:: Article

Back in Orbit

By Anna Aslanyan.


Iain Sinclair, London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line (Hamish Hamilton, 2015)

Over a decade after London Orbital, Iain Sinclair went on another circular journey. This walk, shorter but no less demanding, was prompted by his encounter with a group of youngsters in fancy dress about to board an Overground train at New Cross Gate to travel to a party in Shoreditch. They told him how they chose locations for parties somewhere along the newly completed Ginger Line and kept the details secret till the last moment. Reminded of the famous M25 raves that started soon after the opening of the London orbital motorway in 1986, Sinclair felt compelled to write about the revived rail network: to see how it had changed London’s topography and spirit.

The 35-mile journey along the Overground circuit, from Haggerston to Wapping to Peckham to Clapham and further west, all the way to Willesden Junction, before returning to Hackney via Hampstead and Camden, is filled with ruminations and rants (to use his own word). Sinclair points out that the “NEW WORLD CLASS, AFFORDABLE RAILWAY” actually uses “tracks unused and allowed to rot in the Thatcher period”. New bridges “are constructed to abort vision, deny ocular trespass”, and when you do manage to peek over them, all you see is yet another luxury development, or pop-up shopping mall, or Idea Store, billed as a community library, offering anything but books. Sinclair’s home ground has been hit hard: “The arrival of the Overground … signalled the political emasculation of Hackney and its rebirth as hip boomtown.” Other areas he visits appear to be similarly gentrified, to the extent that their only stories worth telling belong to the past. Whether or not you agree with this view, some of the stories Sinclair tells are very good.

“No journey is worth undertaking,” Sinclair writes, “without al least one fruitful detour.” This principle takes him to Brixton, which for him “was the ideal starting point for half a century of London venturing”. As he walks towards Clapham, his subjects range from Patrick Keiller to Apollinaire (still known as Wilhelm Kostrowicki when he visited London in 1904 on a romantic quest) to Angela Carter, a long-time resident of the area. Sinclair remembers visiting Carter at her home where she would sign copies of her books for him, back in his bookdealing days. Another vivid scene is Carter’s exuberant appearance as “a flurry of bags, scarf, hair, bus, bad connections from distant Clapham” at a lunch in Bloomsbury (the Overground wouldn’t have facilitated her journey in any case). Reminiscing about Carter’s relationship with the city, Sinclair recalls another South Londoner, Michael Moorcock, with whom he once approached the river, walking from the north: “He froze. … He wouldn’t cross the Thames; it was a kind of death.” Further down the line, other figures appear: Leon Kossoff, who found inspiration in London’s railways and shared with J. G. Ballard “that sense of contemporary record as prophecy”; Freud, who spent his last years in Hampstead and had much in common with Sherlock Holmes; numerous lesser-known but equally fascinating characters.

Reading the book, I was glad to see Sinclair’s trademark verbless sentences back in use:

A line of taxis, engines thumping. A giant pair of severed grey hands dumped in a mesh cage for potential refurbishment. Green-and-blue periscope towers. Novelty flats built in expectation of the railway effect. Blind roundabouts. Contradictory road markings. Humming vaults where machines are housed to keep the whole complicated ecosystem breathing.

Last November, after reading a piece he had published in the London Review of Books, I asked Sinclair: “So you’ve started using verbs again?” “Have I? Damn,” he said, and we laughed. The conversation took place in a South London gallery after a performance inspired by the mad poet John Clare. By Our Selves was the result of collaboration between Sinclair and Andrew Kötting, who had accompanied the author on his walk around the Ginger Line. London Overground is peppered with their talk, which touches upon Clare, motorbikes, gay trysting and cinema, among other things. Kötting, a filmmaker, Millwall fan and hearty eater, generally lightens up the mood, now posing for a photo, now striking a conversation with a stranger. At some point he buys a paperback of Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here (wrongly spelled in the text with a question mark), “just the right size to block a crack under the door of the hut he’d built inside the sailmakers’ loft he used for a communal studio in Hastings”, which becomes a prop in their trek-cum-performance. Another book Kötting buys, London Falling by Paul Cornell, ends up in a tent that has replaced the now closed Kensal Rise Library.

Sinclair once called Downriver, his satire of Thatcher-era London, “a grimoire of rivers and railways”; now he writes: “And I’ve never really advanced from there. Rivers and railways as a system of divination, invocations of supernatural entities, angels, spirits, demons.” Indeed, there are plenty of recurring motifs in this book: visionaries and vagrants, pilgrims and performers, gentrification and other plagues. There are also new territories, such as Kensington, which, although holding “no memories to exploit” for Sinclair, invokes “disconnected incidents and flash-frames from some sealed archive at the sump of consciousness”. Back in Hackney, he keeps its past alive and campaigns for its future: most recently, to save Dalston Lane, a terrace of Georgian buildings facing demolition. The campaign, briefly mentioned in the book, hasn’t been successful so far.

Much as I admire Sinclair’s work (and stamina: 35 miles within a single day), I find it hard to fully subscribe to his ranting in London Overground. With a few exceptions — mostly people, plus some food joints and “rickety stacks of pallet boards that are not art” — 21st-century London leaves him jaded. Granted, there are, and always must have been, places in London that make you cringe at best; my current pet hate is that building site known as “the heart of Mayfair”, where developers are “creating a new story” among the half-ruined embassies of countries that no longer seem to exist. But “a city in the process of losing its soul”? I don’t see that, not even in reference to Ballard.

The walk follows the Overground loop and doesn’t cover the branch that goes to Stratford, which was in Sinclair’s sights as he was “Calling Time on the Grand Project” (aka the 2012 Olympics) in Ghost Milk. “I suppose after a while the Olympic Park will become a strange waste land,” he told me in a 2011 interview. A bike ride I recently took around the area proved him right. But then, as I continued on foot into Stratford, after fighting my way through two shopping malls, I saw Lympic, a café that had been ordered to drop the “O” from its sign because of its proximity to the only business with the right to use the sacred O-word. Passing by, I noticed that the café was doing a decent trade, and thought it would be good if Sinclair could return to this part of London, a notepad in hand. Should Kötting be unavailable to act as his “foil, informant, partner in absurdity”, I’d be happy to step in.

Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant, and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 8th, 2015.