Iain Sinclair on London ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Iain Sinclair on London

Six months after this beautiful book found its way into my lustful hands (my fault entirely, I fear; it took me a long time to read it), my review of Iain Sinclair's London: City of Disappearances has been broadcast on ABC Radio National's The Book Show. No direct link, but you can hear me trying to negotiate my own English for the next few days on the podcast for September 25 (I'm about half way through). Or you can read on:

You can no more summarise London: City of Disappearances than you can summarise London itself. It’s not a book that you can read sensibly, from the front page to the back, and close with a satisfying bang, certain in your grasp of what you have just experienced. It is, rather, a book that you inhabit. You trip over things, forget things, find yourself fascinated, bored, fascinated again.

It’s the kind of book that you pick up and open at random, to find yourself wandering through spectral industrial landscapes, or forgotten streets lined with strip clubs and ghostly book shops. You enter compulsive fictions that solidify into bricks and mortar, or realities that dissolve into vapour as you approach them. Time warps and hiccups. You get lost.

London: City of Disappearances is, as the editor Iain Sinclair says in his introduction, “a gazetteer of erasures, each disappearance represented by a random object or image: a cabinet of curiosities”. Or, elsewhere, “entries for an ever-expanding encyclopaedia of loss”.

The losses include possibilities unrealised, things that were never were. It’s a book that is as full of unanswered longing as memory itself. It doesn’t attempt to describe London, so much as to mimic the city: the metropolis here is a living hive, a dense web of memories and transient relationships, an organic architecture that breathes and decays like a living body.

As the contributor Bill Drummond recounts, this anthology spins out of a very simple idea. “The remit for this piece,” he says “was vague but simple: did I want to write about things in London disappearing?” Drummond then goes onto tell us, “The trouble is, I don’t really give a shit about London. Never lived there. Wouldn’t mind if the whole lot disappeared before my eyes…”

Which shows clearly that Sinclair’s editorial eye, as might be expected for one of Britain’s most widely respected innovative writers, is neither limited nor petty. Each contributor brings his or her London – the London they hate, the London they lost, the London they barely survived, the London they love. Like any great city, London is infinitely multiple.

Sinclair has organised the book into sections, with an acutely sensitive eye for detail and nuance. Some parts are geographic – the West End, the East End – and some are thematic, like a section called “Bibliomania” (which might, in fact, be a sub-heading for the entire book). And the narratives evolve with the unpredictable beauty of Mandelbrot fractals: one account answers or contradicts another; an allusion in one piece might turn up as the subject of the next. At more than six hundred pages, with almost sixty contributors, it makes a hefty and fascinatingly complex tome.

Unsurprisingly, this is above all a city made of words: it excavates a literary London inhabited by famous names (Daniel Defoe, John Lennon, Alan Sillitoe, William Blake, John Bunyan) but also haunted by transient eccentrics, forgotten poets and vanished bookshops. It attracted my eye in part because, as well as writers like Marina Warner, Michael Moorcock, Will Self, JG Ballard or Thomas de Quincy, the contributors include many important figures from the counter-culture of contemporary British poetry, a scene from which Iain Sinclair himself emerges. It’s a chance to read some fascinating writers like Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth or Bill Griffiths.

Through these fragmented texts rises a narrative rich with baroque and shabby detail, shining like an oil slick with a hypnotic, and sometimes toxic, fascination. Stewart Home, for instance, launches a scathing attack on what he calls the “zombiefication of the British counter culture”: the heroin chic of the 1960s that, among other people, destroyed his mother. Recalling a famous poetry event attended by William Burroughs and RD Laing, Home writes:

“The State of Revolt” marks the onset of counter-cultural rigor mortis and this living death occurred not with a band but a smacked out whimper. It is also a death that we won’t fully comprehend until the chatter of neo-critical production about the 1960s ceases to mask the violent silence that lies at the core of that decade, and which will yet prove to be its most enduring legacy.

And then there’s Ann Baer’s haunting memories of Mervyn Peake, or John Welch’s poignant account of a couple of unknown writers who lived on the margins of the ‘literary life’ with, as he describes it, “its interminable fantasies of inclusion and exclusion”.

Among the most moving sections of the book are its evocations of the long-vanished Jewish Whitechapel in the East End, which never recovered from the bombs of the Second World War. There is a beautiful remembrance of the great Yiddish poet Avrum Nacum Stencl, who died poverty-stricken and forgotten, and of Kafka’s final lover Dora Diamant, who fled to London as a refugee from Nazism and lived there for the rest of her life.

And through these overtly literary remembrances and fictions weave many other ghosts: Anthony Rudolph’s startlingly beautiful oral recordings of his grandfather Josef Rudolph (dealer in second-hand clothes and army surplus), or Aileen Philby, the destroyed wife of the celebrated spy Kim, or the millionaire king of the vanished strip clubs of Soho, Paul Raymond. And threaded between these accounts, like a rollcall of the dead, is a list of vanished buildings: short, bald descriptions of the histories of specific addresses.

As you read on, distinctions between fiction and history begin to corrode. An extract from a nineteenth century Times article looks as authentic – or inauthentic – as a fiction. The cumulative effect is a little like reading a book by WG Sebald, if you can imagine Sebald refracted through a multi-faceted prism into sixty very individual voices. The details of Sinclair’s curios emerge in a kind of melancholy clarity that is heightened by an acute sense of mortality.

It’s a darkly enchanting book that I’ll return to again and again, if only because, like London itself, it needs long acquaintance to begin to discover all its mysteries. Above all, this book is a giant act of imaginative recuperation. It becomes clear that, in writing about disappearance, all these writers are in fact creating another kind of magic: they conjure up the unseen and the hidden, and they bring it into the light.

London: City of Disappearances, edited by Iain Sinclair, Hamish Hamilton

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