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London Contracting: the Internalizing of Urban Space in the Literature of Contemporary London

Keith Wilson

In the early stages of his most recent book, London Orbital (2002), Iain Sinclair declares his resistance to the seductive blandishments of New Labour’s ubiquitous catch-phrase “Best Value,” confessing instead to a cantankerous, anti-consumerist addiction to pursuit of “Worst Value.” As wry demonstration of this subversive impulse, he admits to the recycler’s economy of writing “the same book, the same life, over and over again.”[1] This placing of the singularity of his life in apposition to the singularity of his books has a more than metaphorical appropriateness. Just as his London-based fictional writings tend in their subjectified urban topographies towards the autobiographical, his autobiographical writings in their subjectified urban topographies tend towards fiction, and it would be a confident critic of genre who would hazard to identify a wholly convincing distinction between the two in his work.

In his Guardian review of London: The Biography (2000), Sinclair identified a similar seamlessness in the work of his main rival as chronicler of contemporary London, Peter Ackroyd, another writer whose books complicate easy generic distinction between fiction, history, biography, and autobiography. This heterogeneity is announced, as if in deliberate challenge to generic orthodoxy, in the book’s title, with its tacit anthropomorphising of the city by the assumption that it has, analogously with a human being, a life that not only can be told but also can be told more or less definitively: this is not just any old biography but “The Biography.” Sinclair’s review, invoking the famous last line of John Davidson’s poem “London,” adroitly turns the titular coyness back on its source: “Here might be found ‘the heart of London beating warm’. London: The Biography very rapidly announces itself as Peter Ackroyd: The Autobiography.” There are relishable ironies in Sinclair’s comments, since the conflation of life and writing he identifies in Ackroyd’s own work is described in qualified terms that question the whole biographical enterprise. Sinclair returns to the subjective thrust of the London biography in his review’s last paragraph, implicating Ackroyd’s fiction also in this identification of the pervasiveness of the personal investment:

Now, as the curtain comes down, the author appears — strolling from Bishopsgate towards Spitalfields, from the city of reflective surfaces to the excavations of a medieval hospital. He meditates on the scrap of brick found by Christopher Wren: resurgam, I will arise. The ecstasy is sexual. Ackroyd, navigating a labyrinth of masks and disguises, recognises, at last, the face of that emblematic child from Hawksmoor and English Music. It is his orphaned self in a mirror of skin.[2]

By contrast with Ackroyd, Sinclair and numbers of their contemporaries, nineteenth and early-twentieth-century commentators on London were less constrained by the trammels of the all-pervasive self in writing about their city. Indeed, far from conceiving of themselves as in any sense in pursuit of their own identities, they could be secure in a status bestowed by their subordination to a principle so much greater than their own beings: London itself, in all its historical, cultural and imperial variety, confidence and majesty. Examples of the distinctive tone are not hard to find — in fact they are normative. In his Prologue to Living London (1901-3), an 1150 page, three-volume edited collection celebrating every conceivable aspect of contemporary London life, George Sims, having typified London in what was by then an already clichéd metaphor as “the twentieth century Babylon,” adumbrates the purpose of his enterprise as “to present for the first time to the English-speaking public a complete and comprehensive survey of the myriad human atoms which make up this ever-changing kaleidoscope, the mightiest capital the world has ever seen.”[3] So mighty is it, that Ford Madox Hueffer can invoke it a couple of years later in his The Soul of London (1905) in terms that by a geometric paradox make it greater than the wholes of which it is part. Hueffer writes:

It is . . . comparatively easy to evoke a picture of England as a whole, still easier, perhaps, to think of this world as a green orange revolving round a candle, or as the pink and blue of a Mercator’s projection. One may sail easily round England, or circumnavigate the globe. But not the most enthusiastic geographer . . . ever memorised a map of London. Certainly no one ever walks round it. For England is a small island, the world is infinitesimal amongst the planets. But London is illimitable.[4]

Even as disciplined and dispassionate a commentator as the antiquarian Sir Laurence Gomme, prime mover behind the Victoria County History and first clerk of the London County Council, could know that when he concluded his 1912 study The Making of London with the comment “London stands to the nation and the empire as the greatest city the world has ever seen,”[5] he would be seen as not so much proffering a challengeable judgement as stating an incontrovertible fact. And when in the early 1930s St. John Adcock compiled another 1150-page, three volume, extravaganza with the simple title Wonderful London, its subtitular description announced with admirable understatement the collection’s predictable scope: “The World’s Greatest City Described by its Best Writers and Pictured by its Finest Photographers.”[6] The first of the many fine photographs one comes upon is a magnificent aerial view of a four-mile stretch of the Thames, over which an aeroplane soars as broad shafts of sunlight pour down upon this most blessed of cities, whose privileged status the accompanying text almost redundantly spells out: “London the Tremendous: Heart of the Greatest City the World Has Ever Seen.”

