Dangerous games to play?
PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY: POLLY DEVLINreviews Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand ProjectBy Iain Sinclair Hamish Hamilton, 430pp. £20
FOR A WHILE I lived in west London in a flat abutting what seemed to be a secret railway track; every night I would be woken by a thunderous ghost train rumbling through the darkness. When I was woken by it on my first night and, alarmed, leaped from my bed, I could see vast containers with no markings speeding by. I discovered it was a train transporting highly radioactive fuel rods, from remote nuclear power stations, to Sellafield from Sizewell, or the other way around. I was frightened and then angry. No one seemed to know about this dangerous cargo shipped nightly through central London. I moved house sharpish.
Iain Sinclair, the author of Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project, knows about this train, but, then again, he knows everything there is to know about toxic London, and he communicates it all in this angry, shocking and polemical tirade, which is not so much a book as a series of under-rehearsed jottings, many of them innocent of a verb, in a book’s clothing. Here is an example, chosen at random, of how he writes:
The filling station on the corner passed through all the stages on the way to entropy in a few months: functioning petrol pumps with attached inconvenience store – (beggars blocking the door-way), potential artwork seductive in its abandonment, caravan invasion by dispersed Hackney Wick squatters. Then: bailiffs, boiler-suit heavies. Single torched caravan with demonic edge-land slogans. Tyre dump. Weed reservations backing up on deleted laundry black. Yawning flapping roof structure above concrete pillars. Shell occupied by rats; fetid black box. Sweating walls lurid with anathemas on developers, bankers, politicians and named enforcers.
Whew! Perhaps even tastier is his answer to the meaning of “ghost milk”.
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.
So the text, bowling along on its own frenetic energy, is not a pleasure to read on any level. The story it so graphically tells is one of greed, ignorance and wilful blindness, as well as of high hopes, idealism, dreams, new Arcadias and flawed human endeavour.
Sinclair takes it for granted that we grasp all connections in his dystopian odyssey; he assumes, for example, that we have read Bill Griffiths’s work. Nope. That we all worship at the Ballard shrine in suburban Shepperton, where JG Ballard lived (and whose vision of gruesome futuristic urban dystopias seems to Sinclair to be close upon us). Nope. And that we are intimate with his previous work. Well, some, because who could resist a book called Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, the precursor to this one? And he has produced a large body of work in the tradition of artists and writers such as William Blake, Richard Jefferies, Thomas de Quincey and George Orwell and their explorations of the connections between landscape and the mind.
So he asks a lot of a discontented, disconnected reader but won this one over through the sheer force of his knowledge and the often bitter rage driving his disjointed narrative. Ostensibly a lament on how the grand project of the 2012 Olympics is despoiling east London (although, God knows, it never was a pastoral idyll) it’s also an autobiographical threnody for the ecological catastrophe happening in all parts of England. Not that he writes only about desolation: poetry, memories, dialogue with friends and artists, extracts from diaries and letters pop up at arbitrary and disconcerting moments, and he delivers nuggets of information in passing that cast an odd light on given information and raise an eyebrow; for example, that on July 6th, 2005, the day England celebrated being awarded the Olympics, the enormous spy listening station in Cheltenham, GCHQ, received a message from Afghanistan: “Tomorrow is zero hour.” He writes: “ The next morning . . . the bombs went off in the Underground. On the day after that GCHQ completed the translation.” But this was the same message in the same sequence received by the National Security Agency, in the US, the day before 9/11.
Sinclair (who went to Trinity College Dublin) is a famous urban wanderer, though there is no question of rambling in his forays: he barrels forth, eyes blazing, often with Anna, who seems a most patient wife, greeting neglect with pleasure, missing nothing. More than 30 years of pedestrian exploration through the vulnerable, hard-scrabble verges of cities, along their shaggy paths, dens, landfill, ponds, sewerage, wire, bridges, ruins and scruffy growths and woodlands has made him one of the foremost psychogeographers in England. Because of his unceasing passionate campaigns, his power of communication on television, in documentaries, at lectures, to save what is left of what Victor Hugo called “bastard countryside” and others call edgelands, he has become almost a national treasure. He gazes on the mighty works that the town planners have inflicted on cities – shopping malls, underpasses, dual carriageways – and despairs. (And one has only to think of what happened around and in, say, Clanbrassil Street in Dublin to join in his rage.)
