Is it an iconic sports facility?
At the ripe age of 74, Iain Sinclair seems to have had enough. For more than 40 years, he has heroically been walking the length and breadth of London, recording his impressions and meditations in cult books such as Lights Out for the Territory that marriage to a celebrity wife has broken down and at the age of 54 he is living alone for the first time.
His new flat is in a suburb of Dublin, only a couple of miles from both his old schools. He’s trying not to look too lonely or sad. But Victor Forde is on the radio, has been occasionally on television, has written for magazines. In a small country, people know who he is. That flicker of fame makes him a target for the type of person who would otherwise bear witness to the city’s tattered margins and haunted oddities rather than its touristic highlights.
But this collection of essays is being advertised as his final reckoning – final not because of any physical infirmity so much as a sense that “London, my home for 50 years, [is] being centrifugally challenged to the point of obliteration”. As a long-term inhabitant of Hackney, it is the behemoth of recent development in neighbouring Stratford and its Olympic Park – the sheer factitious phoniness of its “iconic” sports facilities, shopping malls and play areas – that has brought his wanderings to a bitter end. Confronted with a culture of “popups, naming rights, committeebodged artworks, cash-cow academies, post-truth blogs and charity runs,” he can only fall silent in despair.
Sinclair stands in a line that stretches back to mid 19thcentury Paris and flâneurs such as Baudelaire who spent their days idling along the boulevards, observing the metropolitan parade in a spirit of sceptical detachment and aiming through their literary effusions to render a finely tuned
enjoy needling celebs on the internet from the comfort of his own computer. To be fair, Victor himself is monitoring his ex-wife’s Facebook account on his iPad.
An unpleasant fellow, Ed Fitzpatrick, comes over to the table and insists that the two men were at school together 40 years ago. He’s overweight, he’s “a black block” wearing cargo-pants shorts, a pink shirt that looks second-hand, “the slight rattle of middle-age in his voice” – and Victor realises he “hated this man, whoever he was”.
Since his first novel, The Commitments (1987), Doyle has been chronicling the lives of young working-class Dublin men, from teenage attempts to be pop stars to the onset of the cancers that beset the middle-aged. He has covered childhood in his 1993 Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and branched out into the ghosted biography sense of its ebb and flow, variety and mystery.
The tradition continues through the meanderings of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land to its post-war transformation into a branch of travel writing, pretentiously christened “psychogeography” and influentially practised by the likes of W G Sebald, Peter Ackroyd, Jonathan Raban and Will Self. Their urban hikes may be more extensive than Baudelaire’s ambles, but the principle of reflecting on the metropolitan picturesque remains the same.
Sinclair is among the most energetic and erudite of this band, his peregrinations informed by what must be constant recourse to the names and dates in Pevsner, as well as the dustier shelves of local history collections in public libraries. His antiquarian interest in arcane detail balances his vivid flights of imagination, but the prose style that results is somewhat over-egged and perhaps best consumed in small doses. No noun is left unadorned by an adjective in a vocabulary extending from “susurration” and “riparian” to “phylacteries” and “eidolons” (or should that be “eidola”?). Although
of the footballer Roy Keane. He has portrayed, in The Woman Who Walked into Doors, male violence from the point of view of the abused wife. What he has not, until now, confronted is Ireland’s most anguished subject: the sexual abuse of schoolchildren by priests and teachers.
In Smile, Ed’s opening gambit indicates where we are heading. The dialogue between the two men becomes more and more uncomfortable. Victor has no idea who his tormentor is, has no recollection of him at school, yet the man knows enough about him: who he had married, all his achievements. He seems to have been the kid nobody liked, nobody noticed, still nursing a grievance.
Ed is Victor’s opposite; coarse, undermining, bombastic, as well as self-pitying, misogynist and friendless. He is a self-evident the effect can be evocative, it can also be exhausting to the point that one wonders what he’s on about – or indeed what he’s on.
Baroque linguistic curlicues such as “A hissing puncture of breath eddies through the daisydusted grass”, or “He drinks the agitated straw of their fretful momentum” abound. People walking their dogs are “canine accompanists”. His habit of listing phenomena in staccato short sentences is an irritant. There’s nothing here for the man on the Clapham omnibus – not least because Sinclair doesn’t seem to use public transport, and has little interest in bland, leafy suburbs.
From the Olympic Park to mega-malls, Rupert Christiansen on the building boom leaving London unrecognisable
Yet one can only marvel at Sinclair’s eye for telling detail and his sense of the subtle ironies of modern London life. The smell, the texture, the din of the city is made vividly present. Here are the quirks that the rest of us pass by – the bizarre graffiti in car parks, the overheard fragments of conversation, the street cries of beggars – “sparechangeforfoodplease”. I’m a Londoner myself, and I know he gets these things brilliantly right.
failure, a builder who has brought the country to its ruin in the precrash sub-prime housing market. Victor is unable to shake him off: “I didn’t like Fitzpatrick and I still couldn’t remember him… But there was something about him
Linda Grant admires a superb depiction of a mind disordered by childhood sexual abuse Smile seems to be about survival – but it’s really about self-deception
– an expression, a rhythm – that I recognised and welcomed. That was why I was sitting there.”
It’s the nearest we get to why Victor tolerates Ed, even though he despises and comes to fear him. This remark is an early clue to what lies at the heart of this deeply uncomfortable and increasingly