A rather embarrassing omission was pointed out in my Top Ten London Books … Iain Sinclair. In my defence, I was going to include the brilliant and fascinating Rodinsky’s Room, which he wrote with Rachel Lichtenstein, but thought that, alongside Litvinoff, two Jewish East London non-fictions would be a bit much.
The Iain Sinclair book that’s all the rage at the moment is Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, just out in paperback. I was lucky enough to hear Sinclair talk last week in part of a spate of paperback-publication-prompted events. He’s a fantastic speaker – engaging, intelligent, somehow managing to ramble along digressions yet remain focussed on an overarching argument – but what really shone out at me from a wealth of inspiration was his use of the word ‘panorama’.
Sinclair talked about the importance of finding new viewpoints in the city, places where one can look out over it, where one can enjoy a panorama. He mentioned the old derelict railway track that flew over East London, which had been an anarchic free space, allowing anyone to see the city from raised ground. It is a space which is now lost, as the disused railway is currently being redeveloped, rebranded as the East London Line. Sinclair also talked about Dalston’s old German Hospital, which he describes in detail in the book. It’s clear that, unlike most developments, Sinclair quite approves of what has happened to the German Hospital – originally a private house, then an Infant Orphan Asylum and then a hospital for London’s pre-war German community, before recently being converted into flats. He describes it as follows:
Cream corridors broad enough to push two gurneys in opposite directions, a Mondrian grid of window-panel reflections. And everywhere, at every turn as you climbed the stairs: views … Emerging on to the flat roof, I was dazzled by the verdant spread of Hackney, its railways and churches.
The hospital is somewhere that offers a panorama, a place where there are ‘views’, where one can see ‘the verdant spread’ of the landscape. It is clear that, for Sinclair, knowing where one stands in the wider landscape, how one fits into local geography is vital.
There is another panorama which shines in Sinclair’s writing, a historical one. The corridors are ‘broad enough to push two gurneys in opposite directions’. The building’s previous use is inherent in the dimensions of the building – the corridors are wide because there had to be sufficient room to manoeuvre hospital trolleys. This historical panorama is clear earlier on in Hackney, in his description of London Fields:
A blood meadow: London Fields. Public ground for the fattening of herds and flocks, Norfolk geese, before they are driven, by very particular routes to Smithfield slaughter.
Sinclair is prone to using the present tense for descriptions, bringing a space’s previous incarnation into the immediate moment. London Fields is transformed from a park to its earlier existence as a place for animals to graze on their way from countryside to Smithfield abattoir. Historical and geographical panoramas are combined as Sinclair shows this old use of London Fields to be linked to its position en route to Smithfield.
Panorama – what does this tongue-rolling delight of a word really mean? I looked it up in my weighty, wonderful copy of The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (worth every penny of the cripplingly-expensive price) and alighted upon various uses.
First, the obvious interpretation, still employed today: from 1801, ‘panorama’ has meant a ‘comprehensive survey’, expanding in 1828 to mean a ‘general … extensive view’. Yes, this is what Sinclair is talking about, seeing extensively, comprehensively, an overview.
But what about from 1709 to 1899, when the word was used to describe a ‘moving picture’, a specific type of ‘optical show’? An echo of this, now defunct, meaning reverberates around Sinclair’s text. Yes, Sinclair is seminally involved in Hackney’s community, but the way in which he describes the life, the past lives, of the borough, the documentary nature of his fic-faction, puts Hackney on show. Sinclair aestheticises Hackney, entertaining the reader with his ‘optical show’, his carefully-crafted picture, which moves at his walking pace.
The final sense of panorama, an ‘optical illusion … of a passing scene’ (in use from 1813), is the most disruptive. It points out the fiction, the falseness, the leap of faith, in Sinclair’s prose. For London Fields isn’t a ‘blood meadow’, there are no gurneys being propelled down the corridors of the old German hospital; his deft prose, loaded with historical resonance, creates an illusion. The past has gone, but Sinclair manages to momentarily recreate a ‘passing scene’ from it, by yoking it to the present. But the resulting panorama is no more than optical illusion, tugging at the unreal seams of what has been fabricated.
Perhaps this is why Sinclair’s prose is so often criticised as being too dense, too treacley to wade through. Every word is loaded with resonance – literary, historical, geographical – in an attempt to bring panorama to every description, every place. I am enchanted by his prose, wanting to believe in the illusion of a present-past-here-there synthesis of a moment, but, at the same time, the now is too real to allow the illusion to remain intact.
And what about the future? Where is this in the historical panorama? When Sinclair is asked for a poem that he’s written about the future, he says, in Hackney:
I can’t find a single poem that touches on the future. Everything is resolutely nudged by the now, under the drag of an invented past. I’m sorry, Harriet, I have no idea what the future holds. Or what it is… In Hackney we must train ourselves to exorcize the future.
Sinclair’s historical panorama is one-way, linking present with past, rather than with what lies ahead.
Of course, the future for Hackney is the Olympics. This blot on the horizon is what prevents Sinclair from looking forward to it. And, with the Olympics, comes the blue fence circumscribing the Olympic site, a monstrous interference with panorama. The fence hides the work being carried out on the soon-to be-Olympic landscape, prevents the process of change from being seen. As Sinclair says, in an essay that first appeared in the London Review of Books:
The current experience, in reality, is all fence; the fence is the sum of our knowledge of this privileged mud. Visit it as early as you like, first light, and there will be no unsightly tags, no slogans, a viscous slither of blue: like disinfectant running down the slopes of a silver urinal trough. The passage of the fence painters is endless, day after day, around the entire circuit, repairing damage, covering up protests. Trails of sticky blue drip into grass verges, painterly signatures: the plywood surface never quite dries, subtle differences of shade and texture darken into free-floating Franz Kline blocks.
All that people can see of the Olympics is the blue fence, so the fence is where they protest, and, in this sterilised zone, the protests are erased, painted over, denied a place on the landscape. The blue fence, with its endless cycle of repainting, prevents the ‘moving scene’ of panorama. One of Sinclair’s great objections to it is that it prevents walking, interrupts routes through the landscape, ‘suddenly there are places where you can’t walk freely’. It is an immobile block, breaking up the geography, endlessly present, unable to be yoked to any other moment in time. How can Sinclair look ahead to Hackney’s future, when all that can be seen is this homogenising screen of fakery, an ugly blot of enclosure, separation, naïve and arrogant resistance to any continuity of time or place?