Ian Jack

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The Last Lon­don: True Fic­tions from an Un­real City by Iain Sin­clair

The Last Lon­don: True Fic­tions from an Un­real City by Iain Sin­clair. Oneworld, 324 pp., $24.99

The best view of Lon­don is to be had from the north. Tourists and na­tives, el­derly dog walk­ers, young kite-fly­ers, plump un­cles anx­ious to walk off the ef­fects of roast beef lunches: the peo­ple who make their way across Hamp­stead Heath to the top of Par­lia­ment Hill have been much the same mix­ture for as long as I re­mem­ber, but the city they have come to look at has been dra­mat­i­cally trans­formed. Fifty years ago, the Lon­don sky­line had very few ver­ti­cals. As you looked south from Par­lia­ment

Hill you saw the Post Of­fice Tower to the west, Cen­tre Point, a newly com­pleted of­fice block, to the east of it, and then, fur­ther east again, the fa­mil­iar seven­teenth-cen­tury dome of St. Paul’s Cathe­dral. Other than those pro­tu­ber­ances and a few power sta­tion chim­neys and new hous­ing blocks, the great city stretched flat and in­dis­tinct all the way from the western sub­urbs to the Es­sex marshes. To­day, tow­ers have sprung up ev­ery­where, many of them oddly shaped and at­ten­tion-seek­ing. (“Tar­get ar­chi­tec­ture. Struc­tures made to be blown apart” is how

Iain Sin­clair omi­nously de­scribes the style.) Clumps of tow­ers mark Lon­don’s two fi­nan­cial dis­tricts— the City and Ca­nary Wharf— while oth­ers march up the Thames in sin­gle file, their river views de­signed to at­tract the foot­loose cash of Asian in­vestors.

The tallest of these tow­ers by far—so high that it seems as lonely as the tower in Tolkien’s Mor­dor—is the Shard, which soars 1,016 feet and 95 sto­ries above Lon­don Bridge sta­tion and is cur­rently the tallest build­ing in Western Europe. (But not for long: two tow­ers pro­posed for La Défense in Paris will be 34 feet taller when they are com­pleted, prob­a­bly in 2024.) The Ital­ian ar­chi­tect Renzo Pi­ano de­signed the Shard, a Qatari con­sor­tium paid for it, and Tony Blair’s govern­ment gave it the go-ahead on the grounds that it promised to be of “the high­est ar­chi­tec­tural qual­ity,” de­spite con­sid­er­able op­po­si­tion from many conservation bod­ies, in­clud­ing the na­tional watch­dog for the built en­vi­ron­ment, English Her­itage. “Shard­en­freude,” writes Iain Sin­clair of the build­ing’s im­pact on Lon­don, in a stac­cato de­nun­ci­a­tion:

It as­saults you: van­ity in the form of ar­chi­tec­ture. Desert stuff in the wrong place. Money laun­der­ing as ap­plied art. An­other un­ex­plained oli­garch’s mu­seum of en­tropy for the river­bank. A gi­ant dagger serv­ing no real pur­pose: an ex­cla­ma­tion point on the Google map of an abol­ished city once called Lon­don.

Nev­er­the­less, he takes an el­e­va­tor to the fifty-sec­ond floor and swims in the high­est pool in Europe, “an infinity pond... a blue car­pet across which you can­not walk with­out sink­ing,” and re­flects on the fate of the city that for fifty years has housed him and nour­ished his imag­i­na­tion. Sin­clair is com­pletely out of sorts in a gilded tower like this; as he says, not many guests at the Shard’s swank ho­tel ar­rive “by way of a 149 bus out of Hag­ger­ston.” To him, the place “feels like an up­mar­ket Chi­nese dor­mi­tory,” with its rooms and pub­lic spa­ces filled with prop­erty in­vestors from Bei­jing and Shang­hai who buy flats in less glam­orous Lon­don lo­ca­tions a dozen at a time, off-plan, and never in­tend to set foot in them. The Shard gives them “easy ac­cess to the Thames and the ma­jor her­itage sites,” where they look com­pletely at home, like ac­tors on a fa­mil­iar set. In this ver­sion of Lon­don, Sin­clair notes, the na­tives have be­come the tourists. The Shard dis­com­bob­u­lates Lon­don­ers in other ways: by be­ing vis­i­ble from the un­like­li­est places (from my bath­room win­dow four miles away, for ex­am­ple), it has played a para­dox­i­cal trick and seemed to shrink a city that has never been big­ger—over the past seven­teen years the pop­u­la­tion has in­creased by more than 22 per­cent. Places seem closer to each other than they did be­fore. The Dan­ish town plan­ner Steen Eiler Ras­mussen first pop­u­lar­ized the idea of Lon­don as “a city of vil­lages” in the 1930s, and the de­scrip­tion long ago be­came a cliché.* But as a way of un­der­stand­ing the loy­al­ties that neigh­bor­hoods pro­voke as well their in­di­vid­ual his­to­ries, Ras­mussen’s was not a bad tool. To­day all lo­cal life is su­per­vised by a build­ing that seems to fol­low us wher­ever we go, in Sin­clair’s words, like “an im­planted flaw in the eye [that] moves as we move, avail­able to dom­i­nate ev­ery Lon­don en­try point, to end­stop ev­ery vista.”

