Few people know London like Iain Sinclair. The writer and filmmaker has been roaming its streets since the 1960s, reflecting on the city’s culture and structure and tuning into the echoes of its history and literature. Over the years, the writer has produced a body of work that includes poetry, fiction, literary essay, film and psycho-geographical investigation, each form a different way of coming to terms with the city over time.
Sinclair’s latest collection of writing, The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City, concludes this fifty-year cycle. In his final pilgrimage through the city, Sinclair observes his surroundings from different viewpoints: as he swims in the luxury pool at the top of the Shard, or as he walks beside the muddy waters of the Regent’s Canal. He goes underground to look at the new phenomenon of bunkers being dug beneath the houses of the most affluent. The cultural significance of every detail does not escape Sinclair’s sharp wit. This time there is a sense of irreparability in the writer’s tone. The London he sees is a stretched, unfathomable place whose memory and future are threatened by money-driven development and regeneration.
We spoke over the phone in the spring about the ever-evolving spirit of London and the role literature and human interaction can play in keeping its inhabitants present.
—Teresa O’Connell for Guernica
Guernica: Is this book the last installment, the conclusion of what we might call your bigger literary project on London?
Iain Sinclair: I didn’t plan it that way. But as I got into it, yes, I saw it was the conclusion of the series I’ve been doing on the question of what London is. Has it got a kind of soul of its own? Is it something with its own identity that regenerates? It’s been a city and ceased to be a city several times in the past. In the early days of the Roman settlement, London wasn’t the capital, then it became the capital, then it got wiped out, then it disappeared. There was a first London and then there was no London, and then it came back again, and so on. This has happened several times in various ways. I think this is the end of a long-ish cycle that began to conclude in the early 1980s with Thatcher and the creation of Canary Wharf and Docklands out of the isle of Dogs, and sped up with all kinds of developments right through to the period we are in now. It more or less finished around the idea of the Olympic project, which was a kind of smokescreen for the great moment of handing the whole thing over to massive global and corporate interest in which political figures have no influence whatsoever.
Guernica: What effect has this had on the city?
Iain Sinclair: It’s a much more fragmented and alienated city. It increasingly suits the very rich, who are almost invisible to the general population: they’re hiding behind façades, they are burrowing into the earth and creating deeper and deeper spaces that can not be seen or regulated, and they’re often buying buildings that are just investments or investment silos where nobody actually lives. The poorer people at the other end of it are becoming more visible to the rest of us. It’s almost like Victorian times. There are so many people sleeping beside the canals or in parks. These two groups are invisible to each other. That’s an unstable force field, and it’s a dangerous situation.
On the other hand it’s more of a global city in terms of the people who live there. When I go out, I hear almost every language under the sun. And yet, bizarrely, because the rest of the country was voting to come out of Europe, there’s an attitude of isolationism, some idea that European bureaucracies are in charge of us. There’s a certain paranoia about that, that has, again, threatened the nature of what London is.
Guernica: How would you describe the city’s soul?
Iain Sinclair: Well it’s hard to do—that’s what I’m trying to get at in the book. I think it is a strange, ambivalent soul with has elements of darkness and light that go right back to the founding myths and how the Roman legionaries used to worship Mithras, who was the god of both darkness and light. His temple was submerged below the ground, but also had an area above the ground. London has beautiful and extraordinary light that shifts and changes on the river, the sort of light that someone like Turner spends his whole life trying to capture on the river or by looking at the sky in the Thames estuary. Underneath, there has always been a brutal strain of repression and control and hierarchies and places of execution and darkness. You have these two things pulling against each other all the time. On the one hand, you have altruism and vision, with characters like William Blake. On the other hand, you have people who see London as a machine for control and for generating and protecting private wealth and fortunes. Now, more than anything, that seems to be what London is about: offering protection to the most dubious money interests who find it good to live here and letting them pretty much do whatever they want in a deregulated way.
Guernica: How does this impact the city’s renowned cultural scene?
Iain Sinclair: One of the things that’s selling London is precisely that, a kind of PR spin that this is a city of terrific creativity and culture, which basically means internet activities, design, fashion, street fashion, making art or graffiti. There’s no serious culture because there’s no government support for it. Despite this, there’s an energy of people who are keeping pretty active. So, in some strange ways, it has energized people, because they now know that they risk being under threat.
I also think that people now are so totally wedded to electronic media, that [culture] happens in a very fast twitch, a sort of instantaneous way. There is no real memory, no sense of engagement with the past, which is a richer form of culture. I don’t mean you’ve got to be stuck in it, but you’ve got to be aware that there is a history before you. [Culture] isn’t all just about what can be tweaked and twitched in the simplest possible way. As people move around, they literally don’t see what’s around them, because they’re wedded to these earworms that are burrowing into their heads endlessly in a kind of negotiation with these tiny screens. They’re not looking at the world and the weather and the geology that surrounds them. London could become a virtual city—it could hardly be there anymore.
Guernica: Do you think this phenomenon is inevitable?
