Is it an iconic sports fa­cil­ity?

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

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

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