem sloughs off the weight of doc­u­ment­a­tion and moves into a Homer­ic register. And the poem The Gold Machine (which I heard him read here in Lon­don in 1967: I did­n’t know it at the time, but he had been stay­ing in the same house as Gins­burg, near Regents Park) begins.

I am the Gold Machine, and now I have trenched out, smeared, occu­pied.
with my elong­ated lens, the ugli­est pas­sage of all the V.

So the V was there. I was gradu­ally uncov­er­ing this alpha­bet. Abney Park cemetery was planted as an alpha­bet in that sort of Robert Graves, White God­dess way, in that the trees that went around the peri­met­er of the buri­al ground were in alpha­bet­ic­al order. That’s very strange and inter­est­ing as a con­ceit. But I was going back there to find the grave of Edward Cal­vert. Cal­vert, the engraver, was one of the Ancients, a friend of Samuel Palmer, and a dis­ciple of Wil­li­am Blake. He was very much taken with Blake’s engrav­ings from Vir­gil, and doing his own ver­sions, slightly more eleg­ant, slightly more soph­ist­ic­ated — as he thought — from the raw energy of Blake’s ver­sions. So I wanted to estab­lish some kind of con­tact with Cal­vert, and it proved really very dif­fi­cult to loc­ate his grave, which I did do ultimately.

And then I star­ted to read a little about Cal­vert. I found this won­der­ful story of Cal­vert and his wife going down to Shore­ham to stay with Palmer and the com­munity there, and explore the Golden Val­ley. He travels down with Wil­li­am Blake. And when they get there, because Cal­vert is mar­ried, he’s giv­en the best room to sleep in. And Blake is rather shoved out and he’s sit­ting in the water­house, smoking a pipe with Palmer­’s fath­er, while Samuel Palmer has taken the coach back to Lon­don. And Blake says, “I see Palmer com­ing towards us, walk­ing up the road,” and they say, “no, no, you can­’t see that he’s gone to Lon­don.” And a few moments later, Palmer duly walks through the door, because the coach has lost a wheel or had an acci­dent, and it’s not going to go.

there’s a mys­ter­i­ous series of inter­con­nec­tions between these poets

And this bizarre vis­ion is told by Cal­vert, who was intrigued by the pres­ence of Blake to a great extent. So much so, per­haps, that one of his own daugh­ters who died was bur­ied in Bunhill Fields, right next to where Wil­li­am Blake is bur­ied, where­as he him­self was up in Abney Park. This became the sub­ject of a sequence I’m work­ing on at the moment. I feel the voices there are very much enga­ging with this Blakean sense of the past and present all inter­weav­ing in a won­der­ful way.

And so those were the ele­ments that were there when I launched off to Peru with my daugh­ter. It did­n’t strike me imme­di­ately, but as we went on, I real­ised this was not my jour­ney, this was a jour­ney between three sys­tems of time. First of all, we had my Scot­tish great-grand­fath­er, who had seen this land­scape, which had not been explored at all by the His­pan­ic Per­uvi­ans — the people from Lima nev­er went there. This is really back­coun­try, on the banks of the Per­ené. The people are the Ash­aninka, the indi­gen­ous people. My great grand­fath­er was among the first trav­el­lers to come and sur­vey this ground. I did­n’t under­stand it at when I began to look into the backstory—it was my daugh­ter, Farne, who star­ted to do some ser­i­ous research, and dis­covered that this was on con­tract to the Per­uvi­an Cor­por­a­tion of Lon­don, who were in Lead­en­hall Street, and who had been giv­en a vast tranche of land when the Per­uvi­an gov­ern­ment reneged on their debts after the war in the Pacific, with Chile, and they handed over the rail­roads and the sil­ver mines and this massive amount of land, which they did­n’t really want, they did­n’t know what to do with it, and said, can you do some­thing with it?

And these plant­ers were sent out to see wheth­er this land was suit­able for grow­ing cof­fee. And so the ecstat­ic sense of the rich­ness of the ground, which my great-grand­fath­er por­trayed as if it was the garden of Eden discovered—the incred­ible fer­til­ity, the vari­ety of flowers and plants and fruits. The pos­sib­il­it­ies were over­whelm­ing. But the neg­at­ive side of it was that he felt, in a sort of Calvin­ist Scot­tish way, that all this must be put to good use, that the indi­gen­ous people were inno­cents but they had not made any great use of this so they should be invited to dis­ap­pear fur­ther into the forest or else to come into mod­ern­ity by work­ing on a cof­fee plant­a­tion, which was hor­rendously wrong, obvi­ously. But the vis­ion side of it was equally strong. I would­n’t deny that. So you have his vis­ion of this being an Eden­ic place.

