Iain Sinclair (ed), London: City of Disappearances
(London: Hamish Hamilton, 2006) 672 pp.
‘All cities are geographical; you cannot take
three steps without existing ghosts bearing all
the prestige of their legends. We move within an
enclosed landscape whose landmarks constantly
draw us towards the past.’
(Sinclair 2006: 303)
Without wishing to engage in nostalgia this particular example of London strays confidently and willingly from the landscape dominated by ‘literary London’. Not for Sinclair are the well-trodden territories of J. G. Ballard, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan et al. Instead Sinclair emphasises the aspects of London that are hidden to the latest generation of literati—those secretive passages, those Kilburn-entropy-ridden areas (noticeably absent), those ye old London places where mythology outweighs reputation, presence is everything and connections are the proverbial ‘Old Boys’ Club’.
Iain Sinclair’s latest text is a magisterial anthology, edited with characteristic precision and inventiveness and structured to encompass the vast geographical and sociological locale that is ‘hidden’ London with its secret histories, traditions and the arcane. Each sequence of reminiscences, explorations or revelations is oriented around a chapter that identifies the areas of London which are now wholly divorced from or forgotten amongst a haze of urban regeneration and gentrification, where the lines of economic investment and imposed cultural development have infiltrated and poisoned, their opposition manifesting itself in such texts as these which seek to promote the genuine avant-garde at work within ‘real’ London. That Iain Sinclair edits this collection is problematic, as he has recently moved from being a typically underground author, dare one say, flâneur, to a born-again celebrity, who thus seems to represent ‘literary London’ more than newer prominent London authors such as China Miéville whose most recent novel, Un Lun Dun, establishes his profile as a cross-genre author. The point of contention is that an author such as Sinclair, who posits himself as anti-establishment, is immediately incorporated into the dominant order because of his status as the embodiment of London. Thus there is a tension between London and its patrons, or opportunists.
With contributions from such cult figures as Stewart Home, the late Derek Raymond, Rachael Lichtenstein, Alan Moore and Steve Beard, to name but five, this collection achieves a rare balance of diversity and cohesion. Home’s tribute to Alexander Trocchi affords him the opportunity to despair at the manner in which his mother remains simply a seldom-recognised name. This, in his and others’ opinions, is despite her presence in the development of the 1970s drug culture in which such figures as Trocchi revelled and upon which they forged their long-standing reputations.
Given the book-based format of this anthology, it is appropriate that two figures retain an almost spectral presence throughout: Martin Stone and drif field (sic). Though their own testimonies are recorded, they seemingly peer over the shoulders of other contributors. In a collection where the emphasis is placed firmly on the text, it is appropriate that these two legendary, irreplaceable figures of the London bookselling community should haunt places, pages and events, their eccentricities inevitable, their contributions invaluable to the landscape of the London communities in which they operated. Similarly, the recollections and portrayals from Jeff Nuttall, Tom Raworth and Chris Petit are as offbeat as the texts that they have given life to during their long-standing careers in independent cinema and poetry.
An observation that is really more logistical than critical is the frequency with which Michael Moorcock seems to occur — indeed even dominate — the entries, reminiscences and tales told within this volume. Moorcock is without doubt an indominatable, inimitable figure in London fiction and, whilst his influence is readily apparent, it does not spoil or overload a collection that is notable for its trajectory and richness.
However, this significant contribution is unbalanced, unfortunately, by a distinct lack of contributions from writers whose background is Commonwealth immigrant. This imbalance, noted by Ian Thomson in The Independent, is perhaps strange given that the collection has 59 contributors but this may be more characteristic of Thomson’s journalistic stance than the general demographic of the authors within City of Disappearances. Indeed, his polemical and distinctly self-righteous article, adorned with the headline “Lost worlds of a white man’s city, filtered through rose-tinted nostalgia” suggests that the analysis or opinion is all too often willing to sacrifice an individual and independent commentary in favour of political posturing and pandering, the type of which has come to cloud quality journalistic responses to literature in the present media-saturated climate. Thus, reading such informed opinions as Thomson’s would lead us to conclude that the retrospective response to London fictions is as partisan as his own mindset. One suspects that selling headlines is his caveat for remarks that appear to transgress the line between acceptability and opinion.
In summary, this is a palimpsest that represents the fracturing, fragmentation and dispossession that Sinclair and his contributors have come to witness in London’s recent and not so recent past. Yet such a disparate collection of tributes and eulogies, elegies and longings comes to prove that to write about London as it stands is not necessarily to write kindly about it. Indeed, the risk of memorialising ‘lost’ London is outweighed by the occasionally acerbic analyses of the characters previously named, who have contributed so much and remain fixed firmly on the margins and the periphery. As characterised by the fiction and prose that Sinclair has written in the past, London is a city of ghosts and lost souls of times past, a metropolis peering hysterically at its historical origins as it tries to exorcise them using the hyper-reality of the present. As this review began with a quotation from the text, let us end with a line from Malcolm Lett’s contribution, ‘Bibliomania’, which perhaps captures most accurately the spirit with which the collection is edited, created and read: ‘Quality is a passport to permanence’ (p. 89).
To Cite This Article:
Martyn Colebrook, ‘Review of Iain Sinclair (ed), London: City of Disappearances
(London: Hamish Hamilton, 2006) 672 pp.’ Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 1 (March 2007). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2007/colebrook.html. Accessed on [date of access].