Friday, March 09, 2012

Ghost Milk by Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair’s latest book, Ghost Milk, is an erudite polemic against that rapacious monster the London Olympiad, and its unfortunate siting on his own East London doorstep. It’s an Angry of Hackney extended literary blast against what he calls “Grand Projects” – those overblown, architectural schemes that, once their brief moment in the spotlight has passed, rapidly degenerate into hulking white elephants. The author’s sympathy for the modest and local over imposed grandiosity is evident in Ghost Milk’s humble dedication: “In memory of the huts of the Manor Garden Allotments.”

Sinclair’s ambulations take him far beyond his usual Hackney stomping ground. Manchester, Berlin, and Athens are amongst the territories that get the ‘psychogeographic’ treatment, as he sniffs out failed Olympic projects and the resultant architectural follies that now blot the landscape. He finds theme-less theme parks, off the peg 'iconic' artworks and meaningless museums that appear in retrospect to have been little more than subsidy-guzzling property development scams. Any anxiety that Sinclair might fail to do justice to these unfamiliar (to him) terrains is quickly dispelled. He has a happy knack for spotting pertinent detail and deploying idiosyncratic phrases no matter where the locale.

Not that ‘correct writing’ is ever on Sinclair’s agenda. If he signed up to a creative writing course he’d be drummed out within minutes. In Ghost Milk his highly unconventional prose style remains as mesmerising as ever. Lists are built; details accreted. He possesses the poet’s skill of packing a lot into his sentences (syntactical maximisation). Other passages have the narrative drive of a lung-busting walk, interwoven, as ever, with memoir, arcane geographical knowledge, and a profusion of cultural references. The accumulation of interesting factual nuggets means that you can open this book at any point and become instantly hooked.

His cast of characters – alive, dead and fictional - is enormous and multifarious: Hitchcock, Dr Dee, Joan Littlewood, Clyde Best. The most significant and abiding presence in Ghost Milk’s pages is the late JG Ballard. Sinclair is especially fascinated by Ballard’s prophetic mid-‘70s works: Crash, Concrete Island, and High Rise. In those novels the Shepperton author nailed our peculiar, often perverse, relationship with modern monumental architecture (motorways, tower blocks) and captured the gut-churning eeriness of such alien spaces. For Sinclair nothing could be more Ballardian than the Millennium Dome, the new Wembley Stadium, or a giant Australian shopping mall going up in East London.

Cards on the table, I’m a Sinclair fan so for me Ghost Milk is an absolute treat. For the uninitiated I would suggest that this is an ideal book with which to begin an engagement with his work. Ghost Milk, with its polemical thrust, is one of his easier books to digest. As for Sinclair’s diatribe against the London Olympics, only time will tell if his criticisms are valid or whether he is just an old NIMBY railing against change. Here in Wales we too have felt the dubious heat of the Olympic flame: a visit by Lord Coe; Team GB; a promised boost to the local economy overestimated; the servile eagerness of our so-called arts community to take the proffered subsidy bribe. I suspect that history will prove Iain Sinclair’s Olympian scepticism to be entirely justified.

*Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project is out now and is published by Hamish Hamilton. If you want to explore Sinclair’s fiction try Landor’s Tower. It’s his most 'Welsh' work and contains intriguing biographical passages relating to his upbringing in Maesteg.