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
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album