Caff Masters: Iain Sinclair at The Copper Grill

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Iain Sinclair, at The Copper Grill 1999    Photo: Phil Nicholls


Iain Sinclair, Classic Cafes interview (Copper Grill 1999)

"The word 'Psychogeography' comes from DeQuincey's wanderings, slightly druggy, no pattern, mapping out the city in a dream-like state. Then with Walter Benjamin and the Situationists the term becomes more extreme, a matter of taking very conceptual decisions about the walking you would do and how you would access the city like that.

I guess the idea flourished in the 60s. I thought it was a nice little franchise that you could reinvent in the 90s. Then it became a convenient way of describing something I'd being doing for donkey years.

I was born in Wales and there's a whole culture of classic Italian cafes there. Every town had one and the owners all came from the same place in Italy. Some were prisoners of war. A lot had settled in Bridge End...they worked on farms and married Welsh girls.

There were two major families who ran the whole thing. It was partly ice cream bars and partly cafes. The only social centre in each place used to be an Italian cafe.

But I like 'bastard' cafes - mongrelised ones, with bits and pieces strategically placed and altered. The main thing for me is the food - funnily enough I'm bothered about the food - placing and position too. I pick places on the perimeter of the city. That's where I walk. I don't go through London as such.

The classic type is an Anglicized version of the Italian, serving espressos, cappuccinos in Pyrex cups...but these bastard ones, they make their own adjustments.

I don't care about the decor. Although some places like Alfredo's and Pellicci's are so wonderful that it becomes an integral element of the food. I also like comfort when you're sitting - room to spread out your papers or notebooks.

Iain Sinclair, at The Copper Grill 1999    Photo: Phil Nicholls

I saw one bastard place in West Hendon the other day, the only one open for breakfast. It looked like a Chinese takeaway with a pink plastic Buddha and a sign behind saying 'liver and bacon.' It had once been in the classic mould but had mutated. The view onto the passing traffic was superb.

I like that idea of one culture imposing its culture on top of another in bits and pieces. The kind of thing I'm looking for is these caffs that change ownership all the time. As you move out from the centre and the immigrant groups come in you get a big turnover of places: Albanian cafes, Vietnamese cafes...

My walks follow the Regent Canal. Springfield Park has a cafe which has gone through extraordinary changes through the years. The park is on the edge of the Jewish area next to the river Lea near Tottenham.

It's populated entirely with middle European voices. It grew up as a working class caff for builders. Now it's become gentrified. It has that riverside cafe feel which harks back to Edwardian notions of the river.

I've lived in Hackney since '67 and I'd always go to Pellicci's. It was just as it is now...a fine step-down establishment; lace curtains in ice-cream parlour windows, shiny vanilla portraits, mirrors and marquetry, inside...and I'd been going to Alfredo's since the late 70s when I was book dealing. I was in Camden Passage every Tuesday and Alfredo's was perfect. Cafes were important because that's where dealers could do all their real business.

The Alpino up in Chapel Market is good too - for walking to Camden along the canal through Islington. It's perfectly placed for breakfast for me before you pick up on the canal again. Plenty of room to stretch and breathe, take stock, make notes.

There's a weird place near Jeffrey Archer's flat which is in a tower block. Looks like it belongs to MI6. You have to sign a book and get a laminate. You go down these dark steps and it's done up like a full Italian cafe. Pictures of Sorrento on the wall, pillars, coffee machines...

It feels like it's bugged. The people behind the bar give the whole spiel in cod Italian too... Sirena's: English Breakfasts & Italian Specialities Black Prince Rd SW1 "The set-up was a fake. It had to be. A Secret state listening post...the atmosphere was so calm and seductive that I felt we must have been hit with anodyne spray..."

The Museum of London has got a warehouse full of this sort of reserve stuff - interiors and exteriors - they keep on three levels. Great swathes of Whitechapel are lying round on the floor.

I guess cafes and coffee took off from people buying into that whole era of French existentialist culture. It was the last time you had that leisured, dole culture of people hanging round talking.

