READER FLATTERY: IAIN SINCLAIR AND THE
COLONISATION OF EAST LONDON
The novel, in a variety of forms, has a special capacity for giving a sense of time and place, whether in naturalistic mode or not. This can be retrospective, but it may involve understanding change in its early stages, change only partially understood, if recognized at all in the wider culture. They do not create the conditions in which new forces come into being, but in some cases they can give a coherence to them which helps their development. William Gibson’s cyberspace trilogy that began with Neuromancer is such a work, one offering a holistic vision of the world wide web. In the case of the novelist Iain Sinclair, the colonisation of East London by the rich and their functionaries had begun well before the appearance of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings and Downriver in which the area itself is the main character, and which are nominally a critique of the process. But the colonisation has proceeded apace since then, a process of class cleansing, and my contention is that Sinclair has aided it in small measure by the bohemian ambience he has given it in his work, one written in a relentless wiseguy prose full of false drama from a rebel persona, that has grown increasingly unbelievable. It is a style that gives no space to, and yet flatters the reader.
In the process he has lost his raw material, and is perhaps why more recent work has spread out geographically, but has also done a slick job of pulling up the bridge after him, East London psycho-geography is now passé: been there, done that. Not just lost it, but would I think be outraged by the suggestion that he had contributed to the loss, given his scorn at the first wave of colonisers. There is such a thing as the unintended consequence. There is the famous case of another Sinclair, Upton, whose novel The Jungle, had the intention of improving working conditions in the Chicago stockyards, yet whose effect was to horrify the bourgeoisie about the meat they bought and produced as a result the Federal Food and Drug Agency.[i]
The unintended consequence may arise simply from a lack of self-awareness and in Iain Sinclair’s case there is evidence that there is such a lack when it comes to the style and most of all, the tone of his writing. To get some sense of this, and the wiseguy nature of the prose without reference to East London itself, here he is reviewing Tom Raworth’s Collected Poems in the London Review of Books.[ii] He’s a big fan and early on in contrast he attacks Martin Amis’s use of ‘like’ to introduce
“a well-turned similie from a Martian verse-maker. Raworth, and those who have learned from him don’t do similies.”
Already there are the wiseguy giveaways, the ‘Martian’ from Martin and the ‘don’t do’. The problem with similies as Sinclair goes on to say is that they “diminish narrative integrity” by suggesting that this work, this map is not in itself convincing, or true. The similie says: applaud my wit.”[iii] Yes indeed, to be sparingly, if at all, but a paragraph or two later, Sinclair himself indulges in one ‘like’ similie after another in remorseless fashion after his pompous pronouncement that “we can’t afford to ignore Raworth”, similies with a heavy tread to them.
– but the politics have evaporated like a puddle on hot tarmac
– his father’s letter like a shimmering 8mm home movie
– staying on the case like a disenfranchised private eye
This lack of self-awareness runs right through his East End fictions where he perhaps unwittingly uses a variety of modes which ‘diminish narrative integrity’, something for which he has accused Amis. But first, a sketch of how inner London, and East London especially had changed before Sinclair took it as material.
Well into the 1970s, much of inner London was still poor London, full of council housing and private rented flats and bedsits. At the same time, the bohemian lifestyle was restricted to enclaves like North Kensington – the Grove and the Gate –and the more traditional Soho and Fitzrovia, the south and north of Oxford Street. Then, for a period of time it became a mass lifestyle. Paying off the working class for having fought and suffered the second World War was then being paid to a confident class with broadly egalitarian demands in a period of technological development and rapid economic growth, and it was inner London was the place to be. But almost immediately there began the process of colonisation, a process softened by the neologism ‘gentrification’
It began in West London, and then famously in Islington spurred on by the opening of the Victoria Line at the end of the 1960s. The dynamics of the process are well described in Maureen Duffy’s novel Capital, published in 1975 and describing Hammersmith.
“What have been terraces of handsome portico’d clerks’ houses let out for dozens of furnished tenants, each are being busily gentrified, sold as luxury flats or choice town houses…I was a amazed at how far it had gone. And the people who used to live there I suppose are on a housing list somewhere, in temporary accommodation or gone out to the fringes of Slough. Yet there’s the dilemma: the houses look so much better for it, re-plastered and painted with coy peeps of Habitat curtaining at the window, even a couple of tubbed orange trees to one. Why couldn’t that have been dome before? Because the tenants weren’t paying enough. . But they didn’t earn enough to pay any more.”