Sinclair is particularly aggrieved about the loss of the Manor Gardens allotments, 80 plots bequeathed to the area a century ago, which not only provided food for more than 150 families during the summer months but also brought a community together in an amiable diversity, and which have now been swept away in the Olympic clearances. And not only that: according to Sinclair, the managers responsible for closing them down have been given extended gardening leave. Somewhere around this same time and place, someone has mislaid £100 million. You couldn’t make it up.
Even if the plots are restored after the Olympics, their chief glory – distinctive gardening huts, eccentric organic buildings thrown up over many years from bric-a-brac, driftwood and general detritus, and which constituted a rustic, eccentric and delightful architecture – has gone for ever. In fact the dedication of Ghost Milkis ‘In memory of the huts’.
What also maddens the already furious Sinclair is how the organisers and planners croak on about regeneration – dread word – and of how they are going to create a diverse and thriving community when, as in this instance, they have cynically destroyed a thriving one already in place. So far more than 1,000 people have been compulsorily moved. He remembers one Gareth Blacker, a soft-spoken Irishman, explaining why the allotments, which ticked every possible regeneration box, had to go. “A question of security,” he said. “More security than this country has ever seen.”
The very words “grand project” put us in mind of Stalin and Mao, the great criminal land reformers, and Sinclair, I think, views the whole Olympic 2012 plan as being somewhat in the same vein. Wanton destruction to create something new.
And I have to say, as one who has walked around the mostly deserted stadiums of Barcelona and the defunct and dire unused one in Athens – the building of which brought Greece to its knees – that I know the damage that the much-vaunted Olympic regeneration can wreak on a city. Twenty-one of the 22 Olympic venues there now lie abandoned in various states of ruin. Upwards of €1 billion is supposed to have been spent simply to maintain these discarded cocoons.
The organisers of the London Olympics swear such an aftermath could never happen in their city, but the obsessive Sinclair views their protestations as cant. It would be restful if occasionally he gave someone the benefit of the doubt and conceded that there might be some good in the grand project. For many people the coming of the Olympics to the East End has been an enormous boost to jobs, to the economy, as well as promising a more thriving future. But Sinclair doesn’t do concession. His outlook is the opposite of Panglossian. Everything is all for the worst.
Still, he can turn a neat phrase; about Westfield, the vast new shopping mall in west London, where I occasionally find myself lost, he writes: “Westfield does what airports do and does it better; the escalators work, you don’t lose your luggage, there’s a wide choice of near-food.” And of Leeds and Manchester and their football clubs: “Trans-Pennine blood feuds are often a matter of a few hundred yards of disputed ground. If there is anything that unites the whole SuperCity it’s the quality of hatred.” He could be channelling Belfast.
He’s good on the royal family, too; on his walks along the Thames their keep-out notices often thwart him. “The royals take the privacy fetish to extremes. Not content with park, castle, mausoleum, home-farm, they insist on fences inside fences. They shunt ramblers across the water for an infuriating trudge down a busy road through scrub fields and open fields.”
On a purely personal level I read with interest that Sinclair has fantasised for most of his London life about living on Narrow Street, in Limehouse, on the bend of a river. I did. It was indeed wonderful, but the riverscape I knew then has vanished utterly.
Ghost Milkis a sad litany of doom. I can’t help but recall Horatius at the bridge: “And how can man die better / than facing fearful odds, / for the ashes of his fathers, / and the temples of his Gods”?
Polly Devlin is a writer; she is currently teaching at Barnard College, in New York