‘Who put the worm in the apple? Who put the bounce in the bouncing bomb?’ – My Favourite London Devils by Iain Sinclair
In Invisible Republic, his critique of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Greil Marcus describes Dylan channelling ‘the old, weird America’, an almost mystical country which was ‘the playground of God, Satan, tricksters, Puritans, confidence men, illuminati, braggarts, preachers, anonymous poets of all stripes’ (Luc Sante, New York magazine). Much of Iain Sinclair’s prolific writing has been dedicated to recording the old, weird mythology of London, before it is swept aside by development; along the way, he has encountered plenty of confidence men, braggarts and tricksters of his own.
Part memoir, part field guide, My Favourite London Devils memorialises the weird and disreputable history of the capital’s authors, through anecdotes, criticism and biographical essays. Described by the author as ‘a party at the end of time where familiar ghosts line up to tell their overlapping stories’, Sinclair brings together the celebrated (JG Ballard, Angela Carter) with the ‘eternally rediscovered’ (Alexander Baron, Roland Camberton); the overall effect is a form of literary psychogeography, in which Sinclair chases down shadows, legends and pseudonyms, highlighting the briefly recognised and discovering where they intersect with unlikely stars such as Maughan and Burroughs.
As with all things Iain Sinclair, the title encourages us down paths of associations; there is a hint of David Seabrook’s All the Devils Are Here, a psychogeographical ramble through Thanet and the Medway, and also Luke Haines’ song All the English Devils, which captures the same sense of the old and weird as much of Sinclair’s own writing (‘Who put the worm in the apple? Who put the bounce in the bouncing bomb?’).
There is a long and distinguished history of devilish behaviour by London’s authors. In Nightwalking (2015), Matthew Beaumont describes the activities of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. A distinguished poet who had co-authored a series of Petrarch’s sonnets, he is also remembered for an occasion in 1543, where he and his cronies ran riot in Cheapside, breaking windows and even commandeering boats to hurl stones at prostitutes gathered on Bankside. For this, he was thrown into the Fleet prison, where he wrote a satire on London sharp enough to be used as evidence against him when he was eventually tried for (and convicted of) treason.
The link between literary London and the illicit world of night-time activity was even more pronounced in the eighteenth century, when inhabitants of what became known as Grub Street existed in close geographical proximity to the criminal underworld in the streets around Moorfields, which were ‘full of narrow alleys, thieves’ dens and brothels, and harboured their own literary fences and pimps, the much-maligned printers and booksellers’. Writers often lived in such squalid circumstances that ‘they were likely to feel the arm of the law for offences totally unconnected with literature… Even those who were not imprisoned for debt, drunkenness, theft or violent behaviour, or even incarcerated for lunacy like Christopher Smart, tended to nurse a deep sense of injustice and resentment against those with power and wealth, not least the booksellers and publishers.’ In this milieu, it is not surprising that many authors felt drawn to walk the streets by night.
Sinclair’s devils are more modern, and less inclined towards criminality (though some, such as Patrick Hamilton, were over-reliant on the demon drink). Many document the transient experiences of young men shuttling between restrictive homes and bohemian enclaves like Soho, in the post-War years. London had a ready supply of cheap, transitory properties, ready to be cleared; this sense of impermanence is reflected in a culture of short-termism, in which characters are drawn to the fortune of card games and horse races. There is a sense of the gambler in the glimpses Sinclair gives us of his own arrival in London, as a dealer in used books – the possibility of unearthing a forgotten masterpiece, or a first edition.
From Fifties bedsits, Sinclair explores Ballard’s alienated suburbs, the uncanniness of Arthur Machen, sleepwalking in someone else’s footsteps, the paranoia of Conrad’s The Secret Agent revived in post-7/7 London. Maybe best of all is his depiction of Sherlock Holmes as the archetypal Londoner, tormented by boredom and roused to action by news of a fresh atrocity: the mindset of the city dweller who needs constant stimulation. In Baker Street, Holmes receives reports from the streets, and from the bohemian enclaves of his city, before taking to the streets to investigate and debunk.
The main bone of contention here is the lack of diversity: for all that London is a cosmopolitan city, in Sinclair’s account its devils are overwhelmingly white and male, which he does little to address within the text (although, in fairness, he does cover post-War Jewish culture in London well). Psychogeography has, at times, appeared to be something of an exclusive, all-boys club, set apart by the academic terminology employed by Sinclair and others; recent work by writers like Lauren Elkins and Joanna Walsh, and the ‘landscape punk’ movement spearheaded by David Southwell and Gary Budden have helped to broaden the scope of the genre. Clearly, this is a very personal book, and Sinclair’s selections reflect that; but it does feel like a relatively narrow range of experiences is on show.
Any Cop?: It’s patchy at times – the sections on Peter Ackroyd, and to a lesser extent Michael Moorcock, verge on lit-celeb anecdotage – but Sinclair is a perceptive literary critic, and a genuine enthusiast. His sections on Ballard, Conrad and Conan Doyle, in particular, bring a fresh insight to well-known work, while almost any reader will come away from this with at least a couple of obscure authors to track down. My Favourite London Devils is certainly one of the most approachable of Sinclair’s non-fiction books, and opens up an unofficial canon of London psychogeography for readers to explore.
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- January 17, 2017 / 9:00 am