The novel, it’s safe to assume was actually written a little earlier, at the back end of the Heath government when despite concerns about the fall in the population of greater London and dire warnings of a spiral of urban decline, there were equally concerns about a housing shortage and the increase in the cost of it. This showed itself in the demand for a weighted London allowance in wages, and talk of a plan for the construction of public housing for essential workers, a periodic concern for whom continues to this day. A Financial Times headline in 1974 read Housing’s Arithmetic of Despair and described **** the rise in homelessness as resulting from the increasing trend towards owner occupation caused by, and then causing an explosion in house prices which started with landlords, with the help of improvement grants, “emptying their houses of ‘unprofitable tenants’ in order to cash in on their valuable capital assets.”, as is now happening with pubs. At the same time, local authorities –Kensington and Chelsea for example – accelerated the sales of council houses to non-tenants. Tax subsidies for house buyers also existed and as early as the 1974 election, Mrs Thatcher was proposing a large increase in such subsidies. As we know, her class cleansing policies became high pressure when she did take power, a pincer movement of a block on the ability of councils to borrow money to build social housing; and council housing sales to tenants.
These factors then were common to the partial class cleansing of inner London. But East London has its own, has always has been special and for a long time has been a place of interest for writers, social reformers, voyeurs, with its rhythms of immigration, and with its own history of radical activism.[iv] There is a history of militant trade unionism which the London dockers and Ford Dagenham workers kept alive into the 1970s. For the dockers the high point was the release of dockers’ leaders from Pentonville prison under mass crowd pressure. The first London police force had been for the docks, and from the late 18th century on, there was a dialectic of anti-authoritarian class solidarity and ‘criminality’. Added to this, a politically articulate immigrant working class, mostly Jewish.
After World War II, one form this took was the squatting of housing as a practical and political campaign of the Communist Party. It restarted in 1969 without political party leadership in the Arbour Square estate and became a mass phenomena not exclusive to politicos or bohemians. This until the hotly debated ‘Squatters Amnesty” introduced by a Conservative GLC leader, George Tremlett. The amnesty made it very difficult for any prospective new squatters. This took place around the same time as the closure of the London docks, the event which set in motion the colonisation process. The development of containerisation, and the move to coastal ports like Tilbury and Felixstowe, allowed for the destruction of those uppity London dockers as a class, and undermining labour organisation as a whole. It also released hundreds of acres of real estate and warehousing on to the property market.
A ‘market’ that had to be helped along by public money, as is so often the case. The developments of Canary Wharf and the north end of the isle of Dogs required publicly funded infrastructure like the Docklands Light Railway and the Limehouse tunnel, which involved reducing the stock of social housing still further. And when that wasn’t enough the Jubilee Line extension was built at the expense of other possible extensions. It has been more than just property business but blatant social engineering by the supposedly ‘invisible hand’ of the market, the contradiction stitched together by the word ‘regeneration’[v]
Since then a new wave of colonialism has taken place which has taken up not just the spaces left by further de-industrialisation, but as in Hammersmith all those years ago as a further squeeze on housing: spaces, prices and private rent which are now pushing up social housing rents.[vi]. Its closeness to the City with its large labour pool had already had its impact. Since then the phenomena of artists moving into cheap rent areas and creating an attractive ambience, only to be pushed out when the very attractiveness pushes up rents has been widely described, and though not at all exclusive to inner east London, is a real force. Attracting less comment has been well-off parents putting up mortgage deposits for their children (or buying outright) in East London and this augmenting inequality. All these are objective conditions. My contention is that in his own way Sinclair’s writing has helped it on its way.
At the end of 1979, I worked as a street sweeper based at the Brick Lane depot. It was a time when the National Front, precursor of the BNP, had to be confronted in the area on a regular basis, both on the street and in the pubs. My area was a stretch between the Lane itself and Commercial Street, from below the Truman’s Brewery and up to Bethnal Green Road. Spitalfield market still existed as a wholesale Fruit and Veg market with a good quality caff open at dawn. This area included those Spitalfields streets which have also been Sinclair’s centre of interest. It was supposed to be one of those numbers where you could hide the dustcart away and skive off for most of the day. But the foremen, they’d been at it for years, knew every hiding place there was to know, and I did not last long.[vii]
My round began with a dead rat or two in the gutters of Sheba Street which was one long tenement running parallel to Brick Lane, and has now gone. At the same time the first now-empty warehouses were being converted. It began in Wapping on cobbled streets hard up against the river with a film studio, and then the conversion of Metropolitan Wharf into studios for artists.