Thus London’s stature as a world city, indeed the world city, even seemingly to those foreigners who rather wished it weren’t, was presented as no matter for debate. Chroniclers of London’s past, showmen of London’s present, prophets of London’s future could all assume for their subject an incontrovertible centrality in the world’s consciousness, a centrality that subordinated their own roles as commentators to the immensity of London itself. Arthur Maxwell’s Discovering London (1935) is one of the most extravagant exemplars of the distinctive genre:

The capital of the greatest empire this world has ever known, beside which the empires of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome dwindle into insignificance, London occupies a position unique in the annals of history. Towards this city the peoples of the British Commonwealth of Nations turn with an affection unequalled even by the love of the Jews for old Jerusalem. To colonists in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Kenya Colony, and the numerous British territories and protectorates around the globe, the thought of London brings a softening of the heart and a moistening of the eyes when one thinks of home. . . . What London says and does to-day is said and done to-morrow — or the day after — in Melbourne, Wellington, Calcutta, Quebec, and Cape Town. Almost as potent is the influence of London upon foreign lands. Though not resulting from family affection, it is none the less real. The power of Britain, its success in arms, its immense riches, its colossal trade, have made the voice of London the voice of a prophet in the affairs of men. There is no project of any importance in any sphere of life concerning which Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, and even New York, are not anxious to learn the opinion and attitude of London. (18-19)[7]

And even as late as 1951 (the year in which the main Festival of Britain site dominated the Thames South Bank in a tribute to national achievement consciously evocative of the hyperbole of the Great Exhibition while simultaneously heralding Britain’s triumphant new scientific future), H. V. Morton, fast becoming by then the grand old man of English travel writing, ends the last of his many books on London in familiar vein:

There are cities which, by virtue of the contribution made by their inhabitants to the story of Mankind, are immortal, and London, with Athens and Rome, is among them. The Thames and the Tiber will flow together in history, Westminster Abbey and the Parthenon, strange as it may seem, are not unrelated . . .[8]

Thus, until relatively recently, the familiar refrain: London as a city which both spatially and temporally/historically dwarfs while simultaneously enlarging those fortunate enough to be associated with it, including its chroniclers. If it’s a wen, it is at least a great as well as an infernal one.

But when one jumps forward to the 1980s — over Suez, the progressive shucking off through the fifties and sixties of the remnants of colonial power, and a conceptual relocation of Britain as actually a part of Europe rather than as a once imperial power secure in its island fastness off the continental west coast — Britain’s, and hence London’s, place in the politico-cultural cosmos, even for an enthusiastic Londoner, is strikingly less confident. In his Preface to Letters from London, Julian Barnes recalls watching on a Fort Worth television the opening ceremonies for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics:

During the march-past of contestants the ABC subtitles explained the location of each country and its size in domestic terms: thus Bhutan was in Central Asia and was “approx. ½ Indiana.” However, it was not just Bhutan. Someone judged that the American viewer also needed enlightening about Belgium (“in NW Europe”), Bangladesh (“approx. Wisconsin”), and, saddeningly, about Britain. I was advised to rethink my own country as “size of Oregon.”[9]

The rhetorical distance between “There is no project of any importance . . . concerning which Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, and even New York, are not anxious to learn the opinion and attitude of London” on the one hand and a Britain made familiar to its partners in that much-touted special relationship as “size of Oregon” on the other may help explain at least part of the tendency towards what this paper terms the “internalizing of urban space” in the most influential contemporary literature of London. When the public identity of the city is so diminished, compromised, and ironized, what price a resort to the subjectively associational, the psycho-geographic rather than the topographical, the personal margin rather than the public centre?

