Place and Space: Theories of Topographic Narratives

Matthew Green

Tags: Contexts, London

Contexts / 20.09.2009

A conceptual essay with reference to Iain Sinclair's Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report

What we see of London depends upon our vantage point. There is a tension between our desire to see the whole, from above, and to engage with individual sections of the city at ground level. Iain Sinclair, in his new topographical study of an inner-city London borough, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report (2009), maps from the street rather than the sky. Once a leafy retreat of well-to-do City bourgeois, Hackney was transformed by the railways in the mid-nineteenth century, at which point the formerly village-like district was gobbled up by the metropolis, and its wealthier residents sent packing in search of more upmarket districts further north. In the twentieth century, Hitler's bombs meant that the many waves of immigrants arriving in Hackney from the 1950s were greeted by a once grand and battered district. Since the 1990s, its tone has changed yet again as an influx of artists paved the way for the return of the middle classes, who, attracted by its proximity to the City and its perceived social kudos, are fuelling a rapid - if uneven - process of gentrification.

For readers expecting more of a bird's-eye view of Hackney and its layered history, Rose-Red will surely disappoint. This confidential report, as its compiler frequently reminds us, is above all a personal quest, in which Sinclair leafs his way through the borough, half-scavenger, half-private detective. 'I chased down personal obsessions', he writes, 'the way certain buildings, certain people, suggested the rough outline of a fiction that blended history, unreliable memoir and faded cultural traces'.1 In fact, any kind of empirical overview would have been largely pointless as, in Sinclair's eyes, Hackney is a landscape in perpetual flux. In tailoring his approach to accommodate this fluidity, Sinclair's method of chronicling the history of his area is almost as eccentric as the borough itself, for it fuses established traditions of topographic history-writing with methods of creative and polemical literature, and with theories of 'psycho-geography', an intellectual movement of which he is a leading light. This essay will take Sinclair's hybridised approach as a starting-point for a wider discussion of how, over the last two centuries, topographical methodologies have been profoundly influenced by the prevailing intellectual concerns of the time-period in question. It will go on to illustrate how, and with what effects, Sinclair breaks with the historiographical trends of the present day.

Topographical histories, both popular and academic, tend to be ordered by place rather than chronological narrative, and Sinclair takes on this approach, although his methodology breaks significantly with historiographical tradition. Unlike earlier topographical histories, which are founded primarily upon traditional archival research, Sinclair quite deliberately eschews this method of enquiry (even hiring a researcher at one point to do his archival spade-work for him) and builds his study instead upon personal testimonies - both his own, having lived in the borough for forty years, and those of a wide range of residents, whom he interviews. That these memories need to be presented topographically can be explained by two key psycho-geographical premises: firstly, that the urban landscape impacts upon one's thought and behaviour at any given point - 'in different places we are different people', he writes - and secondly, that distinctive communities (of which there are, and have been, many in Hackney: white working-class, Jewish, West Indian, Turkish, Kurdish, Afro-Caribbean, white middle-class, Polish, Vietnamese) leave an indelible mark upon their urban environment.2 He inherits the Enlightenment idea that man is moulded by his environment but makes this process symbiotic: in Sinclair's formulation, environment, in turn, is moulded by man, as place absorbs and releases memories. This interplay between memories and place is the fulcrum of Sinclair's study, and it justifies his topographical approach. Sinclair highlights how one of his interviewees, a monomaniac obsessed with the local history of Haggerston, a district of Hackney, felt that all his childhood memories had been erased after two of his childhood haunts - the Haggerston baths and nearby Laburnum School - were bulldozed by Hackney Council.3

Indeed, Hackney Council are the clear villains of the piece, for they are intent upon erasing the collective memory of the entire borough by ripping the heart out of Hackney's diverse communities through a forced programme of demolition and 'regeneration'. These changes are made, Sinclair charges, to gratify foreign capitalists, line their Council's own pockets and, of course, pave the way for 'London 2012', when the Olympics will take place on part of the eastern fringes of Hackney. According to Sinclair, the Council's maladministration profits everyone apart from the very people whose interests they are meant to protect - the people who have grown up in Hackney - and beckons a population of colonists, who shut themselves up in converted warehouse apartments with 'the townscape of Hackney kept at a polite distance: a playful backdrop, not a threatening reality'. Sinclair's book is not a typical anti-gentrification screed, however, and he portrays these 'colonists' in a surprisingly sympathetic light; the grounds for his polemic derive from more from a sense that these newcomers represent a threat to the historical memory of Hackney (somewhat ironically, given Hackney's middle-class origins). Sinclair is in no doubt that the cumulative effect of Hackney's 'regeneration' will be the erasure of any kind of meaningful identity, as Hackney becomes 'a tabula rasa for the fantasies of urban planners', onto which a phoney Olympic legacy can be imprinted at a later date.4 What he terms his 'neurotic mapping of place' represents an attempt to salvage its fading historical memory before it vanishes: 'a message in a bottle, chucked out into the flood of the future'.5

