Review published on November 4, 2017.
If this is the last London book by Iain Sinclair, and it would appear so, he will be sorely missed by lovers of his beautifully crafted and witty musings on his explorations of the great city, a swansong of bravura. The relationship between Sinclair and London is a love affair, but like all true love it isn’t unconditional, at times this is an angry book. Sinclair fears for the soul of the city. Yet The Last London is always well reasoned, intuitive and even elegaic. It must take a tremendous amount of work to write prose that appears so effortless but is so good.
Few writers know London like Iain Sinclair, maybe someone like Peter Ackroyd could claim to? The fundamental difference in the approach of Sinclair to many historians and modern writers on London is that he isn’t blinded by majesty, nostalgia or familiarity. For me, Sinclair is the antidote to rose-coloured spectacles syndrome and a guide to real London. Like Sinclair I have spent countless days wandering around the city poking my nose into famous and private places soaking up the unique city, people and atmosphere. I only wish I had more of Sinclair’s insight and perception. The Last London will entertain, will increase your knowledge of the city and will give you more insight into the country we live in.
One of the first descriptions of the city in the book is ‘centrifugally challenged’, a reference to the sprawl that is one of the modern day problems of London. Sinclair tells us that Ford Madox Ford, writing in 1909, predicted the city would reach as far as Cambridge. He speculates that the Romans started it with a policy of ‘build it and they will come’, and they did. For Sinclair, enough is enough because this is contributing to the loss of character of the city. This is not about the people so much as the homogenisation of everything. The fact that London is like Berlin is like Paris etc. A sort of death of individuality and character. Sinclair speculates that soon the monumental cruise ships that dock in Sicily will be traipsing up the Thames. I know it all sounds depressing but these are serious points and Sinclair brings his wit to bear on the restrained anger he feels, you can’t help laughing.
If you’ve ever seen one of the documentaries on Crossrail and marvelled at the scale of things, Sinclair seeks to give that a local context. He describes the whole venture as ‘Crossrail blitzkrieg’ but also notes the reaction to the coming of rail in the nineteenth century; Dickens called the train an “elephantine lizard”. Is change ever welcome? Sinclair also tackles the feel of the city in the light of Brexit, attempts to start fracking in the Weald Basin and the “soothing hum of the orbital motorways” (he likes sarcasm). As he wanders Sinclair has an eye for the signs that importantly announce nothing much, patronising platitudes such as ‘putting people first’ or ‘transforming waste’. There is a seething hatred for the stupidities and callous actions of the authorities. Such as a help line to get rid of beggars when rubbish piles up and repairs go undone. Sinclair sees only vanity in the city’s new architecture. He refers to ‘Shard’enfrude (but what a view of the city from the tower!). These descriptions of the tower illustrates the difference between himself (cancerous and contagious) and Ackroyd (aspiring, grandiose).
Everyone talks about the unattainable ‘American dream’ but Sinclair points out that London has always been sold on the promise of a “shiny future” (Streets paved with the gold, the lad made good in Dick Whittington). The Last London is a view of the reality not the dream.
The book is full of gems about the city. A walk in Haggerston Park leads to a story about a V2 rocket scoring a direct hit on a gas holder. Also that London doubled for Dublin when James Mason walked to his death shooting the film ‘The Odd Man Out’.
Sinclair’s rambles lead to a highly intelligent and distinctive collection of reminiscences, collected legends and myths, historical facts, musings, anecdotes, and random thoughts that somehow form a whole treasure trove, a cornucopia. The love of the city shines through even when Sinclair is chastising and bemoaning. He has an ear for a turn of phrase or a sharp observation, “Metastasized into coffee outlets”. He reads the streets that map the city like the missing cobblestones of Paris ’68, of the burning of Newgate prison in London.
Sinclair is joined on his walks by fellow travellers (enigmatic photos attached). He follows in the footsteps of W.G. Sebald with Spittlefields poet Stephen Watts. A chapter on cycling includes a mash up of Tebbit’s “on yer bike”, Flann O’Brien, Mandelson, H.G. Wells, Ridley Scott, British Waterways etiquette for bikes and tow paths, crime and, of course, Boris bikes. The way it is put together is fascinating.
The walks are by day and by night, we glimpse the lost London that so troubles Sinclair, he quotes John Evelyn, “London was, and is no more”. The Last London is a retrospective that makes you think again about the London you know. Perhaps Sinclair is the modern day Pepys.
I have one tip that I found useful in reading The Last London, which was to have a London A to Z to hand, so you can follow the route of the walks and deviations and places that are unfamiliar.
Paul Burke 5/4
The Last London by Iain Sinclair
Oneworld Publications 9781786071743 hbk Sep 2017
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