on 8 July 2012
This was the first 'big' book by Iain Sinclair, both in profile and length. There is some wonderful writing dotted about in it: the historic Tilbury and Maze Hill he conjures have a vivid strangeness familiar from his earlier poetry and prose, for example. But by god there's a lot of unfocused misanthropy here too. He hates everything, in the most hackneyed (ha!) terms: in the first 100 pages alone, there are cringe-worthy rants about alternative comedians, his (wonderful) previous books, people who take him to free dinners and give him fun jobs, the government, women who protest against the government, people who write articles criticising the government, people who went to the wrong universities, people who - like him - buy houses cheap in lovely squares recommended by John Betjeman, people who live in East London, people who don't live in East London, people who did live in East London and now don't, you.... I'm sitting there ready to join in but he never persuades me: they're all just bad cause he says so and that's that. He's not good at plot, satire, character, or structure in a work this length, but Downriver is still conventional enough in style (realism punctuated by historical visions) that it isn't really a formal experiment, or a Thomas Bernhard-style dynamic rant either. Beyond that it's difficult to put your finger on what's so "off" about the feel of the thing, considering its promising ingredients. The women who feature in his books tend to be dead and usually prostitutes, that probably doesn't help. And, while he's good at detailing the headspinning property cons going on by the riverside, he doesn't have much political insight beyond them - bit of a problem when you're presenting some kind of apocalyptic Thatcherite hell.
on 20 March 2001
I read this because I read somewhere (Evening Standard ?) that this and Mother London were the two best novels about London. Together -- and they are very different 'reads' on the city although often linked together -- they do make a monumental picture of a living, richly textured capital. Other writers never seem to get as thoroughly involved with their material as Sinclair and Moorcock who almost seem to think the city IS them. That is, where a writer like Martin Amis will really be writing about himself in some way and his responses to what he sees, Sinclair and Moorcock seem to ABSORB themselves in the city -- accepting it, lock, stock and occasionally smoking barrel -- and celebrating it. That celebratory note is what unites the books. This is not your usual wimp's response to the Terrors and Pitfalls of the Big City. This is I LIKE IT HERE, CRAP AND ALL. The mocking lyricism is another thing which sometimes echoes across both books. These are sophisticated writers, but they are writers of passion and they are both romantic writers in the best, most intelligent sense. Impatient with orthodoxy, suspicious of received ideas, they go and look at everything for themselves and bring us back their reports. You can't ask for better than that. You do get better than that, because you get some glorious writing and wonderful characters. Downriver is constructed as twelve interlocking narratives and has a rather monumental Victorian structure to it. It feels a bit like the Tower of London, too. Mother London in contrast is the Kew Tropical Plant House with shafts of light falling forever unexpectedly on things we hadn't noticed before. Downriver is also full of things we hadn't noticed before and I am now re-reading it because I am discovering more things I hadn't noticed the first time! This is a Chinese box of delights and Mother London is, if you like, an Albert Memorial of delights. Together they show that English fiction has not lost sight of a larger contextual universe while examining local life-forms. In spite of being about one specific city, they refute the impression of the modern English novel as provincial or, at best, regional in its focus. I can't recommend them too enthusiastically. Both these great books are built to last. JB
on 12 January 2002
I think Michael Moorcock coined the phrase 'Smoke Opera' to describe the raft of "London" books, both fiction and non-fiction, which have been published in the last few years and reaching some kind of culmination with that great work of fiction Ackroyd's "London: A Biography". Downriver remains my favourite Sinclair novel and I can't recommend it highly enough. If you want real substance, a sense of value which you get from a Victorian classic, with the sense of street suss you expect from the latest junkista. It's very persuasive writing. Like Mother London, you have to take the writer's authority on trust, because this isn't a standard modernist text, but it is so thoroughly rewarding, you will not regret giving him that trust. These are very substantial books indeed, likely to outlast most of their contemporaries! Downriver will run and run! Twelve interconnecting narratives. Twelve times the value of the average Martin Amis! I originally bought this because Laurie Taylor said it was the best value for money to take on holiday. He was right.