Money didn’t re­veal it­self so brazenly when Sin­clair moved in 1968 to a house in Hag­ger­ston, a di­lap­i­dated dis­trict in the Lon­don bor­ough of Hack­ney that lies just to the north of the banks, fi­nan­cial firms, and Wren churches of the City of Lon­don. He wasn’t Lon­don born and bred. The son of a Welsh gen­eral prac­ti­tioner, he had an English pri­vate school ed­u­ca­tion fol­lowed by stud­ies at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin, the Cour­tauld In­sti­tute of Art, and the Lon­don School of Film Tech­nique (now the Lon­don Film School). He made a few small films (ac­cord­ing to a Guardian in­ter­view in 2004, it was money from an Allen Gins­berg doc­u­men­tary that paid for his Hack­ney house) and took reg­u­lar work as a teacher. But it was po­etry that most in­ter­ested him, and to find time to write it and fi­nance its pub­li­ca­tion on his own press, he quit teach­ing and took ca­sual jobs in East Lon­don. He worked as a ceme­tery gar­dener, a brew­ery la­borer, and a sec­ond­hand book dealer, among other things—the last lead­ing to sev­eral of the friend­ships and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions that ap­pear reg­u­larly in his writ­ing.

When Sin­clair be­gan to take se­ri­ous no­tice of his new sur­round­ings, Lon­don was al­ready down on its luck. Bro­kers and bankers in their bowler hats still walked briskly over the Thames bridges to the of­fice ev­ery morn­ing, but the docks that had once made Lon­don the world’s great­est port had be­gun to close, to­gether with the hun­dreds of busi­nesses that had grown up be­side them. Trade with Bri­tain’s for­mer em­pire had shrunk; con­tainer­iza­tion was in the process of mov­ing what re­mained to newer berths down­river. In 1970, it was still pos­si­ble to ram­ble through the East End and catch the oc­ca­sional sight of a fun­nel and masts or a group of In­dian sea­men gath­ered out­side a sailors’ home, but the main im­pres­sion was of clo­sure and de­cay. A ghostly place in which a lot had been for­got­ten, it de­vel­oped Sin­clair’s taste for the ec­cen­tric and ab­nor­mal—not to de­mys­tify such things, which might be the typ­i­cal re­sponse of an out­sider or a plainer kind of writer, but to re­act to them in un­ex­pected ways and make them even more mys­te­ri­ous. He be­lieved, for ex­am­ple, that the sit­ing of Ni­cholas Hawksmoor’s ex­tra­or­di­nary churches—built, like Christo­pher Wren’s, af­ter the Great Fire de­stroyed much of Lon­don in 1666—formed a pat­tern that re­flected a form of Satanism. The no­tion of ley lines at­tracted him—the con­tention that the align­ment of cer­tain man-made fea­tures in the land­scape had an an­cient spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance. The oc­cult was never far away. Mar­garet Thatcher, he told The Guardian in 2004, could only be un­der­stood “in terms of bad magic. This wicked witch who fo­cuses all the ill will in so­ci­ety... de­mon­i­cally pos­sessed by the evil forces of world pol­i­tics... a god­head to those who want to de­stroy the city’s power.”

As a play­ful way of ex­plor­ing and in­ter­pret­ing ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments, psy­cho­geog­ra­phy has a his­tory in both Eng­land and France that goes back to the 1950s and the Si­t­u­a­tion­ism of Guy De­bord, but it was Sin­clair who res­ur­rected it as a pop­u­lar, or at least a fash­ion­able, idea. Like ley lines (dis­cov­ered or in­vented in 1921), psy­cho­geog­ra­phy wasn’t de­signed to sur­vive ra­tio­nal scru­tiny, but Sin­clair was per­haps more in­ter­ested in its aes­thetic ef­fects. It added an­other di­men­sion to the com­pan­ion­ate walks that he made through (and even­tu­ally around) the city, which, when he turned from po­etry to prose, be­came the foun­da­tion of his books.

