Iain Sinclair walked the length of the M25 motorway to research his book London Orbital. Chris Hall hears why
Listeners of Radio 4’s Today programme recently voted London’s M25 the worst of the “seven horrors of Britain” in a poll. One imagines that this refers to their experience of it as drivers; but perhaps if they’d done what the novelist, poet and “psychogeographer” Iain Sinclair did and walked around the M25, they’d have thought differently. For this was his unique project – to walk anti-clockwise around the motorway and the areas that it enclosed from Waltham Abbey, exploring the huge tranches of unknown territory that lay bounded by the M25 outside of the city centre. And in doing so, comprehending the scale of the invasion of commerce in these zones and witnessing, as it were, an invisible landscape disappear.
Sinclair describes the journey – taken in the millennial year – in his new book London Orbital. Most people would of course regard the idea of circumnavigating the M25 as a mad one, but was it really that dispiriting? “Not at all. The experience of doing it was incredibly exhilarating,” says Sinclair. “You didn’t know what you were going to find. Getting up really early in this weird landscape. You might as well have been in some totally remote country.”
It is the disconnection between our apprehension of London and its actual topography that Sinclair writes about. (As Will Self puts it: Londoners don’t live in London, they live in the tube map of London). London Orbital is full of developments that airbrush or ignore the history of their sites. Places like Enfield Island Village, described as “an exciting new village community”, of which Sinclair writes: “The village isn’t new, the community isn’t new, the island isn’t new. What’s new is the tariff, the mortgage, the terms of the social contract. What’s new is that industrial debris is suddenly ‘stylish’.”
So what does he think about the housing forecasts for the South East, the recommendations of the Urban Task Force report, and the colossal amount of brownfield renewal that is necessary in and around the capital? “These seem to be projections made from a very privileged metropolitan standpoint about something that’s going to happen ‘out there’, without true knowledge of just what actually is out there,” he says. “The notion of decanting swathes of the populace into these amorphous nowheres, these liminal territories at the edge of the city is, I think, a nightmare prospect.”
This, as London Orbital makes clear, is precisely what the city has always done with its undesirables and madmen. Sinclair – an altogether different kind of asylum seeker, but nonetheless wandering around, not knowing entirely where he is – says that he was amazed to find the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s hypothesis about the optimum distance that asylums should be placed away from the city – 20 miles – so palpably confirmed.
“I was dazzled by the Holloway Sanitarium [now Virginia Park] – the ultimate heritage- asylum conversion,” he tells me. “The thing that disturbed me [about other asylum conversions] was the absence of memory – all traces of what had been there before had been cannily erased, including the name.”
So should architects be learning more about the history of a site? “They should be made to go into the landscape to the site and then move outwards from it for a considerable distance and then to come in on it. Especially the big-name architects who are the worse perpetrators,” he says with a little glee. “They shouldn’t just place something that is simply site-specific to the person commissioning the building.”
As you might expect of Sinclair, he’s unearthed some pretty fascinating nuggets. For example, the story of how the war cabinet was deceived into giving approval for Heathrow airport: “Emergency wartime powers were used to establish, by a network of dubious commercial deals, a major airport that was only 15 miles from the centre of London.” And finding the grave of Hawksmoor in a field just off the motorway was, he says, “quite a shock – this sense of the centre drifting out as it becomes forgotten”.
Were there any new buildings that he particularly admired? “I was very struck by the Siebel building by Runnymede Bridge in Egham. It just appeared out of nowhere between visits. It didn’t bristle with surveillance – most buildings were incredibly paranoid. It seemed transcendantly strange – there was nobody around. It was sinisterly benign.”
Sinclair’s poetic retains that characteristic samizdat quality of goods smuggled past the PR checkpoints, his prose always crackling with connectivity. Here he is on the Xerox building: “Uxbridge is made from Xs. Lines of cancelled typescript. Fields planted with barbed wire.”
One of the many treats of Sinclair’s excellent Lights Out For The Territory (of which London Orbital is a kind of sequel), is his visit to Jeffrey Archer and his penthouse at Alembic House. I wondered if he’d thought of returning to him at his new residence in Belmarsh prison in Thamesmead, south-east London? He laughs at the idea, but admits slightly wearily that “perhaps we’ve had a little too much of him already”.
As for these liminal areas, he’s already looking ahead. “One day, when the research and development has moved elsewhere, the abandoned colony will be turned over to the heritage industry. Wild nature… will be promoted and paraded.” How apt this convergence of Sinclair’s journey with London – to have returned to the beginning.
[This article was originally written for the UK architectural magazine Building Design].