5 April 2012

Iain Sinclair: Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report (2009)

Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire is a book that is mainly concerned with the last forty years in the borough of Hackney, London, this being the time Iain Sinclair has lived in Albion Drive, Haggeston. He records (though not chronologically) the often hidden or forgotten history of Hackney, particularly celebrating its eccentrics and its alternative lifestylers at the same time – in a wider and a quieter context – as he sets his sights on corruption at high as well as lower levels within (and by extension without) the borough. It is chaotic and digressive, but highly readable. Sinclair describes the book as 'built around absence, holes in the narrative, faked resolution'.

Many of the pages of this 'documentary fiction' are taken up with interviews Sinclair has had with people who live or have lived in the borough. These include: Chris Petit, with whom Sinclair has worked on films; Stewart Home, ranting; Home's friend Mark Pawson talking about his experiences renting a room at the Mole Man's house in Mortimer Street; Swanny the drug-taking doctor; Will Self on a Hackney hike with him; Marina Warner on Jean-Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil; Sheila Rowbotham partly on Godard's Brish Sounds, but mainly about living in Hackney around that time; the late David Widgery's wife Juliet Ash on Hackney in the past; and Ken Worpole (of Dockers and Detectives fame), who makes the (for me at least) astonishing revelation that Simon Blumenfeld wasn't Jewish.

At one point the narrator asks 'did those feet?', but no, there's no evidence of William Blake (who is obviously lurking – probably both consciously and unconsciously – in the name of Sinclair's Albion Drive) walking upon Hackney's land, although Blake's friend and devotee, wood engraver Edward Calvert (1799–1883), lived in the future borough and was buried in Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington – although Sinclair failed to find the grave.

A number of times, in passing, there's mention of the insufferable Tony Blair, sometimes mentioned with his almost equally insufferable wife: I appreciated Sinclair's accurate description of Blair's 'gerbil grin that doesn't synchronize with panic in fearful eyes', and was amused to learn that Denis Healey had equated his 'personal charisma' with 'bullshit'. And often, there's comment on the horror that Sinclair, in an interview, described as 'apocalytically catastrophic', and that Will Self contemptuously describes here as New Labour's 'New Jerusalem': the Olympic Games, the government 'vanity project' that has been so destructive of a large area around Hackney Wick and Stratford.

On a lighter note, it's refreshing to find a number of obscure books mentioned, by no means all of which I was already aware, but after a little Googling these look very promising and I include them here as much as an aide-mémoire as anything else: H. Kaner's self-published People of the Twilight (1946), R. C. Hutchinson's Elephant and Castle (1945), Roland Camberton's Rain on the Pavements (1951), Alexander Baron's The Lowlife (1963), Nigel Fountain's Days Like these (1985), and Derek Raymond's How the Dead Live (1986).

At 580 pages, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire is very long, but doesn't feel it: exhilaratingly digressive, it is a joy to read.

Iain Sinclair: Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project

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