Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, A Confidential Report, by Iain Sinclair
One can’t like everything one reads, and this book is proof of that. I picked it up in the library because my father came from Hackney and because of the title, which actually refers to the old music hall, but had resonance of a more ancient past: Petra, rose red city, half as old as time.
I even read the blurbs (something I rarely do). The Times claims the author is ‘brilliant’; the Irish Times says he is a ‘true alchemist of the word’; the Daily Telegraph pays tribute to his ‘thrilling prose’. However, alarm bells should have rung, triggered by comparison to JG Ballard (who I have never got to grips with) and ‘noir and pulp-fiction’ imagery (not genres I enjoy).
Sinclair is a writer and film maker, who has lived in Hackney for 40 years and, seemingly, has walked every inch of it. His book is kind of love affair with the place and its people. It combines myth, history, politics, literature, geography and popular culture and is part autobiography and part travelogue, a very individual view of a town on the cusp of change, in which he speaks out against the loss of landscape eaten up by the creation of the 2012 Olympic site – so it’s actually quite topical at the moment, and his views on the topic got him banned from pubkic llib raries in the borough. Alongside his encyclopedia of information he mentions famous visitors, like Astrid Proll (the Baader-Meinhof urban guerrilla on the run from justice, the Kray Brothers, Jayne Mansfield (who visited a budgerigar fanciers convention), Joseph Conrad, Orson Welles and Tony Blair.
In theory it ticks all the right boxes, and I ought to like it, but I don’t, and I am not quite sure why. All I can say is that overall I liked the idea of the book more than I liked the book itself.
Sinclair himself describes his work as pyschogeography, once explaining in a Guardian interview that for him it is a way of psychoanalysing the psychosis of the place in which he lives. I’m not sure I fully understand that (the word psychobabble springs to mind) but he certainly doesn’t portray Hackney as a pleasant place. What he gives us is a cityscape like a great sprawling Hogarth painting showing the underbelly of the area (I’ve never been keen on Hogarth either). And therein, perhaps, is my problem. For although Sinclair’s book is packed with details and observations about Hackney’s history, buildings and people, there seems to be an over-emphasis on the low-life, criminals, drug addicts and weirdos. Many of the residents he speaks of – including artists, poets, novelists, film makers, doctors and nurses - seem to be deeply flawed human beings. And he focuses on dirt, decay and the grotesque, which makes for a bleak read.
Surprisingly, it’s hard to know how much of the book is accurate. Sinclair himself calls it ‘documentary fiction’, and says it is true where it needs to be, which made me question his veracity, especially when I discovered that alongside the genuine inhabitants and family members who people this book is Kaporal, a literary private detective who, apparently, is a character from Sinclair’s novels.
But some of the more unlikely people and events are true, including the tale of the ‘Mole Man’ whose network of tunnels excavated beneath his home were only discovered when they compromised the stability of neighbouring homes. This sounds like an urban myth, but is mentioned in Peter Ackroyd’s London Under (which I will write about some other time). Besides, a former colleague of mine once covered a court case brought by the local council against a resident who dug out a vast cellar beneath his home, so these things do happen.
It wasn’t just the content I failed to engage with: I also found it difficult to appreciate Sinclair’s style. For me Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire is the written equivalent of someone who speaks in a monotone, lacking variation in pace and colour. Sinclair also has an annoying habit of writing in clauses rather than sentences. I’m not saying this is wrong – it’s a device many of us use to add occasional emphasis or highlight a point. However, there were so many clauses strung together that I found it difficult to follow what was being said, and ended up desperately scanning the pages in search of a main verb, much as I used to during Latin lessons when my efforts to translate a passage into English hit a brick wall and I needed a vital clue to make sense of the whole thing.
Verdict: Sinclair may a highly acclaimed and well respected author, but I didn’t enjoy this book, wouldn’t read it again – and have no desire to read anything else he has written.