When Patrick Wright’s A Journey Through Ruins was originally published in 1991, the ‘London writing’ phenomenon and cultural theory’s preoccupation with psychogeography and flânerie were in their infancy. By the time Iain Sinclair and others were achieving mainstream recognition for their textual excursions into the history of London, A Journey had gone out of print. In the slipstream of that proliferation of texts about London’s previously occulted histories, Wright has been dusted off and re-published. London studies has been conspicuously accommodated in both the general media and in academic discourse, and the reappearance of Wright’s extended threnody for the post-war welfare state in Britain is, in some ways, representative of this institutionalisation. More problematically, the new edition of the text could be seen as reliant on London studies’ murky relationship with the London heritage industry, about which Wright was unreservedly critical in A Journey. Sinclair’s typically terse observation about his fellow writer recognises Wright’s bind: ‘Patrick’s assaults on the heritage industry –- … very soon became a heritage industry of their own, pirated and parroted by media drones …’ (2009, p. 207).
In the preface to this new edition, however, Wright makes a careful distinction: this is a re-issue, not an update. Given the mass of sources to which he might have referred, it is a deliberate stance. In a process akin to the one enacted all over East London in the past two decades, where architectural and textual remnants from the past are appropriated and reconfigured for contemporary (ab)use, Wright could have ‘renovated’ A Journey with the plethora of new material. As they stand, the essays remain unadulterated and anchored in a very particular time and place —- London in the wake of Thatcherism -— yet they survive remarkably well. Wright uses East London as a metonymic instance of the wider social and cultural battles being fought over the corpse of the welfare state, the effects of which resonate to this day. Wright may not have Sinclair’s (un)canny ability to detect and take advantage of the Zeitgeist, but years before the Olympics branded (in the double sense of the word) East London, Wright demonstrated an oracular ability in identifying arteries like Dalston Lane -— ‘a clogged river of junk flowing through the city’ (p. 36) -— as the conduits and obstacles to socio-economic colonisation, as the last stand for working-class London.
In the intervening years, A Journey has achieved legendary status. Rereading Wright’s work in the light of what has come after reveals how influential it has been. In its focus on microclimates, the work is a precursor to books such as An Acre of Barren Ground (2005), Jeremy Gavron’s historiographical fiction about Brick Lane. Most significantly, it is almost impossible to read the book without being irresistibly reminded of Wright’s friend and sometimes collaborator Sinclair. To draw Sinclair into a discussion about Wright maybe be an admission that Wright has been obscured in the penumbra cast by the far more visible Sinclair, yet it is not the same as establishing a hierarchy between the two where Wright can only be framed in terms of Sinclair. Perhaps it is more productive to characterise their relation as an exchange, where the two are habitual in their reference to each other. The timing of Wright’s re-release is fortuitous in its simultaneity with the release of Sinclair’s own portrait of the area in Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire (2009). Read in tandem, they make enlightening counterparts, yet it was the prescient Wright, not Sinclair, who foresaw the borough’s ‘fallen rise’ 18 years ago. (Hackney: Its Fallen Rise was one title Sinclair considered for his ‘biography’.)
Wright and Sinclair stand together as self-appointed invigilators against the abuse and unethical treatment of London’s history. Above all, both writers share an antipathy towards the heritage industry, which they view as little more than the cultural ‘arm’ of the property market. The tensions between conservation and gentrification, the point where ‘architecture had become property’, is a dominant refrain in A Journey (p. 128), as Wright explained to Sinclair in an interview recorded in Hackney:
I have a slightly puritanical take on all this, something I felt when I was writing A Journey through Ruins. I thought this New Gothic sensibility, the lifestyle magazines getting off on squalor, was dubious. I don’t need the occult to be true or false, but as a metaphor it fitted the period. What we had to identify was the language of heritage. The deployment of heritage was part of the process of colonization. But in a way I have a great admiration for historical structures. They shouldn’t be dismissed. Heritage just became a way of moving everything to the surface. Architects did it with facades, meaningless fronts propped up on invisible armatures. (p. 215)
That antipathy is encapsulated in Wright’s deployment of what is by now a familiar location: Rodinsky’s Room. Of the changes being wrought in Rodinsky’s old neighbourhood, Wright wrote: ‘By the end of the Eighties it was obvious that the rising property market threatened Spitalfields with an altogether more devastating uniformity than Welfare State regulation could ever have achieved’ (p. 207). Sinclair’s positioning of the room as a metaphorical, emblematic space for the destructive gentrification of Spitalfields may be more well known, but it was Wright who first ‘alerted’ him to the abandoned room above the Princelet Street Synagogue. The essay ‘Rodinsky’s Place’ in A Journey predates Sinclair’s treatment in charting the alchemical transformation of the East End from destitution into desirability:
