About this Book
A new edition, with a new introduction and an appended section of extra material, and illustrated with the architect Andrew Holmes’ photographs of Dalston (taken in 1991), is published by Oxford University Press on 26 February 2009. See details and read the new introduction here»
In A Journey Through Ruins, I took East London as a prism through which to view the Thatcher years and their transformation of British life. The ‘last days’ of the subtitle apply not to London itself, but to the vision of a reformed city once imagined as the future of the post-war settlement.
I wrote the book at a time when the Second World War, in which East London was heavily bombed, still loomed large in local memory. It seemed an appropriate moment to use the streets in which I then lived to measure the historical fate of the welfare state initiated by the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee. Partly autobiographical and, I hope, sympathetically engaged with the detail of its chosen people and locations, the book also pursues wider themes: about conservation and the way in which the reforming state was opposed by traditional and often imperial ideas of the nation; about privatisation and memory; about the way organic rural imagery was being mobilised against the informal mixture of the present-day city. Even in Hackney, the country house is lined up against council tower blocks, and Perrier Water fails to maintain its standards of purity against the allegedly diseased public supply. This was a time when wider political dramas seemed to animate everything: the cascade of advertising imagery and instruction pasted on the boarded up buildings, the public phone boxes, the bus queues, the baroque managerial rhetoric pouring out of the failing town hall.
Although it includes forays into Bow, Spitalfields, Homerton and elsewhere, A Journey Through Ruins finds its spine on a short stretch of Dalston Lane – a section of perhaps five hundred yards in all, running east from Dalston Junction to the intersection once known as Lebon’s Corner (after a long since vanished coal merchant). I conceived it as a work of ‘thick description’: a travel book for people without air tickets. While writing it I was walking the area with Iain Sinclair. We investigated a number of sites and stories together, and the book shares various locations with his novel Downriver (1991).
It was first published – bravely but without commercial success – by Radius in 1991. The paperback followed from Paladin, somehow managing to emerge from the press after the imprint had been closed and its illustrious editor moved on. A prompt pulping of copies followed; as did the Flamingo edition, which came out after HarperCollins awoke to their contractual obligations, and which includes a long chapter on water privatization – intended for the first edition, but not completed in time.