If I Turn and Run

Iain Sinclair

  • 45 by Bill Drummond
    Little, Brown, 361 pp, £12.99, March 2000, ISBN 0 316 85385 2
  • Crucify Me Again by Mark Manning
    Codex, 190 pp, £8.95, May 2000, ISBN 0 18 995814 6

Here they come, marching north out of Spitalfields, stride for stride in hallucinatory ordinariness, the celebrated living sculptures, Gilbert and George. It’s an English spring afternoon and they have dressed for it in country formal outfits: stout boots, long, brown chequerboard coats with too many buttons, furry headwarmers that flap down over their ears. They look worried – like posh herdsmen who have lost their reindeer. At Shoreditch Church, they dress to the left and march west under the railway bridge. It’s not difficult to guess where they’re making for: their new gallery, Jay Jopling’s White Cube2 in Hoxton Square. You don’t really need to go inside the sugar-frosted box to see what’s happening. You can get it from the street. This is top dollar, scratchcard art. Either it works in one hit or forget it. If it doesn’t jab you in the eye as you drive past in your cab, keep going. The names involved in this pitch are so hot, you might as well frame them and leave it at that. Now the cultural ambulance-chasers know where Hoxton is, they won’t leave it alone. This is here and this is it. The back-story is more complicated.

Shoreditch dragged comfortably through a few centuries living down to its name: a diesel tourniquet, a ha-ha filled with refuse, sawdust from repro furniture workshops, casual prostitution, single shoes exhibited on Sunday pavements, Italian rip-offs wholesaled in the week, black-windowed caves punting Elvis memorabilia, pubs touting exotic lunchtime entertainment, while boasting that Bill Shakespeare had been a regular. (Bricklayer/playwright Ben Jonson of the customised moniker, it’s true, killed a man in these streets and got off by pleading benefit of clergy.) Shoreditch survived as a prophylactic, an interzone protecting the City of London from the liberties of Hoxton, the seething immigrant hives of aspirational Hackney. Pick any road, any lock-up under the railway arches (such as the spot where the former million-pound footballer and Barnardo boy, Justin Fashanu, hanged himself), and you can uncover the usual sub-metropolitan mix of high and low; a Darwinian realpolitik of twisters and twicers getting their retaliation in first. Wander down Curtain Road and you have a trajectory that swerves from London’s first purpose-built Elizabethan playhouses (the Theatre and the Curtain) to the Security Express building where Ronnie Knight, Clifford Saxe and the boys were alleged to have pulled off the robbery that funded the Brinks-Mat job at Heathrow. Knight was once married to Barbara Windsor, soubrette, Carry On whoopee cushion, diminutive EastEnders matriarch. Windsor was of course born in Shoreditch, before escaping to the wannabe suburb of Stamford Hill.

Hoxton and Shoreditch were on the wrong side of the Roman wall, a dog-end territory of street markets and unlicensed boxers. The 1990s had seen the area – birthplace of Lenny ‘The Guv’nor’ McLean, the Kray Twins et al – mutate from a criminous warren, twinned with the Jago, to a user-friendly film location. The sort of place Neil Jordan could shoot The Crying Game without paying protection money. A million ghosted memoirs (golden-hearted mum, dad on the trot from the Army, thieving from bombsites, clip around the ear from PC Plod, Borstal, Parkhurst, kneecapped by Ronnie, joins Firm, TV anecdotes, celebrity pallbearer, shakes hands with Vinnie Jones) had done their job, turning poverty fables into designer villainy. On Hoxton Square, if anyone cares to notice it, is a blue plaque for the local physician, James Parkinson, who identified and described the neurological disease that carries his name. But now, with ever increasing speed, the memory traces of market gardens, madhouses, priories, holy wells, 19th-century radicalism, are being wiped out by the new hip, SoHo, loft-living, sofa bar, circus school, art-scam makeover. The Magistrates Court on the north side of Old Street, where the Krays were frequently arraigned, has sunk into torpor; the adjoining police station has been closed down. Civic ambition, or its Xeroxed millennial version, is represented by the shabby grandeur, the misplaced Portland stone pomposity of the defunct Shoreditch Town Hall; a Renaissance palazzo, strident with towers, Ionic columns, allegorical figures and upbeat sloganeering: ‘More Light, More Power’. The scale of this structure, its link with Shoreditch Church broken by the railway bridge, distracts the restless knot of citizens who hang about on the opposite pavement, in expectation of the phantom bus that will carry them east down Hackney Road or north towards Dalston Junction. This is one of those nodal points where seemingly unrelated temporal strands knot and twist, forming a provocative obstruction. The muffled echo of speeches from the council chamber, notions of social engineering and poor relief, debates on refuse incineration as a source of street lighting, can still be imagined by determined sentimentalists.

The urban stroller finds it hard to resist a detour (this after all is what urban strolling is all about, inventing excuses for getting lost), a quick scan of Shoreditch Town Hall in its latest incarnation. It is no longer a public space, but is operated by a charity, the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust – which means locked doors (as with most of the churches outside the City walls). It also means that the building has opted out of the rough and tumble of street life and rebranded itself as a zone: ‘Cigarette Free Zone’. Which doesn’t imply that cigarettes are gratis, on demand, for passing nicotine junkies. It means that the site is protected against whatever lurks outside. It becomes a self-contained module, art-friendly, Web-friendly, vegetarian and open to offers from film companies. The decontaminated civic space (rescued from blight) is the contrary of the Paris described in Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’, which celebrated a cartography of casual detail, whatever he wanted to notice in a drift across the city: ‘You read handbills catalogues posters singing aloud.’ The Shoreditch Town Hall zone is more wary: ‘No Dogs (Except Guide Dogs)’ and a cute little silver postbox placed at the right of the entrance to swallow cigarette stubs. Buzzed into the grand hall, the visitor faces a desk and a rack of flyers advertising local events and booklets highlighting significant episodes in the history of the building. The problem is that since it’s a charity the operatives say they can’t accept cashmoney, and they aren’t equipped to deal with credit cards. If you want a four-pound Hackney History, which includes a chapter on ‘The Victorian Values of Dr Tripe’, you’d better carry a chequebook. Shoreditch Town Hall may well be the last place where such an anachronistic object serves any useful purpose, in these days of obligatory standing orders, cashback supermarkets with low-level barter and traded promissory notes for those outside the credit system.

What goes on here? The building’s official past as a vestry, a town hall, is remembered and recorded. The work of the architects (Caesar Augustus Long, William Hunt, A.G. Cross) responsible for its development and redevelopment is acknowledged. More recent exploitations of a building denied any proper function since the 1980s are ignored. No notices commemorate ‘Whirlygig’ club nights when New Age ravers packed the Assembly Hall to enjoy world/trance/house, and to experience the ‘parachute set’ – clubbers were enveloped in a wall-to-wall, touchy-feely environment of parachute silk. No talk of art squats and guerrilla shows. The Town Hall, in its own quiet way, embodies, through separate cells (charity, art biz, tofu), the spirit of Shoreditch/Hoxton: the zone beyond the Wall. It’s like East Berlin being taken over by opportunists from East and West: a state building, with all its secrets and files, captured by the mob, by first-time capitalists and designers capable of restoring the Assembly Hall to a pastiche of its Edwardian glory, so that it can act as a set for a film about a convention of hairdressers.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Atkins and Sinclair have worked together on a number of projects.