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
Sunday 08 March 2009
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."
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