The Spitalfields area I covered was being re-discovered by those with an eye for such things, for its Huguenot houses, but for a long time had had a morbid attraction as Jack the Ripper territory, the streets in which six prostitutes – the very word still a vicarious thrill in today’s media world – were murdered. They were killings for which no one was charged or convicted. But such is the gaslight and myth attraction of this sordid affair that tourist guides walk parties of tourists around the sites of each of the six killings. In the autumn of 1988 a group of women began to picket such tours. By then White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings was emerging from its small press publication (Goldmark) in 1987 to a wider audience. Of the various possible Jacks, one, the surgeon Sir William Gull, is a main thread in the book. Sinclair with his usual cast of bohemians (no admission to book dealers who aren’t crazed one way or another) is quick to let it be known that his rehash of these sexist murders is not going to be the usual vulgar stuff. Oh no.
“The zone was gradually defined, the labyrinth penetrated. It was given limits by the victims of the Ripper.”
Nothing vulgar, but a false sense of drama, one that ‘diminishes the narrative integrity’, is immediately created by the use of ‘labyrinth’ and ‘zone’(a word lifted from both William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon’s powerful paranoid views of reality which carried a ferocious anger.) ‘Zone’ rather than the streets where tossers emptied their ashtrays into the gutter. Just in case we’ve missed the point, that this is not run of the mill Ripperism he has his Bohemian oppo, Jobling, say of another Ripper book
“There’s something inherently seedy and salacious in continually picking off the scabs of those crimes, peering at mutilated corpses, listing the undergarments, trekking over the tainted ground in quest of some long-delayed occult frisson.”
None of that for Sinclair and Jobling though they are not immune to a bit of ‘long-delayed occult frisson’ themselves both here and in the recycling of the David Rodinsky story. And there’s a falsity to the rhetoric, there can be no peering at corpses because there are none. But Sinclair is determined that their take on the myth is on a higher, offbeat, plane, one in which they will reverse the conventions of detective fiction.
“Our narrative starts everywhere. We want to assemble all the incomplete movements, like cubists, until the point is reached where the crime can commit itself. That is why there are so many Ripper candidates, so many theories: and they can all be right.”
Like cubists? Must be all right then. You can buy into East London myth and not feel mucky, neither a tourist nor a tabloid reader. Not naff.[viii]
In this same first novel, something more familiar is at work in making East London both exciting and safe for the modern bourgeois with a taste for the off-beat, it is the rhetoric of disgust. Its tone was set in TS Eliot’s vastly overrated poem The Wasteland, and is all too easy to do. It is for example, far more difficult to write joy and pleasure.[ix] Here is a taste of it from Sinclair on a stretch of unmarked passage to Limehouse Reach.
“Maps of futility brought to ground…There’s nowhere to drink here: the pubs collapsed into their own pretensions, understudy villains ordering up cocktail froth, the mind-destroying jingle of electronic pickpockets.”
The giveaway here are those “understudy villains”. What are they then? **** Pretend villains? Ones who just aren’t up to it? Either way a wanker, vulgar too, drinking his cocktail froth. This before the very heavy tread of “mind-destroying jingle of electronic pickpockets” as a description of fruit machines. In his attack on Martin Amis cited above, Sinclair uses him as a prime example of:
“Critical consensus and broad readership made their choice long ago, stick with satire, smartly observed behaviourist rants (trashing the proles), small revenges.”
Attacks on Amis strengthen one’s own position as a rebel in the cultural world, and here Sinclair’s attack here is spot on. The trouble is that as with the similies, Sinclair does so much of the same stuff himself. The difference is that he likes – as the saying goes –to have his cake and eat it. We can see it in his use of a different East London almost mythical heritage, its criminals, the Kray twins especially. He can’t let them alone so we get an endless cycle of parading, then trashing these faces from the past. His account of Ronnie Kray’s funeral in Lights Out for the Territory from 1997 begins with a characteristic self-dramatisation.
