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on 2 August 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. Pretty much every administrative body gets it in the neck apart from the defunct Inner London Education Authority (who, it can't be coincidence, used to employ Sinclair's wife). We learn of Sinclair's reluctance to pay his council tax; later, encountering an arts project funded by Hackney Borough Council he comments that he'd have been happier to pay up if he'd known they were spending the money on this, instead of fobbing him off with nonsense about schools and waste disposal. Clearly that's meant to be a joke, but there's a truth behind it. Of course there's corruption and incompetence in Hackney Council - a long, sorry history of it - but this is at least a body grappling with some of the problems of the area, with real poverty leading to real suffering for real people, whilst the Bohemian flâneur passes by with an ironically raised eyebrow.

Returning to my point about productivity and journalism - as in a lot of recent Sinclair work, we get too much of the man himself, detailing how he went about getting the book written: he and his family muscling into the foreground and crowding out the urban landscape that was his forte. Writing about the process of writing is a classic journalistic space-filler; we even get a bit about his computer problems (next and final stop for the desperate journalist filling column inches anyhow, the column on erecting flat-pack furniture). We learn of his being commissioned to write the book and, as it progresses, we hear more and more about the deadline approaching and how certain alleyways will have to remain unexplored if he's to deliver it on time. There's a palpable air of "Will this do?" as we reach the ending. Ultimately, it's a bit of a lazy book: lazily assembled, and a chronicle of a lazy refusal to engage with Hackney as it actually is rather than simply using it and its natives as a gritty backdrop for his own purposes.

This sounds like a two-star or even one-star rubbishing. And yet he can still write, even if he chooses to spread it thinly across too much product at the moment. Three stars, then, because the sentences are still well put together, even if their content may drive you spare.
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on 10 February 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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on 4 December 2015
Great book. Anyone who has lived in the great borough will recognise the terrain. Iain Sinclair is sharp and erudite with an inner urban eye to convert the banal into something fascinating. A true story-teller
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on 9 February 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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on 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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on 23 February 2012
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? No: "confidential" shouldn't mean "dull"; secret things are meant to be interesting.

It's taken me a very long time to get through Sinclair's Hackney. I picked up a first edition back in 2009, never having read anything by Iain Sinclair before. I'd recently gotten through the far-superior On Brick Lane by Rachel Litchenstein, who'd collaborated with Sinclair not long before. On Brick Lane demonstrated Litchenstein's obvious respect for Sinclair - a sympathetic interview comprises part of the book. I'd also gotten quite heavily into London non-fiction, where everywhere Sinclair is spoken of with awe and reverence.

And then I tried to read it. After a few hundred pages I felt the need to turn to another book for respite. A series of respites followed. Jump forward to 2012. I could bare the sight of the unfinished hardback staring at me from the shelf no-longer: I set to put Sinclair's Hackney to rest.

The constant name-dropping infuriated me. If a name is dropped in a book I perceive it to be because the writer thinks I should know who the person is. When I don't (and 80% of the time in this book I don't) a little part of me blushes. So I go away and look the person up, only to find - in the case of Sinclair's Hackney - that I don't want to know who they are anyway.

I could be wrong. Perhaps Sinclair doesn't presume the reader to already know who the person is, perhaps he wants them to go away and find out. Still: time after time the discovery isn't worth the effort. Perhaps Sinclair is content for the reader to only know the characters as they appear within his pages. If that is the case, then I am left with very little impression of who people like Chris Petit actually are - in fact, I'm not really left with any kind of impression of them at all.

There's too much of Sinclair in this book. People will say I've missed the point - that writing about a place can only truly be done by acknowledging your relationship to it. Somewhere along the way this turned into "psycho-geography": something that has always felt like pseudo-historical mystical-indulgence to me. Hackney here is just a setting for Sinclair to talk about himself - and consequently the reader gets a very narrow view of it. A fantastic idea to have chapters named after places, but the content of those chapters is often entirely unrelated to them - and indeed, even Hackney itself. The book is missing a structure, and musing about the fact that it's missing a structure doesn't give it one.

