Our kids are going to hell

Hackney photographer Robin P Maddock is working on a new book to be published in the autumn. Iain Sinclair has written an introduction for the book, that will be called: “Our kids are going to hell’. Iain says of the book: “He focuses on a series of police raids in the borough, usually in the early morning, breaking into properties occupied by suspected drug dealers”. The books, by the title of “Our kids are going to hell”, will be published by Trolley books and will be available online from their website. Iain introduction follows.


There is an ethically troubled but seductive borderland, somewhere between poetry and documentation, and its name is Hackney. Nothing is quite what it seems in this place; contradictory memories of the same events haunt a borough now determined, if those in authority get their way, to obliterate the structures and mythologies of a difficult but fondly remembered past. Times have never been quite so challenging or quite so hot for writers and image-makers. Any attempt to map or register cultural difference has to be undertaken in direct competition with the evidence-gathering machinery of the state. Control-freak apparatchiks, the ones who want to turn the world into a movie but who won’t let unapproved citizens pick up a camera, have raised the stakes: absolutely. Crime is defined as time-coded footage that has to be replayed, numerous times, for its meaning to be understood. If the image-stream of surveillance flows on, without intervention, nothing significant is happening. All we can register is that the computer-generated paradise offered on easy terms, the shimmering river, the people’s park, the pristine development opportunity, is a lie. The more you see it, the less there is to know. Those dawn raids, the climate-camp demonstrations in the City, are about the construction of a parallel history, photographs that can be edited to fix a convenient fiction. The real battle is between the sponsored digital technology of the state and the mobile-phone improvisations of protesters caught up in the action.

While Robin Maddock was accompanying police from Stoke Newington on their raids into what they understood as alien (if not enemy) territory, Hackney councillors decided that the best tactic for combating litter abuse was to establish a snoop squad, undercover agents stalking the borough with cameras. ‘In one incident,’ the Evening Standard reported, ‘two enforcement officers burst into a café in Mare Street, searching for a woman who had dropped a cigarette butt on the ground outside.’ The raids, recorded by Maddock, are a more dangerous version of the same strategy.

Walking the local streets, early in the morning, I frequently witness preparations for the sort of incidents Maddock documents with such an innocent eye. (I don’t mean that he is uninformed or naïve. His method is non-judgemental, playful, fair to both sides of the dispute.) The slow procedural hours, in the aftermath of the smashed door, inspire a catalogue of small revelations. The drugs themselves, at the centre of all this fuss, are ‘glamorous in their absence’. There seems to be an agreement between cops and postcode gangs (aka ‘negative youth affiliations’) to avoid collision: the raiders mass at first light and the youths manifest at dusk on the same estates. Screaming sirens work like a courtesy call, allowing offenders to melt into the shadows before they become tedious paperwork.

The underlying narrative of Maddock’s book is an astringent tribute to place: as it is, not how it should be. Triffid blocks, neurotic with electricity, in an ocean of bare branches and bruised light. Hooded spectres as dreams or nightmares of the buildings themselves. The police, with their padded vests and  short-sleeved white shirts, spread out to advance on the dark place, a city within the city. The poetry of distance is nicely managed: the photographer’s attitude is alert, collaborative but not forensic. He brings a measure of humane record to a brutal process. Once inside, Mexican ironies are noted: surrealism on the cusp of farce, the pinned-up card or the accidental TV frame that acts as a parallel text. Here is the bent head of an old man, as unknowable and intent as Samuel Beckett, sitting on a toilet alongside the life-size transfer of a laughing skeleton. Here is the policeman with the throwaway yellow camera gripped so fastidiously in purple rubber gloves.

It is a real achievement, to give weight to accidental elements at the edge of the official story: those who look at buildings from outside and those who watch and wait at shrouded windows. Maddock speaks of wanting to locate spirit in a material universe by recording ‘solid atmosphere’. Resolving his ambiguous status, as privileged witness, he succeeds. The pictures stand on their own, in their peculiarity, and as part of the still unravelling history of a special part of London.

—Iain Sinclair

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