The story of London is the story of its markets.
– Iain Sinclair, 2006
Michel de Certeau writes, ‘Stories […] carry out a labor that constantly transforms places into spaces or spaces into places. They also organize the play of changing relationships between places and spaces.’ (1984: 118) This is what Iain Sinclair has been doing in 40 years of writing about East London. Sinclair’s writing provides a salient case study on how literature produces, and is produced by, place. His distinctive voice and singular eye offer a complex account of spatial and cultural transformation in the city’s east from the 1970s up to the London 2012 Olympics. Sinclair’s sustained literary engagement with the affective, mnemonic, temporal, spatial and political dimensions of place in East London incorporates documentary modes of research, reportage, and interview, and relies on observed details of the everyday practices, texts and encounters that create and communicate a sense of place.
In explaining his gravitation to East London as subject matter, and as a place from which to write, Sinclair cited the street market as an influence: ‘Here was my raw material, a job for life, picking at a mythology of place: subterranean conspiracies, lost writers, the action in street markets.’ He goes further, ‘The story of London is the story of its markets.’ Sinclair’s positioning of the narrative of the market as metonymical to the narrative of the city is a recognition of the existential intertwining of the two. Historically towns and cities have developed around, and depended on the market for their identity.
There are few public spaces that are more universally touted as indicative of local ‘flavour’ than markets. Tourist guidebooks exalt the parochial qualities of marketplaces around the world, yet Sinclair’s representation of the local street market as integral to place goes beyond the travelogue’s quest for local colour and the market as site for touristic modes of consumption. Consequently, his depiction of the market avoids the type of objectification of the city that Henri Lefebvre detected in contemporary textual mediations of the urban:
[The text] takes the form of a document, or an exhibition, or a museum. The city historically constructed is no longer lived and is no longer understood practically. It is only an object of cultural consumption for tourists, for an aestheticism, avid for spectacles and the picturesque. (1996: 148)
For Sinclair, the market is not a site for observation or participation from a consumer’s point of view as is often the case in travel writing. It is the location of the everyday: Sinclair had a secondhand bookstall at Camden Passage in Islington for years, and in his years as a bookdealer, markets such the ones on Cheshire St off Brick Lane were a source of his wares.
The markets Sinclair depicts are metonymical to the historical perception of East London itself – the menacing, unknown, exotic, dirty ‘other’ to the London of political and financial power, and the London on tourist postcards. Sinclair’s first novel White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987) is an investigation of the mythopoeia of place in the East End using the subcultural milieu of the secondhand book trade. In this work, markets are marginalized arenas where waste and commodities mix promiscuously. The bookdealer/ragpickers in White Chappell are an unfortunate, blighted lot barely existing on the leftovers of others, and Dickensian allusion is satirically applied to accentuate the comic pathos and degradation of their lives:
Dryfeld growls through the vans, pokes into sacks, storms among the sheds of rag pickers, elbows over terminal waste-lots, where old bones have been spread out to dry, more for exhibition than with any serious expectation of a sale. He snarls back at the caged animals, bird yelp, rancid fish tanks, heavy jaw’d fighting beasts dealt, as they have been for over a hundred years, under the railway arches. The sentiment of the local inhabitants flattered by having some creature whose existence is even worse than their own. (1995: 38)
Similarly, in an essay from 1997 ‘Skating on Thin Eyes’ Sinclair’s prose is infinitely inventive in characterising the goods at the now obsolete Farringdon Road secondhand book market as refuse:
George had, over the years, dispersed acres of country house libraries […]: remorseless tides of salvage. Rare Victorian pamphlets, plump Edwardian bindings, railway fiction – he graded the lot, hemp sack or auction table. He kept the culture of print in flow. He served it like a pest controller, a water bailiff. Perched above the Fleet ditch, he shovelled the failed remnants, the picked-over dross, into the corporation’s dustcarts. These Farringdon Road barrows were the court of final appeal. After the frantic ceremonies of the predators there was extinction. (1997: 19)
As hyperbolic as Sinclair’s portraits appear, the recognition here is that markets are potentially heterotopic spaces, where the heterogeneity of identities, encounters, practices and goods indicates a Lefebvrian right to the city (Lefebvre, 1996). The market celebrated by Sinclair metonymically enacts the types of sociality and recognition of difference that the city enables, and to an extent, requires. Historically, this is characteristic of the marketplace as Peter Stallybrass and Allon White explain.
