Hamish Hamilton £20

Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, By Iain Sinclair

The grim spectre of the Olympics drags a psychogeographer back to his E9 roots

This book's two immediate predecessors in the Iain Sinclair canon – Dining on Stones's euphoric celebration of two of London's great escape-routes, the A13 and the A21; and the fenland family-outing of Edge of the Orison, in which the author artfully blurs the boundaries between his wife's ancestral history and the footsteps of the poet John Clare – found him straying ever further from his home turf. But Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire returns to the mother lode with a vengeance.

Ricocheting around London's most cash-poor but mythology-rich borough like a pinball-machine bonus ball, Sinclair's exuberant prose will ring as many bells with those for whom this blasted urban landscape might as well be the product of his fevered imagination as it will with lifelong denizens of newly sought-after E8, E5 and E9 postcodes. His writing's renewed sense of urgency is perhaps best encapsulated in the following vivid descriptive snapshot of a former prime minister inspecting the planners' scale model on the top floor of Queensbridge Primary school: "Blair rises over a dwarf principality: a blue-suited King Kong, close-shaved, Max Factored. A sweat-slicked moon-face with rictal grin pressed against the tiny windows of a faithfully reproduced miniature of one of the detonated Holly Street towers."

Politics, cinema, the limitless destructive potential of "urban regeneration" – these are grids that have overlain Sinclair's industriously burgeoning oeuvre ever since the classic Downriver first propelled him out of the ghetto of after-hours poetry readings and into the same literary front-rank once inhabited by his hero, Joseph Conrad. And this latest volume's Fay Wray-tinged awareness of clear and present danger is supplemented by a further cinematic foreshadowing, in the form of that sturdiest of heist-movie staples, the "one last job".

Like Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast, forced out of a comfortable Spanish retirement by the sadistic Ben Kingsley, the looming spectre of Olympic Park has drawn Sinclair out of his self-imposed exile in the East Sussex marine enclave of St Leonards-on-Sea for a final act of gonzo commemoration. It's not just the author's specific topographical subject matter that is disappearing before his very eyes, but the creative milieu which has sustained him throughout the past four decades. "Second-hand bookshops were being hacked down like Amazonian rainforest," he fulminates, like the adoptive offspring of an unlikely union between Victor Meldrew and Daniel Defoe. "Street markets were shallow harbours on the edge of an eBay."

Sinclair's response to this all-encompassing environmental catastrophe is first to round up his old gang of collaborative recidivists and "energy vampires" – the writers Stewart Home and Rachel Lichtenstein, the painter Jock McFadyen, the film-maker Chris Petit. But it's when he broadens the scope of his east London inquiries beyond the usual suspects that Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire really comes alive. From campaigning solicitor to showbiz gangster, from the Red Army Faction fugitive Astrid Proll to the bus- driving repository of "that easy-going independence uniformed specialists manage" whose wife lost both legs in the 7 July bombings, Sinclair marshals these new witnesses to Hackney's distinctive character with great expertise. And beyond his characteristically arcane quests for evidence of fleeting Hackney cameos in the work of Orson Welles or Jean-Luc Godard, or Hollywood pin-up Jayne Mansfield's fabled appearance at a "Budgerigar and Foreign Birds" show in Haggerston, there lies a deeper and more personal voyage of discovery.

At first sight, Sinclair's own institutional status as Hackney's folklorist-in-chief seems to be the elephant in the borough. Yet from his opening "lightbulb moment", wherein an egg is smashed over his head by a gang of callow cockney thieves just yards from his front door, to the verbal beating he takes from the puffed-up denizens of a book-group who call themselves the "Hackney Hardcore" but meet at the Groucho Club, the stately forward progress of his meta- narrative is constantly being interrupted by critical interjections.

"Once a street is noticed, it's doomed," Sinclair observes mordantly, in the course of a civilised exchange of views with his friend and professional rival Patrick Wright. Alongside Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire's bracingly tender collage of autobiographical fragments and its vintage tracts of Hogarthian social critique (I especially enjoyed Sinclair's lyrical paeans to the "life-death party mood" of Homerton Hospital, and the sensationally toxic eco-system of the Tesco's car park between Mare St and Morning Lane), it's this third theme of authorial self-cancellation which comes through most strongly by the end.

It's as if, at the very peak of his authorial dominion, Sinclair is facing up to the fact that this place will one day have to manage without him. "Hackney, more itself than ever, is an entirely new place," he proclaims in the balmy afterglow of grandparenthood. And the reader strides though these 575 densely built-up pages with a sense of mounting excitement as Sinclair pursues his line of thought to its ultimate conclusion: "We're not in charge any more ... but we are also free."

Click here to purchase this book

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'