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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Right round the Ginger Line to catch Iain Sinclair's musings on underground Hackney and overground London

The Round Chapel, aka  the Clapton Park United Reform Church, was the suitably atmospheric venue for Iain Sinclair's readings from his latest work,  London Overground: A Day's Walk Around the Ginger Line
True to the ethos of this so-called blog, I tried to use only the most appropriate means of travel to reach the Lower Clapton Road for an evening with Iain Sinclair, who was kicking off a whole week of talks organised by the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust.

As Sinclair was billed to talk about both subterranean Hackney and his new book on walking the Overground, it seemed fair enough to travel both by Underground (Clapham North to Highbury and Islington on Northern and Victoria lines) and Overground (Highbury & Islington to Hackney Central). The journey took about half the expected time - so this clueless reporter arrived at the ancient St Augustine's Tower, on Mare Street, about an hour before the event was due to start.

Which was great for two reasons - first I had time to reacquaint myself with Hackney, and apart from the pedestrianisation of upper Mare Street, it seemed mercifully not too different to how I remember it in the early 1980s (so unlike London Fields just down the road, which seems to have a totally different atmosphere now).

This bit of Hackney is still almost aggressively ungentrified.  I mean by that that the streets are full of people, people of all ages and classes and races, and I suppose what I really mean too is that there are a lot of not very well-off people, these people are still in the majority. It's perverse to say this, but I like that. There are still plenty of ordinary cheap and cheerful shops, and not an artisanal bakers in sight (I did find an artisanal booze shop but that's a different thing altogether).

I remembered the bus station off wonderfully named Bohemia Street, and the famous church tower - but I had forgotten how lovely and extensive the old church grounds were, and how the graves have all been pushed to the perimeter and stacked up against the walls.

I had also forgotten that this talk was not in the old tower at all, but in the Round Chapel.  I'd never been there, and assumed it was somewhere near the old tower or the new church - but it wasn't. I enjoyed walking around Sutton Place with its immaculate Georgian terrace, and then headed up Lower Clapton Road on a hunch - and there it was , unmistakable and magnificent, the Round Chapel as beautifully restored by the HHBT, like some grandiose Roman temple dropped into the chaos of London E9.

You could sort of tell it was going to be a Sinclair event; quite a few  blokes of a certain age, close cropped grey hair, black jeans, black jackets, not many hipsters to be honest. But inside the crowd was very similar to those at the National Trust talk on 575 Wandsworth Road I attended a few months back - local history buffs, solid, smiling white-haired couples, probably retired, in their late 60s or older, knowledgeable, affable, friendly, curious, intelligent, lovely people.

Oddly, Sinclair himself almost seemed to be part of  this demographic. Couldn't help thinking, hasn't he  aged  well? He's positively handsome, tall, slim, in slightly smarter jeans and shirt and specs than most of the audience - but then again, his distinct professorial look does set him apart. One of us, sort of, but also one of them. Not a hint of eccentricity there really, despite the high rounded dome of his skull. And so much the better, so much of that is affectation - but what he has in abundance, is passion! Energy!

He talked and read for an hour without break or sip of water, he got excited about his many subject, he went off on some of his famous, Sinclair-patented verbal riffs, rhapsodising the old Dalston to Broad Street line before fit was co-opted into Boris Johnson's shiny new world. A local journalist asked him to mention Haggerston Baths, which are (inevitably) threatened with closure and re-developing as luxury flats. No problem, he had already planned to talk about this amazing tunnel-like building.

I love how he compared the great mole-man of Hackney, William Lyttle (whose work, it seems is to be preserved and used by the hipsters, thank god, they do have their uses) with the present day burrowers of mega-basements, which are supposed to make their multi-million pound pinched terraced houses  something they can really feel rich in - with swimming pools, gyms and private cinemas, wine cellars and underground car -parks.

Probably that's where their staff have to live as well, Wellsian style. I like the way he got the Olympic Park perimeter fence into this discussion, as though it had been broken up and redistributed to hide their furtive diggings.

I love the way he pointed out how on parts of the overground, people are all reading books, then at certain points they all change and the new lot are all tapping at smartphones or tablets.

Getting to the Round Chapel itself, Sinclair's riffing hit a sort of Coltrane-style high with his remarks on how this place was  usually empty, and how it always had time to recover from the impact of a human audience, but how each group or congregation had left strange traces in the atmosphere of this great meeting hall.

I knew he had mentioned Angela Carter in the new book (which, to my shame, I have not yet read), and so I was hoping he'sd maybe talk a bit about this stage of the walk. It's amazing to think that one of the greatest psycho-geographical amblers on the planet has been wandering through one's own neighbourhood, and I was longing to find out what he thought of it all.

Clapham definitely needs some forensic dowsing, there's a lot of bad stuff here, and it comes out, occasionally, in terrible violence on the Common, in the gormless hedonism of Clapham High Street of summer Saturday evening, the vomiting, the fighting!

All that and the Clapham Sect and the  Temperance movement too. And poor old Natsume Soseki in his miserable bedsit on The Chase, 25 yards form the house where Angela Carter lived her final decades.

But he skipped this bit, and located poor Angela in Wandsworth, rather than in the Lambeth bit of Clapham where she lived and died. I think he was more excited by J G Ballard and Chelsea Harbour, and I can understand that - there is a real symbol of the changes of the last three decades, the 80s flash harry marina, and so on.

I'm sure he does her more justice in the book. I know he writes at length about another low-profile hero, the school of London painter Leon Kossoff,  who provides a neat link between the East end beauty of  Arnold Circus with the oceanic railways scenery of Willesden Junction.

One thing I don't know if Sinclair comments on is the strange way Overground leapfrogs over the whole of Brixton, just given passengers the slight frisson of  views of the dark interiors and backyards of the covered market, and glimpses of a heaving Electric Avenue. But then it clunks on, moaning, as Sinclair points out, in never quite consummated pre-orgasmic pleasure, to hit my  drab home station - Wandsowrth Road, and the short walk home past number 575.

Good, I have short-circuited this entry, which was well into the early stages of morbid tediousness. It's time to start reading the real thing, and to abandon this messy regurgitation of last night's Hackney word feast.

London Overground: A Day's Walk Around the Ginger Line by Iain Sinclair is published by Hamish Hamilton inn 4 June 2015, price £16.99

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