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Books / 29 November, 2008

At home with Iain Sinclair

The author and psychogeographer talks to Peter Jones about Hackney and his forthcoming book

Hackney author Iain Sinclair

Hackney author Iain Sinclair

So tell me about the book.

It’s commissioned by Hamish Hamilton and Penguin and it’s called Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire.

It grew out of another book I was going to write, a short, fictional book set in this area. I saw the current meltdown of the financial system approaching on the horizon. Theoretical property millionaires who couldn’t afford to pay their council tax or service their debts. I saw it coming through the disappearance of the old freelance life that I remembered from Hackney in the 60s.

And I thought I’d do a short, present-tense book about the pressure of debt, and loss of cultural memory, over the period of one weekend. A distracted person forced into all kinds of alternative economies to survive: bingo, dog track, gambling, loan sharks. The ugly flipside of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

As I researched, I realised that this was too undernourished a theme and that it was much more interesting, since we’ve lived in this particular house for 40 years, to make the book a cultural memoir, a collage of documents and of accidental encounters; a span across that period of time.

This would involve talking to 30-40 people, and recording them at length, weaving these recordings into some sort of random topography. To get a pattern of how exile worked, of why people came here, why they left – and to make a record of the significant cultural figures that moved through the borough.

The failure of my first notion was that it was entirely negative. I thought of all the bad things that were happening, and I didn’t really want to write on that depressing note. I wanted to wait until I got a sense of what was strong, singular, and rich about the place, and why I’d stayed so long.

What was it like when you first came here?

Well I came here first in 1968 – not actually to this house, but to De Beauvoir Road, where I was living in a communal house – it was the hippy era and a lot of people had been in Dublin and had moved to London, to work or to get a footing in the film business. We shared a house. I came because friends of mine were renting a large property and couldn’t afford it on their own. They said, do you want to come? A group of people with a common interest in leading a communal life, working in parks and gardens and breweries, and all those things of the period.

This seemed to be the ideal place, so the motivation was entirely economic. It was a very cheap, run-down, exhausted borough. My impression, when I came, was that things had not really changed much since the war. At the end of the square there were a load of prefabs, and there was a crack running down the house from a V2 bomb. The streets where Holly Street Estate is to the north of here were made up of small, terraced, Victorian houses. And before that this was all farmland, so this was the first house built on this land. This was part of a market garden that supplied the city. Separate villages clustered around, but the hinterland was not actually developed until that mid-Victorian period of canals and railways.

So Holly Street was terraces, what was that like?

I liked it a lot. It was distressed and self-sufficient and had a strong sense of community. It was decided at that time to start putting up the tower blocks and in fact this house was under a compulsory purchase order. It was due to be pulled down. We bought, in essence, a condemned property; it cost about £3000 in 1969.

Was that a lot of money then?

No. Well, it was quite a lot of money for me, but for one of the first times in my life I’d got cash in hand from a documentary film I’d done about Allen Ginsberg. The fee for a documentary film was enough to buy a house. Anybody who wanted to buy a house really could buy a house. £3000 was a substantial sum of money – and although it wasn’t nothing, it was a sum you could lay your hands on. I wouldn’t have thought of doing this, but friends of mine bought a house in Albion Square for £6000. I mean Albion Square, the houses there are now a million!

Here was a run-down Victorian square, a classic speculation, which had in fact been written up by people like John Betjeman. He approved of its style, but averted his eyes from things he didn’t want to acknowledge. Hackney hadn’t become the surreal patchwork that it now is. It was a declining area without much investment. It was up for grabs. And we stayed around to witness the process.

Industrial?

Oh yes, very industrial – with lots of furniture factories, sweet factories, rag trade operations, magazine distribution on the far side of Mare Street. But this house, in 1969, had an outside lavatory and a tin bath.

When we moved in, if I wanted a proper scouring I used to go down to Haggerston Baths and have a bath there. It became a social centre. I taught my children to swim there and all of that. The council would give you 50 per cent of the money to install a bathroom.

In the course of doing this Hackney book, I met a number of immigrant people, Greek Cypriot and Greeks, who came over in the ‘40s and ‘50s, right through to the ‘60s, and had been offered whole houses in Albion Square by the council and turned them down: too old-fashioned, we’d rather have a flat in a tower block. It was their own decision, they didn’t want grand properties. They were left to decay. It’s still the case, if you walk down Albion Drive, you can still see houses that are rotting quietly away, council properties that have not been kept up. Or houses that maintain their own piss-off spirit.

