Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, by Iain Sinclair.
With illustrations by Oona Grimes.
Hamish Hamilton, £20
Iain Sinclair is a Hackney treasure: a hangover from the old counter-cultural days, polymath filmmaker, journalist, poet, novelist, and guy who walks around and sees things. Assuming he himself is invisible, he is imbued with a vital sense of the spirit of place. In this case, it is Hackney itself, our borough, that he is giving us.
And the book does feel like a gift. Sinclair has written about other parts of London – he even walked the M25 for his 2002 book London Orbital – but never a book about the borough he has lived in since 1969. Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (“rose-red” conveniently standing in for both spectacles and the recent horrors of New Labour) is the result of those forty years.
The book is as idiosyncratic and sprawling as the borough, and has almost as much living history packed into its pages as the place itself can hold.
Time is nothing to Sinclair. He sees the world in terms of shots, frames, sequences, films, montages. “Once there, always there,” he writes. “The traces.” Anecdote and rumour hold together swirling mists of hearsay and conjecture, and the characters who loom into view include – as well as Sinclair’s usual motley cast of friends and acquaintances – Jean-Luc Godard, Joseph Conrad, Jayne Mansfield, Edmund Halley, Tony Lambrianou (who disposed of both the body and the car keys of Jack ‘the Hat’ McVitie, and shows Sinclair the exact spot on the canal where the keys got tossed), William Blake’s friend Edward Calvert, Tony Blair (“a wide boy used to busking it on charm, expecting to be found out”), Baader-Meinhof fugitive Astrid Proll, Samuel Richardson, Sheila Rowbotham, Thomas More, Julie Christie, Mary Wollstonecraft, Orson Welles. All with Hackney stories, Hackney traces, Hackney history.
Sinclair quotes the artist Edward Calvert’s wife Mary, writing to her husband: “I wish you would particularly regard the transparency of shadows.”
Comparisons with Islington’s more sedate, pinned-and-medallioned history are everywhere. One irate resident says to Sinclair, of Halley: “Our local man! A hero of science! Where’s the blue plaque?”
This book is an odyssey, but characters and incidents Sinclair describes exist outside linear time – which, in turn, seems to radiate outwards from 1969 – and some have different names, and some incidents may or may not actually have happened as described. But they are all real: it is a “documentary fiction,” which if you think about it is all anything can be.
The book is full of poetry. Sinclair is a poet, still very much involved with the avant garde scene, and his sensibilities are all about fracture, juxtaposition, and the mechanics of observation and description. Words loom large.
Much of the book reads like an evening down the pub with a good friend who really hates Hackney Council and knows what he’s talking about. The narrator is just mad enough – and plays to this, with descriptions of the wires holding his buttonless shirt together in front of a film crew – to be slightly unreliable, which only makes him seem more trustworthy. A man with such an intact point of view these days seems as mad – and as sane – as the earlier poet of place, John Clare, about whom Sinclair has also written.
Some of the most moving words are the monologues of the people Sinclair interviews. Lambrianou is chilling. A retired Jewish barber, a woman who moved out, a man who can’t leave, old-time market traders, clubbers, scavengers in skips, mothers, intellectuals, artists. The old days are gone, are always going, and the new days are rushing at us like a juggernaut. Sinclair is unsparing in his dissection of the damage being done to the borough through thoughtless town planning and greed. An interview with the activist solicitor Bill Parry-Davies underlines compellingly that this poor management is not just historical. Read it if you want to know what’s really happening in Dalston or on the Olympics site. And if Hackney Council thought Sinclair was a thorn in its side before, they must have posters of him up in Town Hall now.
The book weighs in at 575 pages; the lack of chronology makes it hard to follow at times, and there are passages about Sinclair’s friends you could possibly read a little faster. But the structure of the book is derived from place, and from character. It’s like a treasure chest: dip in and you could come out with pearls, velvet, mildew, or gold.
In short, if you live in the borough you will find the book fascinating. If Sinclair’s myth-making stacks up, then Hackney really is the centre of the universe, although there are probably as many Hackneys as there are people in Hackney.
The book doesn’t quite capture mine, which would have more playgrounds, more Vietnamese nail bars (surely the female equivalent of the old barber shops he talks about), more of Daniel Defoe and the rich legacy of the Dissenters, more Hassidic Jews (though Sinclair seems deliberately to avoid coming too far north) and far more ranting about three-wheeled buggies – but it creates a rose-red window through which you will undoubtedly get a glimpse of your own.