Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project, Iain Sinclair, Hamish Hamilton, 432pp, £20 (hardback)

Since being banned from Stoke Newington library for criticising the Olympics in his ‘docu-novel’, Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire, Iain Sinclair has become something of a spokesman for 2012 dissenters. Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project, Sinclair’s latest volume, has been billed as the author’s definitive statement on the Olympics. Though not untrue, this description is misleading for, like all of Sinclair’s work, Ghost Milk resists straightforward classification; its subjects are multiple. Ghost Milk is an intensely personal meditation on the follies of grand projects (‘GPs’), and the destruction of landscape, local history and culture in favour of impermanent fantasy developments. Written ‘In memory of the huts of the Manor Garden Allotments’, Ghost Milk is an elegy for the erased landscapes of Sinclair’s beloved Lea Valley. Taking its epigraph from Hamlet – ‘Alas! Poor ghost’ – the book is haunted by the spectres of the dead, mapping a ‘cartography of absence’ through the ‘ghost milk of dying industries’.

Following Sinclair’s characteristic mode of composition, the book (no generic term seems appropriate) narrates a series of episodes that arise from journeys and encounters. It combines observations and documentary research with imagined and remembered stories of the past. Sinclair’s quest – for his journeys are never devoid of purpose – takes him far beyond the boundaries of his familiar London territory. He travels from the edgelands of Manchester, Liverpool, Blackpool and Hull to the beaches of Morecambe (in search of the ghosts of the drowned cockle-pickers) and further afield to Berlin, Athens and Beijing (where he sets ‘the afterlife of the Beijing Olympic Games against our own emerging Olympic Park’).

His final journey is to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, to hand over his personal archive – his ‘memory-vault’. It is the culmination of his own grand project, marking a conscious parallel to the relinquishing of history in exchange for profit that is the focus of the book.

Ghost Milk reads like a companion piece to Hackney. Its format combines subjective prose with interview transcripts, the reliability of which is always uncertain. Sinclair begins by recounting stories of Stratford in the 1970s when he worked there as a casual labourer and had his ‘first intimation of how future grand projects would operate’. Such recollections are partly derived from the eight millimetre film reels of the communal ‘Hackney diary’ that Sinclair and his wife, Anna, compiled during their early years in the capital. References to this film, and to Sinclair’s own extensive archive compiled over forty years, attest to his primary role as diarist and documenter – a modern day Samuel Pepys. Like Hackney, Ghost Milk proceeds as autobiography. It tells the story of the city through the lens of personal history.

Sinclair describes ‘Grand Project development [as] accidental archaeology. A séance with ruins.’ He perceives in the development of the Olympic site a paradoxical reversal, imagined as ‘the fall of Berlin run backwards’. Rather than progress and improvement, he sees the degeneration of landscape to a state reminiscent of the ‘ravished topographies … of war zone architecture’. Grand projects construct a mythology of progress which Sinclair is determined to dismantle. He is writing to counteract the cultural amnesia and superficial impermanence that he perceives around him. He is an archaeologist and conservationist of local history, and a poet of urban ruin. Outlining his own techniques as a London writer, Sinclair reminds us that, ‘[w]riting in London is about archaeology: trawling, classifying, presenting’. Fundamentally opposed to this is the ahistorical forward momentum of grand project mentality, with its ‘monumental project[s] of reverse archaeology’. Sinclair insists that it is the role of the artist to record and document what is being destroyed; in the aftermath of grand projects, all that remains are photographs, documents, words and memories.

Sinclair’s writing is inter- and intra-textual. It frequently refers to, and even quotes from, his own texts, as well as the writing of others. It places his work within a tradition of psychogeographical urban writing. The establishment of a community of artists is central to the formation of Sinclair’s personal mythology, creating a self-enclosed world of interconnected figures and texts. His London is populated by a familiar cast of characters – a counter-cultural group of artists that includes the novelist and filmmaker, Chris Petit, the painter-photographer, Renchi Bicknell, the architectural cinematographer, Patrick Keiller, and the poet-sculptor- performance artist, Brian Catling. Sinclair’s journeys often retrace the footsteps of other writers, his vision of the landscape determined by theirs. He believes that ‘If you travel, thinking about a particular writer, he will provide the chart for the mental landscape through which you pass’. His walks echo with the writing of Thomas De Quincey, W. G. Sebald and, most importantly, J. G. Ballard, whose ‘spirit’ haunts the novel. ‘So far, so Ballardian’, Sinclair confirms midway through the book.

It is hard to escape the feeling that Ghost Milk is written in homage to J. G. Ballard, whose death has left a ‘persistent black hole in the landscape, a broken connection between optic nerve and retina, measure of loss’. The cartography of Sinclair’s journeys, real and imagined, maps a Ballardian landscape of edgeland territories – the non-places and dead zones of a ‘warped utopianism’. Sinclair imagines Ballard, in appropriately Olympic terms, ‘[passing] the baton on’ to him. With this book he becomes his successor, surveying the arrival of Ballard’s prophesies into the, literally, concrete world.

