Edge of the Orison by Iain Sinclair
Are Iain Sinclair’s books more admired than read? Reviewers tend to single out for comment Sinclair’s pyrotechnic prose style, the erudition of his historical references, his acute ear for the white noise of the modern consumer city, and his understanding of avant-garde poetics. The ‘De Quincey of contemporary English letters,’ Peter Ackroyd called him. Yet few critics ever offer a considered judgement on each book as an achieved whole. Many people I talk to about Sinclair start by praising his originality and unique sensibility, before admitting that they have never actually managed to finish a single work.
At essay length there is no other contemporary writer I would rather read. His occasional pieces for the London Review of Books or the broadsheets, even in if extracted from a work in progress, are always breath-taking. He is droll, decisive in his political temper, and beautifully (and caustically) detailed in his choice of metaphor and simile. But over the distance, doubts creep in. Like a number of other admirers, I’d pay good money to Sinclair if he were to drop the increasingly repetitive riffs on full English breakfasts, bear corpses in the River Lea, the Krays, and, most of all, the endless allusions to the Jack the Ripper murders and the cultists who still seem enamoured of that ghastly episode. There is so much more in the world (and Essex) to write about, and in Edge of Orison one can at last begin to see glimpses of another, kinder, gentler Sinclair, one who writes affectingly about his long marriage to Anna, and who begins to delight in the vernacular names of hedgerow flowers such as Old Man’s Beard and Traveller’s Joy, as if there were still some pleasure to be had in the world after all.
The basis of the book is yet another long-distance walk, following the route the unhappy poet John Clare made when he escaped from High Beach Asylum in Epping Forest in 1841, and found his way home to Northborough, covering eighty miles in three and a half days. Sinclair is accompanied by a small group of fellow psycho-geographers, all met before, as well as, on occasions, his wife. The journey is replete with diversions, divagations, regressions, and overlaid with much arcane history, much to do with Sinclair’s and Anna’s converging family genealogies. This is six degrees of separation moved from Hollywood to Hackney, and not all of it is entirely gripping. One is also given to wonder whether Sinclair himself, or the unreliable narrator who often stands in for him, actually believes all the stuff about ley lines and other psycho-geographical paraphernalia, or whether he doesn’t regard it all as simply – and often wonderfully – pure metaphor?
As with any journey there are boring bits, and occasional moments of epiphany. There are some wonderful and persuasive thoughts on the connections between open-field poetics and topographical writing, on images of flying and drowning in the works of Byron and Shelley, and on the wider forces which produced that astonishing 1941 painting by Paul Nash, Totes Meer. Sinclair knows much more about other art forms than he often lets on about, and when he does give them time, his qualities as a cultural critic – rather than as a Beat journeyman – are seriously impressive.
Sinclair’s status as a major literary innovator is no longer in question. A sentence of his is instantly recognisable anywhere, and few other writers have achieved this distinction in recent decades. But others are learning from Sinclair and may now be making better use of his stylistic innovations. Hilary Mantel’s recent novel, Beyond Black, opens with an exquisitely Sinclairesque description of London’s ring roads, but goes on to sustain that sensibility over a greater distance and to greater effect. It is worth remembering that Iain Sinclair started out as, and to my mind remains, a great poet.