- “Against the Grand Project”:Iain Sinclair’s Local London
Regionalism is at the heart of Iain Sinclair’s forty-years-long engagement with London, and a localized approach and firsthand experience of the metropolis in terms of its geographical diversity can provide an effective counterargument to totalizing approaches to the city. Focusing on one of London’s literary spokesmen as a regional or even a local writer challenges the conventional binary relationship between metropolis and region. The rise of the global city has perpetuated the low stock of the region that has been apparent since at least as long ago as Lewis Mumford’s championing of the organic ideal city over dreaded urban sprawl. A demonstration of the problems involved in setting the city in opposition to locality and/or region is, I hope, the payoff of the close reading that follows. Iain Sinclair’s work does not function under the aegis of this model but rather overlays competing mappings of the same space on top of one another. This article develops a counterintuitive approach to Sinclair’s nonfiction via a consideration of the theoretical and cultural implications of re-envisioning the metropolis through a “provincialized” lens.
Drawing on the idea that London is knowable only as a series of villages, Sinclair’s texts focalize the specificity of particular resonant locales and emphasize firsthand experience of their textures, chiefly through the practices of walking and, latterly, interviewing locals. In his most recent London writing, these features underpin trenchant resistance to the “grand projects” of centralized metropolitan authority and its overriding of local concerns, particularly in the imposition of Olympic infrastructure in Hackney and Stratford. [End Page 255] Reframing Sinclair’s writing geographically and with a greater attention to scale revises the meanings to be found there and, more broadly, offers a different lens through which contemporary literary London might be viewed. Thus the single-author focus of this article does not set limits on the kind of intervention it aims to make: it looks to operate within a critical framework that raises a broad set of cultural, textual, and methodological questions without losing touch with the formal and contextual particularities of Sinclair’s writing. My procedure is to shuttle back and forth between an analysis of Sinclair’s espousal of regionalism and a metacritical argument for regionalism, allowing each to inform the other. In so doing, I hope to engage readers (irrespective of their knowledge of Sinclair) with interests in urban studies, spatial theory, and literary engagements with cosmopolitanism. A further point to be made here is that while London is the focus of this work, the theoretical questions addressed are also applicable for other metropolitan centers.
I begin with judging a book by its cover as a way into illustrating the issues at stake. The dust jackets of Sinclair’s books are laden with endorsements from the great and the good describing him as the preeminent writer of London—the U.K.’s metropolis and capital. Yet those same texts often reinscribe specifically local and regional practices that attend to place’s specificity and contest the presumed homogeneity of the capital’s neighborhoods and districts. A walk around the perimeter of the borough of Hackney, for example, is described, in terms invoking ancient parochial rituals, as “beat[ing] the bounds”—a practice demarcating the edges of a smaller unit of space, in this case, within the metropolis (Hackney 441). This circumnavigation occurs in Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, Sinclair’s 2009 text with a dust jacket, designed by David Atkinson, that folds out into a stylized, illustrated map of the borough of Hackney and slices off the rest of London, making adjacent areas a sea of blue. The book also incorporates artworks by Oona Grimes that, though more abstract, approximate maps of Hackney severed from its geographical context and set apart on the page’s plain white field. Alongside the local perspective that Atkinson’s illustrated map inscribes on the front and back covers of the book, the paperback edition includes a commendation from The Daily Telegraph declaring it to be “[o]ne of the finest books about London [not Hackney] [End Page 256] in recent...