Ghost Milk utilises the vocabulary of postmodern – or ‘supermodern’ – topography. Its locations are defined by terms recognisable from the fiction of Ballard, the writings of Marc Augé, and the architecture of Will Alsop. It is a landscape of ‘zones’, ‘edgelands’, ‘perimeters’, ‘non- spaces’ and ‘SuperCities’. Grand projects are not limited to architectural construction but entail the creation of self-enclosed environments that elicit a vocabulary of their own. Sinclair maintains that grand projects are the stuff of fiction; they are imagined, CGI realities accompanied by the same narrative framework as fictional worlds. These conceptual landscapes require, and perpetuate, new linguistic forms: ‘the essential literature of the GP era is the proposal, the bullet-point pitch, the perversion of natural language into weasel forms of not-saying.’ Sinclair’s gift as a writer is his ability to transform the language of his urban subject into a form of poetry. In one of the most overtly political chapters of the book Sinclair reveals the results of investigations into the extensive radioactive contamination of the 2012 site. The ‘alarming’ revelations confound syntactical articulation, and the prose modulates into a paratactic poetry of dismay:

Waste: dumped, buried. Disturbed. Distributed.
Tyre mounds.
The crunched metal-and-glass of innumerable breakers’
yards hidden behind convolvulus-draped fences, under the
flag of St. George. Shirtless men smashing white goods with
And the dust.
The particulates. Hot cinders.
Blind warehouses with bundles of rags and damp paper
waiting for insurance fires. Petrol reek.
Black ash.
Oily smoke saturates cloth, fouls underwear.
In the dirt, they prospect: the pinstripe outsiders, compliant
bureaucrats. Sanctioned buck-passers.

Sinclair invests the ruins of the city with the poetry of their own destruction, turning the empty structure of the ‘bullet-point pitch’ into a sharp and incisive imagist poem.

Ghost Milk has, at its root, a highly political agenda. It is fiercely critical of politicians’ visions of regeneration and the naïve belief that grand projects are the key to progress, regardless of circumstance. Writing in the midst of global financial crisis, Sinclair’s disbelief at the foolishness of such financial frivolity seems proven at every step. The examples of grand projects that Sinclair traces around the world are forewarnings that have failed to impact future decisions. The Athens Olympics of 2004 are figured as ‘the symbol of a nation’s bankruptcy’, partly responsible for Greece’s economic collapse. In Athens he finds the park deserted, a ‘posthumous project’ already in a state of ruin, overrun by stray dogs and scavenging cats. Surveying the surreal ‘set’ of the Olympic park, he concludes, ‘The death of the grand project is the history painting of our time’.

Ghost Milk is not Sinclair’s first account and excoriation of the grand project syndrome. His epic journey around the M25, recounted and embellished in London Orbital, was carried out in order to ‘exorcise the shame of the Millennium Dome’. This was another ‘vanity project’ of New Labour and, along with Wembley Stadium, was a ‘prime [example] of bungled and underestimated grand projects’. In Sorry Meniscus, an account of his excursions to the Dome, Sinclair emphasised the essentially metaphorical nature of grand projects – ‘delirious fictions’ that should remain as virtual reality fantasies, and never be made manifest: ‘We must respect the primacy of the imagination.’

Sinclair is interested in the idea of ‘future history’, the title of one of the book’s chapters and a phrase he uses often. He demands that we become aware of our role in the creation of history. He asks us to question the transience of modern culture and to consider how it will look to future generations. Time is fluid in Sinclair’s world; chronology is dismantled as past, present and future intertwine and interrupt one another. Sinclair’s narrative is conceived in similar terms as episodic fragments appear, dissolve and return unexpectedly. This repeated insistence on recurrence and repetition is central to Sinclair’s critique of the naivety of grand projects. It asserts that impermanence is a folly – one which imposes ‘a fraudulent narrative’ attempting the impossible task of erasing the past.

For the uninitiated, Ghost Milk offers a perfect introduction to Sinclair’s work. It represents the culmination of his preoccupations and an autobiographical reflection on his own development as an archivist and poet of London. The book captures Sinclair in his multiple guises, along with the varied stylistic approaches they require. It is placed somewhere between fact and fiction, prose and poetry, documentary and mythology. For those familiar with Sinclair’s work, the revisiting of old material and retelling of previously told stories may be received as unnecessary repetition. But Sinclair’s writing derives its meaning from the continual overlap of stories, forging connections between disparate things, across temporal and spatial boundaries. History is repetition, brought to life through its retelling. Reading Sinclair’s work is like delving into an archive, drawing out stories which resonate with new meaning as times change.

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