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The Last London is a journey through hipster hell

Author Iain Sinclair finds a “rank of pristine swan pedalos” staring at a Westfield shopping centre.

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
Iain Sinclair
Oneworld, 336pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”