Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report by Iain Sinclair

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Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report by Iain Sinclair

Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: A sprawling, ambitious attempt to pin down the indefinable, to excavate the essence of Sinclair's adopted home. It mixes fact, memory, myth and rumour, history, art and politics to produce a dizzying, perplexing yet endlessly fascinating portrait of people and of place.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241142165

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Documentary fiction is what Iain Sinclair oxymoronically calls this book. It's a lot of other things too: autobiography, history, psychogeography to name but three. His Hackney book as he self-referentially calls it throughout, is a dense collage of reportage and inaccurate and inventive transcriptions of interviews, peopled by film-makers, novelists, politicians and painters, not to mention booksellers, barbers and bus drivers.

If, as Sinclair asks, memories are absorbed and released by place Hackney, his home for the past 40 years, is a vast repository of memory. And not just his own - his recollections of domestic life with his wife Anna are interwoven with those of his colleagues and collaborators since the sixties. Readers of his other works - the superficially similar London Orbital and Edge of the Orison in particular - will recognise some, such as film-maker Chris Petit, artist Lawrence 'Renchi' Bicknell, and writer Rachel Lichtenstein.

Others are new to us, but we gradually get to know the significant others in the evolution of Sinclair and of Hackney. The borough seems, on the face of it, an unlikely artistic milieu. The 21st century parks, streets and towpaths are garlanded in blue and white police tape, scene of drug dealing, muggings and stabbings, annexed and fenced off by the secretive Olympic Park and the corrupt council. They seem far removed from the counter-cultural hotbed of four decades ago, mourned by so many of the interviewees in this book.

But, Sinclair seems to imply, it is that uneasy mix of criminality and creativity which gives Hackney its edgy appeal. However hard government-sponsored 'regeneration' tries to concrete over the past, its essential energies will, like Japanese knotweed, eventually burst through.

This means Sinclair gives as much credence to those who dowse for ley lines and subterranean passages, as he does to more mainstream cultures. Visits by the likes of Jayne Mansfield are balanced by walks with Julie Christie; Orson Welles co-exists with Jean-Luc Godard. For every sighting of Tony Blair on his way up the greasy pole, there's a glimpse of the more principled David Widgery. For every stroll with TV's Will Self, there's a rumour of forgotten Hackney novelist Roland Camberton. For every £6.4 million Town Hall Redevelopment Project, there's a muddy fleamarket.

Thus he scrapes away at a palimpsest of rumour and recollection, fact and fable, people and place, never revealing which characters are real and which imaginary. And yet it all somehow coheres. London Orbital may have had a physical and temporal focus in the millennium and its Dome, and a sense of resolution in its circumnavigation of the capital. This book does not seek such closure. Its very form is suggestive of the never-ending accretion of event and memory which is as near as we'll ever get to defining a place.

Sinclair's prose style suits this too. If you can adapt to its staccato phrases, the frequent verbless sentences suit the impressionistic approach, suggesting sudden recall and unexpected associations. By turns poetic and polemical, Sinclair is an uncompromising guide. But go with the flow, accept that you won't get every reference or recognise every name, and he'll take you on an exhilarating odyssey. And in the end you'll agree with him when he writes Hackney excavated was as mysterious as ever. And as perverse.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book is of interest, you may also like A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London by Patrick Wright (whom Iain Sinclair interviews in this book).

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Buy Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report by Iain Sinclair at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report by Iain Sinclair at Amazon.com.


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