This move to subjectivity has taken a variety of forms, none more definitional of a radical shift from perceived to perceiver than the work of Iain Sinclair. For all its ever-expanding ambulatory trianglings across and circlings around London, Sinclair’s work — and I am thinking here particularly although not exclusively of Downriver (1991), Lights Out for the Territory (1997), Liquid City (1999) and London Orbital (2002) — displays a claustrophobic, and finally trivializing, obsessiveness in its preoccupation with self and commitment to ingenious cycles of repetition. Sinclair’s own volatile consciousness, ranging over the flotsam and jetsam thrown up in the course of his loosely choreographed urban ramblings, forms the primary structuring principle of most of his prose evocations of London. No road, even one as expansive as the M25, can ever take one away from Sinclair himself. I mean this not just as a spatial principle, in the sense that Sinclair’s own movements around London are what give narrative momentum to his prose, but in relation to its subject-matter. Its recurrent focus is on the detritus of urban decline, on the graffiti obligingly waiting to be turned into linguistic found objects, on the neglected and deserted buildings waiting to be photographed either by Sinclair himself or by Marc Atkins (recurrently enlisted to play Sancho Panza to Sinclair’s Quixote), on the contingent mess of urban experience that other writers ignore or silently clean away or polemicise or don’t even notice. But perhaps above all, and this seems to me the most restrictive feature of Sinclair’s adaptation of London to his own rather solipsistic ends, the focus is on the minor celebrity of his friends and acquaintances, and the mini-epics of their lives on the cultural fringes. Private and public places, friends and acquaintances, even the recurrently floated household names (such as Jeffrey Archer, who Sinclair manages to court and pillory at the same time), are subordinated to the imperatives of Sinclair’s own performative manoeuvrings. All his London matter is thus mediated through a consciousness that allows it little in the way of genuinely independent existence.

The resulting rhetorical manner is an odd melange of authority and subordination, suggesting at times the symbiotically twinned arrogances and humiliations of the gossip columnist. The non-event of Sinclair’s failed meeting with Jeffrey Archer in Lights Out for the Territory is as good an example as any of the distinctive tones. The notional focus of the whole episode is Sinclair’s failure to beard Jeffrey Archer in his opulent riverside den at Alembic House, with its commanding view over the Thames, and its suggestive location in convenient proximity to two architectural embodiments of the governmental and cultural establishment, the new MI6 headquarters and, opposite, the Tate Gallery. The failure to find Archer at home occurs despite the fact that Sinclair’s preliminary letter seeking an interview “For a sweetener . . . dropped the name of an in-law of mine, a close friend of Jeffrey Archer’s from his Oxford days.”[10] Sinclair seems to operate on the apparent faith that name-dropping is more or less acceptable, and certainly less humiliating, when it is done ironically and with near total contempt for the celebrity prey before whom the name is being dropped. But this does not explain the relentless barrage of names that, dropped before his reader (for whom he presumably has reasons to have less contempt than he has for Jeffrey Archer), are used as little more than eye-catching personalized sign-posts for his Thames-side ramble:

Mellor has wind-socked his political downfall into a media triumph, so that he has been able to join Lord Archer on the river, commanding one of the three great prospects: Archer in Alembic House, Mellor in the old Dockmaster’s House at the entrance to St. Katherine’s Dock, and Lord Owen in Narrow Street, Limehouse. Mellor and Owen are in some senses satellites of the Archer empire, the super-materialist world view: Mellor, fresh from Cambridge, given his start by the young MP — and Owen, whose wife Deborah was for many years Archer’s literary agent. The monster-monster success of Archer’s fiction underwrote Owen’s political manoeuvrings, allowing him to conspire at his leisure. (164).

Sinclair’s familiar technique of triangulation, used with such suggestive effect on Hawksmoor churches, declines into this cursory sketching in of the ley-lines connecting superannuated politicians and their predictable networks of vested interest. Awareness of the territorial ranges of river-side media personalities — knowledge of “who has first option on the Thames” (165) — may be for Sinclair “a useful way of checking out the social temper of an era” (165) but when the names in question turn out to be Marianne Faithfull, Henrietta Moraes, Mick Jagger and “Christopher Gibbs, a connected dealer in remarkable things,” the reader might be forgiven for thinking that Sinclair’s notion of what comprises a social temper owes uncomfortably much to the People magazine school of sociology. And does it really matter that the film-maker Chris Petit, one of Sinclair’s many friends with a name worth dropping, was educated at Ampleforth and Bristol University and had a father “well-placed in a military/political job of the kind that can’t be openly discussed” (168) or that Howard Marks, erstwhile drug smuggler and media darling, to whom Sinclair introduces himself after chasing him along the Albert Embankment, had grown up not five miles away from Sinclair’s own home? Does it even matter that Iain Sinclair himself, as we are gratuitously informed in the brief note on the author, is the son of a doctor? What function does this fleeting accumulation of personality detail, much of it autobiographical in tendency, really serve?

