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London Orbital (2002)

I yearn for airport lounges, for science parks with copper-sulphate blue windows, for multi-storey car parks—for the M25 (London orbital). In the lead up to the millennium, Iain Sinclair walked anticlockwise round the M25—the product was London Orbital. Sinclair’s preoccupation is with interstitial zones, liminal zones—canals, business parks, motorway service stations (JG Ballard territory). The motorway itself encircles London—it is the limit of London, and Sinclair only walked within it (at the borderline).

In many ways, Sinclair is the enemy—he loves decay, rot, the Jews. He loves “the boundary area”—he disdains Thatcher, the asphalt empress of the M25; and, though he is anchored to Hackney, he makes arch comments on the graffiti for the NF and BNP that he sees in the borderlands—i.e. the graffiti that is there because the English working-class denizens of Hackney have been forced out, forced out to the suburbs. This book was published in 2002 and within it, discreetly, I noticed an early use of the word “white” as used as it is today—that is to say as a Victorian might mention, sotto voce, “the WC” (i.e. filth, moral filth—though Sinclair likes actual filth, the word “shit” itself).

Sinclair is embedded in London’s art scene—and his register derives from his environment. It’s like “Effie Paleologou’s show explores the liminal possibilities inherent in the Docklands through the medium of acrylic…”. If you’ve read the labels on any picture in the Tate Modern, you know what I mean—it’s this very cool, detached style that uses a lot of words like “vertices” to say nothing. It’s actually junk food language—it looks great but there’s nothing to it, no substance.

So Sinclair is the epitome of the 68er—that is to say, public school then film school then communes then second-hand bookseller, lives in a traditional working-class borough but disdains the actual working class who live there while also being firmly against Thatcher (ends with a mortgage-free house in prime hipster territory, is proudly “marginal”). There’s an irony in Sinclair in that in his later works he tries to document the “new immigrant communities” in Hackney but finds them, per The Guardian, “hard to penetrate” (i.e. who’s the white man now, Sinclair?).

Indeed, there’s a school round Sinclair’s borough (yard?) where Mosley gave a speech in the 1950s on the dangers of “Oriental invasion”—it now has no English pupils and speaks 59 or so languages, many Oriental. “Cor blimey, I always said that there Mosley, he was a naughty boy, but he didn’t ’alf ’ave a point!” as some black-cab refugee in Essex might put it.

However, like many effete liberal leftists, Sinclair is unconsciously deeply conservative. You can tell it’s so in London Orbital—like all art it’s about eternity, it’s about the rhythms that connect us with the divine (in this case, to walk in a circle). Iain Sinclair walks backwards in a circle—he traces the ouroboros backwards, he wants to turn back the clock. That’s right, behind the affection for Jews, gays, the mad, and non-white ethnics Iain Sinclair is a man against time (as another Greek artist, Savitri Devi, put it). He literally wants to turn back the clock—that’s what London Orbital is really about, it’s a magical operation to turn the clock back.

Specifically, Sinclair conceives the project to “exorcise” the other magic circle of the moment—the Millennium Dome. Sinclair detests Blair, but, as with much trendy lefty disdain for Blair, I think it is really a reactionary disdain for his lack of substance—for his Americanism, for the way he’s insubstantial (deep down, Sinclair hankers for a man of substance—a man like Mosley). Sinclair, like other psychogeographers, half takes magic seriously and half doesn’t—he’s too modern, too sophisticated, too narcissistic to think it’s real; but he plays with it nonetheless, as a conceit—it doesn’t matter; it’s a chemical reaction, whether you believe in it or not it still works if you do it.

Ultimately, the book is metaphysical—the science of metaphysics is an attempt to make systematic and consistent statements about the nature of being, about what is meta to all other sciences. The only problem is that you can’t have a science without a subject—so how can you be systemic about…nothing? How can you be systemic about London orbital? I mean, you can be systematic about the road construction, the gantries, the signs—but how can you be systematic about the circle itself, about eternity? You can’t be—you can react to it in a rational way, in an emotional way, in a poetic way, in a logical way…but you can never say anything systematic about nothing.

It’s my basic contention that all these “68ers” and “arty leftists at the Tate” are, at core, deeply reactionary—and that they’ve just repressed that to fit in to contemporary society in a narcissistic way (they only realise they’ve been sold a dud when that “vibrant Turkish barber” they preferred over the “racist black cab driver” doesn’t want anything to do with them, when they reach critical mass—it’s not like the Jews, those first immigrants, who seemed so harmless and sophisticated, but it turns out they’re fine in cosmopolitan decay…they like it…maybe your “comrades” were never your “comrades” after all…they’re kinda liminal, you could say).

Sinclair basically dislikes Blair as a snob—not as a socialist or a leftist. He’s a sensitive guy Sinclair—he hates the Dome (aside from some Gormley sculpture, because that’s “his world”, “art world”, and, therefore, “good”) and to undermine the Dome he constantly says it’s built on “Bugsby’s Marshes”. It’s a nice phrase, but for Sinclair it conjures up some Billy-Braggesque matey Leveller-like “just plain folks (except we all have trust funds)” 68er-type commune—and that contrasts to the “fake, inauthentic” New Labour Dome.

Actuality: Bugsby’s Marshes was where the bodies of people who were executed were hung in an iron cage attached to a gibbet. You could watch the bodies swing as your ship departed London. “Bug”, in old English, means “spook” or “ghoul”; the modern usage “bugs”, as in a tiny electronic surveillance device, doubtless comes from the little insect but it recapitulates this deep etymology very neatly—“bugs, spooks, ghosts” (the invisible threat).

Bugsby’s Marshes were named “Bugsby’s Marshes” not because there dwelled some bucolic hobbit-like Jacobin from a pious EP Thompson encomium on the English working class (feckin’ ’ell, it’s aw mate Bugsby and all, stone of crows)—no, it was an attempt to soften and humanise “the marshes of the bugs” (i.e. the marshes of the ghosts, of the ghosts of murderers and rapists). You know, add on the “by” and it’s a name, like Enderby (the end)—so it’s an attempt to humanise and familiarise death. It’s gallows humour, really.

It’s a bit harsh—so Sinclair doesn’t go there, he’s one of these people, per London Orbital, who feels worried that what he orders at an Indian restaurant is like ordering fish and chips, blancmange, and Beef Wellington as the same meal (“Ha, Ha—I’m being so white,” as you would say today—so ignorant, so stupid; of course, those Indian waiters laugh at my ignorance—and they’re right to laugh, stupid white people).

But, you know, people who run restaurants are practical people—if I set up an English pub in Bangalore, I’d arrange the menu so it made sense to people; and Indians do the same when they set up restaurants in other countries (but self-hating narcissists don’t think about these things—being too wrapped up in “the shame of their whiteness”, “what will the natives think?”).

Bottom line: everything overt in this book says “yes—the multicultural future, the liminal zone, the wisdom of RD Laing’s schizo shamans” but everything in its actions says I want to go back, I want to turn back time, I want Eden, I want nature, I want England. Actions speak louder than words—eternity calls.


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