At the back of it, there was also a sense that he’d failed when his crops had been wiped out in Ceylon. The cof­fee har­vest dis­ap­peared and he’d been fin­an­cially ruined. He took him­self to Tas­mania at the time of the gold fever. So there was a sense of scratch­ing for gold as a way out of the dif­fi­culty, which did­n’t work at all, and then return­ing to the garden. So that was his take. Then my daugh­ter­’s take was like that of the young­er woman in The Men­tal Trav­el­ler, filled with this energy and dynam­ism to get through to what had happened in the colo­ni­al peri­od and make some kind of resti­tu­tion by bring­ing back inform­a­tion about what happened to the Ash­aninka people, who did­n’t know, and show­ing them cop­ies of the con­tracts, which the gov­ern­ment had made with the Per­uvi­an Cor­por­a­tion, and the con­tracts they had made with the mis­sion­ar­ies, the Sev­enth Day Advent­ists, who were allowed to come into this land on the under­stand­ing that they would stop the nat­ive people drink­ing masato and tak­ing ayahuasca, and so on.

And so there was her energy on one side, the great-grand­fath­er on the oth­er, and myself with this poet­i­cised con­ceit of identi­fy­ing the jour­ney and the place and weav­ing the three ele­ments togeth­er. And I real­ised that this was com­pletely a ver­sion of The Men­tal Trav­el­ler. It was my own Men­tal Trav­el­ler at the end of a whole series of oth­er engage­ments and con­nec­tions with Blake along the way, and a remem­brance of George Bark­er­’s vis­ion of Blake on the Thames, upstream from Lon­don, and the Con­ra­di­an vis­ions in Lon­don of trav­el­ling out to a sort of dark­ness, and the bal­ance between the two, the way that Bark­er sees a golden, angel­ic form, and he says that Blake was not writ­ing about angels, he was an angel.

All of this began to make some kind of sense to me when I inter­viewed an old lady, Ber­tha, who was part of the river­side com­munity along the Rio Per­ené. She was ini­tially reluct­ant to talk to us, but because there was a young­er Ash­aninka woman with us, and her daugh­ter — the three gen­er­a­tions, the old lady, the young child, and a woman of middle age, togeth­er — the older woman felt she could talk. And I real­ised, even as she talked, that this was a per­fect demon­stra­tion of the equa­tion, the shape, of The Men­tal Trav­el­ler. You could see in this flick­er­ing fire­light — it was dark by the time we got there — she came out of her cor­rug­ated hut and she had a few twigs that sud­denly cre­ated this enorm­ous amount of smoke. And she was telling us essen­tially that in her youth, they had wor­shipped the fire and stone, and these gods had been set aside by the Advent­ist mis­sion­ar­ies, and a new mes­si­an­ic, white God had been imposed on them, but the ener­gies of these older gods were there. And this too was Blakean. And a most extraordin­ary thing star­ted to hap­pen: even though the fire itself was not mak­ing much smoke, it seemed that smoke was begin­ning to come out of her nos­trils. And the young child fell asleep in the smoke, and the middle woman began to chant and sing.

I’ll fin­ish by just read­ing this short pas­sage, which is the men­tal trav­el­ler amaz­ingly enter­ing the sham­an­ic world of the upper Amazon. This is a little piece of The Gold Machine. And I should say now that this is par­tic­u­larly poignant because, in the COVID epi­dem­ic, the old lady died. The vil­lage was cut off. The police sealed the area off. And sev­er­al of the older people we’ve talked to died, includ­ing an old man who had actu­ally worked on the cof­fee plant­a­tion in his youth.

“In the smoke thick­en­ing dusk, among the women, we listened to how Ber­tha talked to Vel­isa, her soft voice whis­per­ing into the heart of the fire. The old lady is seek­ing, in the flick­er­ing shad­ows, the recit­a­tion that is part of her identity.