There is a lot of criticism that this book neglects black history and the modern day working class of Hackney. It does. It neglects the underclass too. A "confidential report" would get behind all of this. I read a review that states Sinclair's treatment of ethnic minorities in the book borders on racist. It doesn't. It doesn't look great that the few black characters in the book to be explored in any detail tend to be extremely negative, whilst the rest are left to loom unexplored on the periphery, but if Sinclair is guilty of anything it's laziness: he's worked hard writing a book that's within his comfort zone; within the limited scope of the Hackney he knows.

Where Sinclair's Hackney does come alive is the interviews. If I recommended it to anyone (I don't regret reading it but I wouldn't recommend it) I'd say: "Just read the italics". The problem of quite a narrow cast of interviewees is still there though. The Chris Petit interview beginning on page 387 illustrates this perfectly: the pages could have been taken up by someone with something relevant to say. He's there because of Sinclair; not because of Hackney. He doesn't even really talk about Hackney.

Had Sinclair focused more heavily on interviews, devised an actual structure to his book (the place-name foundations were there - again, see Rachel Litchenstein), interviewed an eclectic range of people that truly represented the diversity of Hackney and disciplined his introspective doodling, he could well have written a landmark work on Hackney.

Positive reviews on this site seem to criticise negative reviews for having been written by failed authors. If this is the case, I can only imagine it is because when a failed author reads Sinclair's Hackney, they get to the end of it thinking: "I can't get published but he gets away with that?!"

Maybe I'm old-fashioned in wanting a book about Hackney to be about Hackney.

(A quick note on another reviewer's criticism of Sinclair's references to the Krays: The reviewer felt that "the ill-fated twins registered zero in most people's concerns" and "John Pearson [...] had already written everything that needed to be said about the Krays anyway."

The reviewer lived in Hackney through the 60's and no-doubt was correct in stating that the Krays didn't worry most people. However, Sinclair's interview with Tony Lambrianou is one of the bits of the book that will stay with me. Not because I'm scintillated by the idea of "gangsters", but because the man came across as a very normal unromantic nothing-special kind of person: a human being - average - from Hackney - and a creature of his time. The image of him and his friends killing rats by the canal will stay with me: it feels like a true snapshot of a tiny part of Hackney from the past: I was left with the impression that there were many more like him.)
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on 19 January 2016
The weirdos Sinclair admires (loves?) here are the real story, rendered in transcripts of their own words, with their own chapters. Echoes of their scattered interesting moments shape the character of individual blocks where they lived, dreamed and created, and Sinclair develops meanings and histories for these places as characters themselves, also with their own chapter headings. Sinclair's prose improvises with the flat notes of 1960s counter-cultural promise that are this book's origin myth: The music that emerges is original, disappointing, strangely thrilling and impossible to set aside. It affects the rhythm and heightens the expectations of my own thoughts for hours after I put it down, like a piece of music by Steve Reich or like tripping on shrooms with a close friend. Looking forward to reading more of Sinclair's work and re-reading "Rose-Red Empire."
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on 4 January 2011
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 recognise something being written about. It is clever in the way it is written, too clever. Here the writer has an almost fanatical obsession for making things difficult for the reader. At times looking away from the page would make you fearful that you would lose track, get lost just by glancing elsewhere. Sinclair speaks of places, many places where I lived, grew up and know well. Somehow he misses the point. He seems to have little real connection with the places in question. Others have said that he completely misses the local viewpoint. In one chapter he makes the true comment that the children of West Indian parents can't afford to live/buy in the borough they were born in....hello Iain this is true of all working class people's children in Hackney.....the right to buy of the parents gave little benefit to their kids who moved away to Essex and Hertfordshire. Perhaps talking to more locals would have helped. In the end as a Hackney exile or escapee I have at least been prompted to look again at where I grew real thanks to Iain Sinclair who ran a very parallel race to the one I ran but with few crossovers.
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on 29 March 2009
I bought this book as I grew up in Hackney and have always had a strong affinity with the area. It appears that Sinclair has simply used the name of the place as means of selling this disjointed collection of random musings that have little literary merit and even less historical or geographical interest. I have not read anything by Sinclair in the past, and if this book is an indicator of his work to date then I won't be reading anything of his in the future.
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on 16 February 2011
"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. Also, some of the punctuation abuse is annoying. Mine may be no better, but then I don't purport to be a pro.

I will however try some of Mr Sinclair's other work, if I can lift it. Over the course of a more sensible length of book, he's probably quite good.
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