Hamish Hamilton, £20, 413pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project, By Iain Sinclair
Friday 08 July 2011
Near the end of this book, Iain Sinclair decides to tell us what it is all about. Walking along the Olympic fence in Stratford, East London, he comes across "globetrotting Sicilian photographer Mimi Mollica, a native of Hackney Wick", who asks him what the title of the book means. Sinclair replies: "CGI smears on the blue fence. Real juice from a virtual host. Embalming fluid. A soup of photographic negatives. Soul food for the dead. The universal element in which we sink and swim."
It's an inadvertently apt answer: a coagulation of the inconsequential anecdote, fragmentary poetry, anti-boosterist ire and general bluster that runs through this book. It purports to be "calling time on the Grand Project", an indictment of the big shiny schemes of urban redevelopment, both locally and internationally, but time is more marked than called. Ghost Milk is part Stratford reminiscencee, part Northern "urban renaissance" travelogue, part ad hoc memorial to JG Ballard, but mostly it's just whatever the man had lying around, splicings from the Architects Journal to the LRB.
Sinclair's walks have been deliberately unfocused before, as in Lights out for the Territory (1996), which lifted him from obscure poet and novelist concocting incantations against Canary Wharf to today's near-National Treasure. Much has changed since. Ghost Milk begins with "Lostlands", accounts of Stratford many decades before the blue fence: grinding menial work around the Lea Valley, cleaning congealed chocolate from a cylinder, saving up enough to publish a volume of poetry.
The grand projects of that time are mapped onto today: Patrick Abercrombie's putative Lea Valley parkways and the Olympic Park for 2012, Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood's unbuilt Fun Palace and Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond's ArcelorMittalOrbit sculpture. The first have the virtue of remaining in the imaginary: "the Fun Palace had the good sense to remain... an heroic failure charming us with its nonexistence". There's little doubt Sinclair would have been aghast if they had been built. Briefly, he dispatches Littlewood as a "panto Brecht" bringing Sunday supplement readers to Stratford, as if he's still the struggling poet of 1972 rather than a man who has spent the last 15 years doing exactly that.
A vivid, disturbing, touching lost London is outlined here, but Sinclair's powers are weakening, worn down, settling too often for last-gang-in-town bathos: "in junkshop coats and Wellington boots, we are a time-travelling pre-Raphaelite coven rambling through a Tarkovskyan wilderness". Ghost Milk is often interrupted by extended accounts from others – Tom Baker, photographer Robin Maddock, painter Brigid Marlin, the bleak Chinese hotel diaries of artist Steve Dilworth. At best, they're a magnanimous offering of other voices; at worst, padding upon padding.
"Parkland" is partly about the barbarity of gentrification in the soon-to-be Olympic Zone. Sinclair's ear for the vile prose of redevelopment remains. At the "stunning development" of Adelaide Wharf, he quotes: "with its 147 units (prices up to £395,000), this is a tremendous example of aspiration coming to fruition, said Stephen Oaks, area director for English Partnerships". And the gift for evoking sinister machinations at the top that made the Thatcherite apocalypse in Downriver so compelling hasn't quite left him either. He finds Ken Livingstone, Thatcher's one-time scourge, declaring of the Olympics' spiralling PFI excess: "this was exactly the plan. It has gone perfectly."
Sinclair's ability to find insight in ephemera is residual, but there are gems, as when he accidentally uncovers an extraordinary "surveillance club" in a Docklands apartment complex, where residents watch CCTV footage together. He can still write a fine put-down: the Westfield Centre in Shepherd's Bush as "a happy slap of enchantment". But the conceits are becoming flimsy. "Privateland" is a collection of failed self-set tasks: a "north-west passage", an attempt to follow the Thames to Oxford, something about China and, somewhere in there, a bit about those grand projects. "Northland" and the concluding "Farland" deal with the north of England and abroad, respectively - equally foreign to Sinclair.
The former centres on an attempt to traverse the "M62 SuperCity" proposed by the architect Will Alsop, an unbuilt continuous London-rivalling metropolis from Liverpool to Hull. The project apparently wouldn't work because the local football teams hate each other. Sinclair seems unaware of the North London derby.
Meanwhile, he imagines this SuperCity's likely nightlife populated by "the feral underclass populating crime encyclopaedias. Gloved wheelmen in white company vans cruising an interconnected network of red light districts. Tabloid monsters with claw-hammers and faulty oral wiring." As in his London Orbital, a distaste for certain landscape spills over into a distaste for certain people.
Yet regeneration's homogenising idiocy is so huge that he does manage to strike at it a few times, as when he finds near-identical public art at each end of the SuperCity: "Liverpool or Hull: different oceans, the same artworks. The pathetic family group sculpture from Albert Dock on the Mersey has arrived on the Humber before us. In Liverpool the cast figures are emigrants, in Hull they are immigrants." But this acuity is hard to sustain when we detour into Sinclair filming "a piece for the Audi Channel" on Antony Gormley's sculptures on Merseyside.
In Manchester, he admits he has little to say about the place before proceeding: "it was too late, the story was too rich, I would not live long enough to fix my bearings". The humility may be admirable, but it's still striking how his eye abandons him as he wanly surveys territories, such as the New Islington development in Ancoats, that he would have eviscerated were they in Dalston. He writes of the "granite melancholy" of Manchester. Brick, yes. Brown stone, sometimes. Concrete, maybe. Blue glass, often. But granite?
Finally, we leave England to find ourselves in the post-Olympic landscapes of Berlin and Athens, before final jaunts to Texas and San Francisco. All are quite unashamedly prisms through which to see the London Boroughs of Hackney and Newham, and their likely fates when the 2012 grand project starts to decay and corrode, as it undoubtedly will. In Athens, suddenly, the grotesqerie of Santiago Calatrava's Olympic site surrounded by a state in terminal crisis shakes him out of autopilot, and the anger recharges his prose. He imagines the same happening here, and it seems far more likely than not.
But more typical is Ghost Milk's desultory conclusion. For half a paragraph he decides San Quentin is the ideal grand project. Then he's off elsewhere, telling us about his dinner, 1950s actors, and pondering a branded T-shirt. Been there, done that.
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