Iain Sinclair's latest book is London: City of Disappearances (Penguin Books). He has recently completed Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire.


Incidents from a melting city

Taking the right fork into Albion Drive brings me under the scratchy abundance of a fig tree that overhangs the pavement, heavy with sour-green grenades, polyps, empurpled fruit testicles. I suck its nectars, relishing the pointless fecundity. At twilight, footsteps pad closer, ever closer, behind me. In Hackney, we walk in a constant audition of sound, safe in the membrane of previous experience: the bad thing has not happened, not yet, never. We are still here, still around; we must have made the right decision, crossed the road at the optimum time, avoided eye contact, jumped back from the kerb before the siren-screaming cop car rocketed over the humpbacked bridge. Motorcycles slow significantly, sizing up our bags, checking on mobile phone activity. Cycle bandits, out of nowhere, are at our shoulder. They nudge. Blade carving through straps. This is nothing, a toll on the privilege of living here; a community charge that sometimes, infrequently, steps over the mark: death. No longer a name on the electoral register.

Preoccupied, contained in the dream of place, my harmless excursion ruptures. At the very last moment, I swerve just enough to deflect the main force of the blow. Pain is nothing: a caressing slice into the skin of a balding cranium, no cerebellum-denting impact. It's a paper cut. Nothing, at the time. A shock, when it happens on safe ground.

I have been stabbed in the head, that's all. No ice pick, a kiss. Late afternoon, late autumn. Creatures of the shadows ducking under the radar. My reaction is instinctive, foolish. I grab for the youth. I think, strange as it seems, that he has stubbed out a light bulb on my naked skull. Lights out. A necessary warning against meditating on pub signs, statuary, cattle trails. My assailant is a justified critic. A guerrilla editor. He's away, between cars: into the Fields Estate, a warren. Anaemic brickwork with stains of yellow dribble from overflow pipes. Replacement windows that need to be replaced.

A blue door. And in this portal, blocking access, the darkness into which my attacker has vanished, I come up against an awkward interference of asbos, all shapes and sizes, colours and ages. Unrepentant whites. Pre-Dagenham. A last hurrah for petty, malicious, lumpen aggravation. But there's no future in indiscriminate violence. They need a business plan, a sponsor. They have not yet been branded by the council as a "negative youth affiliation". Nobody puts them on television without a cellophane carpet of flowers, crucified teddy bears and handwritten poems.

It's my own fault, for being visible in my difference and too ancient to be moving through this place at this hour. No point, this rush of blood, in grabbing anyone, dishing out unwarranted retribution. Rage is a stupid affliction. A man, a couple of years short of sixty, reverting to jungle-law slapstick. Idiotic. Insane.

I witnessed an altercation between a policeman and a policewoman, safe in their car, and a black youth, walking down the Drive. How it escalated, this battle for respect. The apology the youth demanded for what he perceived as racial abuse.

"Why you cuss me, man?"

The way the police defend their status, as motorists, right up to the point where they are forced to exit the vehicle: physical confrontation, rolling on the ground. Cuffs, restraint. No winners, much hurt.

"I know street law, man. I want to know your law. I want to see the book of conduct."

Steven Nyembo-Ya-Muteba, 40, father of two, was a mathematician who had been offered a place at Cambridge University. A refugee from Kinshasa, he arrived in London in 1997 and worked as a chef's assistant at the Criterion Brasserie, a restaurant owned by Marco Pierre White. He moved with his young family to the new Holly Street Estate, to a flat with convenient access to the playground in Evergreen Square. His daughters were aged five and six. The Evening Standard, reporting on his murder, drew the obvious Hackney/Kinshasa parallel: "Mr Nyembo-Ya-Muteba had fled the capital to escape the violence in the region in which Joseph Conrad set his novel Heart of Darkness."

New technology covering the dark places pushed the dealers and runners indoors. After forced entry, they congregated in stairwells. Mr Nyembo-Ya-Muteba, trying to study, needing a few hours sleep before the next day's work, confronted twelve youths, asking them to move on, to keep the noise down. He was stabbed repeatedly in the chest. A neighbour found him sprawled on the stairs: "I knew from his injuries that he was critical." Another neighbour claimed that these youths regularly violated the off-camera zones. "They piss on the floor and smoke drugs. They climb onto people's balconies."

The Albion Square Residents' Association newsletter reported that Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin of All Saints' Church led a solemn procession from the "snake park" to the site where the victim died. "TV cameras were present but discreet." Overnight, Evergreen Square acquired all the cameras in the world. Men standing on the roofs of vans. Concerned women in television slap, their backs to the flats, talking intimately to tight lenses.

The excitement of the original incident had faded by the time that Joseph Ekaette, 19, was given a second life sentence for the murder of Nyembo-Ya-Muteba. He had previously been imprisoned for the rape of a 14-year-old schoolgirl, filmed on a mobile phone by one of his confederates.

Coming from elsewhere and crossing the Hackney border, shockwaves knock you back. The white-knuckle, choke-smoking panic of stopped pod people. Who never, ever, climb out of their vehicles: they hoot for colleagues, wives, ex-wives, elbows on horns, lighting up, using cell phones as smoke extractors. Spare hand dangling, miming self-love. Venom, vitriol: give them just half a chance to head-butt cruel fate. Please, please. Make their day. They mount kerbs, hurtle into dead-end tributaries, scrape through on the inside, outside, over the top: screaming, hammering the wheel, hot to kill. Multitasking private chauffeurs of businessmen and media casuals, hopelessly lost, jump lanes, beat lights, investigate improbable short cuts. White vans hunt cocksure cyclists. There are stand-offs, hideous collisions. Kill me then. Try it. Kids leap from behind parked juggernauts. Thief-scooters and fast-food scramblers dispute the pavement, using speed-bumps as ramps to set them up for virtuoso wheelie demos. There is one spot, part of the afternoon school run, between a hard left into Middleton Road and a lane-swerve, picking up speed after the camera, which traps the unwary. Shattered glass, crunched metal, blood, bored police on a daily basis. They have widened the pavements to make room for insurance-claim photographers.

Cycling in Hackney, so heavily promoted, has reached the critical stage in its inevitable progress towards being as much of an urban pestilence as the motor car. I don't mean hooded pavement jackals cruising for unguarded shoulder bags. Or lights-jumping speedsters ploughing through bus queues to shave a couple of seconds from their run to the City. Or even that twilight hour on the canal, when drug casuals coincide with power-pumping Dockland drones returning to their new waterside hutches.


I mean the incident I witnessed on London Fields. A Broadway Market mother, gypsyish in Bolivian poncho with the right number of unpolluted, apple-fed children, crossed an invisible cycle path twenty yards ahead of a helmeted artist who must have been hitting 30mph as he swerved through dog-walkers and potential clients of the play park.


An hysterical exchange with no physical outlet. Shocked kids. Half-dismounted cyclist, fists pumping. Woman swearing and stamping as he takes off. Road rage has trickled down to the recycling classes. There will be knife fights in the street over blue bins with the wrong category of potato peel.



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