Iain Sinclair on Hackney plays the raging prophet that London needs, says Joe Kerr
The Habit of Hackney: Iain Sinclair. 26 February, Somerset House, London WC2R 1LA
In her introduction to Iain Sinclair’s talk on Hackney (download your copy of the talk here), hosted by the Royal Society of Literature, writer Victoria Glendinning described him as a ‘chronicler of London’, an apt title given the medieval richness and complexity of his epic vision. In a city not short of writers eager to add to its swelling bibliography, Sinclair towers above the competition, and the publication of his new book, Hackney, That Rose Red Empire (Hamish Hamilton, 2009) has rightly been heralded as a major literary event. It was not always thus of course, and for much of his writing career Sinclair has been viewed by his critics as a rather specialist taste, dealing with awkward subjects in dense prose. Yet what is remarkable about Sinclair’s expanding reputation is that to accommodate a new and wider audience he has relaxed his style without compromising the power and urgency of his message.
Readings from the book featured prominently here, interspersed with the author’s musings on its myriad subjects. It was the musings that proved most rewarding – telling stories rather than narrating them is what brings Sinclair to life.
One might be tempted to assume his wandering through the city, scavenging for scraps of fact and evidence, owed something to the tradition of the flâneur, but Sinclair is no disinterested observer. Rather, he is a passionately engaged participant in the city, full of righteous indignation. He exhibits a genuine anguish for the ordinary lives being wrecked as their landscape is snatched away, and is utterly contemptuous of the architecture of the post-Big Bang city and of the Olympic development, saying ‘regeneration is essentially degeneration’.
When asked about his relationship with psychogeography, he dismisses it as a spent force, one now tamed by the academy.
Curiously, Sinclair seems unwilling to acknowledge his place in an older London tradition. As long as writers have engaged with this city, there have been those who have believed that the place is going to the dogs. One only has to turn to John Stow, raging more than four centuries ago, to hear the same, authentic voice of the ancient prophet, wholly at odds with his own age. The truth is that anyone who lives in the same place for a long time will witness its transformation, and few of us are willing to accommodate that change. It is our good fortune that this present London has such an exceptional chronicler to record its destruction, one who has not just exposed our city to us, but who has left a vivid and epic memorial to it as well.
Resume: London’s chronicler strikes again with his latest Hackneyed tome