Iain Sinclair has built a career largely upon writing about London. In My Favourite London Devils he pays tribute to fifteen of the writers (from a long-list of hundreds) that have most inspired his own work and impressions of the city – his ‘catacombs of memories.’ The so-called devils of the title are thus termed due to their continued possession of Sinclair and haunting of his own writing. These include the well-known – Peter Ackroyd, J. G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle and Jack Kerouac; cult favourites Alexander Baron, Brian Catling, Patrick Hamilton, John Healy, Thomas Holmes and Michael Moorcock, as well as Sinclair’s significantly ‘reforgotten’ heroes Roland Camberton and Robert Westerby. These chosen writers are described as ‘local saints, elective shaman, and unspoken keepers of the sacred flame’, and many are or have been known personally to Sinclair.
Described by the publisher as a ‘gazetteer of influences and enthusiasms’, these authors sketches are not straightforward biography, but wonderfully effuse reimaginings that inspire some of Sinclair’s most compelling depictions of London. For example in the section on Conrad, Sinclair filters his own reminiscences of the 2005 London Bombings through Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), a novel about a failed terrorist plot to blow up Greenwich Observatory. This sparks an observation about the scars left on the city by the two World Wars. The trauma experienced by the city and its inhabitants causes Sinclair to reflect that ‘the city writes its own script. Things are always much stranger than they seem.’ Other chapters are more fact-based recollections of meetings with or readings of the authors, but both these styles work seamlessly due to Sinclair’s characteristic drift of thoughts, feelings, and the tangents he finds himself wandering down – like interesting side streets – are at once entertaining and illuminating.
The sense of community amongst the perhaps otherwise unconnected men and women who have inhabited and bedevilled Sinclair’s reckoning of the city is especially compelling. London for Sinclair is so much more than its bricks and mortar, made up of complex layers of history and narrative, the living as well as the dead – in the section on Angela Carter he writes ‘books live and prove. They inform and inspire our city.’
Perhaps in comparison to some of his other works walking plays a somewhat understated role in this book, however it is still of incredible significance for Sinclair. Readers may be slightly surprised (I know I was!) to see Kerouac included in the chapter list, but he is in there because, in April 1957 he arrived in London and walked from Victoria – where the boat train from Newhaven arrives – to St Paul’s. In September 2009 Sinclair decided to follow him, describing the path as being one he knows too well ‘I was a ghost among ghosts…almost every yard of this route was part of the narrative of forty years in one city.’ Moments like this are a great reminder that Sinclair’s London is overwhelmingly physical as well as intensely imaginative, both literal and emotional – as is the conclusion of the Conrad section, in which Sinclair tells us what happened to the driver of the number 30 bus, one of the targets of the London terrorist attacks. Reportedly he walked west, from Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury, seven miles to Acton. Sinclair writes that only by ‘walking, entering the dream, could repair the hurt.’
Striking, caricaturish author portraits are provided by artist Dave McKean, whose recent work Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash has just been published by Dark Horse Books. McKean’s illustrations announce the subject of each segment of the book, and his, flyaway, sketchy style perfectly mirrors the current of ideas and inspiration flowing from the authors to Sinclair.
Published by Tangerine Press, an avant garde publisher who also publish, amongst others, Jack London’s 1901 People of the Abyss, an autobiographical adventure in London’s East End which comes with an introduction by Iain Sinclair. Their next title will be Archie Hill’s autobiographical novel A Cage of Shadows, out in May 2017.
My Favourite London Devils will be published on 17 November by Tangerine Press (£10, paperback, 208pp, 9781910691175).
- Posted by Rachel.