Earlier in the 50s the cafe was pre-eminent. Soho and the start of pop and all that. But it all devolved to pubs culturally there was a moment of division there. You used to get science fiction writers like Michael Moorcock and JG Ballard meeting in these select pubs and discussing imaginative writing and Sci Fi.

If those days come back it'll be a pastiche, a parody, with people pretending to read Colin Wilson. But now the whole culture has speeded up so that people just queue to get takeaways. And it's the death of cafes. Who's going to spend days hanging out at cafes? It's gone."


Iain Sinclair & Copper Grill waitress, 1999    Photo: Phil Nicholls


Iain Sinclair Biog: Guardian, April 24 2004

... The son of a GP, [Sinclair] comes from the former mining town of Maesteg, and had his strong Welsh accent teased out of him by English boys at Cheltenham College in the 1950s. "My father's family was Scottish, disappointed Jacobites living it tough in Aberdeenshire; my mother's family mad preachers from west Wales."

A teacher lent him a copy of Kerouac's On the Road and, as a result, Sinclair steeped himself in Beat literature. By 16, he was writing film reviews, theses on Hitchcock. His fascination with cinema led him to spend nine months at the London School of Film Technique.

Then he was lured into the vortex of Dublin bohemia, seduced by the society depicted in JP Donleavy's The Ginger Man and Joycean topography. Notionally attached to Trinity College, he lived in a cheap boarding house overlooking Joyce's Martello tower in Sandycove. "I never wanted to piss my life away in a pub," he told Kevin Jackson in his book of interviews The Verbals (2002). "I really have a puritanical thing: in the morning, you get up, you write, you do your stuff, you get on."

In Dublin he made several 16mm films and wrote plays that were staged in the city's thriving small theatres, some based in garages. It was the start of a multi-media career - collaborative films and exhibitions have always since paralleled the more solitary business of writing.

Hackney proved a secure base from which to write and publish small editions of poetry from his own Albion Village Press. "There was no anxiety. Most of the stuff I have done didn't have to win anybody's approval. For me, there wasn't that question of 'How do I get published?' that seems to preoccupy writers now. I used to publish myself: £50 to print a few hundred copies."

[Now he says of the area] "I can't live in Hackney" He cites the murder of a young American artist in Victoria Park and drug-related killings on his street, the closure of the baths where he taught his three children to swim. "Nothing working, completely shot council, the banality of gradual dysfunction, the sense of the landscape becoming more intimidating."

Sinclair's imagination was fired particularly by Hawksmoor's churches, their appropriation of mystical Egyptian and other ancient civilisations and the significance of their alignments. "I thought that St Anne's, Limehouse, Christchurch Spitalfields and St George-in-the-East were outside the official nexus. Hawksmoor became for me like a mockery of the high culture of Wren and the rational sweep of London. I became interested in why each church was where it was, and how this connected with Blake and other mythologies."

Psychogeography is a talismanic term that Sinclair understands to have been cannibalised from French situationism. "For me, it's a way of psychoanalysing the psychosis of the place in which I happen to live. I'm just exploiting it because I think it's a canny way to write about London. Now it's become the name of a column by Will Self, in which he seems to walk the South Downs with a pipe, which has got absolutely nothing to do with psychogeography. There's this awful sense that you've created a monster."

"In a way I've allowed myself to become this London brand. I've become a hack on my own mythology, which fascinates me. From there on in you can either go with it or subvert it."

Devotees and critics have become familiar, often besotted, with his style - his sometimes struttingly Hemingwayesque, sometimes sinuously poetic sentences, verb-free zones, clipped gags. Literary critic James Wood called him the "demented magus of the sentence"; John Walsh suspected him of genius, writing: "He can outgun virtually any writer in England." ...




 Iain Sinclair montage: xerox images of Alfredo's cafe N1 1999


Classic Cafes | Quentin Reynolds interview

Classic Cafes | Mr Burkeman interview

Classic Cafes | Pellicci interview



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