Iain Sinclair: Yeah, I do. The city feels more claustrophobic, and its speed is getting faster and faster. People are moving faster—you can see that in the streets. Partly that’s because of the electronic devices, which encourage this. I’m talking of a particular demographic—the early morning jogging culture, to keep you fit for the hours and hours and hours you’re going to be standing or sitting at a screen. People are pushed, particularly creative people, further and further out, maybe to Berlin, maybe to the South Coast, Hastings, or they’re moving right out to the edges of London. Places are being swept away and replaced by developments that have no public housing element to them at all. Particular areas are becoming bought and owned by particular individuals or organizations from China, Russia, wherever. But they have nothing to do with London, apart from that geographically they’re in this part of the world.
Guernica: Let’s talk a bit more about the book, The Last London. What are the themes and what is the style?
Iain Sinclair: It’s quite a lively book, almost a hybrid between a novel and a book of investigation, documentation, speculation. It has a fictive tone to it, but it’s all true material, partly based on journeys and walks. It starts off in a particular piece of ground, a park which was designed in the 1950s to look like a boat. It was once a working gasworks that was hit during in the war by a V-2 rocket, and out of this rubble came this park. Now it’s a place where some particular characters who have dropped out of society will go and sit without moving. I got interested in the contradiction between people who are understanding the city by not moving a single inch, by remaining in the same place all the time, and people like me who are constantly roaming around. Maybe we’re doing the same thing by totally opposite means.
Then I investigate a small section of the canal. The demographic there is interesting as a kind of cultural history. When I first lived there, it was a working canal and woodyards, and no one was allowed onto the bank. Then gradually it was taken over by walkers and fishermen. Since the development of the Olympic zone, there are no fish anymore, and it’s become a cycling track. Now you can hardly set foot on the canal banks because of the weight of the bicycles. At the same time there were rough sleepers at certain points under the railway bridges, who were not seen and stayed there for a length of time, and then were arrested and swept out. There are these continuous battles. Then in the last section I met a poet called Stephen Watts who had been a big friend of W. G. Sebald. He was the one who had taken him on his walks through the East End of London, which became the story in Austerlitz. So it was interesting to walk with Steven, talking about Sebald who had done this kind of writing about London, in the footsteps of the person who had given him the material that became the original book.
In the center of the book I’m looking at the phenomenon of digging under London, as well as the huge tower blocks, particularly the Shard, that are looming over London. The latter part of the book is a series of walks, including a night walk and a “Brexit walk” in which we go from Waltham Abbey, in the northern outskirts of London, right through the city and down to the South Coast. Before that, I’d walked to Barking, which is the end of the railway line which they are trying to turn into a huge development for people who can’t afford to live in London anymore. That walk happened to be on the day that Trump got elected president, so there’s a very strange atmosphere altogether in this passage. All these different things come together in the book as a memoir of the different periods that I have lived in this city.
Guernica: Is walking a way for you to challenge the city?
Iain Sinclair: Walking is increasingly a sort of final democracy. The weight of what’s being [politically] imposed is very much anti-walking, and has to do with control of space, creating public areas you can’t walk in—which are completely covered by surveillance, policing, private spaces, gated communities, and unexplained entities at the edge of things. So walking around becomes actually difficult. But the walking process is the oldest natural form of movement. It puts you literally in touch with the earth and the weather around you and allows you to get into conversation with people as you move, which seldom happens in the other ways we move. The conversations I see cyclists get into are arguments, crashes, rows, and the walker’s not in that. The walker exists in a long tradition, and, for me, it’s really vital to simply be out there every day—not only because it feels good, but because in doing it you contribute to the microclimate of the city. As you withdraw energy from the city, you are also giving energy back. People are noticing you. You’re doing something, you’re there, the species around you absorb your presence into it, and you become part of this animate entity called the city.
Guernica: What’s the value of writing vis-à-vis the city?
Iain Sinclair: Writing means you’re alive, and you’re bearing witness, which is a significant role. The more people do that, the better. It’s a way of venturing into dialogue. There’s always been a steady stream of writing about London, and it’s interesting to see how that stream has changed. I’d say from the 1930s, ‘40s, even ‘50s, a lot of writing about London was social realism. There were books based upon accounts of Jewish life that were often fairly tough, either criminal stories or stories of the struggle to survive. Then the idea of writing theoretical books about London burgeoned as a genre. At the same time, the coffee table, touristy books about London emerged—the kinds of books that can be written on Google, rather than books that are written by people of the abyss. I’m interested in someone who arrives and takes this journey into the night side of London in the tradition of Mayhew or Dickens, who goes out there and is constantly wandering and finding and having collisions and bringing back stories and shaping a narrative. There are other people who are doing things in a similar way, perhaps with a more journalistic approach, finding people and interviewing them and taking their stories. But many books about London are very conceptual and just done by doing research sitting at a laptop. I don’t think this challenges the city. It’s making a parallel city of the imagination, of literature. There’s room for that too, but then the work would have to be done in very different ways.