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Thirty years as a colonist
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.