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

First published on The Huffington Post (15th December 2011) //

There haven’t been many coherent voices speaking out against the impending money-splash of the London Olympics next year. Most have been swept away by the shiny promised land of the new Westfield, or the dubious pledges buried in tonnes of polished glass and metal, said to be invested in our potentially athletic children’s futures. All of which is, for me, accompanied by the mental vision of a dreary Lord Coe giving a perpetual thumbs up, a sight that greets my every thought relating to the Games.

But Sinclair has managed, far from rants about “taxpayers money” or using his meaty books as a platform to take verbal swipes at passing-through politicians, to write a book not only as a warning about misplaced optimism around the Games, but also a study of cultural memory; ruins, time, legacy – the valuation of real communities against sponsored ones – a history of people and place.

The Cardiff-born Sinclair has lived in East London since 1969, Hackney to be precise, the subject of his previous and equally tangential tome, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2009), the book which saw him banned by local authorities from a Stoke Newington reading because he had “dissed the Olympics”. His home is the life source of much of his work, now destroyed by corporate-sponsored legacy, making his vim not just the ticking-off of a list of petty concerns, and with only a hint that he is determined to make the problem a poetic one.

The wistful nomad begins in 1970s Stratford, at a time when he worked in the railway yards of Chobham Farm, the site of the new Westfield complex. This is part of the charm of a writer who, as somewhat of a darling of the middle-class reader, has a genuine connection to the area that he has seen lathered with cement before the Big Shave, a site surrounded by his most-hated of things, the big blue fence.

The opening chapter brings us into Sinclair’s memory just as the signs of Stratford’s demise were being drawn up, as signified by Joan Littlewood’s scrapped plans for the Fun Palace, precursor to that other of London’s pimples, the Millennium Dome, before “Stratford abdicated its fixed identity and willingly prostituted itself as a backdrop for experimental malls, rail hubs and computer-generated Olympic parks.”

This had already become true of other areas too, as he joins the dots between the Grand Projects of our time and earlier, Olympic and otherwise, from Berlin, Beijing, and Athens to the retail parks of Manchester, Liverpool and Hull, hopping buses on his Freedom Pass. Never is the spectre of the Olympics far from his mind, the purpose of his project, as he draws the comparisons between East Berlin 1936 and East London 2012, a feat he admits himself is a little strained and down to his own connections, as he reverts to his favoured method, the walk, around these places.

His main contention is that they, the re-developers, the explainers, the PR spinners, the Lyle Lanleys of our billion pound extravaganza are “obliterating communities, tearing up allotments, expelling scrap-dealers, artists and travellers, to make space for a self-assembly rip-off based on Werner March’s elegant oval, the 1936 Olympic Stadium.” All of which comes along with the reverse logic that something gigantic like an Olympic park can be maintained and used, when the small facilities that were already there have now been shut down.

His disgust is tangible as he writes of the large chunks of the area’s storied history eroded to make way for the “bubblegum swastika” logo, the loud and unmentioned security drills, helicopters and bombs rehearsing terrorist attacks. Then there is of course the radioactive soil, the thorium contaminating the water, the poison dust; “the commercial use of landscape”; the 2012 it represents. He shows us what may become of London’s Olympic undertaking, by showing us the wild dog wilderness that is now the Athens site, and the disuse Beijing’s glorious stadia has fallen into.

Sinclair suggests a worrying future for the re-development, amongst the knotweed and the “carcinogenic dreck”, aligning its future history with that of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, a case also ushered forth with mischievous relish by Sinclair’s friend and fellow filmmaker, Chris Petit. But his point seems a valid one in that, like Beijing before it, London is using the sporting occasion for a quite unsporting goal; to re-stake London’s claim to cash:

“The scam of scams was always the Olympics: Berlin (1936) to Beijing (2008). Engines of regeneration. Orgies of lachrymose nationalism. War by other means… The holy grail for blue-sky thinkers was the sport-transcends politics Olympiad. The five-hooped golden handcuffs. Smoke rings behind which deals could be done for casinos and mosques and malls: with corporate sponsorship, flag-waving and infinitely elastic budgets (only challenged as an act of naysaying treason).”

But it is not as dense a diatribe as it may sound. Frustratingly for some critics, and inevitably for some readers, Sinclair wanders off now and then, whilst mid-conversation, and begins exploring some other avenue, finding it irresistible to indulge some of his preferred subjects, for most of which he has firsthand knowledge, namely 1960s counterculture, London history, literature, and film, dropping in some of his favourite names and people: Allen Ginsberg (in London and San Francisco), JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and Jack Kerouac, just a sprinkling of examples. And just as you might be drifting in concentration, he draws you back in with an entertainingly vitriolic sequence, or a snatched-from-nowhere factoid.

Sinclair veers comfortably from football pub-chat to informative deconstructions of cultural iconography, one being Barney Platts-Mills’ debut film, Bronco Bullfrog, set in the East End. At times you wish there was some kind of index for reference, but Sinclair’s style makes this impossible. That index would be a mess. Everything could be listed on every page.

Yet this method seems to be for good reason. Sinclair is up to much more here than naysaying. His walk is not direct. Aware of his position in the nation’s cultural legacy, and tracked by his own personal history as a 1960s poet, he conjures filmic phantoms, images photographed with choice words from expressionistic angles, as if notes from films he wants to make, and giving credence to the book’s cyphered subtitle Calling Time on the Grand Project.

Sinclair’s disapproval marks itself out as futile, Ghost Milk is knowingly written as a documentary of near-history, an archival treatment of 2012 now, before it happens, as Sinclair somehow concludes his fractal narrative with a jaunt around the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre, where his and countless others’ work has been filed and catalogued, put away into mausoleums of culture. Sinclair is merely recording and remembering, knowing that there is little to do but take notes on the drip-drip of conspiratorial funding, like that of the £100 million misplaced by the London Development Agency. Because, as Sinclair writes, “The final word is always profit.”

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