Saturday, May 01, 2021

Some thoughts on Hackney, that Rose-Red Empire

I’ve had Iain Sinclair’s “Hackney, that Rose-Red Empire” on my shelf for a few years now, finally picking it up to read late last year. As you can tell, it took a while. As a Hackney resident myself, I was very excited to delve into it. Yet it didn’t quite live up to its billing for me. In a phrase: too much anecdote, too little history. But I did finish it after all, so that can't be the full story. This blog post is partly an attempt to understand why I feel this way.

Where to start? The best way to describe it, perhaps, is as a sprawling work of psychogeography about a single London borough, Hackney. Conceptually, I appreciate the book’s unsystematic construction. Yes, we are given chapter headings of many Hackney places like Gore Road, Montague Road, Stonebridge Estate, etc. and also of people, Stewart Home, Swanny, and so on. Yet these individual nodes never cohere, nor attempt to cohere, to a clear system. Dalston Lane is very close to Montague Road on a map, but they are several chapters apart in the book. Instead, places are visited by the happenstance of social encounters, or as part of detective work into certain lines of urban and cultural research, the significance of which is often dwelled on but not usually explained very clearly. They manifest as hunches, coincidences and synergies. I’ll return to this “detective” persona shortly.

This freeform experimental and intuitive approach is very much a psychogeographer’s: wandering, drifting, one day in Victoria Park, another in Dalston, and so on, sometimes weaving back over the same territory. In reality, however, it can be frustrating for the reader. I personally know many of the places mentioned, having ventured there myself, and am also quite familiar with psychogeography. Even so, I found the jumps in topic, person, and place a little disconcerting at times. 

Like someone wandering through a city borough without a map, the book's pleasures are often obtained by stumbling upon a topic or place of interest, or making a connection. The problem is, what is interesting to the author isn't always interesting to the reader in the same way. So while this approach makes the book conceptually interesting, it can impede the reader, who is often caught in medias res

Another way of starting is perhaps to reference someone else’s reading of it. The Artizan reading group in fact echoed many of my own reflections, and their summary is fitting:

On the whole, we appeared to have found the thing interesting enough, but it was a different animal to Sinclair’s London Orbital, which the group took on some years ago. That book was a dense local history travelogue with some personal anecdote. This one was more of a collection of personal anecdote with some local history squeezed in. Gonzo stuff.“

Their observations also offer a segue into a topic that I believe is central to the conceit of the “documentary fiction” that is the book, namely the question of the narrator. There are a number of ghosts in the book, and none of them more salient than the author himself. We get many glimpses of his life in the late 60s, 70s and onward - personal anecdotes, descriptions of video, his family, friends, former housemates. 

In particular, the reading group wondered about the character called Kaporal, whether he was real or not: “Kaporal, a seedy-sounding researcher of scandal who hangs himself, we’d bet [he] was pure invention”. 

In fact, my contention would be that Kaporal is Sinclair’s ghostly research twin or alter-ego, a bit like Poe’s William Wilson, who is referenced in the book. He appears to admit as much, without directly saying it, when Oona Grimes answers the author’s knock at her studio, mistaking him for her neighbour:

“‘I thought you were the fellow in the next studio’” (p. 467)

Suddenly, Sinclair becomes “convinced Kaporal had the next unit, the Finsbury Park cold store was his kind of place” (p. 467), and a few paragraphs down the transformation is complete:

“Kaporal’s metal tins, his film archive, had that effect. For his nameplate on his studio door, he used a card of a rucksacked figure tramping down a country road. There was a name: SINCLAIR. And a phone number. Mine. 

‘It’s uncanny,’ Oona said. ‘Kaporal has exactly your look. The drooping shoulders, the weight of the world, managed despair. Even the Masai Barefoot Technology trainers. In the wrong size.” (p. 467-8)

It would explain why Kaporal ostensibly commits suicide: the author - a bit like the director in Fellini's - sometimes ends up dithering when the various difficulties of writing "the Hackney book" takes its toll. So in this sense Kaporal is transformed into an alterego who "gives up the ghost" during the fraught process of this writing, as if he might be an offering to the writing gods. I mean no disrespect - Kaporal may well be a real person, in which case this is null and void, and I am out of line. But the author himself appears to believe that Kaporal may have faked his own death, which gives further credence to this sleight of hand:

