Alex Murray, Recalling London: Literature and History in the work of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair (London: Continuum, 2007), 211 pp. £57.00 (hbk), ISBN-10: 0826497446; ISBN-13: 978-0826497444
Alex Murray’s title ‘re-calls’ the name of the Clash album, London Calling, and the year of its release, 1979, also the year of Margaret Thatcher’s election to prime minister. As Murray writes, the two events encapsulate a time of active antagonism between popular culture and government. There was a dynamic socio-political engagement with Thatcherism in the music, art and film-making of the early eighties, and it is within this counter-hegemonic context that Murray situates Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair’s respective engagements with a London historiography. What emerges from his comparative analysis of their writing are politicised models of interpretation that despite the shared obsession of these writers could not be more at odds.
As is well documented, Sinclair’s disgust with Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite government policy and its deleterious effect on London is the animus for his oeuvre. Ackroyd on the other hand has refused a ‘connection with the novels of my contemporaries, or even with the period itself’ (9). Ackroyd’s disingenuous stance has been reinforced by critical interpretation of his novels as ahistoric meta-fiction or Derridean linguistic play, postmodernist readings in which London itself becomes an unstable referent, its historical, geographical and cultural contingencies, indefinite and amorphous. What Murray’s book does is to show how Ackroyd is in fact implicitly involved in a politics of historical representation by placing his writing in the context of a Thatcherite narrative logic that maintained a closed model of history as repetitious and inalterable.
Ackroyd’s formally radical fiction, while it undermines teleological forms of history, masks a conservative agenda. Murray’s reading of Hawksmoor (1985) and Chatterton (1988), novels in which temporal ambiguity is a central feature, reveals a politics of representation whereby ‘any attempt to posit an empirical historical reality is decisively rejected in favour of competing language games’ (36). History for Ackroyd is constructed through linguistic representation which has no stable referent to an empirical ‘real’ and is tied to a mythological model of time in which repetition is inevitable. Murray relates this narrative technique to the Thatcherite manipulation of historical narrative in the creation of a new national ideology. Thatcher’s rhetoric of imperial pride that endorsed ‘Victorian values’ and trumpeted the Falklands War in the tradition of Trafalgar and Waterloo is one that framed historical regression as progress, appropriating past glories in order to obscure past and present injustice. Thatcher’s emphasis on cultural inheritance correlates with what Murray describes as Ackroyd’s ‘echolalic narratives’ in which actions and words are bequeathed by history and condemned to repetition. Murray augments postmodernist readings of Ackroyd by equating this repetitious model with Thatcher’s rhetoric of enterprise which naturalised the material conditions of the lower classes as the result of a failure to embrace her ‘brave new world’.
Ackroyd’s organisation of London’s material history is palimpsestial, returning repeatedly to sites and archetypes in which cyclical repetition is inevitable. In Hawksmoor, the poverty of the eighteenth-century tramps is encapsulated in the image of them dancing in a circle singing the song ‘A Wheel that turns, a Wheel that turned ever, / A Wheel that turns and will leave turning never’ (44). Here, as Murray points out, poverty and inequality are London entities destined to repetition, ‘a systemic suffering that accords with economic rationalist theories of social mobility over social equality’ (44).
Iain Sinclair writes to exorcise the Thatcherite abuse of history by denying the closed narratives deployed during her reign. Like Ackroyd, his fiction violates linear historical narrative but in order to articulate a rejection of the social and cultural values that are at the heart of those models of narrative certainty that institute and celebrate conservative mores. White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1988) develops a historiography of place that investigates the obscene underside of ‘Victorian values’ and parodies economic rationalism. Sinclair privileges idiosyncratic experience or psychogeographic engagement, a subjective encounter with the urban that seeks to undermine discursive structures of power by rupturing the relationship between culture and commoditfication. Murray describes Ackroyd’s fetishisation of certain sites, Clerkenwell, Spitalfields, Limehouse and Holborn, as ahistorical and inexorably tied to the forms of cultural capitalism associated with gentrification and the eighties explosion of the cultural heritage industry. In Ackroyd’s ‘blue plaque London’ (5), the past is to be found in the realm of the commodity; as Sinclair has commented on his monumentalising London: The Biography, it is ‘a franchised version of the past’ (10).
Both Ackroyd and Sinclair are concerned with reinvigorating London through its writers and both share an enthusiasm for William Blake as the poet of the city. Their responses to Blake underline their fundamental dichotomy for Murray. Blake’s political ideology was essential to his visionary aesthetic, his material history confounds mythic logic and although, Murray notes, Ackroyd does attempt to engage with this, his project remains paradoxically stuck in its mythology of London as a transcendent site of timeless vision. While Ackroyd’s Blake (1995) partakes of an atemporal history of the city (and posits a visionary spirit that lives on through himself), Sinclair works to undermine continually both the authority of the past and of the present by rearticulating Blake’s spiritual paradigm as a model for oppositional engagement. Murray reads Sinclair’s work as a complex form of both cartography and Foucauldian genealogy, a spatialised and materialist understanding of literary practice which provides the means for a reassessment of the role of cultural production in contemporary London. The paradox for Sinclair is that his own oppositional practice is no longer immune from incorporation into the cultural logic of commodifiable history.
Murray’s book provides a crucial counter to existing academic criticism of these writers by positioning the formal aspects of their work within its political frame. At a time when the disruptive potential of urban historiography is being subsumed by a wave of generic fiction developed around an East End mythology, he draws our attention to the perpetual necessity of fresh ‘re-callings’ of London.
To Cite This Article:
Anne Witchard, ‘Review of Alex Murray, Recalling London: Literature and History in the work of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair (London: Continuum, 2007), 211 pp. £57.00 (hbk), ISBN-10: 0826497446; ISBN-13: 978-0826497444 ’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 1 (March 2008). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2008/witchard.html. Accessed on [date of access]