With its layers of engrained filth and its walls papered over with newsprint, this foul little hole stands in unmistakable tribute to the documentary tradition. It presents exactly the kind of image that was still being used, right up into the Seventies, to press the case for slum clearance and redevelopment. But this is only one aspect of the story. By the Eighties, and especially when the property market started to move, this blitzed-out imagery of the slum interior was being augmented and put to very different purposes: it was beginning to turn up in the brochures of the more style-conscious estate agents in nearby areas like Islington. (p. 117)
At the same time Wright was writing A Journey, Sinclair was composing his magisterial fictional parallel, Downriver (1991). The novel is dedicated to Wright and contains a character modelled on him. (The character’s moniker, Frederik Hanbury, is a nod to the Truman Hanbury Buxton brewery in Brick Lane. The iconic East End landmark figures in Wright’s personal genealogy, as he relates in ‘Rodinsky’s Place’.) These texts make a formidable pair: a comprehensive contemporary account, from the perspective of both documentary and fiction, of the cultural and social ravages of Thatcherism. Years later, Sinclair described his encounters with Wright during that period: ‘We discovered, before the first pint was swallowed, our mutual addiction to field notes: as the residue of, and the excuse for, random expeditions. Move, dig, notice, report. We could walk London. … Patrick had run up against the poet Charles Olson’s notion of ‘open-field’ poetics. Everything goes into the stew, localized documentation, letters, bills of sale, news reports. Evidence.’ (2009, p.206).
It must be said that Wright’s text, even though constructed from a multitude of elements, is something altogether more elegantly blended than a stew. On his website, Wright declares:
I … feel some kinship with the metal detectorists whose world I briefly entered in A Journey Through Ruins. Like them, I work by picking up a signal in the present and then digging, employing various tools to redefine the opening question as I go. I use libraries and personal testimony, and sometimes ‘theoretical’ perspectives too. I have also benefited from journalistic commissions, which have enabled me to get to people and places that would otherwise be out of reach.
These are intricate, assiduously researched histories using a diversity of sources: media reports, oral histories, interviews with informants. Wright skilfully illuminates the networks and constellations that constitute the city’s histories. He addresses the points of connection and difference between the capital and the wider political, social, architectural, and natural landscapes of Britain. This movement between local and national is best captured in the series of essays under the umbrella heading ‘Brideshead and the Tower Blocks’ in which Wright deftly handles the many threads of a complex narrative initially prompted by an appreciation of Sutton House, a totem of the East End’s decline.
With the transformation of East London entering its endgame with the Olympics, the re-issue of A Journey is timely and apposite. Wright’s self-reflexive engagement with his subject is always aware of the implications of its own project. Perhaps we can read Wright’s book as the textual equivalent of the ruins of the title, a Benjaminian meditation upon the beauty of obsolescence. He is content to leave this formidable book as it was when first published, thus evading the cult of memorialisation that he criticises in the chapter ‘Remembering London’s War’, a chronicle of a misguided proposal to build a monument to the Battle of Britain in the East End. Moreover, it might be a eulogy for the London designed and constructed by the welfare state, but it should not be read as an apologia for, or an aestheticisation of, urban blight. Two decades ago, Wright already displayed an impatience with the standard trope of the ruin, which had, and continues to be, as he acknowledges in the new preface, ubiquitous in contemporary London’s official visual and literary culture:
This tacky sense of an ending has come to hang over the whole city in recent years. An interest in debris and human fallout is part of the New Baroque sensibility, shared by young Apocalyptics and played-out Marxists alike. … All over London young photographers have been reviving the black-and-white images of the rat-catcher, the old paraffin heater, the disused and cluttered-up interior, the peeling walls of the unimproved slum tenement, the fragmentary but exotic combinations of the restaged bomb-site. (pp. 40-41)
Ultimately, the book’s title turns out to be ironically prophetic: these did not prove to be the last days of London, but rather the premonition of a resurgent London, dressed in heritage drag and buoyed by the cultural triumphalism espoused in Peter Ackroyd books and real estate brochures alike.
Patrick Wright, A Journey Through Ruins, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Iain Sinclair, Downriver, London: Paladin, 1991.
Iain Sinclair, Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2009.
This review first appeared in the Literary London journal.