Many years ago, I heard a book review programme on Radio4 on which they reviewed Edward Platt's Leadville, and Iain Sinclair's London Orbital. I soon found Platt's work and was utterly captivated by it. While the idea of a 'biography of the A40 Road' seemed like a 'minority interest' subject matter in the extreme, in reality this work was a stunningly sensitive portrayal of the human stories which interact with the decisions of city planners, a wonderful collision of poetic prose, urban geography, and biographies. With this in mind, I finally tracked down the other book recommended on that same programme; Iain Sinclair's London Orbital.
The premise of Sinclair's book is promising, intriguing even. The author and various companions set out (in the months running up to the millennium) to walk round the M25, recording their insights into the landscape, history, literature and people that they discover en route. The results turned out to be very surprising.
From the start the author writes in a style which is hard-going. While on some occasions his use of half-formed sentences consisting of lists of adjectives and nouns to describe what he sees, is punchy and effective; overuse of this technique makes it simply affected. Sinclair also enjoys bombarding the reader with streams of half-explained references, a technique which appears to detract from the force of his insights. After all, the informed reader already knows the things to which he refers, while the uninformed remains so, left stranded by Sinclair's constant preference for alluding to things, rather than actually talking about them. Reviews of London Orbital have divided readers very deeply into those who found all this irresistibly brilliant, and those who simply found it impenetrable, and gave up. I found that on every occasion when the density of language, irritating repetition, obscure allusion, and verbose pretension drove me to give-up and add to the little pile of "couldn't finish" books in my study - Sinclair would hit back with a piece of writing so touching, so beautiful, and powerful that I couldn't bear to put it down in case I missed another such moment.
For me the sections of the book which worked were those where I knew the landscape in which he was working. In such sections, the obscure allusions had reference points for me. Of course when I understood his literary tangents, when they occasionally drifted into my frame of reference, the impressions he sought to make were all the stronger. Likewise, when his landscapes were beyond my recollection or his references beyond my reading, the sheer volume of words that Sinclair spews forth became boring - because of his constant unwillingness to initiate the newcomer, rather than simply reward the learned with opportunities for smug self-congratulation.
Quite brilliant were Sinclair's observations on the ring of Victorian mental hospitals which mark out the outer-London ring, which the M25 follows. Built to give "lunatics" fresh air, and to screen London from their reality, they flourished throughout the 20th Century, but are now being developed into soulless luxury apartments. His explorations of these facilities and the way he is able to make the past mix with the present in a intermingled, morbid reality was delicious. His wanderings with companion Renchi, into psychogeography, of ley-lines and the M25 as a vast astrological wheel were dull tangents an already overlong book could have thrived without; trekking through leafy Weybridge in the wake of Diggers however, was magical. The descent into The War of the Worlds between Epsom and Leatherhead is compelling, but the view that the River Thames bridge at Runnymede is some deeply significant and illuminating concrete cathedral is simply putting too much strain even on the psychogeographers desire to write florid prose about the most artless of items. Frustrating too is the lack of a map to see where the writer has got to in any given chapter, given that his ability to wander away from the matter in hand is as great as his remarkable determination to complete the project! Likewise, the frequent references to photographers and cameras, but the total absence of images is strange. Either the publisher refused to add them to the paperback edition (already grotesquely swollen to almost 550 pages) or Sinclair is so convinced of the power of his writing that he has rendered the image superfluous. Not so.
To be fair to Sinclair, there is a tremendous book in here. The trouble is that such a fabulous book would be about 200 pages long, and an extremely judicious editor would need to be employed to cull the wanton excesses from the original. The worst part of the book is actually its beginning, (he doesn't reach the M25 until p125!), and the best parts are all when he stays close to the M25, physically -and in his writing. Where he succeeds is when he stays close to the books initial premise, when he tests the reader's patience is when he departs from this. To be fair, he improves as the book progresses, reducing his words-per-mile count as he goes - possibly realising that unless he did so, a thousand page book was in the offing.
I'm glad to have finished this, to have got through it and to have seen Sinclair finish his quest. There are passages that I have marked and will return to. But if I wanted to read a book that got inside an urban environment and felt it from the inside, I'd still turn to Platt's Leadville - every time.