Iain Sinclair and his wife, Anna, bought their East London house in 1968 for £3,000. At that time, it had an outdoor toilet, and baths involved heating water on the stove and filling a tin tub. Many of the surrounding properties were both uninhabited and uninhabitable. Those that were occupied housed the working-class white Britons known as East Enders, along with a smattering of artists and bohemians like the Sinclairs. Today, Sinclair refers to his street as Millionaires’ Row, a symbol of changes to his beloved city that he finds alarming.
Sinclair, of Scottish heritage, grew up in a small town in Wales and went to college in Dublin. But his life and work are inextricably linked to London, a city whose history, landscape, and culture are subjects he has pursued through poems, novels, films, and, most famously, half a dozen works of impressionistic nonfiction, beginning with 1996’s Lights Out for the Territory. An avid walker, he has organized his perambulations around the M25 ring road (2002’s London Orbital), the site of the 2012 London Olympics (2012’s Ghost Milk), and the Overground rail system (2015’s London Overground), as well as his home borough of Hackney (2008’s Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire). But now, as the title of his new book, The Last London (Oneworld, Jan. 2018) intimates, Sinclair says he feels that he has nothing more to say about the city in which he has lived and written for almost half a century.
Why is he leaving behind the source of his ongoing creative inspiration? Sinclair explains that the city has undergone such dramatic changes in recent years that to him it is now, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, an “unreal city,” transformed into “a construct ever more fictional.” His understanding of London has always been grounded in a “difficult architecture of books,” whereas to write about the city today, he claims, he would need “a fast-twitch, in-the-now consciousness,” because the landscape is changing so quickly and so dramatically, and its transformation is erasing those traces of an older city that persisted over centuries.
When Sinclair first came to London in the 1960s, he says, it was still possible to find “portals back in time”: there were still parts of the city that were “quite Dickensian”—where heaps of rubble from WWII bomb damage remained, cars were few, and many houses, such as his own, still lacked indoor toilets. In his first novel, 1987’s White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, a group of book dealers in modern East London are drawn into the anxieties of the Victorian city with its cholera outbreaks and the notorious crimes of Jack the Ripper.
Of course, London has undergone a series of sweeping changes since Sinclair arrived—from the socially and economically challenging ’70s to the Thatcher era and Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia.” What Sinclair claims is distinctive and troubling about the latest round of changes is that the guiding force in the city is not its inhabitants, or even its political leaders, but rather its property developers and buyers. He sees the developers as pricing more and more people out of London while transforming it into a place ever less like other parts of Britain and more like other increasingly gentrified and touristed metropolises, such as Barcelona; tiny flats sell for eye-watering prices, largely to overseas buyers who neither inhabit nor rent them out but simply hold them as investments.
Sinclair feels that “civic memory and cultural memory are now under siege.” The Shard, a luxury hotel and office building that is London’s tallest structure, looms over the former site of the Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison to which the young Charles Dickens’s father was confined. Sinclair fears that London’s history—which has provided so much inspiration to him and to so many other writers, artists, and musicians—is irrevocably slipping away, along with the “sense that you could discover things” just by walking and looking.
While Sinclair blames unrestricted property development for many of the changes he most deplores, he also feels that many Londoners, particularly younger people, engage very differently with the urban environment than those of previous generations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he considers technology to be responsible for some of these unwelcome changes, arguing that “the smartphone has killed agenda-less walking” because it tethers its user to the virtual rather than the physical world and makes it much harder for one to become immersed in his or her surroundings. As a dedicated pedestrian, he is not pleased by the dramatically increased popularity of urban cycling; to him, bicycles “wage open warfare with flânerie,” forcing walkers off pavements and disrupting their passage through the city.
Is there any hope, then, that London can resist what seems like an unstoppable tide of property speculation and hypercapitalism? Sinclair seems to be of two minds on this issue. On the one hand, visiting Munster Square, a shabby corner of central London as yet untouched by developers, he fears the advent of “predators looking to exploit these kinds of places to make a fast buck” without regard for the needs and wants of the residents. He is not convinced that London’s current demographic has the “energies” necessary for a “successful resistance,” particularly as so many people seem to him to exist in “a completely electronic world.”
Sinclair’s work, however, continues to offer glimpses of individuals who are literally and figuratively marginal in the modern city but continue to exist within it. As with the man in The Last London whom Sinclair names the Vegetative Buddha, who sits unmoving in a public park near Sinclair’s home, these individuals somehow find a way to withdraw from London’s present without leaving it—to “let the city flow through them.” These people, he claims, “anchor the city.” Seeing the dispossessed encamped in a small public park near the Marshalsea site, he predicts that, when the Shard “shatters and is replaced by something bigger and brighter, the wooden benches and the people perched on them will still be here.”
Whatever the fate of London, Sinclair intends that his next work will take him thousands of miles away. He plans to write about his great-grandfather, a Scottish botanist employed in the 1890s by the Peruvian Corporation of London. Reading his ancestor’s journals, which recount in detail his encounters with the indigenous people of Peru, Sinclair was amazed to find that “his style is very like my own.” He plans to travel soon to Latin America with his daughter, where he will work to excavate his family’s past, perhaps much as he has for decades done for his adopted city.
Natalie Zacek teaches American studies at the University of Manchester.