By the reck­on­ing of some Sin­clair ad­mir­ers, at least eigh­teen of those books have taken Lon­don as their sub­ject in fic­tion and nonfiction. White Chap­pell, Scar­let Trac­ings, a novel in­spired in part by the mur­ders of Jack the Rip­per, pub­lished in 1987, was the first of them. The Last Lon­don may be the last. In the years be­tween, Sin­clair has walked around the routes of Lon­don’s or­bital mo­tor­way and the re­vived rail­way that cir­cles its in­ner sub­urbs, and fol­lowed in the footsteps of the mad poet John Clare, who in 1841 ab­sconded from his in­car­cer­a­tion in a lu­natic asy­lum near the city to walk ninety miles to his ru­ral birth­place, a vil­lage near Peterborough, in the mis­taken be­lief that he had mar­ried his young sweet­heart and that she waited for him there (in fact, she was dead). These and many other ex­cur­sions have es­tab­lished Sin­clair as con­tem­po­rary Lon­don’s fore­most chron­i­cler, and also the one who is most de­mand­ing of the reader. “Sin­clairesque” is un­likely ever to have the same warm ap­peal as “Dick­en­sian” to sug­gest a way of see­ing or re­mem­ber­ing the great­est Euro­pean me­trop­o­lis.

The new book com­prises a se­ries of es­says, sev­eral of which have ap­peared in a dif­fer­ent form in pe­ri­od­i­cals such as the Lon­don Re­view of Books. Lon­don is a big and var­i­ous city, but Sin­clair never pre­tends to know all of it. In these pieces, he goes to the perime­ter—as far south as Croy­don, as far east as Til­bury, as far north as Hamp­stead, and as far west as Willes­den—but only fleet­ingly. He never seems to feel com­fort­able or ter­ri­bly in­ter­ested in these

places—nor, you sus­pect, would he be in May­fair, Hol­land Park, or Pin­ner, or any­where else that com­mands high rents or where more mod­est homes have neat front lawns and garages. The heart of the book lies where the writer’s heart also lay un­til re­cently: in the tired old streets of Hag­ger­ston, Hox­ton, and Shored­itch that fash­ion and money have trans­formed since Sin­clair went to live there fifty years ago. “It’s great to be where it’s hap­pen­ing, be­fore it ac­tu­ally is,” he writes at one point, aware that his own pres­ence in the quartier has helped bring about the change. He can be a won­der­ful ob­server, a spot-on imag­ist of the ur­ban scene. It helps to re­mem­ber that he be­gan as a poet. “Rain was straf­ing the pave­ments,” he writes of the wet and windy Novem­ber morn­ing when news of Don­ald Trump’s likely vic­tory came through. A cell phone is a “glint­ing wafer.” Feel­ing the near weight­less­ness of a slen­der rac­ing bike, he de­cides it must be “like rid­ing on an idea, a line draw­ing.” A high fence around a build­ing site, hung with im­ages of the de­vel­op­ment to come, is “bril­liant with pre­dic­tions.” On a rare ex­cur­sion west­ward—to Eus­ton—he re­mem­bers the “brown stud­ies” of the early-twen­ti­eth­cen­tury painter Wal­ter Sick­ert, who in this grubby dis­trict

ex­posed sag­ging flesh be­hind heavy cur­tains, cratered goose­feather mat­tresses, dead-cigar Sun­day after­noon en­nui af­ter laboured coitus in rented rail­side prop­er­ties, and the un­lanced boil of the shrouded sun dy­ing in dirty win­dows.

For years, the lead­ing fea­ture of Shored­itch was an aban­doned rail­way freight yard that was en­tered through or­nate Vic­to­rian gates. It hadn’t seen a train since the early 1960s; my mem­ory of it from the 1980s is of Sun­day mar­ket stalls that sold cheap old clothes and piles of dried pigs’ ears as pet food. Then, as the cen­ter of youth­ful con­sump­tion moved east, Shored­itch be­gan “to im­plode with cool.” Sin­clair’s con­tempt for what now oc­cu­pies the freight yard’s site is mag­nif­i­cent: pop-up shops stacked like con­tain­ers, where “cus­tomised stuff was be­ing sucked up with malar­ial rel­ish.” In the ad­ja­cent streets,