"Impossible to tell if Kaporal was dead, the man with a rope around his neck, trouser cuffs wet with dew, in the churchyard of St. John's, or if this was another instance of the shady researcher's ability to plant false information in the local press (where he has excellent contacts), before absorbing a new identity in a more obscure corner of London" (p. 460)

This is not the only time there is a case of mistaken identity in the book. Quite late on, Sinclair briefly mistakes his own daughter, Farne, for his wife, Anna. It happens just after their grandchild is born, when he glimpses Farne pushing the baby buggy. It is a poignant moment that signals a certain passing of the torch to a new generation, and the potential for history to continue old threads. 

These ghosts take the book to some of its greatest heights. None are more moving, to me, than the references to Margaret Muller, the artist murdered in Victoria Park in 2003 and whose case remains unsolved to this day. She is mentioned quite early on in the book, at which time I had to look her up as I hadn't heard of her before. The thread is continued later when Sinclair interviews Jock McFadyen. Muller was one of his students. McFadyen was deeply affected by her passing.

During the interview, which Sinclair records on a tape, they are walking through Victoria Park. Halfway through “I cut the tape when we passed the pathway where Margaret Muller was attacked, between the rose garden and the children’s adventure playground” (p. 523). This moment of respect marks that which cannot be said, something that can't be recorded. 

Later, on the trail of the Hackney Brook with Robert MacFarlane and Renchi, they come across another ghostly echo:

“the most memorable of Macfarlane’s discoveries came by the path beside the rose garden, as we made for Hackney Wick. He parted a curtain of willow to disclose a white life mask of the murdered Margaret Muller. Staring, through thick foliage, at the fatal spot.” (p. 547).

The theme of Margaret Muller echoes right up until the present, when violence against women are receiving renewed attention after the murder of Sarah Everard, the subsequent vigils, and controversy around the police’s response.

Despite the thread going cold over the years, there are still recent posts on Reddit following up on Muller’s unsolved murder case. It makes the book part of a wider cultural memory that continues to have relevance.

Other people and themes, some recurrent like Jean-Luc Godard and Orson Welles, no longer seem relevant in the same way. Their connection to the borough are rather too tenuous and speculative (to borrow the Artizan reading group’s apt descriptions) to warrant inclusion to the length that they have been. As footnotes they add flavour, but the descriptions don’t elevate them to a relevance they might (or might not) have had 40 years ago. That’s my opinion anyway. That’s not to say that they’re without cultural interest, just that the topics go on for too long. Better yet, they would have benefited from having their significance explained to a contemporary reader. 

At any rate, I’d never heard of Godard’s London documentaries, and quickly set out to watch two of them: Sympathy for the Devil and British Sounds. The Godard documentaries connect, through their left-leaning sympathies, with other characters and groups interviewed and mentioned: Anna Mendelssohn and the Angry Brigade, and Astrid Proll and the Red Army Faction.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking that perhaps the author misjudged some of his subjects' relevance to contemporary audiences. Ok, so Jayne Mansfield once visited Hackney, but there are many other famous people who have passed through Hackney over the years, in more concrete ways. What about them? 

The crux of the problem, I believe, can be traced back to the choice of narrative persona. Even the Guardian review, largely favourable about the book, concedes that “his tough-guy, domineering prose can sometimes get wearing”. In this case, the Guardian writer in fact means that the Hackney book improves on this tendency because “Here, this writer of compelling monologues lets in other voices, and the book is warmer and more powerful as a result”. While it is true that the various interviews are some of the best bits in the book, does it not actually reflect less well on the author’s own prose, considering it makes up the vast majority of the book?

The persona, for me, is something out of hardboiled detective fiction. Full of certainties and stubby sentences.