So it was an era of bearing witness to the end of things. It was quite romantic, because the street markets like Kingsland Waste and Ridley Road were huge and in their pomp. The antithesis of present day mall culture, the idea of enclosing a pseudo street.

When you say huge…

Well, many more stalls than now, and much more active trade. It was interesting the kind of things that would be found in those stalls. There were people selling fruit and veg, cheap clothes, but there was much more of a junk turnover. I bought a book of Turner engravings, an early Hogarth print, incredible books. I was working as a book dealer for a lot of that period. It was feasible to make a living recycling unwanted treasures out of Hackney. But the great thing about the area was this powerful sense of tradition, the people who’d moved out of Whitechapel and settled here before moving on. And had opposed Mosley and the BUF (British Union of Fascists), big battles in Ridley Road Market. The memory of all that was still strong, along with the memory of the war, being blown to bits and making the best of it. All that was still very much on the surface. I saw terraces being pulled down and the Holly Street tower blocks going up, and then a few years later the tower blocks themselves being demolished.

So how did it change?

People who’d been living here, often for generations, decided to move out, to relocate to Loughton, the Epping Forest fringe, often because of the patterns of immigration that were coming towards them. They thought this was a serious change. The area would therefore be invaded by middle-class colonists taking up the slack. An interesting bunch, but you could see the cultural contour lines changing, year by year. From impoverished artists to semi-established curators and bureaucrats, to lawyers and TV comedians.

So what happened to that close-knit community in the terraces that you talked about?

Take this strip of Albion Drive. The families had been here for a long time, the grandparents had lived here. They all knew one another, it was a community, but it was an old, white community. They wondered about us, they categorised us as students. We were scruffily dressed, didn’t have any money and behaved in strange ways. But they were quite welcoming. The low-level flats behind us, which dated from the post-war era, tended to be pretty quiet and full of elderly people. They’d watch us from the balcony. Anna, my wife, got to know some of the old folk very well – and if funny things were going on while she was away, they’d ring her up and say: “You know when you were away, your husband was up to weird stuff, filming wild women in the garden”. We got to know a lady called Dolly who lived in one of the low-level flats in what is now the Holly Street Estate. Her story was quite a common one. It was of migration from Norfolk by the previous generation, to work in factories, or to do domestic work, or to work in pubs. Dolly had a phenomenal sense of social history but felt herself on the edge of disappearance. Of being the last of her kind. A residue of folk memory.

So is the book about your experience of Hackney or is it about the famous people who’ve lived here, the press release mentions Orson Welles and Godard …

It’s an untrustworthy memoir, composed in the way I’m talking to you now, stories spill off from that. Epiphanies. I encounter legends of figures I hadn’t previously associated with Hackney. People like Joseph Conrad in the German Hospital, like Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard. You then find that they came here to carry out interesting projects. The recovery of a piece of film of Orson Welles behind the Hackney Empire theatre, interviewing six old women who lived in an alms house, for example. That Welles episode set me off, immediately.

Wow, when is this?

This is from 1955. He was in the Hackney Empire rehearsing Moby Dick, he was doing a stage production and Wolf Mankiewicz, who was a writer with a successful porcelain business in Whitechapel, lent him the money to shoot some of his Moby Dick material. So Welles had the cameras and he got very interested in these old ladies who were at the back of the theatre and he documented, by accident, this 1666 almshouse, the Spurstowe almshouses – which were subsequently wiped out by council developments, extensions of the town hall. So the only record is the Orson Welles interviewing of six old ladies. It sounds fantastic but I’ve seen the movie. My book does recover things like that.

The church hall at the back of us here, All Saints Hall. Jayne Mansfield turned up to open an East London Budgerigar Show. Picture in the Hackney Gazette.

Fantastic!

You can’t invent these things, and so when you research them it becomes an amazing series of overlapping stories. And I try to weave all them into the endless narrative of Hackney. It’s that sort of place, of cultural collisions. Of Jean-Luc Godard going up to Montague Road to persuade Sheila Rowbotham – who was living in another communal house, rather parallel to the one I was in – to appear naked walking up and down the stairs while reading a polemic from Black Dwarf about women’s liberation.

Is that in any of his films?

