:: Article

Last Exit to Beckton

By John Houghton.

Iain Sinclair, The Last London, Oneworld, 2017

The soulful strands of Sinclair’s threnody are almost lost of in a sea of quotidian bile. Toward the end of The Last London, Sinclair’s prose reaches a peak of sublime lyricism. He is narrating his epic perambulations around the London and the South Coast, conversing with himself, with friends dead and living, with the earth, the bracken and the gloaming.

This is a quality of writing that comes from deep and sustained engagement with place, in this case the capital and its vast hinterland. The final walk retold in the book is a mystical journey in the footsteps of King Harold. The problem with The Last London is that the reader has to navigate long stretches of the author’s peevish rage and sour contempt to reach these uplifting passages.

Joggers, cyclists, health and safety regulations (I kid you not…), hotel room swipe cards and umbrellas all trigger the author’s ire. At worse, these are everyday irritation, yet Sinclair recasts them as evidential items for this rather vague case that London has “lost its soul” and is now a “suburb of everywhere”.

The style aims for T. S. Eliot, recounting lost souls going about their hollow lives in the unreal city, but reads more like J. R. Hartley, betraying his befuddlement at the modern world. And we don’t stop there. Shared desk spaces, that most benign of office space management innovations, are a repeated cause of anger beyond all reason.

Yet even worse than the “shared desk digital zombies” are the “phone addicts” with their “smart electronic devices” who are most guilty for the snuffing out of London’s soul. How, why, is never quite made clear.

There are flashes of brilliant wit amidst all of this. Sinclair usually carries some of camera on his walks, a habit which often attracts the attention of over-zealous security guards in semi-privatised ‘public’ spaces. He describes how traditional “depictions of London, like postcards: red buses, lads playing cricket, St Paul’s Cathedral” are “basically all the things that you now fall under suspicion for photographing”.

Yet the usual tone is one of sneering contempt. At one point, the author observes that commuters “never appreciate in their neurotic haste that they are a lowly manifestation of the human soup”. What a charming way to describe your fellow city-dwellers. It recalls his contribution to Restless Cities, which was also reviewed here. In that piece, Sinclair evoked the Nazis, to describe commuter “in their viral torpedoes: coughing, spluttering, wired to Nuremberg headsets and implant earpieces”.

To return to my opening theme, Sinclair is a prose artist of rare talent. If only he wasted less energy kibitzing about office space and brollies, and spent more time in communion with the sublime.

John P. Houghton is a freelance consultant, commentator and evaluator. He is the author of Jigsaw Cities and tweets @metlines. You can read all of John’s published work here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 23rd, 2017.