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 end-stop 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-twentieth-century 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 fag-puffing 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.
Rasmussen’s classic account of the capital’s townscape, London: The Unique City, was published in Danish in 1934 and in English in 1937. He wrote it to show that his fellow Danes had a “great deal to learn from that form of civilization in which London has taken the lead.” ↩