Yes, it’s in film called British Sounds which nobody has seen because it was commissioned for TV as a documentary about London. She refused to do the walking naked up and down, but she did record this piece and another woman was hired to do the walking. To find the truth of that story and to find Sheila and record her memories is part of a detective theme that runs through the book. There are a whole number of these myths and legends to explore: molemen, hollow earth theories, leylines, conspiracies.

Was that influenced by the work on Brick Lane that you’ve done with Rachel Lichtenstein?

Not really. If you read Rachel’s own book on Brick Lane. I’m in it, she interviewed me, but it’s her book entirely. Rose-Red Empire is nothing like that in feel or flavour. Rachel’s book is curation and she’s strongly drawn to her own Jewish family history, the grandparents who had a business in the area, whereas mine is much more on the edge of fiction, a detective structure overwhelmed by real discoveries. All of those stories that I’ve told you are true, but there are other things that people have revealed in interviews and don’t want made public. So I’ve invented characters and exposed part of the story through them.

It’s interesting that you mention some of the famous people who’ve lived in Hackney because it’s always struck me as a place where people come to hide away or disappear.

Yes, there’s a strong sense of that. One of the people I write about is Edward Calvert who was an engraver, a friend and pupil of William Blake; a wonderful pastoral engraver in his early days. He disappeared and ended up living in Parkholme Road, near here. He’s buried in Abney Park, and really nobody knows anything about him. It was a voluntary stepping aside and Hackney was the perfect place to do it at that time. And even finding his grave in Abney Park was a major challenge. I did find it, it’s buried in a thicket, but there it is.

Why do you think Hackney is like that? Because you’re talking about somebody from another century but it’s still like that.

Well, it’s respectful of its original traditions, because it was outside the city and it was rural and really rather beautiful, with Hackney Brook running through it, this river which has now been covered over, and flows through Abney Park and Clissold Park to rise on the slopes of Highgate Hill.

People came to Hackney to be outside the city. Samuel Pepys, as a child, was sent here. And then because you’re that distance from the city, lunatic asylums and hospitals begin to grow up; it becomes a place to hide people away. In De Beauvoir there was Balmes House which was a great mansion that became a vile, Hogarthian asylum. People would disappear into that the same way that they would vanish into the great Victorian asylums around the M25 fringe of London in the early 20th-century.

But why Hackney and not of the neighbouring modern boroughs Tower Hamlets or Haringey?

They do disappear into those places just as much, but Hackney has a very peculiar status because as everyone says, it’s not really the East End, and it’s not really North London. It’s on the edge of the city. And it’s not the place that people finally settle. It’s more of a staging post. I mean the great Jewish diaspora of people becoming successful, or escaping the ghetto of Whitechapel. They often settled here but they didn’t stay. They moved on because the collisions are too violent. You’d rather be out in Golders Green or Barnet.

What do you mean the collisions are too violent?

It’s a fragmented borough…there was the big Jewish settlement next to Victoria Park. This was right next to a large Irish Catholic working class settlement and there was often an element of aggression between the two communities. Oswald Mosley was delivering huge political speeches in Lauriston Road, in Lauriston School, right by where the Jewish people were: for the obvious reason that it was a Jewish borough. The same thing in Ridley Road Market, there were meetings throughout the 50s and pitched battles and fights. And that’s why it’s more comfortable to move further out, into somewhere that doesn’t have that element. It’s an escape. Hackney is the ultimate collision zone.

So when you talk about the period when you came here in the late 60s and early 70s you almost describe it as quite quiet?

It was quiet in the sense of being still in a post-war doze. It was quiet but there was a strong level of criminality. The house was burgled three or four times, cars were smashed. It wasn’t a benign, peaceful place. It had a lot of edge but the situation now is much more violent on all sides. The stakes are higher. Drug wars. Loud public policing.

If you look at the maps, if you look at the layout of Hackney, there’s something about it that is bizarrely suburban because there are these estates of Victorian terraces that were all built at the same time. It’s very urban, but it’s very suburban as well.