“It was quite a trick blagging my way through the crowd.”, one made up of
“the jobless, the unwaged, the never haves, the ones who parrot the party line, and the ones who don’t have the faintest idea what’s going on today or any other day.”
By the time of this book, Sinclair was a well established and acclaimed writer. Blagging? Really? I don’t think so, though he has made much of how he has got himself into the funeral parlour with ‘a mangled bookseller’s card used for claiming discounts’. Wow. In all probability they didn’t give a damn who he was. And what is this crowd he has blagged through? Wankers, all of them. Wankers of different stripes, but that’s what they are, including those who ‘parrot the party line’. Here it is the verb, parrot, which is so value-laden. And, what party line is that? The nostalgia party, the good old East End, that one? The ones given substance by the crowd of geezers who he is just waiting to wrap up in a put-down,
“Villains that are so old they think they’re being flash by giving two fingers to petrol rationing. “
He likes this so much we get another of his triplet sentences where it is all summed up.
“This has been a major killing for the car rental mob, the muscle agencies, the three-chair barbers.”
“Mob?” Hertz and Avis?
It is the funeral as spectacle he can’t stand, that’s the line, but he comes back to it, years later, in Dining on Stones, because it’s such good material for the phrases that sum it all up for us, so that we too can patronize the whole thing.
“Adios neighbourhood heavies…the old firms were good for nothing except heritage TV: suits and wreaths at Chingford Mount, gravel-voiced killers schmoozing the camera…Respects were offered, upper case carnations by the serial mourners of gangland: Freddie Foreman, Tony Lambrianou…”
In other words, more wankers. Except I remember Freddie Foreman clearly. The first time he ever took a tab of acid and laughed at the screw who was banging up. That was 1974 in D Wing when it was the max security wing of Wormwood Scrubs, then some months later Fred decking this giant of a culchie screw on the eve of his first ever Home Leave in 8 years; whacking him because the screw had been giving grief to Gerry Kelly, now MP for North Belfast, all evening long. And remember instances of this ‘heritage TV’ when characters from the old firms have seemed to burst through the barriers the screen creates.[x]
But it is not just East London’s pensioner criminals, whatever you think of them, who get the Sinclair treatment. ****. This is him in Downriver where at dawn in a lorry car park, he sees girls dropping down from lorry cabs.
“The girls were inevitably overweight with make-up scattered like an autistic action painting; or scrawny, nerve-ticked, scratched, pimpled and frantic to score-wriggling in satin, torn fish-net, split and smeared saddle-leather.”
It’s pretty obvious what kind of girls theses are. These are proles, and ugly with it, ugly and pathetic. It starts with the make-up similie, and then goes into one judgemental adjective after another — boy does he pile it on — interspersed with the value-leaden verb form, ‘wriggling’. And it is hard to see how it is different from Amis, here with some early description of Keith Talent in London Fields
“Keith’s crowning glory, his hair, was thick and full bodied: but it always had the look of having been recently washed, imperfectly rinsed, and then, still slick with cheap shampoo, slow-dried in a huddled pub…”
The distinctive value-laden adverb ‘imperfectly’ followed by the adjective that accompanies the shampoo. You just know it is going to be ‘cheap’. Notoriously he goes on to give him more of a kicking
“You don’t need much emphatic talent to tell what Keith’s thinking. He doesn’t do that much thinking in the first place. The very difficulty, the disuse of the muscles, writes headlines on his forehead, and his tabloid face.”
Which is him summed up, wrapped up, and placed across the counter. But again it has to be asked, how is this different to Sinclair on dog owners : “The pit-bull is twinned in desirability with the possession of a satellite dish…the Dog and Dish, they hang out together, chummy as a pub sign.”: in Lights Out for the Territory or, in the same book, Sinclair on a bus giving us the dope on its passengers:
“The willingly bemused, a troop of dope swollen moon faces, the sort usually glimpsed as they stare out of yellow, special needs minibuses with lifts at the back. I’m sure we’ve infiltrated a secure-hospital delivery, a round-up of sectioned carpet-chewers, white line stalkers, parrot imitators, biddable psychotics, folks who live with the daily horror of seeing things as they actually are.”
The style is more hyper than Amis, the piling on of phrases, but the effect is the same. And at the end of this passage he gives us his own version of TS Eliot’s cheek and pomposity in the famous line in The Four Quartets, “Human kind cannot be very much reality.” To which one can only say, speak for yourself!