High-end schmut­ter pits of­fered untick­eted min­i­mal­ist stock—two shirts, one cardi­gan—on naked ta­bles for busi­ness-class cus­toms in­spec­tion . . . . Bare bricks. Bulbs with­out shades . . . . Males favoured tight trousers with highly pol­ished brown shoes. And sculpted lum­ber­jack-fun­da­men­tal­ist beards. Young women chan­nelled the fear­some dis­dain of Bond Street. Hap­pen­ing bars were brothel-scar­let like an­techam­bers of hell . . . . There was a great fond­ness, now that sweated labour had suf­fered ex­tra­or­di­nary ren­di­tion, for the word ar­ti­san. Cut-price denim from Cheshire Street stalls, by com­ing in­doors, and mi­grat­ing a hun­dred yards north, gained £500 on the price tag.

From un­der­neath this new wreck­age, Sin­clair un­earths a few neglected Lon­don his­to­ries for a fi­nal time. “I have sprayed out too many un­re­li­able facts,” he said in a lec­ture at the Bri­tish Mu­seum last year, an­nounc­ing his with­drawal from Lon­don as a lit­er­ary sub­ject if not quite yet as a home. “Too many counter-nar­ra­tives. Too much al­ter­na­tive his­tory in too many words.” So far as I can tell, how­ever, most of the his­tory in this book seems to be true: that is, it’s been set down and agreed on by oth­ers. The gas­works at Hag­ger­ston, blown apart by a Ger­man V2 rocket in the last months of the war, re­ally was re­placed in the 1950s by a stretch of park­land laid out to re­sem­ble an ocean liner, whose nav­i­gat­ing bridge is of­ten oc­cu­pied these days by “un­sanc­tioned” teenage lovers, mainly Asian, and some­times by “rough-sleep­ing Pol­ish builders in body bags.” The com­poser Sa­muel Co­leridge-Tay­lor, “the African Mahler” and “the black Dvo­rak,” re­ally did col­lapse from over­work and pneu­mo­nia at West Croy­don rail­way sta­tion in Au­gust 1912, to die nearly pen­ni­less a few days later. The glazed earth­en­ware gut­ters that ran around the edges of mu­nic­i­pal swim­ming pools re­ally were known as “scum troughs,” be­cause they were there to col­lect what a swim­ming-pool ar­chi­tect in 1906 del­i­cately called “float­ing im­pu­ri­ties.” (Sin­clair re­calls some typ­i­cal im­pu­ri­ties—“sod­den cig­a­rette stubs and corn plas­ters see­saw­ing gen­tly in a tired yel­low wash”—as he swims in the Shard’s pool, through wa­ter “so pure that it wasn’t like wa­ter at all.”)

Sin­clair has many at­trac­tions as a writer: a pow­er­ful gift for im­agery and phrase-mak­ing; a keen cu­rios­ity; sym­pa­thy; anger at the de­struc­tion of the past and the pub­lic realm; vi­tu­per­a­tion; hu­mor—he has great fun in this book with the mean­ing­less rubrics that dec­o­rate trans­port com­pany lo­gos (“Putting Pas­sen­gers First,” “De­liv­er­ing for our Cus­tomers,” “Ev­ery Jour­ney Mat­ters”) through the sim­ple but ef­fec­tive trick of obe­di­ently re­peat­ing them when­ever the com­pany’s name oc­curs. But above and be­yond these ex­cel­lent qual­i­ties floats a cloudier am­bi­tion: to re­veal the co­nun­drums and con­nec­tions of or­di­nary things by find­ing new ways to de­scribe them, plan­ning (for ex­am­ple) noc­tur­nal walks that will de­prive him of sleep “in or­der to achieve a dis­so­ci­a­tion of sen­si­bil­ity through which the hal­lu­ci­na­tion of Lon­don would re­veal the se­cret of mys­ter­ies wor­ried at for fifty years.”