I picked up this book for a number of reasons: primarily, I was intrigued by the concept of a novel comprised of twelve stories which would reveal a gritty, dark side of London's docklands. (I'm not a Londoner, nor have I spent a great deal of time there, but I am drawn to fiction about it for some reason.) I have to admit I was also impressed with the plethora of effusive praise from the British press on the jacket. Having read the first three stories, I have now set it aside, unlikely to return to it. Why? Well, it all starts and ends with Sinclair's style. Had I known beforehand that he is a poet, I probably would have avoided the book. My experience with poets is that their prose style tends to be overly ornate. Some find this wholly delightful, but it generally leaves me deeply unmoved.
I liked the notion of what Sinclair was trying to do in tying the Thames to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and mixing it all up with a critique of Thatcherite policies and the the capitalist assault on the underclass. He's clearly a writer with a political viewpoint who absorbs his cultural surroundings and infuse them back into his writing. Unfortunately, the connections aren't always visible, and worse, the stories aren't particularly interesting. There are flashes here and there of something, and clearly Sinclair has masses of knowledge and skill, but it's hard to find any cohesion to it all. The reviewer at The New York Times put it rather well in saying, "The book is a tremendous pillar of words, not all of them making direct sense and not trying to." It's writing one can appreciate, but not really enjoy, and since I have stacks of other unread books waiting for me, I'll put this one aside-perhaps forever.
Towards the end of Iain Sinclair's 1991 novel Downriver, two of the novel's main protagonists, the narrator (a Sinclair character himself) and his associate, the sculptor Joblard, find that their journey 'downriver' has taken them to the Isle Of Sheppey, where a cricket match is about to take place on the beach. I was trying to come up with a sporting metaphor for the novel (or just Sinclair's literature more generally). If I were forced to go the cricket route, I would opt for someone like Kevin Petersen; if, however, I were to follow my initial line of thought and focus instead on football, then Christiano Ronaldo would, for me, fit the bill. Namely, a man who demonstrates mind-blowing feats of skill, but who (certainly when playing for Portugal, if you get my meaning) is unlikely to assist in the production of a coherent, all-round team effort.
Sporting analogies aside, this is an amazing novel but one which is only partially successful for me. Style-wise, I would place it alongside the likes of Will Self - although it has also been compared to Burroughs and Joyce. With a narrative about as clear as a view of the North Sea from the Aberdeen shoreline in December, Downriver comprises 12 separate chapters (with interlinked stories), the running thread of which is our narrator, book-dealer and aspiring film-maker Sinclair, whose adventures on and around The Thames take in as bizarre a cast of characters as I've ever come across, and whose focus is the changing face of East London and its environs in the Thatcher era.
The scope of Downriver is vast and demonstrates Sinclair's unparalleled (or, at least, deeply researched) knowledge of the history of his adopted home in East London. With prose as tortuous (and as astoundingly inventive) as any you will find, Downriver's highlights for me include a brilliant dissection of the commercial exploitation of the London Docklands (including a sublime passage describing a committee meetings of bankers, politicians, etc, debating a potential monument to Thatcher - or is it to Denis?), together with scathing denunciations of the state of our private railways, press and modern literature (with the obligatory digs at Martin Amis). Sinclair also blends into the narrative fascinating elements of history - including the Jack The Ripper murders, the sinking of the Princess Alice on the Thames and the exploits of the Aboriginal Australian cricket team which visited the UK in the late 19th century.
