I am about as close to a target audience for Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire as you can get. I live in Hackney and on reading Iain Sinclair’s latest book I have discovered that my flat is just one street north from his. There is even a whole chapter named after my road. Presuming that most of you reading this review don’t live in this much-maligned London borough, I can nevertheless understand why a 592-page book on a place that regularly tops lists of Britain’s supposed ‘worst places to live’ might be of limited interest. If, however, I was to write that Sinclair’s book contains no prurient reportage on inner-city crime and poverty, but features Joseph Conrad, Jayne Mansfield, a Baader-Meinhof fugitive, Jean-Luc Godard, Orson Welles, Julie Christie, Joseph Stalin, Tony Blair, crooks, crooked politicians, acid house casualties, radical feminists, drug-fiend medics, the mysterious subterranean ‘Mole Man’ and a cast of misfit artists, filmmakers and writers, then its broader appeal might become apparent.
Sinclair is the author of some 25 books of fiction, documentary and poetry, written over the 40 years in which he has lived in this area of north-east London. Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire is not a history, and nor is it a representative portrait of the borough (Hackney’s Turkish, Vietnamese, African and Caribbean populations barely get a look-in, partly because Sinclair confesses he found it difficult to establish contact with these communities). It is a dizzyingly associative memoir that takes us from Sinclair’s arrival in the 1960s, living in a squat in west Hackney, to his present status as acclaimed cult writer and outspoken critic of the Olympic Development Authority. (Hackney is the site of the 2012 London Olympics, and Sinclair has extensively documented the impact developers are having on the area.) As Sinclair unspools the loose account of his Hackney life, he shuttles back and forth chronologically; back to Conrad’s convalescence in the local German Hospital, forward to Welles rehearsing a dramatization of Moby Dick in the Hackney Empire theatre, across to Jayne Mansfield opening a convention for East London budgerigar fanciers. He tacks sideways to Godard visiting Hackney and trying to persuade feminist writer Sheila Rowbotham to appear naked in his film British Sounds (1970), then forward again to Tony Blair living on Mapledene Road at the start of his political career – tasked, ironically, with keeping tabs on corruption in London’s financial district, which borders Hackney’s southern flank – and the current Olympic ‘regeneration’ effect.
The book is anecdotally rich, featuring reminiscences from locals and those with connections to Hackney’s contingent, underground histories. They range from ex-Kray associate Tony Lambrianou, describing how much illegal weaponry lies at the bottom of the Regent’s Canal, to Juliet Ash – widow of local writer, socialist and physician, Dr David Widgery – discussing her ambivalence about the steamrolling gentrification of Hackney. These conversations intersperse Sinclair’s prose, ventilating his paragraphs where they get too high on the muscular language of detective novels – telegrammatic and synonym-drunk. Here, for example, is how Sinclair describes dealing with a rat infestation in his house: ‘Consequences follow from conical powder-dumps left out for greypelt co-tenants of Albion Drive. Spiked chocolate drops. A treacherous toxicology for nocturnal tourists: mice, fleas, wintering wasps.’ The style is powerful but overuse has a strangely flattening effect.
Friends and acquaintances regularly star in Sinclair’s non-fiction – the renegade book-dealer Driffield, for instance, filmmaker Chris Petit, or artist Brian Catling. Many of these, along with his wife Anna, are assembled together for Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. The narrative arc of Sinclair’s life gives his friendships a context that’s harder to grasp in his other writing, and it’s one of the most striking aspects of this book. It grounds it in the everyday, in domestic routine or chance encounter; reminding us that it’s not just because of the history of a place that we might choose to call it home.