In some ways, Sinclair's work can be situated within a recent boom in 'historical geographies' of London, manifested over the last two decades not only in the works of mainstream authors such as Will Self and Peter Ackroyd, but also by scholars working in more academic fields, such as the geographer Miles Ogborn. The method of the Victorian historian William Robinson, who published The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Hackney (1842), a self-avowed topographical enquiry, precedes Sinclair's by 167 years. It easily demonstrates just how different the methods and agendas of earlier topographical studies were from those today, written as they were before the intellectual landscape shifted in the mid-twentieth century with postmodernism's assault upon coherent and unbroken historical narratives. Robinson's concern with preserving the past in the face of change (if not an encroaching oblivion) in order 'to trace ancient structures now no more, and others which are magnificent even in decay' links him to Sinclair, but his work differs in its relentless focus upon chronicling material objects and properties rather than the more personal testimonies and eye-witness accounts Sinclair favours.6 Robinson's study is a systematic mapping from above, a sound yet dusty history built upon official parish archives, charting the present state of grand properties that then lined Hackney's grand boulevards (few of which now remain), with little sense of what the future might hold. 'Few subjects require more research and unremitting toil than Topography', begins Robinson in his History. His sense in 1842 that Hackney had once hosted an opulent and socially elevated populace, now largely vanished from sight - a different direction of gentrification to the one Sinclair follows; a 'de-gentrification' even - compelled him to embrace the challenge.

In the twentieth century, however, the focus of topographical studies changed with the decline of the 'grand narrative' school of history. The rise of social history in the 1960s and cultural history in the 1970s represented a shift in focus to the experiences of men and women beneath the ranks of the political and social elite, and in particular their participation in the political process. The locus of history was no longer restricted to the Court, Parliament and the battlefield; it now took place on the street, and, in the eighteenth-century in particular, within London's proliferating coffee-houses - the physical incarnation of Jürgen Habermas's abstract 'public sphere', situated between the private space of the household, the commercial space of the workplace and the 'official' dominion of the state and court, where private individuals came together to form a critical public who experienced and umpired the 'high politics' that earlier generations of historians had so tirelessly chronicled.7 Given that 'ordinary' men and women frequently have little cause to keep a written chronicle of their lives, oral histories become important in the last two decades; an acknowledgement that history is located not only in printed books and written manuscripts, but also within neighbourhoods and communities.8 Since the 1980s, then, historians have mapped out the urban environments in which the bulk of the London population operated, especially in light of the convergence of the fields of geography, history and literature. These kinds of historiographical studies suggest an altering of the significance attached to urban space, looking at it as much more than just a grid-like surface on which history 'happens' but rather a variable and textured continuum, in which individuals attach different meanings to different places; in which space equates to meaning in place.

My own research into the impact of the media boom on eighteenth-century London, for instance, has revealed that the city's topography exerted a powerful impact upon the oral reception of intelligence, news and propaganda. Londoners invested varying degrees of accuracy in information depending upon where it was heard, and made tricky journeys from the West End to the East End in order to 'tune into' certain types of news in coffee-houses on a daily basis.9 The research builds upon Miles Ogborn's pioneering Spaces of Modernity (1998), a study which employs topography as a tool for the deconstruction of historical grand narratives, and in which Ogborn interrogates abstract theories of modernity against evidence from the street.10 By reconstructing the past from the angle of topographical space, rather than, say, the political disputes of great families, we can co-ordinate the social, cultural, political and economic interactions that occurred each day within the physical spaces of London's geographies. In this sense, a topographical approach represents a decisive shift away from the 'Great Man' theory of history. The shifting of these intellectual fault-lines is made clear by the fact that the section of Robinson's 1842 history that matches Sinclair's 2009 work most closely constitutes only a tiny amount of space: his section upon eccentric yet obscure individuals. Never mind Sinclair's Mole Man of Mortimer Road, Robinson offers us the Rat Man of Hackney Road, who, unable to move beyond a youthful bout of unrequited love, transferred his affections to something altogether less challenging - rats. 'He was passionately fond of rats,' we hear, 'of which his house swarmed; he fed them regularly, taught them tricks, and was frequently seen dancing in the midsts of them.'11