These are old suburbs, which are now becoming new suburbs. If you look at the Holly Street Estate, it looks like a suburban development from the edge of the city. It looks like it should be much further out and it’s been imported. They’ve created an artificial suburb within a suburb. Because the original suburban sense of Hackney, which was very strong, was based around the notion that the clerical class of the city, or police inspectors, doctors, would move here and have their houses, maybe employ a servant. And they would actually have had better transport into the city than we have now. There were trams and lots of trains, it was very easy. It was just that right distance, but, with the development of the railway, the suburb pushes further out and the industries come in because of the canal and the railway, and the convenience of all that. Where there’s suburban survival, you’ll find powerful industrial elements, and a constant arrival of people, who’ve run away from somewhere else for all sorts of reasons. Like the ’60s period when there was this rush of younger people trying to live communal lives – and at the same time different ethnic groups settling because it was a convenient place, and they liked the sense of the market life and the free and easy nature of the place. For a period I guess it was a ruined paradise.

But now with embattled areas like Broadway Market, you’ve got a version of the Notting Hill effect kicking in, You’ve got astonishing pockets of real wealth and cultural aspiration. People who can slip north from Hoxton and the City and Docklands, all on your doorstep, so that the canal bank becomes a cycle track. And at the same time everything that we’ve discussed before, in terms of eccentricity and resistance, is still here. The estates haven’t changed very much, they’re just getting makeovers.

The shadow hanging over my book is this monolithic development associated with the Olympics. The whole of Dalston Lane is going to be destroyed overnight, with a brutal and grotesque development in which you tear up all the rules.

The one at Dalston Junction?

It’s not just the sense of losing a space that had a Victorian circus and a theatre, a black club and a rave era place. It was structurally sound, a beautiful place, and it’s been wiped out – and lots of Georgian properties have been destroyed in very strange ways, peculiar fires, the handing over of great packets of property to particular developers, rather than letting people with shops acquire their own freeholds. It’s the same sort of thing that’s been going on in Broadway Market, businesses dispersed, monolithic development. Economic adventurism. The total absence of shame on the part of the promoters. And all at a period of financial meltdown and madness.

The notion that you create these Grand Project piazzas or squares is a sealing off; it always seems to create a block independent of the landscape that is around it. They never take a cinemascope view of things. It’s all to do with this one particular parcel. So you’re creating a series of opposed parcels, gated redoubts, through which you can’t pass with any sense of ease. I can’t walk through here without feeling slightly uncomfortable, whereas before it just flowed.

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, you live on a Victorian development, which has, not a piazza, but a square at its centre.

But it is an open square this one. It’s obviously an extremely wealthy little enclosure. But that little square in the centre, anyone could, theoretically, go and sit in it. It’s not the feeling you get in some of the grand squares in West London, where you see this square behind its iron fence and it’s padlocked off. This is open at both ends. It’s melancholy, but it survives.

One of the things I like about walking around Hackney and East London is the sense of dilapidation and the sense that there’s this accretion of history and people have lived there, and there is dirt. These things are interesting because they’re not channelled through any sort of rationality they just have happened and occurred. The Dalston Junction development is hideous because it is monolithic and horribly planned…

Yes, and all local resistance has been swept aside.

But the building of Hackney in the Victorian period is a period of developers.

Oh yes, this street and all these streets along here were a speculation. People were grabbing bits from the edges of London Fields. Deals were done. One of the developers was a cousin, I think, of Cecil Rhodes, who was ripping things up in Africa, and this man was doing the same thing here. But as the scale and structure is human, the terraces that went up in 1850 still work. It’s a very modest scale, these sort of houses, or they wouldn’t have survived this long and adapted to all kinds of usage. They’ve gone up and down in social and cultural terms but whatever it is, they seem to make their own terms. I can’t see that happening with these blocks, these huge blocks that are crushed right against each other, because if nothing else the building methods are so quick and shoddy in lots of cases. The proportions are pretty cramped. Bill Parry-Davies, who is a solicitor who works there in Dalston Lane, his vision is that there’s going to be an enormously high turnover of population. People won’t choose to settle there or make a life there. It’s just somewhere in and out.

One of the things I wanted to ask you about was walking. It’s a constant theme in your books. What’s your habit of walking, do you get up in the morning and go for a walk?

Yes, I do.

Where do you go?

My wife and I go out on the same circuit every day, because it eases us, physically, into whatever lies ahead. I start writing when I get home. The morning ramble is like a travelling shot that passes across the different potentialities of the borough, in a quiet, meditative way. By exploring the same route every morning, I begin to notice these tiny, tiny changes: in terms of the light, and the seasons and the people met on the journey – and the behaviour of dog-accompanists and other eccentrics in the park, as well as birdlife on the canal.

