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Iain Sinclair on The Gold Machine: Drunken priests and fever dreams

Iain Sinclair set off for Peru to follow in the footsteps of his well-travelled great-grandfather, finding treasures in his hand-drawn map and making a documentary along the way

Illustration of Peru

Illustration: Rosie Barker

The title of my book, The Gold Machine, is borrowed from the poet Charles Olson, a major enthusiasm at the time when I started to think about how it might be possible to write about place. That place being London, specifically Limehouse and the downriver reaches where I worked as a gardener for the parks department. Olson developed a theory of ‘open field’ poetics: all evidence was equally valid and everything could be transmuted into the golden glow of a Homeric epic based around the specifics of life in a Massachusetts fishing port.

“I am the Gold Machine,” Olson wrote, “and now I have trenched out, smeared, occupied.” He was enraged by the wounds, to land and settlers, in the madness of the Californian gold rush. He would turn himself into a “gold machine”, hammering away at the keys of his portable typewriter to become an alchemist of witness.

After many years trying to understand the energies of London, with techniques derived from Olson (among others), I reached the point when I had to step away. Our sprawling, self-devouring metropolis was a conflicted harbour, a point of entry and exit to the world ocean. Meddling my way down the margins of the A13 from Aldgate Pump to Shoeburyness, I drifted, in reverie, back to my childhood and my first engagement with In Tropical Lands, a book my great-grandfather Arthur Sinclair published in 1895. Arthur, a Scottish Highlander and self-educated plantsman, shipped out to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as a very young man in order to learn about the mysteries of coffee planting. The point of departure was Tilbury, where I paused my own trek at the water’s edge. Arthur also published a brief autobiography, from which I gleaned the outline of the life of a person who wrote much as I did but whose ventures were on a far grander scale. 

Arthur left school in “a bleak country district” at the age of 10 and “began his education”. He learned all he could as a market gardener before leaving for Ceylon, where he thrived as a planter. His investments were lost when coffee harvests were devastated. He prospected for gold in Tasmania, but disliked the colonial society he found there. Approaching old age, he made one last shot at recovering his fortune by accepting an invitation to explore land along the banks of the Rio Perené, a tributary of the Amazon. The commission was received from the Peruvian Corporation of London at precisely the moment when Joseph Conrad was in Brussels signing his fated contract to take command of a trading vessel on the Congo.

I skipped through In Tropical Lands, lingering over the enticing photographs: mules cresting the Andes, the skeleton of Pizarro, an Ashanika chief and his young wife. And my great-grandfather squatting with rifle across lap on a flimsy balsa raft. He looked much as I imagined Professor Challenger in Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. And that’s how I took Arthur’s account when I first read it: drunken priests, mules dragged through cloud jungle, fever dreams. Arthur survived and published his story.

Now I had a glimmer of shamanic vision. The Ashaninka people, before the arrival of the white surveyors, swam in a plural stream. To locate an ancestor, a pilgrim must journey to a particular rock or waterfall. Among the cruel consequences of first contact was the imposition of linear time, the exploiter’s curse of “before” and “after”.

My daughter Farne’s research at Kew recovered a hidden history. After the Pacific War, Peru was in debt to the London bankers. The Peruvian Corporation, with their offices in Leadenhall Street, took over millions of acres of fertile land. Arthur’s 1891 expedition was tasked with evaluating this threatened paradise. He left us a hand-drawn map to follow. In July 2019 we arrived in Lima, determined to retrace his mule tracks as closely as possible while carrying photographs and copies of the contract with the Peruvian Corporation to present to the Ashaninka people in the villages where we stayed.

The Gold Machine by Iain Sinclair
The Gold Machine by Iain Sinclair is out now (Oneworld)

Farne said: “I want to hear the history from the point of view of the tribal people. I think our journey is a meditation on mortality.” I thought that too. I had the belief that by passing through the rapids where Arthur was forced to turn back, we’d reach the fabled “whirlpool of dead ancestors”. Arthur would be recovered, in spirit if not in person.

The real gold was spending time with my daughter who was recording our conversations for her podcast. We were accompanied by Grant Gee. He documented our journey for a project all his own. That film [also called The Gold Machine] is showing at selected venues, including London’s Curzon Soho and Hackney Picturehouse, in September.

You can buy The Gold Machine from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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