Iain Sinclair is one of the great London authors, who through his novels, essays, travelogues and poems has done more than most to present a true impression of the city. Forget the plastic London of designer flats and bland gastropubs - Sinclair's writing reflects the London that exists through the character and actions of its people. When boom turns to bust, the transient nature of trendy London will disappear, leaving no trace. The London that authors such as Iain Sinclair write about will remain, eventually forgotten perhaps, but returning in the yellowed pages of lost books. These are novels as time capsules, books from the margins. It has happened before and it will happen again. Sinclair is a big part of this ongoing, living tradition.
A resident of Hackney for the past forty years, Sinclair's first novel, 1987's White Chappell Scarlet Tracings, combines the adventures of a ragged bunch of dealers searching for rare Victorian books with the Jack The Ripper murders. The book men are a sleazy bunch, obsessed with rarity, but seemingly harmless. Not for them the back-alley trading of cash for powder. The smell of old paper is enough to send their brains racing. The Whitechapel story in naturally darker and follows the conspiracy theory based around the Queen's surgeon William Gull and the behaviour of Queen Victoria's nephew Prince Eddy. The grotesque actions of Gull and the author's ability to get across the brutalities of dissection and the darkness of the world in which he is allowed to operate, seemingly without restraint, seeps through the years and appears to affect the dealers.
Sinclair's love of the city's marginalised authors blossomed in small bookshops and early-morning markets, developed into a Camden Passage stall, and has emerged in a body of work that is unique in both its style and content. His writing reflects the magic of the metropolis - London as layers of experience pressing together, memories buried in parchment, a staccato speed to imaginative descriptions. Nods of respect go to the neglected dreams of Alexander Baron; the bare-knuckle realities of Gerald Kersh; rare Camberton and Westerby observations; the memories of the Krays, Billy Hill, Jack Spot; musings on Hawksmoor, Jack The Ripper, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders; black-and-white portraits of a destroyed East End and its forgotten Jewish writers; colour snaps of the new boundary wall, aka the M25.
Other novels are Downriver, Radon Daughters, Landor's Tower and Dining On Stones. Non-fiction includes Lights Out For The Territory, London Orbital and Edge Of The Orison, as well as, with Rachel Lichtenstein, Rodinsky's Room. In the 1990s, Sinclair wrote and presented a number of films for BBC2's Late Show and has subsequently co-directed with Chris Petit four documentaries for Channel 4. One of these, Asylum, won the short-film prize at the Montreal Festival. He studied film in Brixton, South London, and this has had an effect on his writing - buried in the back of the London Books edition of Wide Boys Never Work, for which Sinclair provides the introduction, is the nugget 'See You At Mass, Johnny', and this offers more detail.
In 2006, London, City Of Disappearances was published. Edited by and including work from Sinclair, it features writers such as JG Ballard, Emanuel Litvinoff, Stewart Home, Thomas De Quincey and Will Self, and is a sprawling work of more than six hundred pages. Dipping into this 'shifting landscape of interzones, cracks, crannies, incomplete biographies and missing places,' it paves the way nicely for his next book, the documentary fiction Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire.
In Michael Moorcock's introduction to the 1998 Granta one-volume reprint of Sinclair's Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge, he writes: 'Sinclair's relish for language, for lost words and forgotten notions, his lust for metaphor, links him with earlier London visionaries like Blake or Eliot, just as the breadth of his enthusiasms allows the inspiration of Ginsberg and De Quincey, but it's neither his eclecticism nor his influences which define his work - it's his curiosity, his sense of justice, his bardic instincts, his generosity, and above all his original vision of what remains in spite of everything the greatest and most complex of cities.'
If anyone should know, it is the author of Mother London.