Review: James Heartfield at Lambeth’s Carnegie Library


Heartfield argues London has become a commodity.


By Tim Cooke

Three minutes from Loughborough Junction I received a text from my friend: “When you’re walking up the hill, lower your expectations.”

I was on my way to Lambeth Council’s Carnegie library for a talk on literary London that I knew nothing about and I was late.

My friend, on the other hand, was sat with a warm glass of white wine in the front row of the library’s rather musky showroom, deploring my poor timekeeping.

During the course of a long overdue pint the week before, I discovered that Chris – a friend from university – shared my newfound enthusiasm for London history.

We were both reading Peter Ackroyd’s mammoth biography of the city and had been enjoying the novels of Patrick Hamilton and Norman Collins among others.

A few days later when he stumbled upon a free pair of tickets to a lecture entitled ‘Londonostalgia’ by James Heartfield, I was his first port of call.

“Prepare for some intellectual carnage,” he text me.

And so, deep in residential Lambeth, with Ackroyd’s weighty text in hand and a notebook at the ready, I arrived at the venue; sure enough, my expectations plummeted.

I was confronted by a somewhat rundown Tudor-style building adorned with flyers advertising arts and crafts classes and a tea, cake and gardening club.

Through the murky window I could see what looked unnervingly like a neighbourhood watch meeting.

This, in the nicest possible way, was not what I was looking for.

The talk was well underway and with Chris looking thoroughly uncomfortable at the front, I chose a seat in the back corner – good for a quick exit if it came to it.

I’d not heard of Heartfield and hadn’t taken the time to look him up.

My first impression was of a shy and unassuming literature enthusiast – not at all academic – who had thrown together a quick power point for the local book group.

As it turns out, I was well off the mark: he’s a respected economist who writes for The Times Education Supplement and has been widely published by a host of national newspapers.

But to be fair, he didn’t let on.

He began by skipping fleetingly through a selection of amazon-style synopses of London-themed books without making much effort to establish a coherent link or overarching purpose.

He made arbitrary comments like: “We are drawn to the dark”, “Let the city tell you about itself,” and “The crazed nature of London nostalgia”, but didn’t really say much more than Iain Sinclair is too difficult to read.

I soon got the impression that providing any depth of analysis to these books just wasn’t on his agenda and began to wonder if he even liked any of the texts he was talking about.

Then it came, slowly but surely the hook emerged.

Heartfield, nearing the end of his allotted time, referred to the inauthenticity of a London immortalised by art.

London is “a place where you project your imagination. It’s a place where you project an idea of yourself,” he said.

He explained that those who write about the city, like Ackroyd and Sinclair, operate outside of real London-life and so are deprived of it’s true essence – if a true essence can be said to exist.

For Heartfield, they are ‘Londonostalgics’ who are not interested in history but are preoccupied with a perversely mythical London that exaggerates and commercialises violence and degeneration.

Comparing Ackroyd and co with the often scoffed at romantic poets, he drew similarities between the over-idealised, distant relationships they have with their respective subjects.

“You can’t romanticise Hackney when you’re there,” he said.

From this point he launched on to a passionate tangent about social housing and the gentrification of the inner city.

Testing the audience’s receptiveness to his new themes, Heartfield tentatively proclaimed: “This is so boring,” but was spurred on by a spurious bark of encouragement from the back of the room.

“This is not boring, this is what we are here for.”

Invigorated, he spoke of the unaffordability of properties in areas of central London that not so long ago were the stomping grounds of the working classes.

He spoke of how Hackney is no longer a place for the common man but for the middle classes: the educated, trendy elite attracted to and prepared to pay big bucks for the ‘Londonostalgics’’ romanticised idea of the ‘big smoke’.

He compared the rise in those living in ‘super-sheds’ and converted buses with the ‘Londonostalgics’’ fondness for tales of subterranean communities and asked, “Who is the true troglodytic race?”

He moved on to lament the death – or deferred purpose – of working class buildings: staples of London industry continuously transformed into art studios by a wealthy bohemian influx.   

For Heartfield London has become a commodity against the will of its people.

Fiddling with the keys to my three-bed Hackney flat bought by my parents and with Peter Ackroyd staring up at me from my rucksack, I began to feel uncomfortable.

My interest in the history of London was suddenly as superficial as the sense of academic grandeur I’d had when peering through the window at the start of the evening.

I’m not sure if Heartfield was suggesting that this type of writing has played a direct part in forcing any sense of a “real London” underground – beneath itself – or if the literature is more a product of this.

Boiled down it was an impressive, interesting talk perhaps warranting a bigger stage than the backroom of a dingy library to 30 or so feisty locals and a Hackney imposter or two.

Or perhaps it was just right.

Photo courtesy of henry…, with thanks.

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