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London Orbital Paperback – 2 Oct 2003
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One might be forgiven for thinking that the only thing more boring than spending a year walking around the M25 would be reading a large book about walking around the M25. Yet Iain Sinclair's London Orbital is a fascinating and curiously haunting read. Part of the reason is that Sinclair brings to the project an immense literary talent, an intense and lifelong interest in the history of London and some extremely interesting travelling companions.
The walk was taken in several stages, from Waltham Abbey to Shenley, Abbots Langley to Staines, Staines to Epsom and Epsom to Westerham before going on to Dartford, the river and Carfax and arriving back at Waltham Abbey. Each stage fills a chapter and the reader is advised to take a leaf out of Sinclair's own book by taking one stage, one chapter at a time. This is a large book of 450-odd pages and by the time the journey gets under way-about 60 pages in--even Sinclair's dazzling prose is not enough to offset the gloomy prospect of taking a second-hand trip around the London Orbital. And yet after the first trip one finds oneself being sucked in and thinking about some of the grey, ugly images, or being angered by the grasping and philistine approach of developers and copywriters and the cynicism and hypocrisy of government.
The history of London has long been Sinclair's great passion but he populates this strange excursion with flesh-and-blood people as well as literary and mythic figures: there's John Clare watching Byron's funeral procession before embarking on his epic three-day journey back to Northborough, "chewing tobacco and gnawing grass torn up from the roadside"; then there are tales of Dracula, of lost lunatic asylums, of passionate political activists crying out against toxic land and of meetings with ex-members of London's criminal underworld.
London Orbital gets under the skin. What looks at first like a dull and deeply unappealing journey is actually a multi-layered, lyrical, ugly, mythical, engaged and engaging excursion from the present into the past and back again. --Larry Brown --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
'It isn't often that one reads a book and is convinced that it's an instant classic, but I'm sure that LONDON ORBITAL will be read 50 years from now. This account of his walk around the M25 is on one level a journey into the heart of darkness, that terrain of golf courses, retail parks and industrial estates which is Blair's Britain. It's a fascinating snapshot of who we are, lit by Sinclair's vivid prose, and on another level a warning that the mythological England of village greens and cycling aunts has been buried under the rush of a million radial tyres' J. G. Ballard, ObserverSee all Product description
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Top Customer Reviews
Firstly, "London Orbital" says surprisingly little about the M25 itself. Anyone interested in the history of how a major motorway came to be built in the green belt surrounding London or seeking an analysis of the effect it has had on local communities in terms of transport, economics and the environment will be disappointed. Instead, Sinclair uses the general location of the M25 as an excuse to write about anything in the area which takes his fancy.
Unfortunately this includes a lot of things which are speculative or just gossip. A good example is Sinclair's account of the housing development at Enfield Island Village. For nearly 200 years the land was previously occupied by the Enfield Royal Small Arms Factory. Sinclair drops dark hints that the land the housing is built on may be contaminated with chemicals or even radioactivity from the factory. However, it appears that the only source for this information is a conversation with a local resident who once knew someone who worked in the factory. Sinclair doesn't actually seem to have done any proper research into this subject, which is disappointing.
The Island Village issue is typical of the negativity and cynicism in this book. However, I didn't find much humour, and it all gets a bit wearying after a while. I was also wearied by the writing style which consists mainly of short sentences and missing verbs. At first this is fresh and original, but soon becomes a major headache.
Negative reviews such as this one tend to be rated badly by other Amazon reviewers, but I can only report on how I found the book. To be honest, I couldn't finish it. I thought it was terrible.
I know part of his route very well - living quite close to Junction 9 of the motorway and knowing something of the history and geography of the Epsom/Leatherhead area. Even here, in what I consider to be pleasant surroundings, there are dark deeds to be uncovered by Sinclair and his band of wonderful eccentrics who trek around the motorway with him.
At the end of the book, I felt as if I'd literally done the journey with him. A worthy, intelligent book - but not your average skim read in terms of travel writing. It's much more intense than that.
It took me a long time to get into not only what this book is, but the way it is written. In some ways, it reminded me of Sebald's "Rings of Saturn" - a train of consciousness triggered by a physical journey - but there are major differences. Sebald's wanderings (mental and physical) are alone and introverted, while Sinclair's journey is very much in company. It probably didn't help me that Sinclair's book and journey starts and ends at the point of the M25 that is least known to me - the North East.
However, I persisted and certainly felt rewarded. Once I realised that you don't have to "get" all the references - and these days, you can always do a quick Google if you really want to follow them up - I joined in to encounter a succession of extraordinary images, from deserted Victorian mental asylums, to boggy wastelands, to garden suburbs, to technology parks and retail developments to greasy spoon cafes. Woven into these landscapes is the human history and detail - truly fascinating. The sections that I enjoyed the most concentrated on what is for me familiar territory in the South-Western stretches of the motorway.
I could have done - as in Sebald's book - with a few photos and illustrations (even a map!), though I expect these are to be found in the hardback edition. And there is rather too much repetition, but overall, a very rewarding, unique and fascinating read.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Excellent book .lots of detail.specially liked the Enfield bit.Published 3 months ago by Mr. R. Farrow
For the few of you who, like myself, have grown up, gone to school, studied at university, and now work, all within (near) earshot of the M25; this is a semi-biographical work of... Read morePublished 12 months ago by Joseph Byrne
Having heard a lot about Iain Sinclair it was good to get a read of him at long last. I wasn't disappointed. Read morePublished on 26 Feb. 2015 by keen reader
I won't be attempting this one as I found Lights Out for the Territory difficult to get into owing to style and being 20 years oldPublished on 23 Dec. 2014 by Graham benbow
A fascinating exploration of London's outer suburbs and surrounding areas. These often amazing real stories are well realised and clearly written by someone who cares. Read morePublished on 25 Jun. 2013 by RL Cloherty
I had wanted to read this book for a long time being interested in the concept of psychogeography as expounded by Sinclair, and indeed the concept is still a very interesting one,... Read morePublished on 20 Sept. 2012 by Howellsey
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