This passage occurs as part of one of Sinclair’s necessarily offbeat searches and following of trails. East London becomes a playground of weird connections. In the bus sequence he is in search of an obscure psychogeographer at work in an obscure room in the University of Greenwich with some absured, self-imposed deadline. These searches are invariably given a drama of their own. Sometimes to achieve this, he uses an additional method of ‘diminishing narrative integrity’. This is by use of first person present tense writing as an A to B method of generating excitement.
“Easily into our stride, I’m explaining the whole insane concept to Marc: on the hoof. No time for maps And bearings…Spoken out loud, put into words, our journey sounds insane. It is insane.”[xi]
In Downriver such searches come and go. On the borders of the River Lea –more urban wasteland in hyper style – we have a character who
“Shuffled telephones. He haunted the dead zones of the city looking for connections only he could activate.”
The trails are always manic. Back with poor David Rodinsky again,
“We dug, we competed, we whispered our discoveries”
just as his hyper- book dealers do throughout his work. As well as Rodinsky, the Ripper comes back to provide more weird connection material.
“I had chased the rumours from Highgate to Stratford, from Spitalfields Market to the Minories – but they still eluded me, sliding feline round the next corner, spraying the cobblestones. I caught whispers in back-bars, sudden hunched-shoulder silences. Gnomic hints, clues masked in obscenity had been inscribed, a foot from the pavings, on the locked doors of the Fournier Street mosque: Spring-heeled Jack had returned.”
The ‘gnomic hints’ bother me. It is flattery of the reader , you just need the patience, the tenacity and the ability to make weird connections, and what an attractive prospect East London becomes in spite of its inhabitants. But it is also a flattery whereby you are being let into the secret, into the offbeat elite. This is Sinclair back in that review of Tom Raworth’s poems.
“He’s not public company. Outside the circuit of small magazines and left-field academia, he’s not news.”
Or worse, a recent piece in the Guardian Weekend (18th March 2006) on the huge Car Boot sales at Hackney Wick. He writesof the photographer Stephen Gill who “had stumbled on one of the great secrets of the city.” Great secret? When the parked cars reach back to Homerton High Street on a Sunday morning?[xii]
Sometimes, as in the case of the Edith Cadiz story in Downriver there were moments when “The trail was cold”. This story uses gothic Hackney Hospital for its location and of this he writes
“I would adopt my usual method, and circumnavigate the hospital walls; see what the stones had to say. The hospital…had in the meantime, been the designated dumping ground for all the swamp-field crazies, the ranters, the ultimate referrals.”
We can note yet again the triplet of hyped-up phrases that concludes the passage, a style which leaves no space to the reader when these people have already been summed up, but more important is the use to which Sinclair uses the hospital itself. Downrivers came out in 1991, the year also of Dr David Widgery’s Some Lives: A GP’s East End. In this book he talks of how painful it is to be “called to a person who has died unattended and alone.” And mentions how in 1990, a 91 year old demented man lay dead in the grounds of Hackney Hospital for three weeks before discovery. I shall be very careful in bringing out material from this book, because in this day and age it is very easy to be accused of things one is not saying. I do not make any claims for social realism as against imaginative attempts to give a picture of a place though I do not myself believe Margaret Thatcher is a witch, but that she was a clever politician with a nasty agenda for which there was an historical opportunity, that conjunction of petrodollars and free floating exchange rates. Despite this, I find Sinclair’s writing is at its best when it is unashamedly mystical, when he goes for it without covering his arse in advance. What I find difficult, in addition to the reader flattery, and the knowing summings-up, is that there are no ordinary East Enders in his East End.
Widgery is neither sentimental nor nostalgic, it is already in 1990 a new East End.
“Cockney individualism, far from vanishing as Ian Nairn feared, has become still more diverse if less obvious with the wild adaptations made by a multicultural proletariat and a sizeable bohemia.”
Here the doctor, a free-thinking socialist revolutionary, is inclusive in welcoming a new East London, bohemians and all. For Sinclair however, only bohemians count. The multicultural proletariat appears only in summing-up phrases, or as crazies. In Lights Out for example there are no black people except for a bag lady on Queensbridge Road, and an incompetent mini cab driver at the end. Instead, as in Downriver, Hackney Wick exists only as the house of a crazed drunken aristocrat, Elgin MacDiarmuid, is seen only from this point of view, a house turned over by
“Barrio-rats and spike-skulled squatters from distressed chip-vans.” Wow! More crazies in their parcels.