What’s the route?

I walk down Albion Drive and then of course you’ve got London Fields, an old drovers’ patch, but which now has tables of drinkers in the morning. It showcases the new Hackney of endless jogging, particularly women joggers piling through there in fierce and concentrated determination. Then we face the curse of bicycles: you’re fighting a swarm of lycra-clad, easter-egg-helmeted cyclists, who are hammering down to Docklands or wherever. Then we ease across Mare Street, some interesting stuff there, and down into Victoria Park, through the park onto the canal, back along the canal to Queensbridge Road and home. It’s a circuit of about 40-odd minutes. A grounding into the local – and, obviously, this process and the information gained by it, feeds into this book in lots of ways.

And in the afternoon?

I go anywhere and everywhere.

The morning thing sounds like a routine.

A domestic thing really, just going through our territory and walking with my wife and seeing things and that’s all it is. It’s very pleasant, but then in the afternoon I’ll walk back from wherever I find myself. There’s a particular sequence of journeys, veins and patterns across London that I’m doing all the time. There are never-ending projects in which I will set off in the morning and walk all day.

Are you conscious of coming back into Hackney? You describe Hackney as a rose-red empire.

Over the period of writing this book, I did walk particularly and obsessively in Hackney. I haven’t written an awful lot about Hackney because generally I’d be moving out and away, keeping my home ground private. Leaving it alone.

You generally start in Hackney and walk east.

I didn’t want to write about what was on my doorstep. I wanted Hackney to be a buffer zone. This is my life and I’m living here. I don’t want to go into that in great detail. I wanted, in the past, to celebrate the more obvioiusly exotic parts, say Whitechapel or the riverside at Limehouse and Wapping, then pushing further out into the Thames Estuary and around the M25. That’s the business of writing, soliciting novelty, whereas my Hackney neighbourhood was the business of living. In this new book I’ve brought the two modes together. What I’m writing about is likely to disappear in quite a dramatic way.

What do you think this moment is in terms of Hackney?

This moment is the dissolution of a fondly remembered version of Hackney. Because for the first time central government and local government are in total agreement: that the prime strategic objective is to create this event which is the Olympic Games, and to remake transport and to reinvent the borough in terms of focusing on grand projects that can be talked up in a pompous way. And this involves a Faustian deal with global capital, the whole thing piles up, wave after wave, like a tsunami. Everything at the same time, in a way that devastates all forms of minor local irritation. The loss the Central Library on Mare Street is still felt, a big resource for all the writers I’ve been talking about for 40 years. They speak about this space as somewhere where they could research and learn and develop. It became Ocean, an obscene amount of money was pumped into it and it fails in no time flat. There is a reflex bias towards carrying out big, showy projects, producing free newspapers that clunk through the door, giving an essentially a mendacious swipe of reality: the triumphant Olympic park, the singing dancing people, the restored swimming pools. And it’s absolute bollocks.

I think of Hackney as a place where there are a lot of failed grand projects.

Yes, Clissold Leisure Centre. Ocean. Some of them recover and survive.

But also historically it’s a place that is a graveyard of grand projects.

This is why I adapted the metaphor of a Hackney empire: involuntary colonisation, decline and fall. And it’s the shape and colour of the Hackney Empire theatre, and the idea that this grand music hall, with its glorious and tawdry history: Laurel and Hardy appearing there and all the rest of it , Orson Welles. You will find a restored pink version of reality. A rose-red cliff or screen alongside the white stone bulk of the Town hall. Everything in this zone has parenthesis around it. Qualities that are always crumbling away and decaying, and will now finally be wiped out. An empire of vanity, smoke and mirrors.

When you say an empire, it suggests it’s being governed.

Local government has always lurched between incompetence and corruption. There have been endless scandals obviously.

But there has always been this sense that it hasn’t been governed, that it hasn’t been controlled, and that therefore there’s been this space that people can come into and adapt to their own.

Hackney reached the point where it was hugely in debt, bankrupt, clapped out, and a deal had to be struck with government, a bail out that involved selling off huge tranches of property. The accidental bits they had in the City are now being sold as well; but not, so it appears, to bring relief to independent, grass-roots activity, small magazines like Vertigo, or Howard Barker’s acting group. Things that have survived for a long time on small amounts of money have it taken away to go into the big Olympic project. The People’s Park. The Westfield shopping mall.

