Road Scholar


LONDON—Mad traveler and secret historian, Iain Sinclair maps the forgotten and forsaken corners of England most flaneurs would either overlook or avoid. In his hallucinatory metafiction Downriver (1991), he sifted the wasted banks of the Thames; in the psychogeography lesson Lights Out for the Territory (1997), he doggedly followed his stream of consciousness off Blighty’s beaten paths. Sinclair’s latest shoe-shredding journey is perhaps his most heroic-quixotic yet. For London Orbital, he walked the entire circuit of the M25, the roundly loathed 120-mile motorway that, for more than 16 years, has ringed the city like “a security collar fixed to the neck of a convicted criminal.” The book has since begat a film by Sinclair and Chris Petit, a multimedia performance at London’s Barbican theater, and a special issue of Time Out London—its cover representing the road as a barbed-wire necklace.

“The M25 turned the city into a traffic island,” Sinclair explains in an interview with the Voice at his home in Hackney, East London. “I was fascinated by that no-man’s-land, between where London finishes and something else begins, which had never been defined before.” Melding the mournful drift of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn with the gallows Gothic of Alan Moore’s From Hell, London Orbital charts the city’s furthest reaches—its wit’s end. With various intrepid companions, Sinclair uncovers weapons factories and Victorian sanatoriums papered over by luxury housing developments, gleaming office-complex apparitions born of a Don DeLillo fugue, and cavernous car parks designed for furtive trysts out of J.G. Ballard. (Sinclair is the author of a British Film Institute monograph on David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Crash.) He drops in on Count Dracula’s estate, Winston Churchill’s painting studio, even the newly dedicated Mick Jagger Centre, a music and arts venue.

Each site plays a role in London’s turn-of-the-century subterranean biography, one haunted by Maggie’s rattling ghosts and New Labour’s squandered promise. The political vitriol of London Orbital is both tempered and intensified by the writer’s helpless, endless ardor for his hometown of 30 years—Sinclair’s stubborn promenade around its outskirts is an elaborate act of devotion, and an elegy. “These new places eliminated all trace of what had been there before,” he says. “They didn’t want people buying expensive new houses to be put off by the idea that they were on the grounds of an asylum.”

Sinclair hiked counterclockwise, he writes, as “a way of winding the clock back.” “Our whole trip became an exercise in memory,” he says. “You don’t see anything when you drive the M25; it’s like being in a tunnel, so the involuntary memories that come up are personal. But in walking it, you are thinking the memory of the city itself—hospitals, asylums, lost lives, lost histories, have all floated to the edge.” Indeed, the motorway’s very radius is literally a measure of London’s past. “The orbit that the M25 now takes up represents the ‘safe distance’ the Victorians used to remove diseased parts of the body of the city,” he notes. “Lots of mental hospitals, but also little refuges for people suffering from tuberculosis or smallpox.”

Margaret Thatcher snipped the ribbon on the M25 on October 29, 1986, but according to Sinclair, “It was born posthumously. There was such a weight of traffic”—some 170,000 vehicles per day—”that it almost instantly clogged up.” (The first accident occurred almost exactly one minute after opening.) But if motorists didn’t benefit from the M25’s arrival, other interest groups reaped wholly unforeseen rewards. “It linked all of London for the first time, which was very good for criminals,” Sinclair says. “The underclasses could creep out onto the road and push into new zones to burglarize and create havoc.

“Immediately a new, anarchic culture evolved on the road, partly to do with Ecstasy and partly with mobile phones,” he continues. “The conjunction of the two meant you had raves happening all around. And who exploited this but the old-time East End villains, who now moved out to the suburbs to trade in pills and make huge amounts of money. The first big raves in England were held just off the M25. People would hang around the service stations and car parks and wait for a message on their mobiles to find out wherever it was.” After a rash of Ecstasy casualties and the murder of several dealers, “It all just blew apart,” Sinclair says. “What had started as a second season of the Summer of Love went rapidly downhill. This is the nature of the road—utopia collapses into dystopia.”

Undertaken in segments between 1998 and New Year’s 2000, Sinclair’s epic perambulation often tagged the author himself as a fugitive. “You’re watched every inch of the way. Sometimes it seems like an empty landscape, but often it’s obviously paranoid, with CCTV and security guards everywhere. If you tell someone you’re just walking to no place in particular, that’s just unbelievable—it’s semi-criminal. Now they try to direct you to these official paths and no one’s there.”

In London Orbital, Sinclair identifies the New Labour regime with a nervous compulsion to divvy up London’s wildest fringes into readily legible categories: “Wilderness was abhorrent. Rough pasture must be rationalised into Best Value recreational zones.” Indeed, the impetus and starting point for the M25 walk was the notoriously failed Millennium Dome, itself absurdly apportioned as TV-dinner units: a Body Zone, a Play Zone, a Spirit Zone. “It’s the perfect symbol of the vacuousness of the whole New Labour philosophy—this lump on a swamp that just sits there swallowing money, day after day,” Sinclair says. In London Orbital, said lump also receives the honorifics “sorry meniscus,” “Teflon meteorite,” and “New Labour’s tell-tale heart.” (The government is currently in the midst of dumping the “obscene fungus” on the American billionaire Philip Anschutz, who plans to turn it into a sports and entertainment complex and is under investigation in the U.S. for profiteering.)

A cautionary, cash-hemorrhaging blemish on London’s horizon, the Dome may also provide an unwitting argument for precisely the kind of sprawling, revelatory odysseys that Sinclair makes his trademark. “There are acres of images of what the Dome should look like—beautiful blue river, trees all around,” he says. “It’s easy to fall into that mindset, where you just look at the projection, the supposed future, and it has nothing to do with any experience you’ve had. Why move around your landscape when you can look at it on a screen? People don’t look at their surroundings anymore—rather, they drive to them in a car.”