If Lee Rourke had a place, like Joyce had Dublin, or Hemingway had Paris, his would be Hackney. The borough and its surrounds have shaped and influenced both him and his work like that of few other writers in recent years.
“Hackney has played a major ‘role’ in my life,” Lee says. “It had to. I threw myself into Hackney and fell in love.”
When Lee moved to the borough ten years ago from his hometown of Manchester, he became involved in the “fragmented” literary scene. As his relationship with Hackney developed, so did his writing, in the form of a collection of short stories entitled ‘Everyday’, and eventually his first novel, ‘The Canal’. It is for this that Lee is probably best known. Winner of The Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker Prize 2010’ and currently being made into a feature film, the book is both set in and inspired by the places and characters around where Lee once lived.
It follows the story of an unnamed narrator who, bored by the monotony of a nine-to-five existence, resigns himself to a bench by Regent’s Canal. Day after day he remains there, watching the world go by.
The novel shows the worst sides of Hackney – the street gangs, the violence, the stench, the filth, the “unremitting decay” – but the book is not a critique of the borough, it is a much broader reflection of modern life and modern living. Hackney, with its diverse history and complex polarities just offered the platform from which to portray these ideas.
“Everything I write is somehow struggling against the ongoing gentrification I see around me,” he says. “This money-mad creation of unreal realities which people buy into – these sterile, glass-fronted box apartments springing up around the dead, stagnant water of the canals of London are a fine example.”
Lee describes this gentrification as being “viral in the area”, a fact that saddens him. The result, he says, is the marginalisation of older communities.
“Most of what happens in The Canal happens in Hackney on a daily basis. The events are based on real events. Although, The Canal is not a ‘realist’ novel in that sense: these events merely haunt the novel, as does Hackney itself.”
Although he has recently moved away, Lee’s time in Hackney continues to influence both him and his work, the foundation from which he developed into the author, poet and literary critic that he is today. “I’ve always wanted to write, I think, although if I could do something else I would.” Lee concludes: “Writing is hard work.”
Lee has two novels forthcoming, ‘Vulgar Things’ and ‘Amber’, and a new short story collection, ‘I Like To Be Stationary’. His debut poetry collection, ‘Varroa Destructor’ is out at the end of February via 3AM Press.