London: City of Disappearances ed Iain Sinclair

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The Independent Culture

The moment I spotted Iain Sinclair described on the cover of this book as "London's unofficial spokesperson", I felt a little uneasy. A city of such size and history can have no single representative, and while there's no denying Sinclair's extraordinary commitment to cataloguing the arcane and peripheral dreams of the metropolis, his airless prose can sometimes obscure as much as it reveals. When it comes to London, there are times when you long for the lurid clarity of a Hogarth print, only to get the ambiguous tangents of a beat poet.

However, here we have Sinclair acting as ringmaster and participant in a cavalcade of eloquent writing acts, mostly about faces and places that have been lost in the headlong rush of the years. Disappeared London is a very broad brief indeed, but the editor has filled this immense anthology with his favourite topics, which surface in essays and extracts designed to excite and occasionally annoy.

First, the bad news: expect few spotlights to be shone into the dark corners of political, royal, architectural or scientific London history, and nothing very direct or epic in scale. Rather, we get sidelong personal reminiscences from occasionally unreliable narrators, plenty of nostalgie de la boue, largely from old Etonians looking to degrade themselves on a diet of Thomas De Quincey, porn and underground jazz, and an emphasis on Bloomsbury poets and Soho bohos which narrows some of the anthology's focus to that of specialist interest. J G Ballard contributes just two paragraphs, and Will Self only a little more, while fog-patches of unedifying poetry add an atmosphere redolent of a basement folk club circa 1955.

Balancing this, though, are some truly wonderful choices, instinctively themed to flow from section to section, often with recurring characters and events. Lost Yiddish poets and writers of the East End have their worlds lovingly recreated, as the hard lives of Stencl and Litvinoff are described by Rachel Lichtenstein and Patrick Wright in essays that capture not only their daily braveries, but the sense of enrichment they brought to London life. Kathi Diamant provides an account of her relative Dora's absurd arrest as an alien, following the House of Lords' wartime decision that "women spies are much more dangerous than men", and caps it with an exhilarating graveside conclusion. While Jewish lives were crucial to the character of the East End, vocational booksellers kept literature alive in the West End. Michael Moorcock unearths an evocative account of a life lost to pulps, comics and literary mysticism, while others recall working days passed in shops like Better Books and the legendary Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed SF store, late of Berwick Street, buried behind the market stalls.

Appropriately, immigrant stories abound. In particular, Vahni Capildeo tries to coax memories of arrival in London from her Trinidadian mother, only to be dismayed when her initial response confirms West Indian stereotypes. Vanished parts of London are recalled - the White City, Tolmer Square, Hockley-in-the-Hole - as well as parts that never were - Anthony Frewin tackles the mystery of the misnamed Tufnell Park (there's no park, and never was). Marina Warner remembers the witches of Camden (if she'd stuck her head inside the door of the Black Cap pub, she'd have found herself facing a peculiar tiled wall featuring one of them). Sarah Wise adds to the lists of deletions and disappearances by recalling everything from London's Resurrection Men to its silkworm suppliers, and John Seed has the neat idea of setting Henry Mayhew's accounts of the London poor in verse form. Many of these writers touch on subjects I'd like to know more about. Frewin speaks of the now-lost North London accent with broad, flattened vowels. Carol Williams quotes the concept of memory being geographic, pointing out that you need to return to a place in order to recall your past. A tantalising newspaper clipping decides the guilt of the Ratcliffe Highway murderer once and for all. Ballard compares the Westway to Angkor Wat, but his piece is sadly over before it starts.

Along with memory, mischief and touches of magical realism, there's outright fiction, although the lines remain blurred. Tibor Fischer unfolds the brilliantly disorienting tale of a woman whose life vanishes under her feet when she returns home to find the locks changed. Nicholas Royle delivers the characteristically eerie story, only slightly fictionalised, of a man unraveling while tracking down the houses of murderers. Royle almost manages to top his Bad Sex literary award by including a passage where the hero trades a sexual favour for a reeking chunk of human fat.

Some pieces teeter into pretension, so that an otherwise fascinating investigation into the literary past of a dead house cleaner by Richard Humphreys can contain this sentence: "He was taken to hospital and died without regaining consciousness - although a friend and I attempted to get some response by playing Mozart and Sidney Bechet to him." At its best, London: City of Disappearances feels like oral history, personal tales recounted in cafés and pubs with steamed-up windows, and perhaps it deserves to be a multimedia project. One of the most powerful passages occurs when the Sinclair family set out to discover the fate of a fallen soldier whose life is memorialised on a railway monument. At this point, artifice and artistry fall away to reveal a moving, simple truth: the city covers human traces that only the most determined souls can find.

Perhaps the spirit of London is not best represented by an insistence on the power of psychogeography. The effect of location and history on our present becomes slighter with each passing year, and London now seems more closely allied to modern New York or Tokyo than to its own past. Contrarily, though, the reconfigured city demands an anthology like this - partisan, fugitive, anecdotal - to remind us of the irascible quirkiness of its residents, and we have Sinclair to thank for marshalling such a perverse and ultimately pleasurable enterprise.