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.
So can Sinclair, who has no truck with plausibility but allows or persuades his densely textured narrative to follow a logic based on the principle of allusion, engaging in a sort of continuous free collective bargaining with his own imagination. For example: there is a sardonic, virtuoso description of the Princess Alice disaster:
The victims chose an unlucky hour to enter the water. They were discharging the sewage from both the north and south banks into Barking Creek. Outflow. Mouths open, screaming, locked in a rictus. Rage of the reading classes. Public demand for the immediate provision of swimming-pools for the deserving poor. Let them learn breast-stroke.
Then the narrative moves like this:
Something happens with the draw of time. With names. The Alice. Fleeing from the extreme interest of Lewis Carroll (weaving a labyrinth of mirrors for his English nymphet) into the tide-flow of Thames. Can you row, the sheep asked, handing her a pair of knitting-needles. Dodgsons. Dodgeson. Out on the river with another man’s daughters: Lorina, Alice, Edith.
And thence to the enigmatic Canadian performance artist, Edith Cadiz, whose story we already know. By day, she worked as a nurse, nightly subsidising herself – for that income would never keep her – as a prostitute of the least exalted type. Edith Cadiz haunts the text, with her disinterested love for the mad children in her care, her unnerving stripper’s act involving a dog and a set of street maps. One day, after copulating with a dog at the request of a Member of Parliament – this text is rich in dogs, some of them memorably unnerving – she disappears.
She is no less haunting a character because Sinclair makes plain she is not his own invention but the invention of another of the characters he has also invented. But many of the other characters, including Sinclair himself in a memorable walk-on (‘a flannelled Lord Longford: on sulphate’), are drawn, kicking and screaming, one assumes, from real life. Some of them I recognise. One or two of them I know. That is Sinclair’s autobiographical bit. Think of Downriver as if Alice had wept a river of tears, rather than a pool; this river, like memory, full of people, places, ideas, things, all with an ambiguous reality status.
King Kole, the Aboriginal cricketer, standing at the rail of the Paramatta, watching a pilot-boat butt its way across Gravesend Reach, knew he had arrived at the Land of Death. Gravesend did for Pocahontas, the Indian princess, too: she died there, on her way back to Virginia. Sacrificial victims of imperialism. But less fatal presences include a writer, Fredrik Hanbury, a name transparently concealing one familiar to readers of this journal. There are painters, vagrants, Jack the Ripper, Sir William Gull, ritual murder, cricket, Homerton, Silvertown, ‘The Isle of Doges’ (VAT City plc).
Alice herself features at considerable length, in an extended meditation on Tenniel’s illustration to Through the Looking-Glass, the one that shows Alice in the train. Alice ‘allies herself with the order of birds; a feather grows from her severe black torque’. That feather might be a clue to the solution of the murders. What murders? Why, didn’t you know? Spring-heeled Jack has returned. ‘VAMPIRE AND BRIDE-TO-BE IN DOCKLANDS HORROR’. Edith Cadiz might have been a victim of this man.
But that is to suggest too much interconnectedness, to imply that a plot might be about to happen. Downriver is jam-packed with teasing little hints at possible plots, but these coy insinuations of resolution, climax, denouement are marsh-lights designed to delude the unwary reader into imagining that some regular kind of story might be in the offing. Fat chance. These stories, flowing all together, form a river without banks in which you sink or swim, like the victims of the Princess Alice, clutching at associations, quotations, references to other writers, if you can pick them up.
I picked up one or two. The American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft is economically invoked with the single phrase, ‘a gibbous moon’. T.S. Eliot is constantly quoted by Edith Cadiz both before and after her disappearance; she passes round a hat that once belonged to him after she does her strip. The scarlet-haired opium addict, Mary Butts, makes a brief guest appearance and Sinclair borrows a minatory quotation from her autobiography: ‘I heard the first wraths of the guns at the Thames’s mouth below Tilbury.’
With this mass of literary references, the sex magic, the degradations, the torture, the rich patina of black humour, this is a book that triumphantly rejects any possibility of the Booker short-list in advance. It wears its contempt for all that on its sleeve. It is, besides, a work of conspicuous and glorious ill-humour. Sinclair doesn’t seem driven, like Burroughs, by an all-consuming misanthropy: he’s too romantic for that. But whenever Sinclair writes about the media, he goes pink and sputters. There is a section titled ‘Living in Restaurants’, about trying to make a television movie about Spitalfields. ‘The consiglieri liked the sound of it, the authentic whiff of heritage, drifting like cordite from the razed ghetto.’ The media lunches, four months of heroic eating. He hates them all. He constructs stiff, epigrammatic insults, more insult than epigram. The producer ‘has that combatant attitude so prevalent among people who spend their lives bluffing genuine enthusiasts into believing they know nothing about their own subject.’
There is an unhandiness about Sinclair’s prose, here. It creaks. His satire is splenetic but also heavy-handed. ‘The Widow was a praise-fed avatar of the robot-Maria from Metropolis; she looked like herself, but too much so.’ No prizes for guessing who that is. However, Downriver is set just a significant little bit further forward in the future, after the privatisation of the railways. And the Widow is still in charge. Who could have guessed, when Downriver went to press, that Margaret Thatcher would have resigned by publication date? Not Sinclair. When he appears in the third person in the final story, he babbles ‘some bravado sub-text about considering his book a failure if the Widow clung on to power one year after its publication’. Unless he wants to claim a pre-emptive strike, he’ll have to concede that, like Blake, to whose prophetic books his own bears some relation, he had, as prophet, zero success rate.
