The Hendon cowboy blowing holes in Wild West mythology

By Ben Silverstone, July 25, 2008
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We meet a leading Anglo-Jewish writer who has poured his Western-loving heart into his new book


Award-winning author, journalist and erstwhile columnist at the JC, Clive Sinclair makes for an unlikely cowboy. A native of Hendon ("God help me") and now resident in St Albans, Sinclair's demeanour - modest, witty, sardonic - is that of a certain kind of literary Jewish don. Indeed, his PhD ("a doctorate in obstinacy") was on the writings of the Singer brothers: Isaac Bashevis and Israel Joshua. And yet, ever since childhood, this self-effacing son of North London has also heard the siren call of the Wild West.

"At school, I never had a hold on English history," he says, "and cheder was a place run by sadistic incompetents, so I felt alienated from the Jewish part of my past. My history was the Western. I grew up with the Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid and Bonanza. I felt as much a child of the West as someone born in Montana or Wyoming."

It was 40 years on, while living out those childhood fantasies at a re-enactment of an old-time buffalo round-up in South Dakota, that Sinclair conceived the idea for his latest book, True Tales of the Wild West.

But what began as a travelogue of Sinclair's journey through the sites where the West was won gradually morphed into an amalgam of factual reminiscence and fictional storytelling.

"As I was writing, I realised I wasn't sufficiently extrovert to gather enough interesting souls with tall tales around me. I was no Louis Theroux. But neither was I interested in exploring my inner life in public, in the manner of a Jonathan Raban.

"Isaac Bashevis Singer once told me that he never began to write something until he felt that only he could write it. I didn't feel that about what I was writing, so I created these two alter egos - Peppercorn and Saltzman - and wrote about their journeys through the West."

The result is authenticity at one remove, written in a style which Sinclair deprecatingly calls "dodgy realism", in part homage to Dodge City, where the historic Front Street was ploughed over to make way for a car park, only to be resurrected as a tourist spot at another site nearby.

In fact, the book also taps into a wider preoccupation of Sinclair's: the artifice that characterises our mythologising of America's frontier history.

Nowhere has this legend more potently set to work than by the gun-totin', fugitive-huntin' George Dubya. While discomfited by the propaganda value extracted by politicians from the rhetoric of the Western, Sinclair is keen to distinguish the current President from the cowboy tradition in which he situates himself.

"You have to turn a blind eye to politics in nearly all Westerns," he says, "and Bush does evoke the spirit of the cowboy. But not the real cowboy - most of them were Hispanics or blacks, living in squalor on the range. His historical precedents are the cattle barons of Wyoming, who hired out of state killers to murder the small farmers that opposed them.

"Like them, Bush is a ruthless capitalist. But just as I separate criticism of Israel from antisemitism, so I separate criticism of Bush from the repulsive anti-Americanism that is so prevalent now in Europe, which seems itself a mixture of snobbishness - and antisemitism."

Despite, therefore, his disdain for the current American administration, Sinclair can't shake his affection for the soul of America.

He whimsically suggests that Americana even had a central part to play in his relationship with his partner, the painter Haidee Becker. "The real reason I'm with Haidee," he says with a confidential smile, "is that she met John Wayne when she was a kid. Being with her is the nearest I'll ever get to going to bed with John Wayne."

Clive Sinclair's True Tales of the Wild West is published by Picador (£9.99)
    Last updated: 2:55pm, July 24 2008