Here is Sinclair, describing an event at the town hall where he was going to speak:

“Anna joined me at the bar; she had agreed, reluctantly, to take her place at high table, alongside the mayor, the lady mayoress, Hackney notables (notable to themselves) - and the New Labour minister (weather and sport), who had drawn the short straw. Bicycle people in gypsy skirts, hoop earrings, black trainers, yellow tabards, luminescent Alice bands, wheeled their machines up the disabled ramp, into the Grand Assembly Hall.” (p. 323)

This is Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep:

“Shaved, dressed and lightly breakfasted I was at the Hall of Justice in less than an hour. I rode up to the seventh floor and went along to the group of small offices used by the D.A.’s men. Ohls’s was no larger than the others, but he had it to himself. There was nothing on his desk but a blotter, a cheap pen set, his hat and one of his feet.” (p. 47) 

Aside from the incidental Hall that both excerpts have in common, both narrators share a fondness for short, abrupt sentence clauses, exhibiting a kind of tough exterior. But whereas Chandler’s prose (and indeed a lot of other hardboiled fiction) shows a protagonist full of earthy confidence, ready to engage, Sinclair’s protagonist is more reticent and complex, a character whose description of specifics (“hoop earrings”, “yellow tabards”) belie the ungraspable wholes they aspire to describe (Hackney).  And therein lies the problem. 

Sinclair clearly realises his dilemma:

“If I wrote a harmless sentence such as ‘everything was zeroing in on the Victory in Vyner Street’, I struck it out, as over-freighted, lazy, and altogether false in its suggestion that my fractured narrative of manipulated facts, poorly recorded and inaccurately transcribed interviews, could achieve resolution” (p. 417)

Overconfidence wouldn’t do. So the narrator, this tough-guy persona, is at best a type of ironic, slightly comic character. A quixotic detective, chasing the windmills of place and history in Hackney. The thing is, there is plenty of history in Hackney he could be telling the reader, yet chooses not to. We are told about Edmond Halley, the Hollow Earth, and a number of related themes around tunnelling and ley lines. Even Globe Town is mentioned. There is a lot of elliptical allusion, but not enough to sink one's teeth into properly. A bit more actual history would have been enormously welcome. Less anecdote. Thank you.

Some of this ironic comedy, the sense of “a man inside his own head” while walking the borough, is notable in mistakes and errors of judgment he makes. One of the earliest, and certainly one of the most memorable, occurs in the first chapter when a youth pelts him with a rotten egg while he’s out walking near London Fields. He thinks, desperately, that he’s been stabbed - until he discovers the remnants of egg shell later. He has the good grace to see humour in it.

Nevertheless, the inclusion of this incident also highlights a notable void in the book. The youth disappears into the Fields Estate, “a warren”. The author is understandably shaken, although thankfully not seriously harmed. He later finds out it is a tactic of car-jackers in the area, and is sympathetic to their plight. Earlier, he even describes muggings as “a toll on the privilege of living here” (p. 10). 

These sentiments are admirable, but the void is that in nearly 600 pages of book the reader becomes none the wiser about the lives of the real people who might be involved in these activities in the borough. Their voices are not directly included in the narrative. Not even a single interview.

This is probably an unfair criticism, because there are so many other people he talks to, people of a forgotten Hackney, an act which is a service to posterity. Yet the truth is that anyone coming to Hackney can’t help but to be struck by all the estates that dominate the skyline. What of these lives and places? It cannot be called a definitive book about Hackney without the psychogeography and perspectives that those places hold.

Perhaps, at that time (mid to late noughties), it was still viewed as too dangerous to contemplate engaging with the estates as a serious option. Or perhaps it was considered and rejected.  There is indeed a part early in the book when Rob Petit questions people living on the Holly Street Estate, via a questionnaire. We also learn a bit about the history and reputation of this notorious estate, demolished in the 90s. It is one of the few places in the book where readers get an insight into this world, and it is most welcome. I certainly learned something and was able to follow it up with my own researches. Nevertheless, there is so much more left unsaid and on the whole it seems like a missed opportunity.

I would like to finish my argument against the author’s choice of narrator with one of rather too many instances where the tendency towards tough-guy terse certainty crosses a line by assuming too much. In the chapter on Victoria Park, the author observes:

“A darkman, stripped to the waist, was running through his martial arts routine on the bandstand. Harming invisibles with spiteful kicks. Rain-clouds massed.” (p. 337)

The description here is not an unfamiliar sight in the borough, at least not these days. In my local park there are regular martial arts practitioners, Capoeira as well as Wing Chun, practicing outdoors as a result of the pandemic lockdown. The bit that is strange is the description of the kicks being “spiteful”. Spiteful to whom? And are they really spiteful, or is that his projection / interpretation? It may even be true, but we have no way of knowing. It strikes me as telling, rather than showing. 

