Copywriters of the Future
Iain Sinclair interviewed by Anna Aslanyan.
[Pic: Joy Gordon]
I called Iain Sinclair after finishing a story about the Tottenham riots – a pure coincidence as the subject of the interview was meant to be his writing and London as its driving psychogeographical force. It went ahead as planned, although we did touch upon the events of the previous night. We did not know yet that the riots were coming to our local area, so there was no need to go a few miles north – you could witness all that in Mare Street later the same day. Sinclair asked me about the scenes I had seen in Tottenham and we went on talking about his beloved Hackney, with its council estates (still quiet at the time of the interview), Victorian houses, futuristic developments, and everything in between. And, importantly, about its forthcoming fame – or infamy, perhaps – as an Olympic borough. Having read Sinclair’s confession in his latest book, Ghost Milk, I was curious to find out if circumabulations of the Olympic Park can really grow into an addiction. The answer came from a somewhat unexpected angle.
“It is fascinating to walk around the area because it’s changed so much,” Sinclair said. “It used to be a strange place, very run-down, with diverse communities and a lot of industry concentrated there for many years. And then suddenly it’s as if there is a war going on, you can’t enter this landscape any longer. The process is interesting to watch, and it can, indeed, become addictive to go around Olympic sites. But the downside of it is all this dangerous stuff, asbestos, dust, radioactivity, toxic elements long buried under that site, now being churned up. Tile factories, a small nuclear reactor Queen Mary’s College used to have nearby – it was regarded as a no-man’s land, hence all these things. And the contaminated materials cannot be cleared away quickly, it’s a very big job, while removing the topsoil has no more than a cosmetic effect.” An addiction cannot be good for you, particularly when you have “toxic blight […] all around, the ghost milk of dying industries. Accompanied by an ecology of resistance and unsponsored fecundity.”
But health and safety is not the main thing on Sinclair’s mind; it is that “horrible sense of loss” he feels at the sight of many local facilities being swallowed by mushrooming developments that prompts him to write about what he calls “the Grand Project”. Indeed, it is hard to see how these big venues the money is currently being pumped into can replace, for instance, the swimming pools that had to be closed because they could not be maintained. “The way it is presented is the mirror image of the truth: they are telling us we are going to have back all these wonderful things, which were there already, some dating back to the Victorian era,” points out Sinclair. “Things they couldn’t support financially are now being ‘returned’ to us, but unlikely to become useful or available to the local residents.” The London 2012 website boasts that the new Aquatics Centre “will be transformed into a facility for the local community, clubs and schools, as well as elite swimmers.” Let us wait and see if “a creche, family-friendly changing facilities and a cafe, alongside a new public plaza in front of the building” are going to outweigh the toxic dust once it has settled. As Sinclair writes in Ghost Milk, “Say it often enough and it becomes true. They are very good, the explainers, at delivering an unchallenged monologue, but when the hard questions come, a momentary time-delay kicks in. They struggle like flak-jacket correspondents unsynched by video-phone technology on a desert road.”
This is one of the many passages in Ghost Milk that make you want to remind yourself this is written by the same author whose meta-poem Lud Heat inspired Peter Ackroyd‘s novel Hawksmoor. The tone is different here, more urgent, less reflective – unsurprisingly, given the subject of the book which, as its subtitle indicates, is “calling time on the Grand Project”. Nevertheless, as you turn pages you realise that Sinclair always has something else up his sleeve. Coming to Manchester, he dips into his favourite theme, using an epigraph from W. G. Sebald and remembering Thomas De Quincey, “the recently elected godfather of psychogeography”, before swiftly returning to London, where “De Quincey exists in a blur of perpetual motion: if he stops, he ceases, the words don’t come, funds dry up.” Perhaps this is what Sinclair himself feels when wandering around the Olympic Park, circumnavigating the M25, or riding buses in the North.
Would it be true to say that London as an entity – or, to use Ackroyd’s terminology, a living organism – has changed beyond recognition since Lud Heat and Hawksmoor? Sinclair’s answer leaves room for a number of interpretations: “To some degree the energy Ackroyd talks about is still felt in certain areas of London, such as Clerkenwell or Limehouse. There are things that persist and recur through time. But there is a huge change, this shift to the east, which really is just a smokescreen for commercial developments in Lea Valley. We witness the creation of a corporate city that’s not specific to London, but could be anywhere.”
Of course Sinclair cannot help talking about these things, having lived in Hackney for thirty-odd years and watched “That Rose-Red Empire” being transformed into an array of shopping malls and parking lots. It’s a good cause, and yet, reading Ghost Milk, you almost feel it’s a shame the Olympic project managed to get off the ground, in the process affecting Sinclair’s other, less topical writing, poetry and prose alike. Passages like “Old suburb, new interzone. And where are the grain fields of yesteryear?” are reminiscent of the author’s distinctive style, if slightly diluted by the social and political issues he is compelled to address. Is he going to return to poetry? “I never really stopped – it’s more about publishing it. When I first started I was doing it in a very small, local way, running my own press [Albion Village Press]. The conditions were good back then, and I think there is a lot of interest in poetry now. But it is still done via small publishers, so nobody gets to see it. Nevertheless, it would be good to do more of it.”
The only poetic quote he uses in our conversation is a reference to the Grand Project and its future: “I suppose after a while the Olympic Park will become a strange waste land. The constantly upbeat message we are getting is the opposite; this mirror language again. We are told that the area was a waste land, which isn’t true at all – there used to be lots of businesses here, but they’re all gone, destroyed or pushed out.”
Talking about the future, it is impossible not to remember the late J.G. Ballard, and Ghost Milk is, among many things, a tribute to him. “A late moralist, he practised undeceived reportage, not prophecy: closer to Orwell than H. G. Wells. Closer to Orson Welles than to either. Closer to Hitchcock. Take out the moving figures on staircases that go nowhere and stick with hollow architecture that co-authors subversive drama.: Ballard’s dystopian images seem to echo those Sinclair evokes in his writing, those we now have before our eyes. “Yes, his 70s books, Crash, High-Rise, Concrete Island, are very much played out in certain aspects, particularly in the topography he predicted or created. When it comes to recognising the psychology of the city, or its psychogeography if you like, he was on the message. The same can be said of his final novel, Kingdom Come, set in a shopping mall. He was a copywriter of the world that we are now beginning to move into.” This, in Sinclair’s view, includes not just architecture, but the lives of the megapolis’ inhabitants. “The inertia of English suburbs was one of his subjects – he thought that the boredom that rules there would erupt in some strange violent acts.” True, Ballard deals mainly with the middle class, but it wouldn’t be too much of an overstatement to say that the recent (at the time of the interview ongoing) riots were also predicted by him in many different guises.
After turning from a self-published author into a national treasure, is Sinclair planning to carry on in the same vain, exploring topical issues in his non-fiction? “The kind of prose I have been writing recently has a mainstream audience, but I am going to stop there. The latest book seems to be the end of a current stream, there is nowhere to go beyond that. I look forward to doing something different next time.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 6th, 2011.