Adventures at the End of Time
- Downriver by Iain Sinclair
Paladin, 407 pp, £14.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 586 09074 6
Iain Sinclair, in the profane spirit of Surrealism, has chosen to decorate the endpapers of his new work of fiction with a dozen unutterably strange picture-postcards. They show scenes such as that of six men, heavily veiled, veils held down by brimmed hats, posed with long-barrelled rifles. And two men in grass skirts, with feathers in their hair, intent on a game of billiards. They are Africans. And here are twenty-odd white men, in straw boaters, surrounding a prone crocodile. Joblard, Sinclair’s friend, arranges the cards so that they tell a story. At once they become scrutable: they are images of imperialism. Joblard titles this picture story, what else, ‘Heart of Darkness’. But the 12 interconnected stories in Downriver don’t match up with the numbered postcards, unless in such an arcane fashion it must necessarily remain mysterious to me. Downriver is really a sort of peripatetic biography: Iain Sinclair’s adventures at the end of time, at the end of his tether, in a city of the near future with a hallucinatory resemblance to London. The decisive influence on this grisly dystopia is surely the grand master of all dystopias, William Burroughs. Jack Kerouac, asked for a quote for the jacket of The Naked Lunch, said it was an endless novel that would drive everybody mad. High praise. Downriver is like that, too.
It is mostly about the East End. This reviewer is a South Londoner, herself. When I cross the river, the sword that divides me from pleasure and money, I go North. That is, I take the Northern Line ‘up West’, as we say: that is, to the West End. My London consists of all the stations on the Northern Line, but don’t think I scare easily: I have known the free and easy slap-and-tickle of Soho since toddlerhood, and shouldered aside throngs of harlots in order to buy my trousseau casseroles from Mme Cadec’s long-defunct emporium, undeterred by rumoured crucifixions in nearby garages. Nothing between Morden and Camden Town holds terror for me.
But I never went to Whitechapel until I was 30, when I needed to go to the Freedom Bookshop (it was closed). The moment I came up out of the tube at Aldgate East, everything was different to what I was accustomed to. Sharp, hard-nosed, far more urban than what I was used to. I felt quite the country bumpkin, slow-moving, slow-witted, come in from the pastoral world of Clapham Common, Brockwell Park, Tooting Bec. People spoke differently, an accent with clatter and spikes to it. They focused their sharp, bright eyes directly on you: none of that colonialised, transpontine, slithering regard. The streets were different – wide, handsome boulevards, juxtaposed against bleak, mean, treacherous lanes and alleys. Cobblestones. It was an older London, by far, than I was used to. I smelled danger. I bristled like one of Iain Sinclair’s inimitable dogs. Born in Wandsworth, raised in Lambeth – Lambeth, ‘the Bride, the Lamb’s Wife’, according to William Blake – nevertheless, I was scared shitless the first time I went to the East End.
Patrick White says somewhere that there is an intangible difference in the air of places where there has been intense suffering, that you can never get rid of the memory that pain imprints on the atmosphere. London’s river runs through Downriver like a great, wet wound. Almost all the stories are affected in some way by the swell and surge occasioned when the pleasure boat Princess Alice sank after it collided with the Byewell Castle, a collier – a high-Victorian tragedy recalling the recent loss of the Marchioness, although Sinclair does nothing with the analogy, just lets it lie there in the water. An estimated six hundred and forty people went down with the Princess Alice, including the husband and two children of Elizabeth Stride. Her family gone, she took to drink, went on the streets. She became one of the victims of Jack the Ripper – the kind of ominous coincidence that fiction needs to avoid if it is to be plausible. Life itself can afford to be more extrovert.