But the problem goes further. If we include the fact it is presumably a black man (a “darkman”) the description leaves a strange taste, considering the author has included almost no black voices in the book. That is quite a large demographic to exclude: 

The 2011 Census estimates that around 40% of the population come from black and minority ethnic groups with the largest group (approximately 20%) being black or black British.” - Hackney Gov

I’m sure the author meant no real offence. Rather, it seems to follow from the narrative persona's spikiness and compulsive projection of certainties (elsewhere called "hard-earned prejudices") onto what he observes around him. As I contend elsewhere, this is in direct contrast to the (lack of) graspableness of the larger topic of Hackney, something the author is only too clearly keenly aware of. In spite of his apparent reserve, I don't doubt his interest in other people, including lives lived in the margins, as his interest in people living in Hackney Wick and the Lower Lea Valley for example evidences. But the effect here, cumulative after a while, is a bit bothersome.

Someone in the Artizan reading group thought Sinclair might be “one of the grumpiest old men in print”. Reading that made me laugh, as in my own mind I had definitely been thinking of him as a bit of a curmudgeon. Nevertheless, I would suggest that it once more follows from the chosen narrative persona. The prose actually improves considerably - in my view - around the time of the Will Self excursion, more than two thirds into the book. The strict persona is abandoned, and the prose flows more naturally. There just seems to be a bit more purpose to the writing.

It is also interesting to compare Sinclair's narrative style to Peter Ackroyd’s. Ackroyd is what I would call a myth maker. In his book “London: The Biography” London is this vast beast that consumes everyone who enters it. London is more than the sum of its parts, more than any of the many, many influential people who have passed through it. You are never left in any doubt about that. Instead of getting lost in the fractals, Ackroyd speaks in broad themes, drawing you in with juicy factoids. Not all of the details hold up to scrutiny, but they always help to illustrate the particular topic he has in mind. He's a kind of cultural salesman, amplifying his message. He ensures that the big picture is kept in front of the reader at all times. That is a considerable achievement, even if it traverses the thinnest of lines between truth and myth. 

It is almost the opposite of Sinclair’s fractured approach that almost wilfully eschews bold themes and a grand narrative. Sinclair's Hackney is almost an abstraction, a place definable only by its outline on a map - if at all. But isn't that a cop-out? The difference is instructive, because Hackney certainly hasn’t always had the benefit of being centre stage to London’s great dramas. But then there are lost opportunities here too: what of people like Mary Wollstonecraft, someone whose influence and legacy as a founding feminist thinker is global and profound? What of the social housing experiments? Clearly the latter is one of the unmistakeable postwar features of a bombed out East London, and Hackney in particular; more so if one includes its relation to the long history of social housing in the East End.

To be fair, I don’t envy Sinclair the making of the book. He was clearly operating under a lot of constraints, not least of which would have been restrictions about what he could include from his interviews with various people. 

The interviews are some of the best bits, without a doubt, but all the namedropping gets a bit tedious. Someone at Penguin should have curbed these tendencies. More history, less anecdote. Thank you.

Lest my critique puts anyone off reading the book completely, I should point out that there are many good reasons to read the book. Sinclair's musings on artists and writers connected to the borough can be idiosyncratic, but it is also sometimes of genuine significance. One of his great achievements is to pull certain characters out of relative obscurity and back into the light. Names that have remained with me include Anna Mendelssohn, Alexander Baron, David Widgery, Sheila Rowbotham, and Roland Camberton. Out of these, the story of Roland Camberton is probably my favourite. Without giving too much away, Sinclair does real detective work to uncover more about this mysterious author who was almost lost to posterity. Camberton's "Rain on the Pavements" is now on my reading list. 

Another is his reminder of developments in the borough that were built on dodgy dealings and scant regard for local cultural significance. The loss of the Four Aces Club (later Club Labyrinth) is such a case, something I knew nothing about.

These stories, scattered though they are, make the book worth the effort, and is the reason I did not give up in spite of its more dissuasive features. It's been a valuable guide and full of local relevance. And the last line is worth a mention: it is superb. 

But I had to work for these pleasures, and that may not be everyone’s cup of tea.