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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?