Hamish Hamilton, £20, 413pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project, By Iain Sinclair

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.

Owen Hatherley's 'A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain' is published by Verso

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own