On this Sinclair is ahead of the game. One of his other handy punchbags, are TV guys in search of the offbeat, and he can be very funny, Situationist style on this world. One of them tells him,
“Go for those nutty characters you write about; off the wall eccentrics, headbangers with chutzpah…Dig them out and we’ll shoot them…Give me that surreal, subhuman cartoon feel you’re so good at.”
But this doesn’t prevent him of giving us precisely such stuff over-and-over-again, having made sure it is OK to do this because on this he is aware of what he is doing
In Widgery’s account, madness is a very miserable business, as are all kinds of alcohol and chemicals abuse. His is not a book full of saints. Along with the long-suffering folk who don’t go for medical help early enough because they didn’t want to make a fuss, there are manipulators and the violent, and mothers finding it harder than they’d thought. The chapter “Visitations” is pretty hard going emotionally. But he can still write, a socialist without the notorious rose-coloured specs:
“Still, what strikes me about all those condescending documentaries about the poor East Enders, ignorant, ill and probably racist into the bargain, is exactly the reverse: how well the modern Cockneys do in circumstances which their ‘betters’ would find impossible…And yet how much more common decency, respect for humanity, honour and humour they possess than so many of the middle and upper classes who despite lip service to collective values in fact approach life in a spirit of naked self-interest.”
If Sinclair is not self-aware when it comes to the style of much of his writing, it is because that of value-laden summings-up is so ingrained in the tradition passed down from Eliot, who Sinclair quotes regularly. But there is another style which suits the business of trails and searches, though to repeat I am not here talking of the mystical, which can be powerful writing when he lets loose with it.
Recently Brian Holmes has talked of how changing conditions have made the once subversive tradition of psycho-geography quite superficial, turned it into a cocooned aesthetic. In all this, Sinclair has again been ahead of the game. In Lights Out, he stands up for it
“Driftng purposefully is the recommended mode…To the no bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin de siecle decadence, a poetic of entropy – but the born again flaneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything. Alignments of telephone kiosks, maps made from the moss on the slopes of Victorian sepulchures, collections of prostitute’s cards, torn and defaced promotional bills for cancelled events at York Hall…”
The possible criticism is then absorbed, dealt with in advance. But what a big deal he makes of it in contrast say to the great exiled Greek anarchist and historian Elias Petroupolis with his histories of Greek public toilets, bars, cemeteries, songs and more.
By the time of Dining on Stones, the veteran has seen it done it, and comments:
“Locally my wanderings were interrupted by cyclists eager to tell me about their projects: video surveillance of empty buildings, albums of re-photographed graffiti, underground streams tracked to source.”
This doesn’t prevent him from bringing the Ripper back in yet again before going on to trash it as old hat once more.
“Brick Lane was a permanent exhibition of look-at-me-graphics, stencils, retro- Situationism…”
You can only admire the chutzpah of this non-headbanger, this writer of look-at-me prose. Chutzpah was something on offer from non-retro-Situationism. Brian Holmes talking again of a superficial psycho-geography wondered-
“How to explain the continuing prestige of Situationist aesthetics in a period which has changed so dramatically since the 1960s.”
Cards on the table, I was greatly influenced by the Situationists in the late 1960s. I did not know then how much of it was a mish-mash of Henri Lefebvre and Cornelius Castoriades, but what was really exciting apart from the stunts they’d pulled was the language of their attack on capitalism and the Bolshevik tradition. It gave young people I knew the confidence to take on all the Maoist, Communist Party, and Trotskyists with their know-all long speeches when Debord commented of a French gropescule called Young Communist Revolutionaries, that they were neither young, communist nor revolutionary. There was a cockiness to it that we needed at the time, but cockiness too can become a clichéd rhetoric.
Sinclair also absorbed the style as well as that of the Eliot tradition and William Burroughs whose disgust writing had more of a visceral edge to it. But by the time Downriver appeared, the Situationists had themselves been recuperated in stark fashion by a Situationist exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in the late 80s. By then the period had already changed, but the aesthetic, as Brian Holmes calls it, persisted mostly as a style of writing, that cocky style keen on mocking the inauthentic. It is this style which allows Sinclair to have it all ways. It allows him to be snooty about both the big money, and the offbeat bourgeois of the first wave of colonisation.
