Stuck on Loop

Iain Sinclair, London Overground: A Day's Walk Around the Ginger Line

Hamish Hamilton, 272pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780241146958

reviewed by David Anderson

Iain Sinclair's London Overground, in crisp orange hardback, is subtitled ‘A Day's Walk Around the Ginger Line’. That's 34 miles. In one day. Incredulous readers are many. And those who took the time to peruse an excerpt published in the Guardian weren't slow to ask questions. Yet suspicions about the book's logistical likelihood were among the mildest criticisms levelled at the piece. ‘Absurd twaddle’ said one reader, in a symptomatic comment. Sinclair, said another, ‘needs a socially useful day job.’ In one particularly savage put-down, a user named ‘TCRIslington’ declared it to be ‘the most overwritten, pretentious piece I have ever read in the Guardian.’

The man behind it all rose to a certain notoriety in the late '80s and early '90s. His first novel, White Chappel, Scarlet Tracings (1987), was fuelled by an earlier career as a second-hand book seller – it wove together a madcap hunt for an elusive first edition of Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet (a self-referential detective motif, if ever there was one), with a miasmic rendition of London's East End, steeped in the mythic presence of Jack the Ripper. Since then, Sinclair's focus has spread out from East London at variant trajectories, gradually turning him into a self-styled laureate of the ‘postarchitectural’ English landscape – an ‘aesthete of blight’ devoted to making and recording journeys round the fringes of modern Britain.

He's a seasoned walker. Starting with 1997's Lights Out for the Territory, and authoring a slew of similar texts over the following decade, Sinclair has walked and rewalked, written and rewritten the South East of England. Writing and walking are inseparable in these documentary works, where places and objects are constantly conceived of as competing narratives – histories that one excavates, blocks out, submits to, exorcises or just dwells on. In the case of London Overground, the 34-mile jaunt results in a fitfully faithful attempt to ‘beat the bounds’ of the railway's newly established circuit. Sinclair's accompanist is the film-maker Andrew Kötting, best known for his 1996 film Gallivant, a superbly warm and gently perceptive tour round the coast of Great Britain. Here, Kötting's interjections (chiefly those of his ever-rumbling stomach and shattered feet) pepper a report that follows the shadow of the Overground loop through New Cross, Denmark Hill, Clapham, Chelsea, Kensal Green, Hampstead and back to Sinclair's home in Hackney. As in his earlier works, the author acts as a ringmaster to a vast semi-countercultural circus – figures whose association with the landscape traversed elicits various textual digressions. These include the painter Leon Kossoff in Willesden Green and Angela Carter in Brixton, while Sigmund Freud's house in Hampstead acts as a portal for some self-reflective thoughts on free association as a narrative device. All of this is nested within the idea of a looping, start-to-start walk as a digression in itself, leading to nowhere except a renewed experience of the whole – a notion recycled from 2001's London Orbital.

Sinclair has often written about his professed inability to leave coincidence unremarked: indeed, the very stamp of his writing is the impression left by this; his layering of subjective, individual systems of correspondence onto the ground that he covers. This is a Surrealist principle, so that the comment on Southwark Park recalling Louis Aragon's presentation of Buttes-Chaumont in 1926's Paris Peasant is meant as a nod to his elected predecessors. Yet when Victoria Park is also insistently linked with the same park, it's hard not to think that the writer is running dry on reference points. And sure enough, London Overground is stacked with well furrowed allusions to JG Ballard, Antonioni and more. This book, as with Sinclair's others, presupposes a weighty reading list. Yet this is increasingly composed of his own work: just as the Surrealist correspondence mitigates the characterisation of everything in terms of something else, so it can also be dully employed as a means to perpetually talk about some other thing. Or in Sinclair's case, to go back to already-explored territory and repeating himself. So it is that Bermondsey is read in terms of the Lee Valley, Peckham through the frame of Shoreditch, and so on.

This means that Sinclair's writing suffers from an ever-increasing mountain of self-generated reference points to get through before it starts saying anything remotely new. With every work added to the pile, there's a ever-longer rehearsal of hat-tipping, back-slapping and castigating to get through. And this is what the lust after ‘the vernacular weirdness of places without a dominant narrative’ gives way to – the flop back into over-trodden themes and reference points. It also makes his discourse into merely the flipside of estate-agent speak, opening up new territories by figuring them in terms of the already-familiar (just as Broadway Market is the new Portobello Road, Walthamstow is the new Dalston). This repetitiousness, likewise, sees Sinclair's characteristic mode slip towards the mode of contemporary ad-man politics he professes to despise, where ‘ironies multiply to the point where they cancel each other out in a drizzle of white noise.’