[a]t once a bounded enclosure and a site of open commerce, it is both the imagined centre of an urban community and its structural interconnection with the network of goods, commodities, markets, sites of commerce and places of production which sustain it. A marketplace is the epitome of local identity (often indeed it is what defined a place as more significant than surrounding communities) and the unsettling of that identity by the trade and traffic of goods from elsewhere. At the market centre of polis we discover a comingling of categories usually kept separate and opposed: centre and periphery, inside and outside, stranger and local, commerce and festivity, high and low. In the marketplace pure and simple categories of thought find themselves perplexed and one-sided. Only hybrid notions are appropriate to such a hybrid place. (1986: 27)
Sinclair’s interest in erstwhile markets does not necessarily equate with substantiating nostalgic memories of the East London street market. In fact, nostalgia can negatively affect the wellbeing of the market. In City Publics: The (Dis)enchantments of Urban Encounters (2006), Sophie Watson documents a London microclimate fractured by the politics of resentment, which are played out in the local street market. In Watson’s case study, the territorial disputes are about a sense of entitlement to the market based on perceptions of whether groups of migrants in the area have assimilated or not. The evident decline in the market’s fortunes was attributed to those who didn’t ‘fit in’. The disenchantment was in part triggered by a detrimental nostalgia amongst certain members of the market community about an acknowledgment of the other in the past that did not undermine an imagined sense of localism. Watson noted that in addition to being an inaccurate reflection of how interactions between the various stakeholders were conducted in the past, the nostalgia blocked recognition of social diversity in the present day.
Significantly, Watson’s study reveals that the state of the market functions as a barometer of the social cohesion and resilience of the community who use it. In alignment with Sinclair’s aphorism, the story of the market forms a metonymy with the story of the neighbourhood. Similarly, the social, cultural and historical narratives of East London’s markets are encoded with narratives on the effects on place as the city’s east undergoes transformation from an industrial, working class area to a globally visible site of postindustrial urban renewal.
One metonymical example is the fruit and vegetable market relocated in 1991 from Spitalfields where it had been since the 17th century. The noise, crowds, refuse and congested roads in spite of their authenticity lost their appeal for newcomers buying up the area’s Georgian heritage in the 1980s. The significantly redeveloped site (image above) now houses office space, upmarket eateries and boutiques, chain stores and a market selling handicrafts and antiques, which are a better match for the consumer habits, tastes and incomes of Spitalfields’ current residents.
Another metonymical narrative is that of the Saturday flea market at Hackney Wick Stadium whose ‘scavengers’ Sinclair described as ‘electively third world, trading in things with no value, curating trash.’ The market disappeared when its terrain was swallowed up by the Olympics site, a not uncommon disappearance in the development of the London 2012 brand.
Kingsland Waste market, about which Sinclair has written ‘it lives down to its name […] intensely local and of diminishing interest to outsiders’ (2009: 101) , also enacts a metonymy of place. Its used furniture and clothing stalls barely exists on the edge of Kingsland Rd where they are under constant scrutiny from the local authorities who claim health and safety concerns as a means of regulating the market. Its real offence is that its mess and disorder is contrary to the ‘place-image’ of East London in the lead-up to 2012. It is worth quoting Rob Shields (1991) at length on the complex and labile mechanics of place-image:
Through a process of labelling, sites and zones associated with particular activities become characterised as being appropriate for exactly those types of activities. Other activities are excluded, forced into the wilderness or barren spaces “outside” of civilised realm, or they are associated with their own dichotomous spaces. […]
[Place-images] are the various discrete meaning associated with real places or regions regardless of their character in reality. Images, being partial and often either exaggerated or understated, may be accurate or inaccurate. They result from stereotyping, which over-simplifies groups of places with a region, or prejudices towards places or their inhabitants. A set of core images forms a widely disseminated and commonly held set of images of a place or space. These form a relatively stable group of ideas in currency, reinforced by their communication value as conventions circulating in a discursive economy. […] Collectively a set of place-images forms a place-myth. Thus, there is a constancy and a shifting quality to this model of place- or space-myths as the core images change slowly over time, are displaced by radical changes in the nature of a place, and as various images simply lose their connotative power, becoming ‘dead metaphors’, while others are invented, disseminated and become accepted in common parlance.