“’Baroque realists’” and tame voyeurs fixated on entropy, tremble in paroxysms of excitement and distaste. There hasn’t been such hot material lying around in the streets since they nobbled public hangings and bear baiting. Suddenly we’re all Henry Mayhew and Jack London. It’s shudder – unbelievable, terrible. We rush to our word processors, the hot line to Channel 4. We’re going to get the lead story, with photograph in the London Review of Books.”
Chutzpah? You have to admire the way he does it. It’s that ‘we’. He’s part of it, but he’s not part of it, because he was there first and is aware of what’s happening. Aware, because it’s what he is doing: ‘paroxysms of excitement and distaste’, it’s exactly what we get in so much of the writing. And when it comes to anger at ‘docklands development – “the seriously wealthy river-spivs” it comes as a riff (Part 8 of Downriver) in which a comic-strip Margaret Thatcher born out of Queen Victoria wants a memorial built in docklands, for which there must be a committee. This allows for a souped-up satire of the Spectacle in which some of his favourite targets appear, like the Architectural Advisor
“selling bijou residences in Cherry Gardens to half-solvent media lefties” and who found it “a real drag dealing with social climbing paupers”
.They argue their in-the- know self-interests until ‘the Minister’ comes in with the proposal:
“…the first duty of any decent memorial is to pay its own way and not simply to stand around for a few hundred years waiting for history to kiss its ass…You art-wallahs can sort out all the retrospective justifications. I can promise you prime-time television and the best crews available (none of that hand-held stuff, straight from the ad agencies)…a place of pilgrimage….a viable commercial investment…with side-effects that are unpredictable.”
This is satire in situationist language, full of cultural put down. Once upon a time, such a style could carry a punch as in Ishmael Reed’s work, and especially Mumbo-Jumbo, where it is able to carry anger. For the last 25 years or so in the Western world however, you have to wonder if ‘savage satire’ isn’t an oxymoron, the savagery impossible especially in such wiseguy prose. Sinclair seems clear about this in the case of Martin Amis but for himself, his outlook seems to be of the Better Dead than Naff variety. Compare the satire of Downriver (Part 8) to Chapter 10 of David Widgery’s book (published in the same year), the one entitled Consequences. Here, some very unsentimental stories of heroes, non-heroes, and sickness, intercut with what the London Docklands Development Corporation is doing on the day Canary Wharf is ‘topped out’. Tenants are ‘decanted’ from St Vincent House and Risby House to make way for its infrastructure, and the architect of that Fat Canary says,
“A skyscraper recognises that by virtue of its height it has acquired civic responsibilities. We expect it to have formal characteristics appropriate for this unique and socially charged role.”
In the Western world, satire is at best redundant, as Tom Lehrer said when Henry Kissinger was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
The colonising of East London did not stop with Wapping, Limehouse basin or Canary Wharf. It has extended not just geographically but in the manner that enclosures tend to do, culturally. In Hackney, it is most visible, and hurtful, in the disappearance in the last few years of at least four big pubs where the crack was fierce and wild. Public houses, public spaces. And they are going, the ones where there was some freedom to the public space. First down was The Albion to the north of the borough. A big old Victorian affair that served a sub-culture of Goths and Mohicans, many of whom were stalwarts of that anti-capitalist movement on the streets. It is now large-scale apartments. As is the Pembury Tavern at the Amhurst Road end of the Pembury Estate. A pub where they didn’t bother too much with furniture.. The music changed but it was always loud.
Further along at the top end of Mare Street was the Samuel Pepys where a really fine band might turn up out of the blue and where you’d hear where that night’s squatted rave was happening, and then get asked by the 20 year old on the door — humiliating this — if you was the law. Now reclaimed by the landlords, The Hackney Empire, and sterilized into an empty chrome and glass bar.
Sinclair does not come across as much of a pub man, the odd manic pint with manic book dealers or manic artists perhaps, and then be put off by all that cocktail froth, or an old dockers pub which gets the full disgust treatment with the leadweight irony of ‘authentic’.
“The ham rolls were reassuringly authentic: crusted in over-tanned plaster of Paris, concealing a pink slick of reconstituted animal fat…the wallpaper had not been pasted to the wall: it had grown like a fungus. And was growing still.”
