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Towpath warpath

In his latest book, Iain Sinclair vents his spleen against those who spoil this otherwise great city

23 November, 2017 — By Peter Gruner

Iain Sinclair. PHOTO: Mark Rusher

HE has written about down at heel London for almost 50 years and in his latest work Iain Sinclair rages about the rich in their “investment silos,” and the plight of the “invisible” poor.

His book, The Last London, describes a “Victorian hell” as he walks along Regent’s canal from Hackney to Islington and Camden, past piles of rubbish and rough sleepers snoozing in sleeping bags in bushes.

En route we meet the “Silicon roundabout” joggers in their “considered colours” (green to match the duckweed) who engage in “breakfast meetings” as they run. Sinclair writes: “They advance, elbows out, barging aside mere pedestrians. Their pretty ears are plugged with devices.”

Commuter cyclists also converge on the towpath and “stamp pedals in furious entitlement”. The cyclists are urged by waterway officials to give “two tings” on their bells and “be nice”.

Sinclair describes a “convoy of cyclists, fretting and tinging” as a “permanent sound installation” as he walks past the former Gainsborough film studios in Islington. There is the squeak of brakes, and rattle of loose pavings slabs. “Curses are lobbed at obstacles, including pedestrians.”

Sinclair asks if even the coots, “patrolling the canal”, now suffer from smokers’ cough. “Small lungs choked with duckweed, beaks knotted with slime.”

In the 1970-80s he helped run a book stall for 12 years in Camden Passage, at the Angel, which specialised in London-based literature, a genre that he has now made his own. In the 60s he lived briefly in a one-room bedsit in Rudall Crescent, Hampstead.

His unique prose brings colour, drama and mystery to the places he visits. Take busy Euston, for example. He writes: “Blocked by strings of unlicensed children and dogs, family units confused in a tourist hell, deafened by sirens and the yelp and fret of cyclists hammering on white vans or sharing obscenities with U-turning cabbies, I was convinced that the city had reached the limits of human tolerance. We were supposed to be choking on fumes, but the cocktail of familiar pollution fed my frenzy: the cheapest high in town.”

In an interview with this paper Sinclair said that despite offers from estate agents and the increasing ugliness of city life he has no plans to move out of Hackney, where he has lived for 50 years. He appears to have a firm love-hate relationship with the capital. “I bought a flat in St Leonards-On-Sea, near Hastings, a few years ago and like to go down there when I can. But London is home.”

He’s 74 and his heart goes out to young families. “Parents have to work all hours and children go to full-time nurseries, which are hugely expensive. The stretched health service seems to be collapsing around us. Then we have the invisible people, rough sleepers who live outside. Often they are immigrants who get taken away by officials and put into a kind of a waiting limbo. I met a young Indian guy who was sleeping under a railway bridge. He can’t get a job and can’t afford accommodation. He’ll be sleeping rough probably right through the winter.”

In the book we meet William Lyttle, nicknamed The Moleman, who for 40 years burrowed tunnels under his house in Hackney for the fun of it until the council forced him to stop. Today, of course, digging underground is perfectly acceptable in some areas for the canny homeowner.

Sinclair takes the reader to Wilberforce Road, Finsbury Park, where there was a craze to dig deep under houses for posh basement conver­sions. “Estate agents are busily promoting hikes in achieved selling prices, while encouraging the neurotic impulse to regard your home as a volatile asset,” Sinclair writes. “The canny speculator should be alert for the optimum moment to cash in. Three-bed flats are on offer at £750,000. The average rent in the street is calculated at £1,666 per month. Inspired by this febrile vision, householders dig. There are seven basement excavations in progress.”

Digging operations can take as long as a year to complete with giant compressors thumping away noisily. “Security guards lurk, bored and edgy, warning off casual photographers. Backs have been torn from properties, and cavernous pits revealed. Plagues of disturbed rats are on the march.”

We meet the Vegetative Buddha who sat stock still for hours on a bench in Haggerston Park in silent meditation. “I am fascinated by his physical presence, the discipline of staying just where he is through the waste of daylight. No food, no drink, no cigarettes. No digital devices.”

Back to the canal and Sinclair talks about a team of Home Office immigration enforcement officials in black uniforms checking on a group of rough sleepers. “Most of them on phones, walking up and down, with their backs to the humans whose particulars they were checking.”

He writes: “The sorry troop (immigrants) would be taken into a purgatory of suspended identity, endless paperwork, postponed hearings. They would be held pending further investigations. Sometimes for months, years, decades.”

The Last London. By Iain Sinclair, Oneworld, £18.99

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