But going into recession, isn’t that a time when grand projects will fail, when government will fail and when those alternative ways of being will return?

That’s my hope. I think the good thing about the local situation reaching such a state of obvious and self-evident idiocy was that alternative activities had to get much stronger. I can see independent bookshops setting up, an active bookshop on Lower Clapton Road for example. And squatters occupying properties in Broadway Market, defending a café that’s being shut down under dubious circumstances. These manifestations haven’t been so visible for a very long time: the worse things get, the keener the alternative energies.

Tell me about the communal house you lived in.

It was on the edge of real Hackney, on the west side of Kingsland Road, not far from Islington. A friend of mine rented it for himself and his partner, and then he invited other people who had known each other in Dublin. A community of interest, not a squat. This would now be a commonplace situation, a bunch of people sharing a house. We had some idea of holding things in common, living together, communal means and projects. And keeping 8mm diary films as a record of this new life and place. Working in parks and gardens, self- publishing.

Tell me about the gardening, you worked as a gardener?

I did. Early on in Hackney, I gave up on any attempt to do make my way through established channels in publication or film. I settled to the life here – which meant taking on labouring jobs through the area for ten years, and at the same time running a small press, an independent press, using labouring money to produce books and art shows and whatever. The interesting thing about it was the geography it opened up. I cut grass in the Hawksmoor churches, in Limehouse and Ratcliffe Highway. I was driving round in a Land Rover, visting schools on the Isle of Dogs. I was being paid to do the very things I wanted to do.

So who were you working for then?

I worked for the council, the Parks Department, in Tower Hamlets . St George’s Fields. Between Mile End and Limehouse.

And that’s how you started to plot those lines in your books?

Yes. Of course I knew about the Hawksmoor churches, but driving from St Anne’s Limehouse to St George in the East, I began to understand the pattern, the overarching topography. I was up on the hill in Greenwich Park and I could see that the spire of St Anne’s Limehouse was exactly between the two domes of the Queen’s House. I would go into the churches in my lunch hour, maybe talk to the vicar, be allowed to get inside a locked building, to poke about, and build up the raw materials for the mythology I would subsequently write about. I cycled to Tower Hamlets Cemetery, an overgrown wilderness reservation, to picnic, read, scribble in my notebooks.

What about in Hackney? You’ve talked about your morning circuit, which must be one of your points of reference. In your other books you have the Hawksmoor churches.

The whole book is about that. In this new book, certain places reveal themselves as markers. One would be the German Hospital, off Graham Road. Because it’s an unusual building and because Joseph Conrad came there after collapsing in the Congo. After he’d made his trip up the river, he came back to the German Hospital in a state of collapse, with journals and photographs of that trip. Essentially Heart of Darkness is cooked up in Dalston. In Graham Road, at the same time, to put Heart of Darkness in context, there was a woman living right by the German Hospital who starved to death. She lost her job as a seamstress and was too embarrassed to go out and attempt to find another one and preferred to stay at home. To waste away. An accusing ghost. The financial pressures were such that people were actually dying within range of this hospital where Conrad was meditating on colonialism and the horror at the heart of Africa. The hospital fascinates me, it’s one of the focuses of the book.

Then there is the Mole Man’s house. This guy, an Irishman called William Lyttle, starts to excavate beneath his large property and creates a network of tunnels: a completely mad, visionary project. Illegitimate in the present era.

That’s a very Hackney sort of thing to do.

Very Hackney. And absolutely forbidden in the new reinvented, overexplained, overdeveloped borough. Regeneration tends to throw the old eccentrics into a sharper light and they’ve have to be tidied away. This is a problem. Mr Lyttle has been at it for a very long time. It just so happens that at this moment, the planners and promoters can’t tolerate some guy filling up the rooms of a million pound property with clay, burrowing into the earth, threatening the property values of the De Bauvoir district, all around him. Further down Albion Drive there’s this character called the Owl Man whose house is full of wild birds. He’s been there 15 years, squatting in this house, with this menagerie of animals.

Actually live?

