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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Old-Fashioned to Want a Book About Hackney to be About Hackney?, 23 Feb 2012
This review is from: Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report (Paperback)
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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