REVIEW by Jamie HarrisNWR Issue r4
Black Apples of Gower
by Iain Sinclair
Iain Sinclair’s latest book, Black Apples of Gower
(Little Toller, 2015), marks a second attempt at a literary return for the Maesteg-raised, London-resident writer. Indeed, it would be difficult to review Black Apples
without at least making reference to his last attempt at a ‘Welsh’ book, Landor’s Tower
(Granta, 2001), and Sinclair volunteers, at the beginning of Black Apples
, his own interpretation of events following the former book’s publication, writing of the ‘justified criticism’ he faced ‘in Wales, for trying to re-establish a tentative connection with my homeland […] I had forfeited all those advantages of birth, walked away from a bankable heritage.’ Sinclair’s response to the Gower coastal path (which is closer to his own terroir
of Maesteg than Hay and the borderlands of Landor’s Tower
), is now ‘obedient to the genre of the Celtic return’, although perhaps any promises of lessons learned should be taken with a grain of salt. It is nonetheless a telling reflection, not dissimilar from Sinclair’s previous pronouncements on the folly of deviating from his London territory.
While readers of Sinclair’s work will be familiar with his frequent satirical self-representations – his sending-up of his ‘hack’ persona – in Black Apples
there are new additions to his personal canon, his previous selves: the schoolboy walking the coastal path with friends from school, the Dylan Thomas-obsessed Cambridge applicant walking to meet Vernon Watkins at Pennard, the man-child poet embarking on impossible, Blakean explorations of the caves of the Gower (choice line: ‘A signifier for that period  […] was that we set out from Port Eynon, not with a decent Ordnance Survey map but with a badly drawn copy of [William] Blake’s “Mundane Egg” diagram.’) Sinclair’s mission in Black Apples
is to explore his ‘evolving Welsh myth of origin’ by revisiting the Gower path, but not before a reappraisal of the walks already undertaken. He writes:
Arriving in Port Eynon with Anna, years after those other misremembered cliff walks, courtships and restorative escapes from London, here was an authentic return. A remaking for which the earlier attempts had been rehearsals. The morning of September 17, 2014 felt fresh and uncluttered. And new. This country had never been mine, but the persistent dream of it, a rather shop-soiled songline, held firm. Myths of origin underwrote our planned excursion by recently sanctioned coast path to Rhossili.
This ‘new’ walk delivers on its promise of authenticity, at least as far as Sinclair is willing and as his style allows. The treatment of the Welsh landscape and its inhabitants is less laden and ironic than in Landor’s Tower
; the narrative less complex. Friends and ambulatory accomplices appear less caricatured and not under the protection of pseudonyms. While Sinclair betrays hints of nostalgia for his childhood in Wales, they are frequently subsumed within the tricks and ticks still evident in his prose, the frenetic delivery, the curious deviations and side-quests. The presentation of the book is unlike anything Sinclair has produced in years (if ever): the striking Ceri Richards dust-jacket, borrowed images of Thomas and Watkins, previously exhibited photographs from the early publishing days at the helm of Albion Village Press, all presented in synchronicity with the text. Many of these reminiscences are not Sinclair’s own. Black Apples
gives voice to the memories of the Gower landscape by proxy, careful to observe and report on ‘the midden detritus of feasts by our putative ancestors, the ones who passed through these places. Before they were places.’
Ruminating further on the nature of memory, Sinclair decries the increasing reliance on gigabytes instead of the ‘memory-field’ of synapses, however age-wearied or inaccurate. He bemoans the moment his long-time collaborator and friend Brian Catling’s ‘memory was transferred to electronic devices’, and recalls a couple on the Gower path ‘flicking at competitive iPhones, and trying to call up images of the walk they had just completed.’ However, the desire to photograph and transcribe such places is so ingrained it has become a requirement: Sinclair’s own recollection of the second walk ‘can only be resurrected from a negotiation between an unsorted heap of black-and-white photographs, in which established geographical features appear in the wrong order… and full-colour stabs of memory.’ At Worm’s Head, where the Dylan Thomas phenomenon attracts an endless wave of tourists, the ritual of the ‘selfie’ even warrants a mention: ‘The new gimmick was a small camera fixed on a wand, so that intertwined lovers could star in their own movie.’
It is difficult to predict whether Black Apples
signals another direction in Sinclair’s late career renaissance or is just a momentary deviation, but it is certainly welcome and distinct. He has not shelved his London project entirely (his London Overground, A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line
came out in June, some four months before Black Apples
), but it is refreshing to see him energised by time away from it, rather than desperate to return.
In May this year, Jamie Harris
, a PhD student and tutor at the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University won the M Wynn Thomas Prize for his essay, ‘Iain Sinclair “Born in (South) Wales, 2001”’ and recently returned from a research visit to the Iain Sinclair archive at the University of Texas, Austin, which was funded by a Dissertation Fellowship awarded by that university’s Harry Ransom Centre.
previous review: The Art of Falling
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