Yes, live, live! So if anyone found a game bird that had a damaged wing, they could take it to this guy’s house. You can see the broken windows. You can smell the hot reek. The street is an upmarket zone on the edge of London Fields, something has to change. Suddenly, the Owl Man is exposed. They want him out. Whereas in the quiet, derelict run-down Hackney that we spoke about earlier, eccentricities could be allowed. Nobody cared, it just happened. Well, they can’t any more. This is a kind of ethnic cleansing, the imposition of the computer-generated, virtual-world fiction over the grungy reality that has always been here. In the same way that on the blue fence around the Olympic Park you have perfected visions of the future, which are completely fictional.

But didn’t you feel this when you moved in and they rebuilt what was around you? When you were talking about people moving from terraces into high-rises, didn’t that feel a bit the same?

It did feel the same, but in a much more modest way. I could see the reasons behind it. I may not have liked the development but I didn’t want to be precious about it. There was a sense that being in a well-constructed tower block with green space around you, with a new kitchen, is preferable to living in these – don’t let’s be sentimental about it – Victorian terraced properties. So what? Their time was done. And the regeneration wasn’t on such a vast and imposing scale. You could move around it and through it. This house was condemned, under a compulsory purchase order. It should have been demolished. We expected to be here for a very short time. Well, this development stopped, stopped right here. This was the front line. We dug in, we stayed.

Why did it stop?

Because Ronan Point collapsed and the whole notion of the tower block, the street in the sky, was quietly shelved. They realised it was not the answer – and so much money and corruption had gone into this development. You could see that it was bad, not because it was theoretically bad, but because so much had gone wrong in terms of construction: inferior materials used, poor building inspection, a lot of people resigning, the push towards major social housing projects ran out of steam. The twist then was that the condemned zone becomes a conservation zone, by the flick of a piece of paper. And so begins this whole process whereby domestic properties are not worth £3000, they’re worth £23,000 – and then, wow, they’re worth £200,000. £750,000. High court judges and TV comedians with production companies are moving in. And the madness is self-fulfilling, cannibalistic. The coming apocalypse is inevitable.

Don’t you think that that will happen again? In that what we think of as Hackney and probably what the outside world thinks of as Hackney has got such a strong identity. It’s incredibly slippery and incredibly difficult to pin down, and it is slightly ungovernable.

It’s a very big borough.

It’s rambling isn’t it?

The fragments don’t connect. A smashed saucer superglued together like an ill-fitting identikit portrait. What is this bit? A chunk of the City is Hackney. How does that connect to Stoke Newington? How does it connect to the estates out by the River Lea? There’s no real connection between them, there’s no geographical connection. It’s a political construct, it’s a convenience that has argued itself into existence over a long period of years. Major compromises and fixes.Hackney itself was this little settlement around Mare Street, St John’s Church, Hackney Brook: a village called Hackney. There was another village called Dalston, and by squeezings and shaping this becomes one big borough. Stoke Newington was not part of Hackney originally, it was a later addition. It’s got a totally different feel and identity to it. It doesn’t run, the north-south energy. It seems to go east-west. along the High Street and to incorporate the park. Clissold Park feels very different. All of these bits had their independence, even within what is Hackney. That was more evident when we first moved here. Some people who lived in De Beauvoir Town, for example, would never cross Mare Street. People in Albion Square would avert their eyes when they passed Holly Street. As far as they were concerned it didn’t exist. They were a deep-England village that just happened to be sitting close to Kingsland Road. That’s generalising, but this is essentially how it worked: people kept within their own small zones.

Do you think you’ll stay here?

I’ve stayed about half a century so eventually I’ll have to be carried out. [laughter] I’ve got no plans to relocate. But I’ve never felt quite so alienated from what’s on top, the pressures I’ve lived with all the time.

The council?

It’s not the council so much as the malign bureaucracy that comes with it. The spinners, the Orwellian manipulators who have made the public lie an article of faith. There are regiments of unelected officais working to fix reality, to puff the grand projects, including the Olympics. To explain away the horrors, the mistakes, the scandals.The person who stopped me going into Stoke Newington Library was not an elected council member, but somebody hired to do a particular job, corporate management, keeping people on message. Opposition is now seen as a claim for non-person status. A prelude to expulsion.

So who do you think now runs Hackney?

I think Hackney has now gone beyond being run. It’s mismanaged by a combination of bureaucrats, people seduced by the notion of the grand project, the flashbulbs of celebrity. They have sold out the old sense of dissent. A lot of the development is Russian or Saudi Arabian. We are an off-shore tax haven, a reef of funny money. A banana republic without bananas.

/ 29 November, 2008

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