It was awk­ward to intrude into the chor­al exchanges of the two women, but I muttered my request to my daugh­ter, Farne, and she asked Vel­isa. And Vel­isa asked Ber­tha. We had heard about the gods of fire and stone, before the com­ing of the Sev­enth-day Advent­ists who now dom­in­ated the set­tle­ment at Mar­iscal Cáceres. We heard about pil­grim­ages to the Salt Moun­tain and pil­grim­ages to the cave where the bones of the pre­tend­er, Juan San­tos Atahu­alpa (also known as a Apinka), were laid. Would Ber­tha now tell us more about this man and her own exper­i­ences of vis­it­ing the sac­red site?

Ber­tha said that her grand­moth­er had seen Apinka when he was car­ried to a cave near Kishitariki, which is now known as Mar­iscal Cáceres.

‘He was bur­ied there, togeth­er with a mass of gold, which looked like bars of soap.’

The Ash­aninka laid their cham­pi­on on a bed of gold. They brought more and more bars until the cave was half-filled. Over the gold they put the skin of a cow and then the body of Atahu­alpa. Ber­tha’s grand­moth­er showed her where the cave was to be found, but now the old lady does not remem­ber. When the cof­fee plant­a­tion was made, only the own­ers under­stood where the cave was hidden.

‘We do not know if the gold is still in the cave, or if it has been taken by those who were look­ing for it,’ Ber­tha said.

‘By Span­iards?’
‘Per­haps.’
‘By oth­ers who came later?’
‘It is possible’

‘Wherever the smoke rises, that is where Marinkama is to be found. It is the smoke of the Iron House, where machetes and cook­ing pots were forged. So it was until the old way was lost. When out­siders came, they took away the gold. It dis­ap­peared. We don’t know where Apinka’s gold is. This was what we believed until out­siders and whites came. They ended it all. My grand­moth­er told me about it. She lived in Apinka’s pres­ence when she was a child. She was in his ser­vice… Here it ends. I am more than 80 years old. My birth­day is on the twenty-fourth of August. I have six chil­dren, three girls and three boys.’

So there we were, with a real­isa­tion of where the move­ment had car­ried us, to a place that gave a shape, which was the shape of Blake’s poems, which was a mod­el for everything that followed.

Iain Sin­clair, Talk to The Blake Soci­ety
2021-09-15

Resources and References

George Bark­er, Calam­i­ter­ror (1937), Lon­don: Faber & Faber.
Wil­li­am Blake, ‘The Men­tal Trav­el­ler’, ‘The Sick Rose’, ‘Ah! Sun-flower’, in Dav­id Erd­man (ed), The Com­plete Poetry and Prose of Wil­li­am Blake (1965), New York: Ran­dom House, 1988, pp 483–486, 23, 25. Ref­er­ences to the Erd­man book in this essay are giv­en as ‘E’ fol­lowed by the page num­ber.
Robert Fraser, Night Thoughts: The Sur­real Life of the Poet Dav­id Gascoyne (2012), Oxford: OUP.
Allen Gins­berg, ‘Wales Vis­it­a­tion’, in Col­lec­ted Poems 1947–1997, New York: Har­per­Collins, 2006, pp488-490.
Allen Gins­berg, com­ments and obser­va­tions on Blake.
Farne Sin­clair, In Trop­ic­al Lands: Con­ver­sa­tions with Iain Sin­clair about The Gold Machine, Apple pod­cast.
Iain Sin­clair, The Gold Machine: In the Tracks of the Mule Dan­cers (2021), Lon­don: One­world Pub­lic­a­tions.
Iain SIn­clair, The Men­tal Trav­el­ler and The Gold Machine, The Blake Soci­ety, meet­ing 15th Sep 2021.
Dylan Thomas, ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’ (1934), from The Poems of Dylan Thomas, New York: New Dir­ec­tions Publishing. 

Notes

  1. Izak Bouwer and Paul McNally, ‘The Men­tal Trav­el­ler’ and Man’s Etern­al Jour­ney, in Blake, An Illus­trated Quarterly, Vol. 12, Issue 3, Winter 1978–79, pp184-92.
  2. Blake, Jer­u­s­alem 10:17–21. E153.
  3. Wil­li­am Blake, ‘The Men­tal Trav­el­ler’, in Dav­id Erd­man (ed), The Com­plete Poetry and Prose of Wil­li­am Blake (1965), New York: Ran­dom House, 1988, pp 483–486.
  4. Northrop Frye, Fear­ful Sym­metry: A Study of Wil­li­am Blake (1947), Prin­ceton Uni­ver­sity Press, 1990, p229.