We do, incidentally, eventually get what some of us at least may have been waiting for — the briefest of meetings with Archer himself:

I explain who I am, the relationship with the lady who backed my application to view the penthouse. He gets confused, thinks I’m claiming to be her brother. “You can’t be,” he growls, “A terrible looking fellow like you couldn’t have such a beautiful sister.” I return some tribute in a similar vein. Which he takes in good part, a roar of sales rep laughter and away, at speed. As I mutter our thanks. But he’s gone even before Atkins can give him a card. (203)

Archer is allowed to provide the coda (although really the ultimate self-inculpation) to this failed quest, in the form of a covering letter returning an unwanted and crumpled Marc Atkins photograph of the Thames view from Archer’s balcony, one of two offered in thanks for earlier access to Archer’s gallery of paintings. So much for Sinclair’s dealings with the elusive genius of Alembic House.

Can this finally rather dubious exercise in self-mocking tuft-hunting masquerading as vaguely polemical debunking really be what Reg Gadney in The Observer calls the major “triumph” of this book, a work which The Spectator manages to praise as “one of the finest books about London ever written” from “our greatest guide to London”? Or perhaps the way to ask the question is to ask what the relationship is between the invocation, pursuit or self-projection of celebrity (or mere personality) and the meaningful representation of the city that those personalities — and most particularly the authorial personality — inhabit. Is it the case that the larger the shadow cast by, say, Ackroyd and Sinclair in a sophisticated culture that is increasingly encouraged to think of London as mediated through their books, the smaller London itself necessarily becomes?

One aspect of this question was addressed some years ago, well before the appearance of Lights Out for the Territory or London: The Biography, in Patrick Wright’s appropriately apocalyptically titled A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London (1991):

In recent years, Sinclair’s renegade charting of the city has provoked a whole industry: Ackroyd’s novel [Hawksmoor] has made the journey from best-seller to A-level set book; graphic novelists have plagiarized Lud Heat, and listings magazines like City Limits have taken to recommending tours of Hawksmoor’s newly interesting churches. As for the vicars of these High Baroque institutions, they are no longer just troubled by high-minded (and often Anglo-Catholic) conservationists for whom the historical fabric of the building is altogether more sacred than the decidedly low-church needs of the local congregation: nowadays, they also have to reckon with a steady stream of crazy-eyed believers who come round in search of an occult charge. But Sinclair’s growing reputation as a diviner and lightning conductor to ethereal powers is largely beside the point. His symbolic mapping of London actually follows an autobiographical logic that makes him less an abracadabra man than a poet of the Welfare State, the laureate of its morbidity and failure. The “lines of force” in his London follow the routes Sinclair himself has taken as he wandered through those twenty years of marginal activity in the old East End, and it is through this autobiographical connection that the conjured historical and mythical ghosts come forward to find their equivalent in the present.[11]

In short, what connects London’s past to London’s present is not some numinous vibration from the city itself — of the kind constantly, and not altogether convincingly, identified by Ackroyd as a trans-temporal embodiment of locational atmosphere — but an act of authorial will which, for Wright, offers a reverse image of the projections of urban planners: “Sinclair recovers the density of the city through a scavenging poetic, which works like an inverted parody of future-orientated urban planning” (223).

Thus the most representatively contemporary chronicler of London may be best typifiable not as social, political or architectural historian, antiquarian, or topographer, but rather as scavenger, picking up the odds and ends that appeal to his own predilections and making his own identity and socio-cultural circle central to his evocations of the city. The cultish potential of this subjectified approach to urban found objects colours even one of its most palpable successes — the quest undertaken by Rachael Lichtenstein to discover the fate of David Rodinsky, who disappeared in the late-sixties from his room above a Spitalfields synagogue and was ultimately tracked down by Lichtenstein to a pauper’s grave in Waltham Abbey cemetery. The found objects in this instance had been left in his room by Rodinsky on his disappearance, and become the quasi-sacramental accompaniment to Lichtenstein’s odyssey. But Rodinsky’s Room (1999), the book of the obsession co-authored by Lichtenstein and Sinclair, is no more Rodinsky’s biography than Ackroyd’s London is the city’s. Nor is it really – in this, unlike, for example, Chaim Bermant’s Point of Arrival: A Study of London’s East End (1975) — a book to which one could turn with any confidence to understand the Jewish East End, or Spitalfields past or present. It is, as Sinclair’s own textual interpellations reveal, closer to the autobiography of Rachel Lichtenstein, who rediscovers her own Jewish past during the course of her quest, changes her name, and virtually becomes the man she seeks. As Sinclair somewhat histrionically observes:

