Hackney Like It Used To Be
By Stewart Home.
Iain Sinclair, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report, Hamish Hamilton, 2009
In Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, Iain Sinclair brings together his fictional practices and his cultural journalism with stunning results. Sinclair has interviewed dozens of subterranean London figures such as Chris Petit and then, as he frankly admits, freely rewritten what they told him to suit his own agenda. I’ve already had hours of fun trying to work out what is true and what is made up in this book, and I’m sure once more people have read it this will generate endless pub discussions too.
The transcription of an interview with me bears little resemblance to what I actually told Sinclair. Likewise, Sinclair invents all sorts of fantastic stories about me and these include the allegation that after being beaten about the head with bricks I suffered short term memory loss (not true), I have a £600 bicycle (the cycle I bought in 2001 and still use actually cost less than £100), and he even has me imply that I wouldn’t involve myself in Hackney cottaging! Still the portrait he paints of me is mythic and I come across more like Julian Maclaren-Ross than the regular guy possessed by supernatural powers that I actually am; so overall it is rather flattering! But no mention of my boyfriends coz in this book I’m painted strictly as a serial ladies man – so watch out girls! If the material about me is a gauge of the rest of the book, then more than 50 percent of it is fiction.
Much coverage is devoted to the Hackney Mole Man William Lyttle, and while the recollections of some of those who knew him back in the eighties (basically me and my friend Mark Pawson, who rented a room from him) have some grounding in reality, it seems that the entire interview with this legendary figure is simply made up. However, this may just be a double-bluff on Sinclair’s part. Who knows? For those who don’t know, the Mole Man is notorious for digging tunnels under his Hackney home and neighbouring properties, thereby making them unstable.
Needless to say, Sinclair’s documentary fiction is considerably more accurate than the telephone checked stories of Fleet Street journalists. Likewise, he doesn’t let the Hackney borders contain him, since he devotes a chapter to the Golden Lane Estate just east of Smithfield Market, an area notorious as Pickt-hatch in the Jacobean era due to the many brothels it housed, but now the base of writers like Tom McCarthy and Chris Petit. I only clocked the historical sex industry connection the other day as I was reading Thomas Middleton’s The Black Book, which takes up from Pierce Penniless by Thomas Nashe, where a modern footnote stated: “Pictk-hatch suburban brothel district, just south east of the intersection of Goswell Road and Old Street”. It is unfortunate I didn’t disinter this in time to tell Sinclair, so that he could include it in his book.
Drawing on A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature by Gordon Williams (Continuum International Publishing Group, 1994), I understand that a pickt-hatch was originally a brothel door with the upper part surrounded by spikes. Williams cites numerous examples of the term’s usage, including Middleton’s Black Book, and notes its application to the area now occupied by the Golden Lane Estate. It is interesting that this locale should have been notorious for prostitutions because Fortune Street which housed the Fortune Theatre lies just to its east, and of course the Bankside stews were by The Globe, and there was a theatre in Shoreditch (another area synonymous with prostitution in Elizabethan and Jacobean London). I’m not sure if Whitefriars or Turnmill Street which were also stuffed with ‘punks’ and ‘bawdy houses’ back then also had theatres so close by, but there was obviously a connection between popular spectacle in the form of the theatre and the sex industry of that time.
Something else Sinclair doesn’t report is that the Golden Lane Estate was the work of the architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, who later designed the adjacent Barbican complex. Golden Lane is also the current home of a shed load of artists and architects including Merlin Carpenter, the one time Martin Kippenberger assistant whose work was notoriously ‘rejected’ by the ‘master’ but used in a skip installation. This type of information simply doesn’t catch Sinclair’s imagination and so isn’t in his book. That said, and despite my failing to pick up on the historical sex industry aspects of the Golden Lane area in time to feed it to Sinclair for use this time around, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire is easily the best book I’ve read this year. And I don’t expect to read anything better until my novel Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie comes out with Book Works next year!
(also posted here.)
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 9th, 2009.