Many great things therefore, but with my reservations still in place. I suggest he signs for Barcelona.
on 14 July 2001
This is the best of all the London books and could be one of the best novels of the past forty or fifty years! It is written on dozens of levels and can be reread for fresh insights, humour and general brilliance. Wonderful book. Honestly, most other stuff seems pretty thin in comparison.
on 4 March 2007
When Angela Carter no less, whose own work couldn't exactly be described as conventional, is quoted on this book's back cover blurb describing it as "a great, strange [...] fiction about London that follows its own logic", well, I suppose we can't say we haven't been warned. Often more anti-novel than novel, Sinclair's relentlessly downbeat low-life tale has little in the way of plot and makes few concessions to the reader as it meanders its way through the East End of London, as polluted and silt-heavy with the weight of history as the river it describes. Fascinatingly, Sinclair himself seems well aware of the reader's likely reaction, summed up in a fictitious Editor's (self-referential) response to the novel's supposed first draft - "Who is 'I'? ....Too compressed. What slaughter? What psycopath? What nickname?". "What nickname?" goes pretty much to the root of the reader's problem: Sinclair is an inveterate and unashamed namedropper, with his text's cultural referents being too dense and numerous for any single reader to have much chance of catching them all. For example, on a randomly chosen page from the last of his twelve tales, he invokes Joe Orton (fair enough, heard of him), Douglas Bader (sorry, no), Max Roach (vaguely ... a drummer, maybe??) and Michael Sandle (sorry, really haven't the foggiest). Well, call me thick, but it's nice not to have to consult Wikipedia more than once per page. And a lot of the references are just going to be lost on those of us not privileged to live in the Capital: maybe it's because I'm not a Londoner...
So, why bother? Because when Sinclair really finds his form in these twelve murky tales, he is on fire with a dark poetry which is quite unlike anything else in recent British literature. This is particularly true of the darkest of the book's sections, "Horse Spittle" (featuring the disappearance and presumed murder of a nurse turned prostitute), "Eisenbahnangst" (with its chilling Freudian deconstruction of Tenniel's famous illustrations for Lewis Carroll's "Alice Through the Looking-Glass"), and "Prima Donna", which describes Sinclair's supposed encounter with a disturbing character who has a troubling obsession with the victims of Jack the Ripper.
The book's twelve sections essentially narrate the wanderings of a second-hand-book-seller turned writer called (yes, you guessed it) Iain Sinclair, in the ever-shifting and thoroughly unreliable riverine territory of Margaret Thatcher's London Docklands. Although many of the characters he encounters are unashamed grotesques, it is in his portrayal of society's victims (prostitutes; rent-boys; addicts; the mentally ill) that Sinclair really engages the reader's sympathy.
Parts of the book have inevitably dated (the Silvertown memorial?? - presumably topical in Thatcher's last years as Prime Minister), and Sinclair's political satire in "Art of the State" and "Isle of Doges" is unashamedly heavy-handed (though I did love the vision of Dennis Thatcher as the Cerne Giant, naked and brandishing a golf club ...). There is no doubt that this "novel", even more than most of Sinclair's books, makes very considerable demands on the reader. All the same, it's worth making this trip downriver.
on 1 June 2012
The actual story in each chapter is quite an illusive one, it has to be sought out. It is between a lot of "Sinclair to Savour". It cannot be rushed, skipped through, or immediately taken in. Even dipped into slowly, leaves one wanting to re-read and digest so many wordsmith delights. This makes getting to the end quite a slow but rewarding process. The story itself is well worth all the distractions, especially if, as I do, the reader savours Sinclair.
on 20 July 2016
I hated this book when it first came out in the early 90s but I persevered until the end hoping it would get better. Fifteen years later, for reasons unknown to me, I started reading it again and loved it. Maybe I was too immature to appreciate the prose when I was a young man... Anyway, you'll either love it or hate it on first reading.
on 25 July 2015
A remarkable evocation of East London seen through the eyes of the greatest set of unlikely characters since J P Dunleavy's "Ginger Man". The language is rich in description and metaphor and 'though the action can be a trifle difficult to follow the total experience is greatly rewarding.