An abandoned room contained all that was left of a man’s life and Rachel Lichtenstein understood that it was her task, nobody else could do it, to live that life again, and to complete it. Find some resolution or lose herself forever in the attempt. That was her joy. That was her burden.[12]

Rodinsky’s room — the place not the book — is perhaps a fitting summative image for the impulse in contemporary writing about London that I have been attempting to typify. The room itself — enclosed, deserted, shut up, filled with the decaying bric-a-brac of a sad and alienated existence — is taken over and remade in an appropriative act of cultural privatization, just as surely as are all those docklands warehouses and surviving East London terraces whose conversion, gentrification, or privatization Sinclair rightly finds so disturbing. I am not suggesting — well, not entirely — that the taking over of London as the personal imaginative fiefdom of some of its best known commentators can be blithely read as some kind of intellectualized latter-day incarnation of Thatcherite entrepreneurialism. But I am saying that the growing tendency for commentaries on London seemingly to require the imprimatur of authorial personality as some kind of manifest of integrity (an imprimatur that for many of those not written by Sinclair or Ackroyd takes the form of an introduction or preface or some less integrated seal of approval, such as a review by them) is limiting, and finally reductive, and that those earlier less appropriative paeans to “Wonderful London” may have been motivated by greater generous-spiritedness and intellectual disinterestedness towards their vast subject.

To end on the anecdotal if I may. Some months back I visited for the first time in many years one of London’s most interesting and most historically and culturally resonant churches, St. Giles in the Fields. On the front of its welcome card giving details of staff and services is a drawing of the church, next to an obtrusively hieratical quotation: “The crossroads between time and eternity.” As the card proudly announces, presumably as some kind of assurance for a fallen secular world that it has authority beyond the merely ecclesiastical or transcendentally aspirational for the claim, the quotation is from Ackroyd’s London: the Biography, and his chapter on the St. Giles area is now reproduced by the church — first hallowed as a religious site in Saxon times — as its standard guide. In short, even in St. Giles itself, St. Giles now comes to you courtesy of Peter Ackroyd.


[1] Iain Sinclair, London Orbital: A Walk Round the M25 (London: Granta Books, 2002), p. 38.

[2] “Maybe it’s because he’s a Londoner? Iain Sinclair on Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography,” The Guardian, 14 October 2000 (see,3858,4076226,00.html

[3] George R. Sims, ed., Living London (London: Cassell, 1903). For a fuller discussion of London as modern Babylon, see Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (London: Chatto & Windus), pp. 573-81, and Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London (New Haven: Yale UP, 2000), passim.

[4] Ford Madox Hueffer, The Soul of London: A Survey of a Modern City (London: Alston Rivers, 1905), p. 16.

[5] Sir Lawrence Gomme, The Making of London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912), p.248.

[6] St. John Adcock, ed., Wonderful London (London: Fleetway House, n. d.), title page.

[7] Arthur S. Maxwell, Discovering London (London: Skeffington, n. d. [1935]), pp. 18-19.

[8] H. V. Morton, In Search of London (London: Methuen, 1951), p. 427.

[9] Julian Barnes, Letters from London (New York: Vintage, 1995), p. x.

[10] Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory (London: Granta Books, 1998), p. 161.

[11] Patrick Wright, A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London (London: Paladin, 1992), p. 222.

[12] Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair, Rodinsky’s Room (London: Granta Books, 2000), pp. 4-5. A similar impulse towards autobiographical application of the Rodinsky myth is evidenced in Susan Alice Fischer, “A Room of Our Own: Rodinsky, Street Haunting, and the Creative Mind,” Changing English 8, 2 (October 2001): 119-28.

To Cite This Article:

Keith Wilson, ‘London Contracting: the Internalizing of Urban Space in the Literature of Contemporary London’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 1 (March 2004). Online at Accessed on [date of access].