At one point, the Fredrik Hanbury character opines: ‘Obsession matures into spiritual paralysis.’ Downriver is far more than the sum of its obsessions, compelling as these are. Who can ever forget that dog of dogs, the one with no eyes, not a dog whose eyes have been put out but one who never had any, grey fur there, instead. This is an image so horrifying I don’t want to understand it. What is the opposite of a dog? This question begins and ends the book, this manic travelogue of a city about to burn, and I can’t even begin to answer: I will have to read Downriver again, to find out.
Yet, in spite of, or perhaps in order to spite that central, dominating motif of the river, none of these 12 stories flows easily. There are swirls, eddies and undercurrents but precious few stretches of clear water. When these occur, as they do, for example, two separate times in the section called ‘Prima Donna (the Cleansing of Angels)’, the limpid narrative achieves genuine supernatural horror: the bristling begins. One is the anecdote about Cec Whitenettle, driver of the hell-train bearing nuclear waste through Hackney. The other is the story of the Ripper’s only personable victim, the ‘Prima Donna’ herself, that begins impeccably, better than Lovecraft, almost as good as Poe: ‘I had not, I think, been dead beyond two or three months when I dreamed of the perfect murder.’
But Sinclair obviously isn’t interested in plain sailing. His everyday prose is dense, static, each sentence weighed down with a vicious charge of imagery. Fighting the current, this reader was forced to ponder the ultimate function of fiction. This was very good for me. Is it to pass the time pleasantly, I asked myself. If so, they put some quite good things on television these days. But something is happening in this text that makes it necessary to go on, something to do with time itself, event if, in order to go on, you must – to mix metaphors – crack open each sentence carefully, to inspect the meat inside.
All writers of fiction are doing something strange with time – are working in time. Not their own time, but the time of the reader. One of Sinclair’s milder obsessions is with ritual: the project of ritual is to make time stand still, as it has apparently stood still in David Rodinsky’s room in the Princelet Street Synagogue since the day, twenty-odd years ago, when he disappeared. (See Tale No Five, ‘The Solemn Mystery of the Disappearing Room’; see also Patrick Wright’s account of Rodinsky’s room in the LRB of 29 October 1987.) If time could be persuaded to stand still for even one minute, then the thin skin that divides Victorian London, Pocahontas’s London. Blake’s accursed London, Gog and Magog’s London, The City of Dreadful Night, Jack London’s London (The People of the Abyss), Downriver’s London of the near future, might dissolve altogether. The partitions of time dissolve in the memory, after all. They dissolve in the unconscious. At one point, Joblard and Sinclair watch Pocahontas being carried ashore to die, but that is altogether different, a purely literary trick with time. It is an easier one because the reader watches it being done on the page rather than experiences it in the act of reading. The thing is, you can’t skip bits of Downriver. You have to move with currents as violent and mysterious as those of the Thames.
Its vision of London is pure hell. Madmen, derelicts, visionaries, ‘wet-brains’ live in the towers of abandoned mental hospitals. Academics voluptuously drown themselves in chains. Bohemians of a dedicated ferocity that make the behaviour of Jean Rhys and her companions, so deplored by John Bayley recently in these pages, look like the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Oh! That Imar O’Hagan, with his trained snails and his ‘fridge full of blocks of frozen vampire bats “like an airline breakfast of compressed gloves” ’.
It describes a city in the grip of a psychotic crisis. One image makes this concrete – a room in Well Street (‘Grade 2 listed husk’), former home of a mad, addicted girl, now a suicide. The walls are covered with shrieking graffiti, protests, denunciations, phone-numbers, pyramids, quotations, lingams, crucified sparrows, horned gods, walking fish. ‘The floor was clogged with mounds of damp sawdust – as if the furniture had been eaten, and, conically, excreted. Bas-relief torcs of blood were plashed over the skirting-boards. “Dogfights,” Davy explained.’ This, even more than the voodoo ritual later to be enacted on the Isle of Doges (sic), is the true heart of darkness within the city.
On the whole, the English, except for Dr Johnson, never have liked London. Cockney Blake saw, within a crystal cabinet, a refreshed, regenerate, a garden city.
Another England there I saw,
Another London with its tower,
Another Thames and other hills.
Sinclair and two companions precipitate themselves out of that nightmare voodoo ceremony by an act of will and find themselves transported to just such an earthly paradise, freshly designed for the ’Nineties by a snappy Post-Modernist, a ‘morning-fresh Medieval city’, a ‘transported Siena. Beneath us, along the riverside, a parade of windmills’. Windmills, the green sign of harmless energy. Benign, harmless windmills, the herbivores of the energy world. But when they look closer, they see the windmills are not windmills after all, but the sites of crucifixions.
Downriver is an unapologetically apocalyptic book that has, alas, found its moment, even if the Widow is now reduced to soundbites. Mother London, says Sinclair, is splitting into segments: a queasy glamour extinguishes the mad, bad past in Whitechapel, the rest of the places go hang ... and yet these stories show how impossible it is to pull down an imaginary city. As Sinclair walks round London, he reinvents it, and remembered pain will always dance like heat in the air above the spot in Whitechapel where the Ripper struck down poor Lizzie Stride. The singing that turned to screaming continues to impress itself on the water where the Princess Alice went down. Listen, you can hear it on the slapping tide.