Invisible Ink: No 164 - Andrew Sinclair

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The Independent Culture

There is such a thing as too clever.

It's an odd paradox at the heart of many writers' careers; the more wide-ranging their ideas and prolific their output, the more wilful and outrageous their talents, the harder it is to stay appreciative of them. They maintain a determinedly loyal, intelligent readership while the mainstream stampedes to the latest fiction fad, and for the British botanist and surgeon Andrew Sinclair, I imagine this is satisfaction enough.

Born in 1936, educated at Eton and Cambridge, where he received a Double First in History, Sinclair used his memories of National Service to write The Breaking of Bumbo, an impudent rogue's progress through the Brigade of Guards that exposes its snobbery and elitism. The film version vanished from sight, despite an iconic poster of a bearskinned guard lying prone on a parade ground.

Unusually, Sinclair has successfully balanced fiction and non-fiction in almost equal amounts, with biographies of Jack London, Che Guevara (his most popular book), Dylan Thomas, John Ford and Francis Bacon, histories of the United States, Great Britain, the Cambridge spies, and the Arts Council. He also directed the "unfilmable" film version of Under Milk Wood.

But it's in his fiction that a favourite theme emerges; the epic foundation of national identity. His novel Gog starts with a seven-foot giant washed up on a Scottish beach and turns into a picaresque search for belonging. Together with Magog and King Ludd it formed his Albion triptych, which takes us from the distant mythical past to the age of the computer in a lucid dream state that's monumental, Gothic, and quite deranged – but often scabrously funny. The books combine a very English attitude with an expansive American style of storytelling, to the benefit of both. Like all truly ambitious epics they were met with confusion and will be feted in 20 years, but for now are hard to find.

Sinclair's own lineage created a fascination with the Freemasons and the path of the Holy Grail to Rosslyn Chapel that led him into slightly nuttier territory, although with a lot more success and insight than Dan Brown's blithe trampling of the facts. And here's another paradox; were it not for the trashy The Da Vinci Code factory, Sinclair's trilogy concerning the facts behind the fiction would doubtless have struggled to find publication. He continues to write and broadcast on the subject, but for me his masterwork is the infuriating Albion trilogy, which deserves republication.