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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel

London Orbital

Iain Sinclair

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To purchase London Orbital

Title: London Orbital
Author: Iain Sinclair
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2002
Length: 457 pages
Availability: London Orbital - US
London Orbital - UK
London Orbital - Canada
  • A Walk around the M25
  • With photographs by Dave McKean and illustrations by Renchi Bicknell

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Our Assessment:

B : oddly fascinating

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 28/9/2002 Sinclair McKay
The Guardian . 21/9/2002 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent A 21/9/2002 Nicholas Royle
New Statesman . 30/9/2002 Will Self
San Francisco Chronicle A 26/1/2003 Kenneth Baker
The Spectator A- 2/11/2002 James Delingpole
Sunday Telegraph A- 22/9/2002 Anne Chisholm
The Times A 12/10/2002 Steve Jelbert

  Review Consensus:

  Very enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "Despite the longueurs, the nature of Sinclair's expedition remains oddly heroic. (…) If consumed in one go, this is a curiously energy-sapping book. If you take it slowly, and episodically, you will find flashes of Iain Sinclair at the top of his singular game." - Sinclair McKay, Daily Telegraph

  • "And very readable it is, more than the epithet "writer's writer" often applied to Sinclair would suggest. In fact, it's a hoot. But you'll need that map." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "This is about as far from a guidebook as it's possible to get. (…) The writing is lucid, accessible, inventive and witty" - Nicholas Royle, The Independent

  • "Because such is the intensity and the lustre of his prose, that Sinclair begins to achieve the occult task he has set himself. London Orbital is so very big, that it makes the Dome seem as small as any very big thing can be." - Will Self, New Statesman

  • "London Orbital will win Sinclair new admirers, but only among readers who know what a feat it is to write several hundred pages without a lifeless line." - Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "As a walking guide to the M25, this book is next to useless (too rambly, no maps), but as a Hobson-Jobson to the quirks of a hidden England you feared had vanished (from Samuel Palmer’s Golden Valley period to mosquito cures in lunatic asylums) it’s unbeatable." - James Delingpole, The Spectator

  • "Only Iain Sinclair (…) could have first conceived and then written this rambling, self-indulgent, brilliant book. Like its inspiration, the M25 motorway around London, it covers a lot of ground, goes nowhere in particular and ends where it begins." - Anne Chisholm, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Sinclair’s journey into the depths of what he calls dismissively "Best Value" Britain is an absolute joy. (…) Such dense writing is never less than demanding, but it is well worth the effort." - Steve Jelbert, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       London-obsessed Iain Sinclair has written many books delving into the darkest corners of London. In London Orbital he goes to the very edges of the city, following the M25, the capital's outer ring-road. It comes as no surprise that Sinclair does the M25 the way the M25 is, by definition, not meant to be done: on foot. And, as usual, in Sinclair's hands this becomes more than a mere pedestrian undertaking.
       With a variety of travelling companions -- notably Bill Drummond (of KLF and K Foundation fame), Kevin Jackson, Mark Atkins, Chris Petit, and Laurence "Renchi" Bicknell -- Sinclair follows the M25 in a sort of pre-Millennial celebration and exploration. It is not a one- or two-week expedition to conquer the road; instead Sinclair (and companions) tackle it piecemeal, bit by bit. They walk a section, and then return to the next when they can -- stretching the ambit of the adventure by their constant leaving and returning. (One of the bizarre logistical problems they face is parking cars at the beginning and end of some of the stages (so that they can get home when they are done with that day's hike).)
       A circular route is only appropriate for Sinclair, whose books often tend to at least appear to go in circles. London Orbital also begins with loops of semi-starts: only on page 103 can he write: "Here it begins, the walk proper. No detours. No digressions." Except, of course, that Sinclair's narratives are almost all detours and digressions (and that is certainly where most of the fun is).
       The strange orbital world in the shadows of the M25, not urban, rarely really suburban, barely rural any longer is nicely evoked. Empty churches, huge hospital complexes, movie studios, multi-storey car parks seem to dominate much of the landscape. Among the most notable presences also: barking guard dogs, almost everywhere.
       It is a surreal endeavour: the encounters and sights all typical of modernity pushed to the edges. This is J.G.Ballard-land (Crash-author Ballard is an often invoked presence) -- and Sinclair land, if not quite as literarily focussed as usual, literature here to being largely pushed beyond the periphery.
       The stops and starts of the undertaking make for an odd narrative. Despite the relatively clearly mapped out route there is a pervasive aimlessness throughout, as if Sinclair himself isn't quite sure where this might lead. Sinclair's strength is in the details -- the small observations, the precise sentences. But there's little smooth flow here (as is only appropriate, perhaps). And it is a big book (over 450 pages) to sustain so much; not everyone will have the patience for it. That's a shame, as Sinclair can always surprise with a brief mall-excursion, a pub visit, a search for something -- anything -- to make sense of what is, in many sense, a vast wasteland in the shadows of the M25. Ultimately, everything is found along the way: high and low, neighbourhoods going through all sorts of transitions (some on the way up, some down), a great deal of London and English history.
       The characters that accompany Sinclair are interesting figures too, including Bill Drummond (who wrote his own account of accompanying Sinclair in 45 (see our review), and ultra-busy Kevin Jackson (who arrives for the last stage "mustard keen and alarmingly over-bagged" -- a description typical of Sinclair's talents).
       A coda offers "Millennium Eve", with Sinclair describing, looking ahead, a return to the Millennium Dome (which he skewered so neatly in the brilliant Sorry Meniscus (see our review): an appropriate end-of-an-era close to his orbital spins.
       It seems to have been a cathartic undertaking for Sinclair: early on he already suggests: "Time after time, urban obsessions would be resolved at the very point where London lost heat, lost heart, gave up its clotted identity." His exhaustive tour does not offer complete resolution, but enough for him to move on. Readers will surely be left dazed, perhaps not as certain that they have escaped this circular route.

       An interesting if highly unusual volume. Sinclair fans will surely enjoy it; others might find it all a bit much. Still: worthwhile.

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London Orbital: Reviews: The M25: London Orbital - the video: Iain Sinclair: Other books by Iain Sinclair under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Bill Drummond's own report of part of the walk, in 45
  • Kevin Jackson's Invisible Forms
  • See Index of Travel-related books under review

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About the Author:

       London author Iain Sinclair has written several collections of poetry, as well as a number of novels and documentary works.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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