Read­ers who raise an eye­brow at Ouija boards may wish they’d joined a dif­fer­ent kind of walk at that point, as they may also do when they reach opac­i­ties such as “the only le­git­i­mate jour­ney is into the past” and “you can­not as­set-strip lo­cal­ity.” Sim­ple pro­cesses take on com­pli­cated di­men­sions. De­cid­ing to walk for a sec­ond time around the route of the cir­cu­lar rail­way, this time coun­ter­clock­wise rather than clock­wise, he de­scribes the walk as “an era­sure, a rub­bing out of the orig­i­nal, as Robert Rauschen­berg rubbed out the draw­ing by Willem de Koon­ing that he loved, so­licited, in or­der to val­i­date it.” He at­tributes the new Lon­don habit of base­ment ex­ca­va­tion to the fact that “the epi­der­mis of the city is so heav­ily po­liced now, so fret­ted with elec­tronic bab­ble, so cor­rupted by a strate­gic as­sault on lo­cal­ity, that civil­ians... re­spond by ex­plor­ing for­bid­den depths.” But the su­per­fi­cial ex­pla­na­tion is the like­lier: that home­own­ers want more room. Women have con­demned him for their ab­sence in his nar­ra­tives—he dis­cusses the com­plaint in this book— though they are never com­pletely so, and if lit­er­a­ture has a duty to rep­re­sent de­mo­graphic re­al­ity, then the non­white pop­u­la­tion of the East End has a big­ger rea­son to be an­noyed: more than 45 per­cent of the peo­ple who live in parts of the East End close to Sin­clair have Ben­gali an­ces­try, but a glimpse is as much as we ever get of them, and their his­tory is never con­sid­ered. Lit­er­a­ture doesn’t have any such duty, and Sin­clair’s frame of ref­er­ence—the names in­clude W.G. Se­bald, J.G. Bal­lard, Jean-Luc Go­dard, and Joseph Beuys—sug­gests that English mat­ter-of-fact­ness will never be his game; he is in­de­fati­ga­ble in his pur­suit of the in­eluctable, and of­ten his prose suc­ceeds (or fails) like po­etry does, as a fleet­ing glim­mer of some­thing that can’t be made sen­si­ble.

Sin­clair has a com­mit­ted fol­low­ing— one could say a cult. He writes of how his friend Se­bald (who died in 2001) be­came posthu­mously “a cul­tural in­dus­try... bring­ing the faith­ful, in the spirit of pil­grim­age [to­gether] . . . for read­ings, recitals, con­certs and con­fes­sions. A cult of man­aged English melan­choly and week­end breaks in moody win­ter re­sorts.” But this isn’t far away from how he be­gan to see his own liv­ing fate, as “what would once have been called a lit­er­ary ca­reer” slides into “lit­tle more than the ex­cuse for pre­sen­ta­tions and themed ‘Edge­lands’ read­ings in uni­ver­si­ties, gal­leries, shops and hos­pi­tals that looked just the same . . . so my grip on the city that pro­voked and sus­tained my fic­tions faded.”

But the last Lon­don? Sin­clair has his own writerly rea­sons to say so, mainly his view that its lit­er­ary his­tory—“the city of words, ref­er­enc­ing other words, et­y­molo­gies of re­spect”—has come to an end with the short at­ten­tion spans cre­ated by so­cial me­dia. But many other Lon­don­ers share his alien­ation from a city that has “closed against the rest of Eng­land” to be­come an is­land within an is­land “open for busi­ness only if your busi­ness is busi­ness.”

Just be­fore the Brexit vote, he sets out with some vivid ec­centrics to walk to the site of the Bat­tle of Hast­ings, just in­land from the Sus­sex coast, where Europe in the shape of the Nor­mans stormed ashore in 1066. The rea­sons for the walk are un­clear. He has no pa­tience with Brexit, which to him rep­re­sents “the ill-con­sid­ered quit­ting of Europe, ges­ture pol­i­tics of the most stupid kind,” and now finds him­self dis­con­so­late in a coun­try­side that sup­ports it: “Nigel Farage’s fag­puff­ing mead-hall Eng­land.” Does this make EU-sup­port­ing Lon­don a bet­ter prospect? Hardly so. One of his last im­ages of the city calls up “an il­lu­mi­nated cruise ship, a float­ing casino for oli­garchs, oil sheiks and multi­na­tional money-laun­der­ers; a ves­sel, holed at the wa­ter­line, staffed by in­vis­i­bles on zero-hour con­tracts, col­lat­eral dam­age of war and famine and pruri­ent news re­ports, hud­dled in lifeboats.”

Here, as is some­times the case with Sin­clair, rather too much is go­ing on, too stri­dently. But the new Lon­don, the Lon­don that for Sin­clair has lost its savor, faces Brexit as an un­cer­tain, tu­mul­tuous, and in­flam­ingly un­equal city, its prices ex­pelling its young to cheap towns on the coast. There is, af­ter all, a lot to be stri­dent about.

The Shard, Lon­don’s tallest sky­scraper, June 2012

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