London: City Of Disappearances, edited by Iain Sinclair

The lost worlds of a white man's city, filtered through rose-tinted nostalgia

Ian Thomson
Thursday 07 December 2006 01:00 GMT

Iain Sinclair, the veteran chronicler of subcultural London, has edited this anthology of writings on the metropolis, much of it commissioned. It has many excellent contributions as well as inevitable omissions. Of 59 authors, only the Trinidad-born Vahni Capildeo writes of West Indian London. Commonwealth immigrants (as they used to be called) are conspicuous by their absence.

Amply represented is the London of displaced East European Jewry. The lost world of Yiddishkeit, with its sorrows, has a romantic aura that renders it suitable for Peter Ackroyd-style fable-making; the same cannot be said of contemporary black London. Sinclair charts an overwhelmingly white man's metropolis, filtered through a rose-tinted nostalgia for East End gangster memoirs, Gothic shockers and Yiddish cockneys. He contributes many pieces himself.

The tourist's West End is also absent: Stephen Smith's hilarious account of the old Raymond Revuebar is an exception. London's true heart of darkness remains in the east. Emanuel Litvinoff, chronicler of the old Hasidic lands north of Whitechapel Road, is commemorated in Patrick Wright's superb contribution, which relates how London Jewry was augmented in the 1880s by refugees from anti-Semitic Tsarist Russia.

Anthony Rudolf, raised in Hampstead Garden Suburb, published Primo Levi in English as long ago as 1976. At the time, he had made a series of tape-recordings of his grandfather Josef Rudolf. The transcripts poignantly chronicle a vanished world.

Rudolf's interest in "disappeared" London is shared by Rachel Lichtenstein who, with Sinclair, wrote Rodinsky's Room. Lichtenstein has long sought to revive a memory of the Jewish East End. Her fine contribution celebrates the Polish Jewish poet AN Stencel, whose life contained, in essence, a disappeared world of London's diaspora Jewry.

In 12 chapters, the anthology takes the reader though many of the shadowy London "zones" explored by Sinclair in his fiction and travelogues. Bibliophile contributors such as Martin Stone and the late Jeff Nutall share his enthusiasm for off-piste London literature and the metropolitan boondocks. Interestingly, Sinclair is not a Londoner: he was born in a Welsh mining town, the son of a Scots doctor. City of Disappearances would have benefited from cutting, but there are real gems in the sum of his exploration of non-native lands.

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