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Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report [Hardcover]

Iain Sinclair
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

26 Feb 2009

Once an Arcadian suburb of grand houses, orchards and conservatories, Hackney declined into a zone of asylums, hospitals and dirty industry. Persistently revived, reinvented, betrayed, it has become a symbol of inner-city chaos, crime and poverty. Now, the Olympics, a final attempt to clamp down on a renegade spirit, seeks to complete the process: erasure disguised as 'progress'.

In this 'documentary fiction', Sinclair meets a cast of the dispossessed, including writers, photographers, bomb-makers and market traders. Legends of tunnels, Hollow Earth theories and the notorious Mole Man are unearthed. He uncovers traces of those who passed through Hackney: Lenin and Stalin, novelists Joseph Conrad and Samuel Richardson, film-makers Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard, Tony Blair beginning his political career, even a Baader-Meinhof urban guerrilla on the run. And he tells his own story: of forty years in one house in Hackney, of marriage, children, strange encounters, deaths.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Hamish Hamilton; Third Impression edition (26 Feb 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0241142164
  • ISBN-13: 978-0241142165
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.5 x 5.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 464,881 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


'An explosion of literary fireworks' -- Peter Ackroyd, The Times

'Few books become causes celebres before they are published. But Sinclair's is one' -- Guardian

'On his territory there's nobody to touch him' -- Sunday Times

'Sinclair at his best . . . One of the finest books about London in recent decades' -- Sukhdev Sandhu, Daily Telegraph


'An explosion of literary fireworks'

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
49 of 56 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thirty years as a colonist 2 Aug 2010
There was a time, around the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s, when I would have said you couldn't have too much Iain Sinclair. This book, however, I read with teeth-grinding annoyance pretty much throughout; and fundamentally, I think, it's evidence of a talent being led astray by productivity and journalism.

Make no mistake about it, Sinclair can (still) write. As a shaper of phrases and chronicler of the low level crackle and static of the urban street, the white noise of minor threat and aggro that lies behind even the quietest moment, he has few equals. My problem with this book is that, essentially, it's not about Hackney at all, but about the uses to which Hackney and what it stands for can be put by a bunch of middle-class Bohemian incomers. Sinclair chiefly chronicles his thirty years living in Hackney firstly through interviewing people from his own artistic milieu who, like him, moved into the cheap housing here and pursued their own alternative lifestyles, or secondly through pursuing the stories of lost novelists who have similarly used Hackney as set-dressing. Will Self, Marina Warner, Chris Petit: the gang's all here. What we have much less of are the natives; notably, Sinclair seems to speak to one black person in the course of the book, and he's another creative type who's used as a conduit to tell us what all the other black people in the borough, the ones without a novel or mural on the go, are thinking.

The Bohemian viewpoint is an Olympian one: from this standpoint, all government either local or national is the work of charlatans or buffoons. We have the obligatory anti-Tony Blair stuff; we also have positively Clarkson-esque opposition to local council initiatives to foster cycling or recycling.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars For fans only? 9 Feb 2011
Readers expecting a straightforward chronological narrative on the history of Hackney will very disappointed with this book, not to mention thouroghly confused. This is a very personal book about the authors four decade long residency in the "odd fish" that is Hackney, and is more autobiography than anything else. All the usual Sinclair hallmarks are here, the walks, the literary treasure hunts, the seemingly endless parade of bueraucrats, developers and slimy corporates flamed on his poetic barbeque.

