Where Does London, the City, Really End?
Iain Sinclair Wanders Through the Edgelands
“We’re right on the crest of a slump,” said the football manager, in the soft west-country burr that was his career-defining gimmick. He made it sound like a boast. “Royt on the crest of a slump.”
The sea did its thing. For three days, while we recovered from the walk, and there was no let up in the stream of bad news, the counter-narrative outcomes, posthumous predictions, debates and discussions under bright lights, the reflex demands for increased surveillance, tighter border controls, I kept my back to the wall, and stayed where I was on the cold concrete ledge, waiting and watching. The sea didn’t care. The horizon was smoke with armed patrol boats. The mildly satirical stencil by Banksy, flattering bankers with a gentle dig, the kind of English wall movie stars like to collect, was protected by a Perspex screen put up by the council within hours of the cartoon’s appearance. “Heritage,” they said. “Regeneration confirmed.” In the world at large, those two-dimensional outlines, the inarticulate blobs, were taking over the comic strips.
I started the countdown, a game with myself: that same evening the Banksy was being described on local TV news, just before the weather slot, as “iconic.” A tribute to the edginess of a resort that would soon be called “the next Hoxton.” St Leonards-on-Sea or Shore-ditch. They took the unstoppable tipping of sand in the hourglass, Hackney to Hastings, as a statement of optimistic intent: artists settling, mobbing like gulls at the tideline, after being expelled from their London warehouses and railway arches. The only way I could hear the word iconic without grimacing was to immediately substitute moronic. Then it worked. Then it made perfect sense.
The relentless winter tide, having peevishly stacked a dune of shingle and sharp brown pebbles over the lower promenade, right up to the alcoves where rough-sleepers nested, had withdrawn, a few hundred yards closer to France. There was now a wet strip of sand, a beach on which an estranged couple were trying to dance to the hiss of a soundbox, while beating off the excited attentions of a large black dog, determined—with a freshly evacuated colon—to leave dirty paw prints on the male’s tight canary suit.
This unforgiving yellow silk, the color of a particularly malevolent processed-cheese slice, was well on the far side of brave: the lumpen samba-spoiler was professionally groomed, but porcine. His stiffly ridged hair-helmet was icecream-whipped. Under a generous rendering of face powder, the man couldn’t sweat. A dad-dancer confident of approval ratings for his multi-talentless cavortings: that English adoration of the amateur presenting failure or disgrace as a badge of forgivable sincerity. Never apologize, eat your worms and scorpions in the jungle. Embrace shame.
The dancer has a rictus grin of triumph at every semaphored gesture held, one nano-second too long, for the applause of the absent audience. (Audiences are thoroughly schooled in mass hysteria. The media is gaseous Babble, lurching between horror-porn and tears. “So how do you feel?”) He didn’t glide, he punched. He thrust his bulging thighs at imaginary clefts. He simulated simulation. He self-pleasured. Always just that half-beat behind the tinny ya-ya-ya of the tribute mariachi combo.
I thought, at first, when I saw the couple silhouetted against the skeletal ruin of the burnt-out pier that it was a promotional video of some kind. An internet punt intended to boost the town by rehearsed spontaneity, weirdness going viral. I thought, as they clasped, that two men were really dancing; one of them a bouncer, still in gear, and the other in leisurewear or sleepsuit: tights, hooded trackie. Not so. The other was a woman. And the woman had the moves. She drilled the man. Then, bruised by his punchbag vigor, stepped back, to let him go it alone, as she clapped. She retreated, laid out a mat, and went through some deconditioning yoga poses.
Left to himself, and the endlessly looping track, the dancer’s jerks and pelvic spasms were obscene. As were his triumphant smiles. They reminded me of popular prints from paintings by Jack Vettriano, slick products crafted from photographs: zombie dancers on the shore accompanied by Downton Abbey servants with umbrellas. Vettriano’s interiors, where clothed males groped hired models in authentic suspenders, were bought by discriminating collectors, such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Jack Nicholson.
Planks of decking timber, salvaged from the petrol-bombed pier, were crafted into long dining tables and benches of the refectory kind favored by pop-up Hackney bars and underground cafés. With a sales pitch combining artisan knots, rusty nails and virtuous recycling, and a splinter of sentiment for the good old days, the rescued pier furniture now dressed a thriving street of downfrom-London shops. Camden Passage on Sea. Brighton Lanes and Russian-patronized kinos.
As the diarist John Evelyn remarked, after another conflagration, the Great Fire of 1666: “London was, but is no more.” The city of words, referencing other words, etymologies of respect, was done. The metropolitan virtues and vices of former times had migrated, with the property boom, the rent hikes and fire sales of public housing, to the coast: a strategic destruction of the local. Seaside post offices were shut, jobs lost, counter services removed to a shopping-mall branch of WH Smith. With the brigandry given a positive spin as forcing obese geriatrics to take exercise by hobbling a mile or more into town. There were no trains on which to rely, but legions of disgruntled drivers, guards and travelers. Blue-and-white tape decorated the latest hit-and-run death sites. Self-medicators were followed around the shelves of pharmacies where they employ more security guards than nightclubs or supermarkets. Raging afternoon drinkers ram-raided budget vodka bottles from Asian minimarts before another evening breaking up benches for warmth. Awayday beggars tried their luck on a reserved pitch outside the Co-op’s automatic doors. This was London as it used to be, a broken democracy of warring clans; humans making the best of the mess in which they had landed themselves. Damaged content for the next bulletin.