Contrary to the claims of his Guardian readership, the term ‘Ginger Line,’ apparently adapted by Sinclair himself from Transport for London's Day-Glo colour-scheme, does have some real world derivation, belonging to a group who describe themselves as a ‘clandestine dining adventure operating in secret and changing locations along the London rail network.’ One of their menus runs like this: ‘Crispy confit of duck served on a cumin-infused bed of sweet potato and pumpkin mash and seasonal greens with a boozy reduction.’ You can see the theme. Only after reading this did I feel that any serious credence could be granted to Sinclair's injunction that ‘The railway smooths history into heritage, neutralizing the venom.’ Yet isn't there an odd correspondence to be found between Sinclair's own premise and these period-drama-as-immersive-theatre charlatans? Walking, he is fond of observing, is free-flowing, radical, inherently democratising. In 2010's jeremiad against the London Olympics, he set his own practice against the tendency towards ‘iconic’, showcase architecture, writing that ‘The vertical thrust of a single structure, dominating place by overlooking it, would be opposed, repeatedly, by horizontal energies: which are always democratic, free-flowing, uncontained.’ Yet for all these pretensions, there's nothing radical going on here. Like the ginger-liners themselves, what we're offered is the appearance of the avant-garde, lighting into new territories, but at bottom something utterly predictable. So it is that while the appearance of ‘heritage’ nods to one of Sinclair's time-honoured preoccupations, it nevertheless sounds rather flimsy here, a worn out and misplaced critique. The same is true of his jaded denunciation of commodity culture, where the term ‘shopping centre’ is demolished as covering for ‘a locus that is not really there’, containing products

that are like advertisements for digital versions of themselves. You buy into what they represent, not the actual objects – which are inevitably diminished, faded in attraction, by the time you get them home.

This sort of jaundiced cultural diagnosis is hardly going to have the ginger-liners pausing for thought between their amuses bouches and main course.

There are some decent insights, however. For one, there's the shocking revelation that Rimbaud and Verlaine's old house on Royal College Street is now occupied by an unashamed UKIP voter, and that this sacred place is now forced to endure a portrait of Thatcher, amid other Tory grandees, suspended from its walls. Yet this precipitates little from Sinclair in the way of thoughtful response. Likewise, his book contains nothing about the ownership or operation of the Overground network – one of those fantastically improbable allegiances between Arriva (actually owned by Deutsche Bahn) and the operator of the Hong Kong metro system. If you want to hear about this sort of thing, look for James Meek's Private Island (2014), a tale of golden handshakes, impossible deadlines and mythical signalling systems is just one among many such picaresque fantasia of chilled out neoliberalism. There's nothing, either, about the way in which the closing of the loop to some extent forms a fulfilment of the type of utopian vision set out when the M25 was built, of a set of concentric transport circles spinning around London at variant radii. Anyone familiar with the south circular road will know how fragmentary this dream is in reality. It's the reason why so many south London housing estates have inexplicably forbidding, sheer brick facades on particular sides – they're fragments of the unrealised plans, screening off motorways that never made it into reality.

Sinclair does find room to mention that the Overground isn't quite as new as it's trumped up to be. It existed until the late 1980s anyway, and went right into Old Broad Street station, near Liverpool Street – so that its new arrival on the scene represents past repackaged as future, much like the mooted expansion of tram networks in Southwark and elsewhere. Yet he seems oddly uninformed about certain other things. He wonders where the extracted earth from the Crossrail project will end up. A little research would have told him: it gets transported downstream in barges, and used to build up a nature reserve at Wallasea Island in Essex. One suspects, in fact, that Sinclair does know this, and that he has chosen to ignore it. The notion is too bucolic for his seedy vision, in which Crossrail itself is smeared as ‘epic and unnecessary.’ This again seems a perverse hangover from his earlier attacks on the ‘grand projects’ of the Millennium Dome and London 2012 – a bad taste left in the mouth that gives everything a bitter flavour. Crossrail might have silly branding, it may have been farcically prosecuted and its construction might put me in daily fear that Centre Point will fall on my head, but new transport and logistics projects are hardly ‘unnecessary.’ In fact, if Patrick Keiller is right, and the rate of house-renewal in England means that most of them will end up having to last longer than the pyramids, then the need for rapid transit from ever more distant suburban regions to the centre is beyond question.

I was, for a brief interlude, actually reading this book while travelling on the Overground. Only then did I really stop to admire the precision with which the tone of its cover was chosen. I immediately became conscious of reading a book that, to an outsider's eye, had what would seem to be a remarkably unlikely congruence with the scheme of our shared vestibule. For a moment, I dreaded the conversation that might ensue. Who knows where it might lead. I would have to admit that I was reading Iain Sinclair. In Hackney. Since the book wasn't yet in the shops, I might be taken for a devotee — they certainly wouldn't believe that I was a legitimate member of the literary press. Who knows, maybe the bearded man, slightly tipsy, whose eyes I could feel burning over my right shoulder, might be ‘TCRIslington’ himself. The conversation never arrived, and I alighted with an easy conscience and the sense of a lucky escape.

As Sinclair's own journey pads to a close, it's to the realisation that his home-borough is not quite the frontier it once seemed. Out of the ‘postcode gangs,’ ‘charitable joggers,’ ‘entitled cyclists’ and ‘party people of new Hackney’ with which he began his narrative, the image veers into something altogether more venomous:

Negotiating the canyon between the Overground and the parasitical bike-rack flats is to drift, sometimes on original cobbles, sometimes on an interim carpet, through a gallery of toxic Me-ism: the constantly revised doodles of spray-stencil egotists with the crews and bag-carriers.

Back in Lights Out for the Territory, urban graffiti was registered as an ‘authentic urban experience.’ Whether or not you believe that to be true, it showed that Sinclair's vituperation was balanced, at least occasionally, by a splash of vigour and enthusiasm. What hasn't changed, since then, is the passionate subjectivity. It's just gone stale. With his own favoured structuring device of the walk having become, by his own admission, ‘merely a device on which to hang anecdotes and observations,’ the truth is that Sinclair has now settled into writing the same book, on repeat, for ever – the book of himself.
David Anderson is a senior editor at Review 31.