Sinclair inherits some of these historiographical ideas, while exhibiting others retained in popular scholarship, such as the grand narrative. The overarching story is for him the 'degenerate regeneration' of Hackney, so ruthlessly superintended by its Council. His unusually detailed topographical approach derives from his desire to build up a collage of testimonies from a wide range of Hackney residents, divulging their experiences of the urban spaces that have hosted successive waves of change, progression and regression; a quilt of fragmented personal narratives responding to these 'high' developments. Unlike Robinson's earlier history of Hackney, Sinclair's self-declared focus is upon ordinary if eccentric characters - 'to find the extraordinary in the apparently mundane, that's the gimmick'.12 Sinclair is successful in exploring how characters respond to changing environments, such as that of the German Hospital in Dalston, whose fresh air, light and space were originally tailored for an infant asylum, but which now, converted into living spaces, cater perfectly for the sensibilities of what Sinclair calls 'retro-aesthetic colonists' (or the artsy-hipsters) moving in. Elsewhere, he records how for one writer-interviewee, the space of Victoria Park was transformed from a sanctuary of creative inspiration to a deadening, menacing arena after the frenzied and unsolved murder of young artist Margaret Muller in 2003. Elsewhere, we are treated to the Hackney stories of more colourful eccentrics like the tunnelling Mole Man, the rogue, narcotic-dispensing Dr Swanny and several obscure Jewish authors who set their novels in Hackney, such as Roland Camberton. Aspects of these narratives are fabricated and 'misremembered' by the interviewees, including by the author himself, and Sinclair himself makes several teasing references to this fact.

Whatever kernels of truth such testimonies may or may not contain, these oral histories of often impoverished Hackney residents makes for compelling and, at times, moving reading. Yet Sinclair's energetic tracking of more famous individuals who have (or are alleged to have) passed through Hackney at some stage sits a little uncomfortably with his topographic approach, which, as we have seen, tends to favour the stories of ordinary people over those of 'great men', none of whom are interviewed in any case. Admittedly, his focus upon Tony and Cherie Blairs' residency in Mapledene Road can be justified in terms of its tone-setting for the moulding of Hackney as an embryonic version of the smarter borough of Islington, the Blair's pre-Downing Street address, just to the west of Hackney, full of City lawyers and (in his eyes) devoid of history. But what mark the likes of Godard, Hitchcock, Welles and even Stalin - whose presences in Hackney were so fleeting and uncertain, as Sinclair himself admits - made upon the Hackney townscape is never entirely clear. For clues, we might look to the very specific geographical framework employed throughout Rose-Red. In comparison to, say, Peter Ackroyd's biography of London, which concentrates on London's central 'Zone One' 'tourist' topography, the majority of references to Hackney in Sinclair are alien to readers unfamiliar or only faintly familiar with the borough itself.13 In this light - that is, perhaps to make the book more accessible - Sinclair has complemented his narrow, potentially alienating geographical framework with a more familiar cultural framework, on which a broader audience can hang their responses. Geographies of place, then, are counterbalanced by geographies of notorious people - politicians, celebrities, film-makers, terrorists, as well as more historical figures (such as Samuel Richardson, Daniel Defoe and Samuel Pepys but not, oddly, the Shoreditch-dwelling Shakespeare; individuals whose experiences of Hackney, again, are never interrogated even though many of their diaries would allow this) to complement his catalogue of more 'ordinary' bus-drivers, poets, market traders, painters and yuppies. This does not necessarily represent a cynical marketing ploy on Sinclair's part; Rose-Red is a cautionary tale of the destruction of urban identity at the hands of governmental connivance, a further incarnation of the tale he told in his earlier London Orbital (2002) but with the Olympic Park rather than the Millennium Done as New Labour's 'New Jerusalem' on this occasion.14 It could recur in any British city that has a programme of 'regeneration' welded upon it. Admittedly, where the geographical and the cultural frameworks overlap, the effects can be striking: at one point, the Holloway Road is described out-of-the-blue as belonging in Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God, its wide lanes of furious traffic inspiring a queasy feeling such as the characters on the Amazonian raft might have experienced.15 This captures the topographical reality perfectly, but this kind of resonance is rare, and all too often the two frameworks operate independently, or even at odds with each other.

