London's M25 highway was voted number one in the BBC's "seven horrors of Britain." It is a 122-mile, 10-lane ring of smog heat, and angry motorists that encircles the city. It is the very essence of all that is wrong with urban sprawl. Hardly the stuff of ordinary literary exploration.
Iain Sinclair, however, is hardly your ordinary literary guide. Author, chronicler, narrative sociologist, political essayist, collector of all things Anglo, Sinclair sets out to circumnavigate the M25, not by car, the way in which it was intended to be circumnavigated, but by foot, all the while mapping the psychogeography of London and its surrounding environs.
In a series of daily treks, Sinclair, accompanied by a menagerie of companions, completes the M25 circuit on the eve of the millennium. But "London Orbital" is no guidebook. And with its incessant detours and constant diversions into the socio-political, architectural, or artistic implications of the terrain, it can hardly be called a travel narrative.
So, what is it?
Somewhere around South Mimms, Sinclair himself dubs the journey a fugue, "transient mental illness. Madness as a voyage." Psychological fugue. Characterized by a loss of awareness of self in combination with a flight from one's home. Sinclair revels in his mad fugue. "You didn't walk to forget, you walked to forget the walk." The payoff lay "in the heightened experience of present-tense actuality." In American: Zen and the Art of Walking around London.
Sinclair eschews the automobile out-of-hand. He is admittedly ignorant of a passing car's make or model: "I only do cars by their color." The consummate walker, he regards the drivers on the London Orbital with pity at best:
On the M25, fixed in their lanes, trying to make sense of flashing overhead signs and warnings, smoking, finger-drumming, jumping radio bands, jabbering into cellphones, the motorists are out of time, out of place
Tensed travelers, sweating in their metal pods, discover the insides of the outside. Nerves are stretched. Memories of the miles they've driven, to arrive at this compulsory stasis, melt into exhaust fumes.
Sinclair's own memories are carefully chronicled, detailed, archived. Each image carefully cross-referenced with his vast compendium of exquisitely arcane knowledge - ruminations on British civil engineering, literary references ranging from J.G. Ballard (who he visits on one of his tramps) to William Blake and back again to Michael Moorcock, the historical and architectural minutia of a Victorian-aged mental institution. "London Orbital" is so teeming and seething with Sinclair's breadth of Anglo-data that unless the reader is a longtime inhabitant of London, or at the very least British (or a devoted Anglophile), he can easily become mired in its vastness.