Artizan street reading group met to discuss…

hackneyThis time we met to discuss Iain Sinclair’s 2009 ‘documentary fiction’, Hackney, that rose-red Empire, his personal local history of the London borough in which he lives. Wherein he mixes accounts of and interviews with characters he deems representative of the area’s past, his own domestic history, and an on-going report of his researches for and construction of the book itself. Spiced, at some length, it has to be said, with references to a few famous names whose connection to the place is fleeting, tenuous or simply speculative: Jayne Mansfield and Julie Christie (fleeting); Jean Luc Godard (tenuous); and Orson Welles (speculative). Neither does he stint to give the reader the benefit of his caustic views on a number of social matters: vanity and corruption of local government; vanity and corruption of the London Olympics project; massive petty crime; retrograde modern architecture; vanity and corruption of Tony Blair; ineptitude of the NHS; pernicious motorists and cyclists; bendy buses; etc. – as regular punctuations to his narrative.

It was this last aspect which, Malcolm suggested, might qualify him as one of the grumpiest old men in print. Not so, according to Tim. Others quibbled too – clearly, a hotly contested niche, that one. Anyway, isn’t he celebrating a not-too-happy past in the face of what he considers an ignorant future? Nostalgie de la boue, if you asked Malcolm. But he shows optimism about his characters, protested Tim, he shows them as interesting. The only problem with the book is that it is such an unedited collection of articles and goes on far too long. As Sinclair is only too well aware! Jenny pointed out. At one point one of his interviewees protests about ‘fools who think cobbled together interview transcripts make a proper book’. He may well be having a laugh.

What about the crime? Sinclair wades through crime-scenes and squad cars whenever he leaves his house. Jenny had a friend who was mugged in Tudor Road. Sara has one who lives not far away from Sinclair’s house whose car had been repeatedly vandalised. But Malcolm had been visiting friends right on Sinclair’s street for over 20 years, taking children to the local parks, attending the communal garden fete, and had been blissfully ignorant of the carnage going on around him. No, Sara insisted, Hackney is as Sinclair descibes it, a war-zone, OK? OK, no arguing with that, is there?

One topic of interest was how much he’d made up. One character, an unlikely bicycling book-merchant (Driffield) was very real – Sara had experience of him in her previous life as a librarian and produced his Drif’s Guide, ‘a scabrous collection of insults, jokes, prejudices and abuses about bookshops and their owners.’ Another one, Kaporal, a seedy-sounding researcher of scandal who hangs himself, we’d bet was pure invention. Malcolm knew personally Sinclair’s ‘art-historian’ neighbour who is supposed to advise him on the whereabouts of Leon Kossoff’s paintings, but drew a complete blank when the trail takes him to an ‘influential magazine’ a ‘former Graham Road hack owned and edited’. William Taylor, ‘clergyman-author-chairperson’ of the ‘Boas Society’, certainly exists and was once a guest author at a meeting of this Readers’ Group(!), although the society itself is a bit harder to track down. The moral seems to be to take it all with a fairly big pinch of salt – Sinclair himself writes: ‘Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire is a documentary fiction; where it needs to be true, it is.’ Begging the question whether any requirement at all is placed upon it.

For Malcolm and Rory, it was an exuberant exercise in name-dropping, from West Ham and England footballer Martin Peters (related to Jenny, she’d have you know!) to Stalin (now when and where was he in Hackney?) We had a sceptical split: Jenny thought Sinclair implied too much cultural significance to his topic, whereas Sara applauded his genuine enthusiasm for the likes of Godard and Welles. It was a memoir. It was that. Malcolm pointed out we should now have, on completing the text, a full medical history of the author and his family, legs, teeth, births, appendectomies, the works.

The style of Sinclair’s writing? Tim had it down as observational notes, Jenny as Joycean. Her favourite bit was a celebration of a café near Victoria Park once visited by Julie Christie, ending: ‘The old England of fog and noose. Now countered by this vision in khaki, walker of Hackney’s parks and graveyards: Julie Christie. Patron of independent bookshops, street markets, cafés. The radiant future we have left behind.’ For Malcolm, Sinclair was moved to his finest pitch by the challenge of the disgraced, necrophiliac doctor, Swanny, who catered to the Kray twins: ‘That never-extinguished torch burning a hole in bulging, semen-stained corduroys.’ Didn’t get better than that.

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.

Next, a complete change, the Cuban dancer, Carlos Acosta’s Pig’s foot. We meet 6pm Monday 1 June at Artizan Street Library.

Best wishes

Malcolm Key

City of London Libraries