Opposed groups may succeed in generating antithetical place-myths (as opposed to just variations in place-images) reflecting different class experiences […].(60-61)
Another metonymy of place in East London that Sinclair has commented upon is one that is consistent with the London 2012 place-image. The Saturday market that has been held at Broadway Market in Hackney since 2005 is an emergent ‘other’ to the vanishing East London markets.
For Sinclair it is a rudimentary example of gentrification’s attendant monoculturalism.
Hackney Wick [flea market] disappears into a pre-Olympic limbo of exaggerated promises and present suspension of liberties. But in another part of the borough, Broadway Market, jellied-eel mythology gives way to a pastiched Islington. No 50p tat here: discriminations of olive oil, fancy breads and a stall selling lush volumes by notable photographers.
According to Sinclair, in a piece that appeared somewhat ironically in the ‘Property’ section of a Sunday newspaper, Broadway Market is located in one of the socially ‘embattled areas’ of the East, ‘a limbo of local cafés and barbers, [that] was promoted, overnight, as the new Portobello Road: bistro to retro.’ Sinclair even claimed in an interview that the transformation of Broadway Market triggered the genesis of Hackney: that Rose Red Empire, his 2009, 600+ page homage to pre-Olympics Hackney.
I took a contract, as you do, for a totally different kind of book […] Then, one morning, I was going through Broadway Market and I met about 20 people I knew, but from all over London, all buying a loaf of bread and a bag of tomatoes for 20 quid, and I thought: this is it. I’ve got to start now, or it’s gone.
As Sinclair outlines, Broadway Market in its current guise sells products that are not about necessity or custom, but about cultural capital and aspirational consumption: vintage clothing, handmade crafts, artisanal produce.
It is synonymous with the inhabitants of and visitors to the ‘new’ East London, those whose work and leisure are represented by the creative industries, so much so that the market has become a lightening rod for backlash against the new social demographic.
This is how a satirical Tumblr blog Hackney Hipster Hate parodied the population shift in East London.
At the same time, the Broadway Market website evokes nostalgic ideas of the East London barrow boy, albeit grown up, on its homepage:
The accompanying text reads:
Barrow boys have been welcoming shoppers to Broadway Market in Hackney since the 1890s […]. John and his mate Tony […] may be the last in the line. John started selling fruit and veg on the market nearly 50 years ago. [… N]ow his barrows are the centrepiece of the revived Saturday market.
John and Tony’s inclusion only draws attention to a discrepancy between the residents from the adjacent areas who frequented the previous market and the clientele of the reconceptualised Market.
Sinclair reads the new Broadway Market as ‘a version of the Notting Hill effect kicking in. You’ve got astonishing pockets of real wealth and cultural aspiration.’ Indeed, James Meek’s piece for the LRB in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots situated Broadway Market as exemplary in exhibiting the propinquity of deprivation and affluence in the city. He wrote ‘When Broadway Market actually becomes a market on Saturdays it is as if the council-owned tower blocks and estates behind, around and in between the gentrified patches, where less well-off and poor people live, belong to some other dimension.’ On the Saturday I visited, I watched those coming up from the surrounding estates avoiding the stalls – except John and Tony’s – to use the local Costcutter, the Post Office, and the betting shop.
A YouTube video about the market captures the disjuncture Meek and I observed with an exchange between the market’s managers and a local resident who complains about prices at the market, to which the market’s organisers suggest she go further afield to Chapel Market in Islington or Ridley Road in Dalston.
As the video shows, the Saturday market’s community also deployed the rhetoric of place and the local. Indeed, the politics of whose idea of place has more literal and symbolic authority in Broadway Market are not as simple as Sinclair’s metonymy of place based on a schema of gentrification and urban renewal suggests. Although Sinclair writes that ‘Nothing is quite what it seems in this place; contradictory memories of the same events haunt a [Hackney] now determined, if those in authority get their way, to obliterate the structures and mythologies of a difficult but fondly remembered past’ it was left to his friend and collaborator Patrick Wright to explore the complexities of this particular East London narrative in the 2009 re-issue of his 1991 book Journey Through Ruins.