Back in 1909, Ford Madox Ford, in an essay on “The Future in London,” predicted all of this: that London, our stretched city, would encompass Oxford, Cambridge and the south-coast settlements, a 60-mile sweep from Threadneedle Street. Proving his theory with action, Ford relocated to Winchelsea. He said: “It has to got to come. All south-eastern England is just London.”
I had walked here—and I would soon walk on, I’m not sure where—because my sense was that London, my home for 50 years, was being centrifugally challenged to the point of obliteration; of being unable to say just where, and why, it began and ended. I gave some credence to the notion certain scholars floated that London came into existence as a colonizing strategy by the Romans: lay on baths, brothels, market places, and they will come. The scattered tribes and brutish hut dwellers would be unable to resist the buzz of the polis, the walled city, the hub. Its noise and movement. Its exotic goods and people. It worked for me. And there was material too, in slowly unpicking my ignorance and decoding the marks and signs, to provide the labor of a lifetime. Books that experimented with so many forms of failure, appropriate to different eras, until everything changed: the actual gave way to the virtual.
Roberto Bolaño writes somewhere about being in Berlin—there are riot police, fires still burning in the street—and finding German avenues dissolving into Blanes, into his place of Spanish exile, a seaside resort. It is not a translation, a trip, but a superimposition with no blurred edges. One city is another city; all the places of a fugitive life and career are a single cancerous cell. London is like that now, more a part of other expanded conurbations than of England: the real aliens are in Sunderland, Hull, Stoke-on-Trent. As the publication of books, what would once have been called a literary career, became little more than the excuse for presentations and themed “Edgelands” readings in universities, galleries, shops and hospitals that looked just the same, generically neutral, faintly paranoid, with background hum of white noise, so my grip on the city that provoked and sustained my fictions faded. London was everywhere, but it had lost its soul.
Transposing the Hackney circuit that I walked every morning to Berlin, Paris, Liège, Seattle, Vancouver, Guadalajara, I never felt that I had moved far beyond the gravity of London. In Madrid, the same sleeping bag was positioned outside the same McDonald’s burger franchise. And I’d swear that the same man was inside it. Across the ridges of a shuttered property, a failed nailbar, was the same Boris Johnson graffito. In Barcelona, I noticed a cycle-repair shop beside a hipster café, beside the plaque for the dead Roberto Bolaño. Local differences are minimal. In the traditional Barcelona restaurant favored for after-Edgelands-conference meals were signed photographs of Orson Welles, Ava Gardner and Gary Lineker. In Madrid, it was Orson Welles, Ava Gardner and Gareth Bale.
On the road to the airport, which Ballard told me was the same in every capital, I noticed a hoarding for BEEFEATER—like a CGI vision of our own post-Olympic metropolis. THIS IS MY LONDON, it said. Brilliant blue canal. Regent Street. Buck House. Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower. Airbrushed Hogarth for a Hackney Wick gallerist’s gin-rinse, not total submersion in madness and despair. THIS IS LONDON for a character with Mohican hairprong, red leather dog collar and cool-guy-mascara. Fun city. Rich city. Fusion city. The man was David Muñoz, a Michelin-star cook, who flits between Madrid and London, working in Asian restaurants. He is married to a television presenter. Ballard could have made him up. MADRID CHEF TO BRING SHOCKING FOOD TO LONDON OUTPOST. That’s what London is, an outpost.
And there was one other thing: in every city I visited, if I had time to identify the most promising and hidden-away bookshop, the owner would, quite shyly, ask after Martin Stone. Martin was someone I knew, many years ago, when I was beginning to publish London fiction. He was held in universal esteem and something approaching awe. It seemed that he existed outside time, being a contemporary of Arthur Machen, Martin Amis and Djuna Barnes. Books came to him for validation and received his penciled price with a neat bracket for the edition and date. He was a Croydon boy everywhere, a once and future legend.
In Palermo, I witnessed London’s future in the shape of monumental cruise liners parked along the harbor. And in Barcelona, the same floating tourist cities, brilliantly lit all through the night, devouring energy, taking full advantage of the Catalan capital’s post-Olympic development status. The electively stateless passengers, gold-card consumers of international attractions, come ashore to shop, do the relevant museums, drink, nibble tapas (just like London), and take digital photographs of themselves against postcard backdrops. Our cities are becoming electrified iceberg liners, islands from which the underclass can be excluded; liners serviced by zero-hour contracted serfs. In time, the floating cities will be the only safe places in which to patrol the world’s oceans. Sealife: perpetual tourism. With cinemas, gyms, theatres, private hospitals and cycle lanes.
Behind me an ambulance screamed on the coast road. The concrete hulk of a 1930s building modeled on the Queen Mary was as close as the south coast of England, home to London’s dispersed economic migrants, would ever come to the cruise-liner lifestyle. I knew that I would have to book passage on a boat going nowhere when I started to see the carriages of the London Overground service as a schematic map. For several years, after the trauma of 2012, I had been walking in ever-increasing circles around the linked-up Overground railway; a workable metaphor for futility. Then, one morning, I really looked at the train. Three bands of color: the paprika-orange of the shingle shore, a blue band for the sea, and the white of the Regency houses and chalk cliffs. Even the transport systems were telling me to get out.
The thuggish dancer in the tight yellow suit, now darkened around the armpits, threw his right arm high in the air. Yes! His partner had gone, carrying off the soundbox. This was where we were now. It was time to start work.
From THE LAST LONDON by Iain Sinclair. Copyright© 2017 by Iain Sinclair. Published by Oneworld Publications.