The title’s allusion to a famous poem about the exotic middle eastern city of Petra (“a rose-red city – half as old as time”) hints at something more exotic than inner-city Hackney – though Hackney does possess a (dirty) rose-red former music hall, the Empire. There may even be an echo of Peter Sellers’ travelogue parody, which invokes “a rose-red city half as gold as green” (“Golders Green”).
This web of allusion tells us something about the book, which is a mix of taped interviews and the political and cultural musings generated by Iain Sinclair’s walks through, round, across and even under Hackney (he’s lived in the borough for 40 years). Sinclair excavates traces of the past erased by change. This being Hackney, much “change” comes from the council’s sell-offs of older bits of the borough – and Sinclair has some splendid digs at New Labour’s dodgy dealings.
No doubt, this – and his public criticism of the New Labour embrace of the Olympic development – explains the council’s decision to uninvite Sinclair from launching the book at one of the borough’s libraries.
Some interviews are with well-known contemporaries, such as Sheila Rowbotham, the feminist historian; others with friends, acquaintances and fellow artists. Sinclair also tracks the unlikely imprint left in the borough by such diverse figures as novelists Joseph Conrad and Samuel Richardson, political figures such as Lenin and Stalin and filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Orson Welles. An ex Baader-Meinhof member, who hid in Hackney, also gets interviewed – though not Tony Blair, another former resident.
These interviews are embedded in a dense and intricate portrayal of a Hackney mapped out by pubs, street markets, petty crime and ethnic diversities. It is the Hackney of the “we” announced at the beginning of the book: “the rubbish. Outmoded and unrequired”, the “detritus” with which Sinclair identifies. This identification with the unofficial, unruly, weird and anarchic informs the way the book is written, which refuses a preset order but follows patterns in and out of an apparent maze of reflections.
Sinclair can be startlingly original – a kind of surreal take on what is deemed unworthy of attention – and there is the language to match: richly metaphorical riffs on unconsidered trifles. But what kind of picture emerges? Here, I think, we have a problem. Alongside the originality there is an idiosyncratic indulging in stuff that seems of little importance to anyone except a coterie audience.
There is also something odd about the whiff of nostalgia for the past, a past being obliterated by New Labour “progress”. Insofar as the working class gets a look in, it is in the sense that maybe there used to be one in Hackney – at least in the minds of the socialists who placed their belief in it and would meet in pubs to discuss politics – but that it has gone. In this respect, if there is a figure who haunts the book, who features again and again in interviewed reminiscences, it is Dave Widgery, a brilliant writer, energetic agitator, cultural enthusiast and SWP member who died suddenly at the age of 45 in 1992. (Often the context rubbishes the party while praising the man as too heterodox to fit in.)
It is almost as if Sinclair is conscious of a kind of parallel between his own project and that of Widgery’s book Some Lives, which came out in 1991. Like Sinclair, Widgery was also fascinated by the varied lives he came across as a GP working in the East End – those of the disregarded, the poor and the marginal. But unlike Sinclair, Widgery also wanted to register the collective ability to transform society that such lives showed.
Sinclair has become something of a cult. Some see him as a visionary writer about London – and he is also beginning to find favour in the academy. Other critics see him as a crackpot with an overinflated style. Perhaps it’s fair to say he’s a mix of the two – stimulating in smallish doses but deeply infuriating overall.
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A pick of the highlights