Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: a Confidential Report
Hamish Hamilton, 480pp, £20
Hackney, it must be said, gets a bad rap. The London borough, an extramural beauty spot in medieval times which became a refuge for religious and political dissenters, and then a working-class district on the edge of the East End, has long been a byword for inner-city poverty and crime. In the 1980s the Thatcher government held it up as a symbol of all that was wrong with postwar social policy (sink estates, benefit "scroungers", immigration) to justify the razing of the welfare state. Lately, new Labour has used it to trumpet the success of urban "regeneration" policies - most recently under the banner of the 2012 Olympics - which, in fact, have been predicated on an unstable property boom, involving the influx of wealthy buyers into the inner cities and the decanting of poorer residents to peripheral, less desirable districts.
Despite these more recent changes, Hackney, which last year came top in a Channel 4 poll of the country's worst places to live, remains synonymous with "shithole", particularly among journalists who forget to engage their brains before putting fingers to keyboard. In a restaurant review for the Times last month, for example, Giles Coren described a trip from the neighbouring borough of Islington - a journey that little old ladies make daily - as a daring expedition on which one braves the perils of (gulp!) public buses, "followed by a little light stabbing on the overground".
As a writer, Sinclair is too cool for school, dismissive of “hackwork” and literary acclaim. Yet there is a wry humour here that sends up his own pomposity
I would like to recommend Iain Sinclair's latest sprawling, frustrating epic as a corrective. Its great achievement is to take the common perception of Hackney - and, by extension, poor urban Britain - as a sump of vice, violence and iniquity and subvert it. Sinclair, as fans will know, is a devotee of London's dark side. Occult symbols, ley lines, decay, ruins and the criminal underworld all feature heavily in his explorations of the capital, in the novels and the non-fiction alike. Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, however, conjures a compelling creative tension by setting these preoccupations against a narrative of love, growth and comfort.
The book is Sinclair's paean to the area where he has lived for over three decades, a patchwork of personal recollections, walks and transcripts of interviews with a cast of locals and former residents. If nothing else, it is a wonderful oral history of the post-'68 generation of artistic and political radicals who descended on the borough: socialists such as Sheila Rowbotham and the pioneering doctor Dave Widgery; experimental film-makers; artists-turned-bus drivers; Baader-Meinhof terrorists on the run; poets who wound up as members of the Angry Brigade. This world unfolds around the underlying story of Sinclair's adult life. Bewitched by Hackney as a university graduate, he settled here with his wife, Anna, had children and generally tried to "disappear into the fabric" of the East End. Central to That Rose-Red Empire is a question posed in the last chapter: "Are memories absorbed - and released - by place?" In search of answers, Sinclair trawls the borough, seeking traces of now-obscure novelists, sightings of Jean-Luc Godard and Orson Welles. In the process, he uncovers strange collisions between worlds. Jayne Mansfield, bringing an unlikely touch of Hollywood glamour to a budgerigar competition at a church hall in 1959, hands her coat to an urchin . . . who just happens to be the future Kray Twins henchman Tony Lambrianou. (Needless to say, he nicked the coat and flogged it in a nearby pub.)
Sinclair's greatest asset is his prose style, an unstable, self-deprecating narrative voice that spits out epithets in James Ellroy-tipped bullets. He has a unique, if jaundiced vision. (Here, describing a skinny friend: "The man was a memory of himself . . . if he swallowed a grain of rice it would drop straight through a digestive system too preoccupied to deal with such trivia.") As a writer, he is too cool for school, dismissive of "hackwork" and literary acclaim. Yet there is a wry humour here that sends up his own pomposity. On the trail of the 19th-century engraver Edward Calvert, for example, he baldly declares: "I have discovered no reference to a visit by William Blake to Hackney."
It's not all perfect; in this brick of a book, there are times when the Sinclair-o-vision can grate. A lengthy meditation on "the prolonged close-up of the pudendum of the woman from the Electric Cinema" in Jean Luc-Godard's British Sounds comes packaged in the same wise-guy prose as an account of his attempt to cook spaghetti bolognese for the kids. I, for one, find Sinclair's writing works better when tempered with another voice. This worked to spectacular effect in Rodinsky's Room, a collaborative investigation with the artist Rachel Lichtenstein into the disappearance in the 1960s of a Hasidic Jew from Whitechapel. The interview transcripts in That Rose-Red Empire have a similar effect, quickening the pace or calming the tone.
The book was billed as a broadside against the way the 2012 Olympic Games in London are being used to sanitise the borough - Hackney Council even briefly banned the author from giving a talk at Stoke Newington Library for being "anti-Olympics". Unfortunately, Sinclair fumbles the attack, and it comes across as more of a personal gripe (that is to say, how dare the blue fence that surrounds the Olympic construction site in Hackney Wick infringe on his right to roam?) than the thorough investigation it could have been.
There are some delicious moments, such as the dismissal of Tony Blair, who cut his political teeth on Hackney's once-notorious Holly Street Estate during the 1980s, as "the cat without the smile". But compare That Rose-Red Empire with, for example, Patrick Wright's 1991 book A Journey Through Ruins (republished by Oxford University Press on 26 February). That work, to which Sinclair refers, centres around a walk down semi-derelict Dalston Lane. It neatly unpicks the myths surrounding an earlier wave of gentrification. In particular, Wright's investigations suggested that the people who buy in to promises of luxury apartments or "loft-style living" are often of far more modest means than the yuppie stereotype suggests. In the economic climate of today, an understanding of such subtleties is of the first importance.
But although That Rose-Red Empire contains the elements of a greater political story, Sinclair chooses not to make the pieces fit. Instead, the intrigues that draw him, and the reader, further into the narrative culminate in a scene where, hot on the trail of the forgotten 1950s novelist Roland Camberton, he comes face to face with a premonition of his own future - a newspaper profile from the 1970s that describes a "balding, melancholy" writer who "sped into obscurity": "London history is his special subject and he writes with erudition and clarity in small reviews." You realise that Sinclair, quite the opposite of presenting a metaphor for something larger, has tried to remake the world in his own image.
Marina Warner, speaking to Sinclair about her own encounter with Godard, says of the director that he was "very keen to construct reality - as opposed to reading it or recording it". The same could be said of Sinclair himself. London's Magus, the Independent on Sunday once called him. And that's about right: like any wizard, he is a smoke-and-mirrors merchant at heart. Like any wizard worth his staff, however, when he is good, that matters not one jot.