According to Wright’s account, the Saturday market that replaced the desultory previous street market was an initiative that came from shopowners and traders themselves, and faced opposition from Hackney Council and from the developers to whom the Council had sold off commercial properties along the street. Broadway Market activated complex ideas of belonging and mobilized stallholders who had a level of self-reflexivity about the implications of their presence, and were sufficiently concerned about the social plurality of the area to be actively involved in protesting the rent rises and evictions faced by long-time residents after the sell-off.
However, as Meek points out, ‘Loving the cultural diversity of London as a spectator-inhabitant is not the same as mingling with it.’ For many urban dwellers, the possibility of spontaneously encountering the other in the streets is not an attractive proposition, except as an abstract notion, or within zones demarcated specifically for that purpose of which the market is one. Meek quotes Slavoj Zizek (from his book Violence) who posits this social insularity as essentially neo-liberal in character:
Today’s liberal tolerance towards others, the respect of otherness and openness towards it, is counterpointed by an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the Other is just fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this Other is not really other … My duty to be tolerant towards the Other effectively means that Ishould not get too close to him, intrude on his space. […] What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society […] is a right to remain at a safe distance from others.
Broadway Market on a Saturday is an example of the condition Zizek describes. Due to its association with the customary, notions of place can veer towards the conservative and nostalgic, and certainly when it is under contestation or under threat the discourses that mark place can be read as reactionary, exclusionary and/or territorial. The narrative of Broadway market is about contested rights to place, but is also one of resistance to the implications inbuilt in the ostensibly ‘progressive’ discourses and practices of ‘renewal’. In The Battle of Broadway Market, a doco by Emily James, the third-generation proprietor of the pie and mash shop compared Broadway Market in the 1990s to Beirut. So certainly there was some room for regeneration of the existing infrastructure as Wright’s history of the market concedes. Yet urban renewal often has the effect of degrading, in rhetoric and in practice, what was there before as Neil Smith points out:
The language of revitalization, recycling, upgrading and renaissance suggests that affected neighborhoods were somehow devitalized or culturally moribund prior to gentrification. While this is sometimes the case, it is often also true that very vital working-class communities are culturally devitalized through gentrification […].’ (1996: 32)
Processes of urban renewal and gentrification view place as an optional attribute that enhances ‘lifestyle’ and thus property values, but if it is in conflict with these then its manifestations must be marginalized, transformed, or even eradicated. These processes manage place, to the extent that it can become a space on which to build something else. Place is still something that is alluded to for cultural authority or authenticity, but only through the contained space of the tokenistic metonym, or quotation as Sinclair calls it; public art, blue plaques, a carefully placed piece of renovated industrial detritus, an East London barrow boy in a reconfigured marketplace.
Traditionally the East London market has been a space where what Watson (2009) calls ‘rubbing along’ with difference and otherness has contributed to a sense of place. It has provided something beyond the temporary thrill of embodied street theatre for middle-class shoppers, that is, ‘a form of limited encounter between social subjects where recognition of different others through a glance or gaze […] has the potential to militate against the withdrawal into the self or private realm.’ (Watson, 2009: 1581) This is the East London market that Sinclair has written about. In this sense, markets can potentially provide what London lacks in the wake of the 2011 unrest, an antidote to what Zygmunt Bauman terms ‘mixophobia’ which ‘manifests itself in the drive towards islands of similarity and sameness amidst the sea of variety and difference.’ (2003: 31) Broadway Market in its current incarnation moves the market towards the mixophobic. In order to counter this it needs to be about grounded everyday practices and expressions of place that do not merely substantiate the dominant, official narrative or place-image about urban renewal in East London.
Zygmunt Bauman, City of Fears, City of Hopes, Goldsmiths College: London, 2003.
Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
Rob Shields, Places on the margin: alternative geographies of modernity. London: Routledge, 1991.
Iain Sinclair, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, London: Vintage, 1995.
Iain Sinclair, “Skating on Thin Eyes,” Inventory 2.1 : 8-12. Also published in an extended version in Lights Out for the Territory, London: Granta, 1997.
Iain Sinclair, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, London: Penguin, 2009.
Sophie Watson, City Publics: The (Dis)enchantments of Urban Encounters, London: Routledge, 2006.
Sophie Watson, ‘The Magic of the Marketplace: Sociality in a Neglected Public Space’, Urban Studies, 46(8) July 2009, pp: 1577–1591.
Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier : Gentrification and the Revanchist City, London: Routledge, 1996.
Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The politics and poetics of transgression, London: Methuen, 1986.