So perhaps a little too much filler and lack of focus for a book on such a relatively small area, but Sinclair still knows how to turn the dullest of anecdotes on its head with his exhilarating flair for prose. Enough to keep the fans happy, but one to be filed under "Memoir" rather than "History".
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115 of 149 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointed 10 Feb 2009
I was born in Hackney and lived in and around it for many years apparently, I discover, as a close neighbour of Mr Sinclair for a time, so this book was a must read for me. Sadly I have to say that I found it disappointing on a number of levels. The first aspect that troubles me is one that is endemic to his writings as a whole which rely on interviews and conversations ,that is the constant inclusion of his small coterie of friends to supply material. Chris Petit and now his son are referenced here as is Stewart Home. Less well known subjects in this book are generally other middle class "artists" who have washed up in the borough, the great unwashed have no voice here. The mass of Hackney residents are represented as winos, hoodies , beggars and chancers. The Holly estate for instance is discussed at length by people who live close to it but not those live on or in it, giving the impression that the place is something of a war zone but no sense of what it is like to live there.
The Four Aces a Legendary reggae and Ska venue has its history dismissed in a sentence while a brief period when their premises became part of the rave scene rates half a chapter, because he encounters someone who went there once. Other venues like Phebes and The All Nations are ignored totally. For me the significance of these places to black culture over a long period is is a more significant topic. But the nice white middle class residents that Mr Sinclair occupies himself with would know nothing about that and those who might are not in evidence.
Mr Sinclairs work is often referred to as offering a complex and multi layered treatment of his subject but there are a number of layers that are missing here, interestingly the ones that are generally missing from histories written by middle class academics So in this instance I feel that he has given us less of his subject than it deserves.
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4.0 out of 5 stars The view from the big houses? 21 April 2014
Iain Sinclair's local travel book draws on 40 years of experience of living in one of Britain's most deprived boroughs, the London Borough of Hackney. During the 1980s Hackney acquired a kind of national notoritity for crime, political militancy and corruption.
Possibly because of this reputation and because of its fantastic stock of cheap (at the time) Georgian and Victorian houses the area has long attracted several generations of middle class do gooders, skilled and dedicated teachers and doctors, bohemians and drop outs who 'wanna live like common people.' In many ways this is their book.

Sinclair is an excellent writer and much of his source material is acquired by simply walking around the borough and collecting lengthy personal testimonies. There are countless fascinating stories within this book collected from a wide range of people who have made Hackney their home. However, although their are forays into barbers' shops in Dalston and episodes at Ridley Road market I felt that the book missed the opportunity to talk about the lived experience of the working class majority and I found it surprising that a book about Hackney didn't mention once (in over 500 pages) any of the large council estates such as Frampton Park, Kingsmead, Jack Dunning, Linzell, Woodberry Down et al. This was a surprising ommission for an author famous for his walking exploits. This qualification aside, however, I thought this was a painstakingly well written and researched book and I commend the author for making an important contribution to the field of writing about London.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Classic Iain Sinclair
Classic Iain Sinclair: a blend of obscure information, refracted genius, conspiracy theories, brilliant jokes that you never quite get. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Burt11
4.0 out of 5 stars A very good book.
I really like this book. Very informative. Iain Sinclair has a very distinct style of writing. I enjoyed the way he wrote abou the ins and outs of Hackney.
Published 15 months ago by Denise Ward
5.0 out of 5 stars A must-read for Iain Sinclair fans
Anyone who loves London but is unwilling to tramp the streets as thoroughly as Mr Sinclair must get a copy of this.
Published 19 months ago by C. A. Russell
2.0 out of 5 stars Old-Fashioned to Want a Book About Hackney to be About Hackney?
The clue is in the sub-title they say: "A Confidential Report". I've considered this. Have I been too hasty? Missed something? Is the quality of this book hidden? Read more
Published on 23 Feb 2012 by Junkets
5.0 out of 5 stars a confidential report
Read the subtitle folks, this is not meant to be a conventional history of Hackney - rather the reverse, a confidential secret history, and yes a memoir (there's more of his... Read more
Published on 23 Jan 2012 by nickslider
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't open this book if you want to read a cozy biography of Hackney
Don't open this book if you want to read a cozy biography of Hackney.

Its not a Time Out Guide, nor a Pevsner nor a scholarly history of the area. Read more
Published on 1 Jun 2011 by Neil Ford
2.0 out of 5 stars requires patience
"Stylish" writing, but ultimately a self-indulgent and drawn out affair. This is overblown and tiresome, and nearly 600 pages of it is a lot of showing off to trawl through. Read more
Published on 16 Feb 2011 by yakob
3.0 out of 5 stars Parallels but little crossover
A good friend brought me this book back from London....he knew I was born and bread in Hackney. I approached it with a sense of excitment that often occurs when we feel we may... Read more
Published on 4 Jan 2011 by Stevenqoz
5.0 out of 5 stars Bad Reviews are just failed writers twittering away
This book is wonderful. His wrtiting is fresh and well paced. His sentences are enjoyable and full of warmth. The depiction of Hackney is perfect. Read more
Published on 30 Nov 2010 by Wilbur
5.0 out of 5 stars The elusive Mr. Sinclair
Another neo-platonist excursion into urban streets, the search for the noumenal London, glimpses of "reality", beyond human ability to fully grasp. Read more
Published on 9 April 2010 by Donald Lush
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