In the run up to the 2012 Olympic games, Iain Sinclair, writer and godfather to psychogeographers everywhere, and the film-maker Andrew Kötting, took a swan pedalo from Hastings to Stratford and the Olympic Park. This odyssey, an “attempt to ridicule the pretensions of media-inflated triumphalism”, was documented in their film Swandown. Sinclair bailed on the final leg of the journey, answering instead a call to head to New England in pursuit of the poet Charles Olson and other formative American beat enthusiasms. (Sinclair started in poetry and film; an early break was documenting the “Dialectics of Liberation” countercultural happenings with Allen Ginsberg at London’s Roundhouse in 1967.)
Here, however, is another pilgrimage from the shore to the capital, this time on foot and channelling the ghosts of King Harold and his queen-concubine, Edith Swan-Neck. In “the lull before the great Euro plebiscite”, Sinclair and a “troupe of renegades” journey into the heart of E20 and the recently re-branded Olympicopolis.
He is gobsmacked to find a “rank of pristine swan pedalos parked on a stretch of river” staring straight at the Westfield shopping centre. Their “absurdist voyage”, he notes, “had been neatly subverted… from provocation to inspiration for the latest promotional gimmick”. One can understand why, faced with such a surreal situation, Sinclair might wish to wash his hands of the whole business of London – a business that began for him with Lud Heat, the epic prose-poem about Hawksmoor churches, which he composed and self-published while working as a parks department gardener in Mile End in 1975. The Last London is billed as his “final reckoning” with the capital: if so he goes out with a bang at least.
Taking a lead from John Evelyn, who after the Great Fire in 1666 remarked that “London was, but is no more”, Sinclair argues that the place he once knew has been “challenged to the point of obliteration”. He considers its original virtues and vices so financially untenable as to be banished to the coasts. In its stead stands something akin to Trude in Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a metropolis almost identical to others around the globe, and “more part of other expanded conurbations than of England” itself. London is “everywhere”, its gravity unavoidable. But it has “lost its soul”.
The chartered streets of his beloved Hackney have fallen to “artisan bakers, hip estate agents and beard-sculptors”. Former East End villains’ pubs are “rushed with friendly beards and confident young women”. From Shoreditch to Hackney Wick: “Everything is pop-up. Nothing is true. The fables are authorless and generic, finessed by computer programmes. Boasted green spaces are the conceptual green of plastic football carpets.”
Writing in righteous anger as much as sorrow about a city in which the virtual has supplanted the actual, Sinclair makes a series of polemical peregrinations, a kind of loser’s victory lap. He waywardly beats the bounds from his home in Haggerston, with its park (the playing fields co-opted by an academy school managed by a Swiss finance company) and shuttered public baths, to the Shard’s sky-high luxury pool, and on to Forest Gate, Barking, Penge West, Anerley (“exotic names. But is this London?”), Waltham, Tilbury, Gravesend and Hythe.
The “ginger” Overground railway line, whose circuit, walked in the company of Kötting, provided the conceit for Sinclair’s previous book, London Overground, looms large. Its expansion since then is further evidence of “the creeping colonisation of selected outer zones”. With the Shadwell-based poet and translator, Stephen Watts – wild-haired friend of WG Sebald, grandchild of Italian immigrants and, in stark contrast to Kötting, abstemious eater – he chases it to West Croydon, the spot where “London abdicated”. The trains’ liveries, with their mix of shingle-sands orange, sea blue and Sussex-cliff white, are now read as a sign that he, too, should get out. (A pensioner with property, he does, of course, have somewhere else to go.)
As with all of Sinclair’s books, it’s the discursive riffs and the joining of esoteric historical dots that are particularly enjoyable. Hackney’s late, infamous Mole Man, an inveterate tunneller, is reborn as a portent of oligarchs’ basements; the hubristic refurbishment of an East London town hall serves as an omen for the Trump administration; the Marshalsea Prison is a harbinger of the punitive modern debt economy; and the politically expedient promotion of urban cycling by Boris Johnson is examined in relation to Hovis bread adverts, Ken Barlow on Coronation Street, Norman Tebbit and Flann O’Brien.
At one point, Sinclair muses that Chinese investment in London might simply be a Maoist plot to bring down capitalism by leaving the city empty. Like the April Fool’s Day story of a scheme by Boris to brick up the canals for a cycle superhighway, in fake-news-addled Brexit Britain it scarcely seems madder or more unreal than anything else.
“A Walk in the Park: The Life and Times of a People’s Institution” by Travis Elborough is published by Vintage
The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City
Oneworld, 336pp, £18.99