Arts Council England is inviting poets to commemorate the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act by writing a poem on the theme of enslavement.
Iain Sinclair has lived in (and written about) Hackney, East London, since 1969. His novels include Downriver (winner of the James Tait Black Prize and the Encore Prize for the year's best second novel), Radon Daughters, Landor's Tower and, most recently, Dining on Stones (which was shortlisted for the Ondaatje prize). Non-fiction works include Lights Out for the Territory, London Orbital and Edge of the Orison. In the 90s, Iain wrote and presented a number of films for BBC2's Late Show and has subsequently co-directed four documentaries for Channel 4 with Chris Petit. One of these, Asylum, won the short film prize at the Montreal Festival. His most recent book, London, City of Disappearances, was published in October 2006.
'Yes, there is a democracy based on slavery. That's the Greek model. That works pretty well too...'
Sliding after night-storm to lose footing
on rake of wet-shingle, and stopped
by broken spar, tarry black in blood-varnish,
bitter nails of old history, so many fire-
souls, 133 they estimate, tossed overboard, chains
as ballast, mid-ocean, to wander subterranean
caves and valleys, lost among drowned mountains,
fallacious plants seducing salt-blistered tongues.
The newspaper woman sold at the station
fetched £4,500: a buyer's market.
Living with her mother and two accidental children
in a coldwater Lithuanian tower block,
offered employment abroad, a free-market choice.
Transported. Entrained. Cattled. Raped.
'On average I had sex with 15 men a day.
When trade was brisk and the itch was hot
in the dermis of the city, I could service 37 during
a single 12-hour shift. I was not much beaten.'
'It's a matter of business,' said the pimp.
'The law of supply and demand.'
'How can the giver of gifts experience the delights of the merchant?'
Geology precedes economics as the winter tide
on a chalky southern shore
reseeds naked meadow-beaches with black stone.
Dumb repetition smoothes anger, making a palliative
fiction from crimes we choose to celebrate.
The cliffs of England, vertical boneyards,
'where the ebb meets the moon-blanch'd sand',
hide lists of scoured dead, unbranded, unaccounted.
They bleed pure water and look in preserved shipping manifests
like so many maggots freighting an iron surf-board.
Edinburgh was fortunate in its geology, martial
in dirk and kirk, a craggy extrusion of volcanic basalt:
garrison, royalty, prisoners of war buried in the rock.
Into the protected tail of sandstone, they dig,
invisibles, ragged imports, the necessary
collateral damage: child labourers, hunchback women,
wageless slaves. Every bridge a den, damp cellars
like hollowed skulls candled in human tallow.
'Boys were employed to sit far underground,
guarding the fire flaps that punctuated
the long dark tunnels. Even after reforms
passed into law, the conditions in the mines
remained little changed. Money was too cheap.'
'The slaves will sell their masters and grow wings.'
Better to buy than to breed: the riderless white horse,
its sounding ribs a wind-harp,
emerges from a crystal sea. A skeleton jockey
gilded braid, cherries and tassels, incubates
revolt, raises a flaming sword to crop melon-heads,
moon faces in a cane field, strong teeth ground down
for sacred sugar. John Gabriel Steadman, a mercenary,
publishes his Narrative of a Five Years' Expedition Against
the Revolted Negroes of Surinam from the year 1772 to 1777,
and hires the journeyman engraver, William Blake of London,
to harvest the fruit of horror, flesh barbecues,
blood-succoured tropical vegetation,amateur crucifixions.
And the 'beautiful mulatto slave girl', Joanna,
the one Steadman marries, mother of his child.
Torn by a dark tarot of images, the colonist keeps a journal
of his London visit: 'Gave a sugar cruse to Mrs Blake.
The King's coach insulted. Met 300 whores in the Strand.
French prisoners come home. Abershaw &c. hang'd.
Saw a mermaid. Russian fleet down. Two days at Blake's.
Quiberon expedition fail'd. 188 emigrants executed.
Blake mobb'd and robb'd.' The working artist, enslaved by
patronage, lays the first brick of the downriver factory.
The impulse is coded within our DNA, this slippery
hawser of genetic imperatives: to invade, brutalise,
capture and explain. Secret interior tribes, our memory,
are linked, neck to neck, for pilgrimages across desert.
They follow a malarial river to a red fort, hungry surf.
Remember: 'We come out of the ground.' The grace of
their bodies as they negotiate space is future war. Jungles
migrate. Hurts multiply. Trade is the only constant.
'By the late 1820s the economic critique of slave-grown
sugar had been widely accepted.' The system didn't pay.
Better to allow open competition and let fiscal malpractice
thrive where it would. Queen Elizabeth's slave-master,
Sir John Hawkins, the pirate, founded an alms house
at Chatham that still stands. The Thames remains
a complicated flow of money, letters of credit and
trading instructions. The Port of London authority
building with its fossils and steroidal statuary now deals
in re-insurance, risk, power breakfasts. Fixed profit.
'The slaves changed,' Brian Catling wrote, in an unpublished late-surrealist novel, 'before the morals of their owners. They had transformed into other beings. Beings devoid of purpose, identity or meaning. At the beginning it was thought that their malaise was the product of their imprisonment. But it soon became clear that there was no personality left to feel and suffer such a subtlety of emotion. It was the forest itself that had devoured their memory and resurrected them as addicts to trees.'