Aside from the focus upon the great and the famous, though, Sinclair's fusion of creative writing and topographic method usually feels appropriate for his themes, and heightens the impact of his writing. His mystical style of writing conveys well his sense of how topography can allow us to see both forwards and backwards in time: 'every disappearance', he explains, 'clears a space on the map, a hole in the perimeter fence through which the future can be glimpsed.'16 He emphasises how his Haggerston interviewee is awed by an ornate Georgian lamp post, incongruously placed in the midst of a monotonous post-War council estate: 'I often fetch up there', recalls Sinclair's interviewee, 'standing beside that lamp post, in the twilight, at the back of the flats.'17 Like the lamppost of Narnia, it is a portal into another world, another Hackney. Moreover, the connecting of his fragmented narrative through place rather than chronological narrative means that the reading experience reflects the miscellaneous quality of exploring an unfamiliar area (or of seeing a familiar area in a new way). This investigative, exploratory quality is given an edge by the book's 'documentary fiction' format which, as Sinclair says, was 'built around absence, holes in the narrative, faked resolution'.18 In trying to discern the truthful resolutions from the fabricated ones - was the 'Camberton' nom de plume, as adopted by the Jewish novelist Henry Cohen, really an amalgamation of Camberwell and Brixton, the two London districts that the author loathed the most? Did Sinclair really find the infamous Dr Swanny collecting dirty glasses in the Cat and Mutton pub after so many years of searching for him? - we ourselves are caught in an interpretative maze, absorbed in the 'dream of place', one of Sinclair's key psycho-geographic concerns.19

Other historical geographers like Ogborn and Ackroyd are more concerned with the actuality of place, and the interactions occurring within various urban spaces; Sinclair's mapping, in contrast, often takes on a distinctly metaphorical or literary hue (Rose-Red is, of course, a work of popular history). Hackney, for example, is consistently portrayed as a kind of island prison: an interviewee likens the experience of Hackney Wick to being 'stuck on a remote island, surrounded by darkness'; the police's elaborate CCTV system forms a force-field around the perimeter of Hackney, confining known drug-dealers to the borough; and look carefully at the cover map and you see ships sailing off to the adjacent boroughs of Finsbury Park, the City and Tower Hamlets.20 Similarly, where social atlases of London, such as the one recently published by Craig Spence, which charts the geographical patterns of wealth, status and occupation in 1690s London (with a clear east-west split), Sinclair could have followed suit in charting the dramatic changes in the wealth and social status of Hackney's populace over a very long period of time.21 He could have underlined, for instance, that one of Hackney Central's most notorious council estates currently stands on what was once an eighteenth-century bowling green - the epitome of bourgeois leisure pursuits. But he prefers instead to focus on a phenomenological understanding of topography: how the modern conception of 'estate' 'can't shake free of the mocking echo of the great houses' of the Hackney arcadia, the gated properties with formal gardens that are so tirelessly chronicled in Robinson's earlier history and remembered, for however long, by its residents today.22

- Matthew Green

  1. Iain Sinclair, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2009, p.457.

  2. Ibid., p.554.

  3. Ibid., p.136.

  4. Ibid., p.127.

  5. Ibid., inlay.

  6. William Robinson, The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Hackney, vol.1, London, 1842, p.3.

  7. Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Berlin: 1962, trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge: Polity, 1989, p.32.

  8. See, for example, the interactive project to write an oral history of Brick Lane, at:

  9. Matthew Green, 'Londoners and News: Responses to the Political Press, 1695 - 1750', upcoming doctoral thesis, Oxford: Oxford University, 2009.

  10. Miles Ogborn, Spaces of Modernity: London's Geographies, 1680-1780, New York and London: Guilford Press, 1998.

  11. W. Robinson, Parish of Hackney, op. cit., pp.236-37.

  12. I. Sinclair, Hackney, op. cit., p. 94.

  13. Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography, London: Vintage, 2001.

  14. I. Sinclair, London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25, London: Granta, 2002.

  15. I. Sinclair, Hackney, op. cit., p. 388.

  16. Ibid., p.137.

  17. Ibid., p.177. Since the publication of Sinclair's book, the lamp post (on Livermere Road, Haggerston) has mysteriously vanished.

  18. Ibid., p.393.

  19. Ibid., p.10.

  20. Ibid., p.55.

  21. Craig Spence, London in the 1690s: A Social Atlas, London: Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research, 2000.

  22. I. Sinclair, Hackney, op. cit., p. 170.