Where there is a long pub scene, ‘The Spear of Destiny’ in Downriver, it is full of Irish and Scots geezers beating shit out of each other in the public bar, and parcelled up in Sinclair phrases. It also has a literary ring to it, the landlord and his wife seeming to come out of a novel of Gerald Kersh (a writer we both admire), the one called The Angel and the Cuckoo. It also has a snug bar where landlord Count Jerzy’s wife keeps it cosy with the inscribed portraits of East End heroes and “assorted bracelet-wearing gangsters”, the sort he just can’t leave alone, who must be shown to be wankers over and over again.
Worst of all in the Hackney pub clear-out was the closing of the Crown and Castle, on the corner of Dalston Lane and Kingsland Road to become an eat in/eat out place, part of a chain. On weekend nights the place was mental. A DJ playing to a room of 20 to 60 years olds, black and white, and the Hassidic guy who loved dancing with the big black women. We danced packed tight, rush-hour style, and for a few hours it was sexy as hell.
Seen from the outside, in summing up phrases, how easy to make those wonderful nights sound naff. How tempting for someone writing in the Sinclair mode. In Lights Out he does it himself-
“Dalston coming into its pomp after a railway carve-up, as an alternative for those who couldn’t afford the trip ‘up west’, has all the buzz of a JG Ballard traffic island squatted by cowboys.”
What a bloody cheek!
Yes, he does bear some responsibility for the incessant colonial process. The colonisers can feel good about themselves and also enjoy this history-packed area of the city after reading him because now they know the score. The reader is flattered, he/she for sure is not one of the wankers or phoneys who have been so exhaustively described.
[i] In several Charles Bukowski remixes we find out that work in the meatpacking business changed little over the years.
[ii] London Review of Books 19th August 2004
[iii] The same can be said for metaphor: “All that ruddy fiction…’Admire me for I am a metaphor’”, as a a David Mitchell character says in Cloud Atlas. There are however practical reasons for fiction writers to use both metaphor and similie, because broadsheet newspaper book reviewers love them. A quick quote to show the writer’s wit or imagaination whether this is the case or not
[iv] Special even when it came to tenant buyers of council housing. Soon after Margaret Thatcher’s exit, the new owners in East London areas that were not, and had little immediate chance of becoming fashionable, were subject to the pincer movement of ‘negative equity’ and enforced service charges.
[v] In David Widgery’s book Some Lives: A GP’s East End, an ex-munitions worker says, “That’s the trouble with us. We cockneys think we’re so tough but we get taken for a ride because we want to believe.” Olympic Games? Regeneration? Whose?
[vi] The Young Foundation’s The New East End, which caused some ripples recently over the competition of social housing, had New Labour ideologues like Geoff Mulgan rediscovering the white working class. Various other New Labour voices followed about they had perhaps ignored this class. Typically what they did not say was how much they had ignored the working class as a class, racially mixed as it is.
[vii] Unions still had some power then, and the depot had a very good young shop steward. Part of the wage was an attendance bonus, which I failed to get week after week. Many months later when the money was a godsend I got a cheque from Tower Hamlets because the union had made this bonus into a part of basic pay.
[viii] On 27th October 2001, The Independent, reported that egg throwing and air rifle fire had taken place against tourists following Jack the Ripper’s footsteps. They talked of ‘cowboy’ operators. It has become a real broadsheet standby, the ‘cowboy’ operator, gangmaster, dodgy builders and the rest. It is also one of those value-laden words much favoured by Sinclair. How about cowboy journalists, or cowboy consultants!
[ix] It is very noticeable in the novel Bright Lights, Big City, we never get the experience of cocaine-fuelled highs on the dance floor. Only comment on it from the safe distance of someone who doesn’t do it anymore and therefore easy for the disgust mode. In sharp contrast are wonderful passages of dancing and jiving in David Stuart Leslie’s In My Solitude from 1960 and filmed as Two Left Feet. The young narrator loves dancing and can also admire another couple for their style.
[x] My favourite was Reg Dudley, describing the smash up of the same D Wing Wormwood Scrubs by a Mufti group of screws in 1977. Sure, he had a bad time of it, he says, But it was all right, the the nonces got plenty of trunch as well.
[xi] First person present tense does not have to be used this way, but has been a great deal by journalists in recent years.
[xii] We could say that this a tired piece of paid puff, but you almost know that the photographer’s camera is going to be a 50p affair, and that he will talk of ‘provisional zones’