Alan Moore reviews The Last London by Iain Sinclair
Monumental in every sense, The Last London is a beautifully-chiselled hieroglyphic capstone set in place atop the fifty-year-high edifice of Iain Sinclair’s city writings, all the rising lines of the enquiry brought together in a Shard-like and impaling spike as the most potent voice in English letters finally gets to the point.
The point, the sharp end of a thesis that has penetrated the metropolis to its last pavement-crack and last redacted voice, is endings and obliterations: districts, histories, human realities displaced by pipedream CGI or airbrushed retro-continuity; whole areas of Sinclair’s vital 4Dmap aggressively erased even as they were being drafted; galaxies of urban information swallowed up in the black singularity of a policy document’s final full stop.
This is a startling cartography of holes, which questions whether the landscape described can still be said, in any useful sense, to be there. In the half-a-century since he commenced his Hackney tenancy with the precarious Allen Ginsberg documentary detailed in Kodak Mantra Diaries, the wildfire in Sinclair’s writing has been focussed by his many subsequent excursions to a roaring blue lance of acetylene, bending hard language into thrilling new shapes with its heat and dazzle.
The Last London’s prose, as masterful a schooling in that art as ever, nevertheless possesses warmth as well as heat, allowing us a sense of the compassionate, discriminating, psychologically well-fashioned man behind the welding goggles and intimidating literary style. Beginning from the fixed point of a vagrant sat for so long on a HaggerstonPark bench that he’s become a topographic feature, Sinclair lights out on the sightline of this “Vegetative Buddha” to discover missing stained-glass saints, emergent narrowboat communities retooling Shoreditch as Shanghai and murdered television personalities bobbing in Broadway Market basin.
He dogs the Whitechapel steps of profound melancholic W.G. Sebald and pursues ‘Mole Man of Hackney’ William Lyttle’s spittle-flecked route to a soon to be fracked underworld of subterranean art installations and proliferating basement cinemas. He samples the frenetic and dissociative vocal soundtrack of the city; he explores eye-watering and ammoniac pigeon ghettoes hidden beneath railway arches and in doing so re-crosses his own tracks from earlier works, meeting with past confederates and collaborators, until we have the impression of his long career of looping journeys as a Spirograph mandala with the moiré ballpoint scrawl of its event horizon circling Hackney.
As might be expected from the country’s least-pedestrian pedestrian, some extreme hoofing is involved in The Last London’s farsighted idea-trajectories, although that’s not to say that Sinclair is averse to other modes of transportation should the need arise – we find the author swimming lengths among the clouds in the too-obvious discarded J.G. Ballard story-outline of the Shard, and a surprising interlude where our man reincarnates as a cyclist to better fathom Boris Johnson’s London and its streaming rivulets of lycra is but one reminder of how funny Sinclair’s laser insights frequentlyturn out to be.
The bitter truth is that he’s good at nearly everything, but rather than recalibrate our standards to leave almost every other writer looking indolent and shallow a much easier alternative is to dismiss his uniquely contemporary voice as difficult or unapproachable, lazy evasions brought on by the fact that while we love the way he says things we’re unnerved by what he’s saying. His diagnosis isn’t the diagnosis we were hoping for, so we complain that we can’t understand it when ourproblem, in reality, is that we can. With The Last London he concludes his lengthy autopsy then, ever the professional, he checks his watch and notes the place and time: Hackney, 1975 – 2016. He and his subject have both come, in different ways, to a conclusion: London, or at least the gloriously complex thing that the word used to mean, is over.
Information in a gaudy, toxic, undiscriminating flood has crashed our intellectual currency so that veracity and facts and meaning are devalued to the point where we are hauling them around in Weimar wheelbarrows. Nothing is true,and everything is permitted. Striding through the burning building in a shower of Twitter sparks and the collapsing beams of blackened ideology, assimilating the American election and the Brexit vote along with the enormous loss of legendary book dealer and rock guitarist Martin Stone, Sinclair’s tying of his stupefying forty-year-long narrative’s loose ends is masterful.
His tender eulogy for Stoneconcludes a character-arc started with some memorable roadside vomiting in the opening pages of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. A revisiting of the abandoned settings for Downriver runs into the funeral rites of that book’s subject, Margaret Thatcher, and in The Last London we learn the specific nowhere that the infinite M25 of London Orbital was always leading to.
In this majestic culmination, Britain’s finest writer wraps up what turns out to have been one enormous opus, puts a truly lustrous finish on our finish, and, as gently as is possible, tells us where we and everything we knew have gone. In a career of masterpieces, this is Sinclair’s masterpiece.