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Books: City of dreadful night

Elizabeth Young visits the London underground
Lights Out for the Territory by Iain Sinclair, Granta Books, pounds 12.99

Iain Sinclair's London has slowly mutated into a literary territory as recognisable as "Greeneland". Open this book at random, and there it is: "There is a decayed Unitarian chapel at 49, Ball's Pond Road...". All such mythical landscapes are the product of obsesssion: their territory is refracted and hallucinatory. In Sinclair's case, is he just a bit player in the Cockney cliches of the Kray brothers melodrama? Or have the twin hounds of Vallance Road finally been brought to heel as permanent exhibits in the major arcana of the Sinclair epic?

It was Iain Sinclair in his awesome 1993 essay "The Look" who divined the toppling of an empire from Tony Lambrianou's description of spotting Ron Kray without a tie. "This was a signal" wrote Sinclair, "a flag of surrender to the inevitable". The bell was tolling for that Sixties triad: "Villainy, business, image." If Sinclair can read all that into one open- necked shirt, imagine what he can do for the rest of London.

These nine prose pieces - in which Sinclair, like Huck Finn, "lights out" for his Territory - form a powerful distillation of all that is best, most potent and accessible in Sinclair's work. Here is a mind at the height of its powers, who can quote Homer or Carl Hiaasen with equal facility. He sees the living streets of London as a crucible where Bill Sykes and Beckett's Murphy, Blake, Wren, the Angry Brigade and a sludge of politicians whirl forever, each illuminating the others' dreams.

Since the publication of his last novel, Radon Daughters, Sinclair has been dragged from small-press obscurity and hailed as one of the few major talents of his generation. His long, visionary apprenticeship in the shadows and his intellectual integrity mark him as more than just a standard-bearer for alternative writing and artistic dissidence.

Sinclair's view of London may be contagious, but it testifies to an idiosyncratic struggle with literary heritage and tradition. He excised sentimentality from the Beat sensibility, returned Allen Ginsberg's inspiration to its origins in Blake's London and created a parallel, mythopoeiac universe of his own.

It is ironic that Sinclair's earlier work - prose poems such as "Bladud", "Suicide Bridge" and "Lud Heat", the in utero version of Peter Ackroyd's novel Hawksmoor - was considered too obscure for easy publication while his later, far more difficult novels met with widespread praise. The early work's combination of documentary reportage and autobiographical intersections allowed Sinclair to present his multi-faceted view of time and history. This "non-fiction" is such a mythical concoction in itself that the novels could only float further out into a trance state of linguistic hypnosis.

Sinclair's preoccupations remain consistent - an ur-London, his personal psychogeography, the Whitechapel murders of 1888; churches, cemeteries, graffiti, texts. His chance configurations allow an endless present, mingling fact and fiction, to bleed back through the city's ruins. Tales of his all-too-real co-conspirators (deranged book-dealers and maddened poets) seep into his fictions, while his own fictional creations stalk his non-fiction essays.

Among these essays, some - including the memorable account of Ronnie Kray's funeral, a guided tour of Rachel Whiteread's "House" and a dismemberment of P D James' Cadaver Club - were originally commissioned as shorter pieces. Others are constructed around Sinclair's lengthy walks with long-suffering photographer Marc Atkins. "Drifting purposefully", they noted and decoded a fusillade of fragments.

Blake, Dickens and T S Eliot hover purposefully in the hinterlands. Otherwise the view is a charged smog of trace memories, psychic voodoo, urban paranoia and filmic metaphor. Sinclair weaves a homespun, neo-occult web from a hoard including Dr John Dee, the Rosicrucians, Grail legends, the Invisible College, ley-lines, maps and conspiracies - an entire car-boot sale of alchemy and hermeticism. These forces, whether focused on pit-bull terriers or Jeffrey Archer's residence at Alembic House, spark a spidery trail of correspondences that thread through history.

There is nothing faddishly New Age about Sinclair. His mood is mordant, dark, ironic. The occult provides structures which - as with the Tarot in Eliot's "The Waste Land" - stretch like Jacob's ladder, "pitched between Heaven and Charing Cross". Sinclair aligns himself with an angelic crew of London low-life chroniclers, including Alexander Baron, Bernard Kops, Patrick Hamilton and Arthur Machen. He provides notable pen-portraits of those he has known, such as the art guerrilla Stuart Home, the late Robin Cook (who wrote as Derek Raymond), and poet Aidan Dunn.

The cornerstones of Sinclair's gnomic vision appear to be, first, his self-definition as "someone congenitally incapable of accepting the notion of `accident'". Second, he is "cursed with the obsession [with] books as icons, books as a form of race memory". Last, he believes that the city can divulge an encoded, subterranean text. Signs, however they appear, can be read.

So, just as Sinclair describes the pit-bull thrown from a balcony and granted a "brief, privileged view of Hackney", his readers are granted their own brief, privileged view of a festering London, its pathologies exposed by a fine intelligence.