By Stewart Home.
Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project, Iain Sinclair, Hamish Hamilton, 2011
A banal reading of Ghost Milk might lead to an interpretation of the book as being about attempts at urban regeneration that are kick-started through the staging of events such as the Olympic Games. On this surface level the text is concerned not just with London 2012, but also earlier Olympic contests in Berlin, Athens, Munich and Mexico City — as well as other urban renewal schemes. Digging down into the deeper strata of this book, it is far more than merely a joke-laden treatise about that notoriously tricky and slippery authorial construct known to the world as “Iain Sinclair”; it is also a step by step guide to bringing poetry back to contemporary capitalist societies that are characterised by a sense of post-modern disenchantment.
Sinclair begins by writing about Stratford and Hackney Wick but his interests range far and wide — and to places few would associate him with: Manchester, Liverpool, Hull, and as I’ve already mentioned, even the Greek capital Athens. He also manages to visit his spiritual home, beatnik central in the shape of San Francisco. To start with Ghost Milk’s opening, I guess everyone has his or her own version of Stratford, London E15. Sinclair begins with labouring work he performed there in the early 1970s, but in the many pages he devotes to east London, he rarely mentions the things that most excite me about this part of town. For example, a late outpost of the 1960s Golden Egg cafe chain — a beacon of my childhood — that somehow survived on the edge of Stratford Shopping Centre until at least the early 1990s. I guess the garish 1960s interior design of the Golden Egg doesn’t appeal to Sinclair. Likewise, there is no mention of the artists’ studios that mushroomed in the industrial zone between Bow Flyover and the centre of Stratford as Thatcherism found itself eased out of power by New Labour. Sinclair very effectively juxtaposes the early 1970s with today — but Ghost Milk has little about the period in-between, although this is covered in many of its author’s other books.
As a boy growing up in the 1960s, I often heard humorous family tales of work in Stratford factories in the 1950s, and was taken on occasional visits back to the area. Judged on Sinclair’s descriptions, it seems things hadn’t changed that much by the time he arrived in 1971, except that by then hippie drop-outs from public schools and universities had joined an increasingly casualised workforce. I certainly recognise the Stratford Sinclair describes, but there are major divergences between what he and I found attractive about this part of east London. Sinclair devotes several pages to Barney Platts-Mills’ neo-realist Strafford fable Bronco Bullfrog (1971), and while I’ve no major disagreements with what he says about the flick, the groovy soundtrack by post-mod band Audience goes completely unmentioned. The songs in Bronco Bullfrog are for me easily the best thing about the film (although I am also very fond of the shots of the Bow Flyover). I assume the tunes simply don’t interest Sinclair, who belongs to a dfferent generation to me, and tends in any case not to write about music. Perhaps Sinclair should be praised for omitting Stratford’s cultural highlights such the Golden Egg and Audience from his prose, since for those of us who know that they are missing, this illustrates very effectively what grand projects do — erase landmarks that are subjectively important.
If Ghost Milk is on one level about what’s now missing, what can no longer be seen, then that’s probably why virtually every time Sinclair mentions something, it brings to my mind what he doesn’t cover. Wondering aloud how many photographers are out there in east London recording erasures and what’s about to disappear, is a bit like asking ‘how long is a piece of string’? When Sinclair mentions Keith Foster, the fieldwork photographer for Waltham Forest who has been recording the state of the Lower Lea Valley, I’m left pondering why he doesn’t invoke Chris Dorley-Brown — whose work documenting Hackney tower blocks and the Olympic site would seem a perfect fit for Ghost Milk. At points when I was reading this book, I was overcome by the feeling that it was impossible to review Ghost Milk, and that instead I’d been condemned to act as one of Sinclair’s many unpaid runner/researchers, flagging up the material he’d not yet turned over so that he could include it in future works…
One section of Ghost Milk covers photographer Robin Maddock, who accompanied the Hackney cops on their drug raids in order to document their arrest processes in violated domestic space — this was some time before London Mayor Boris Johnson decided to get in on some similar action. A few years ago, Maddock asked me to write a text to accompany these pictures, and I’d agreed after being reassured that it was permissible for me to be critical of the old bill. Like Sinclair, I’d turned Maddock’s images over and over in my mind, thinking through how I might write about them. That was until I got an email from Maddock on 11 May 2009 saying that Iain Sinclair had agreed to do the foreword for him: “sorry to time waste — probably meet you at some point, out and about — thanks anyhow…”
I certainly don’t blame Sinclair for taking the Maddock assignment, I very much doubt he knew we’d both been offered the same gig, and that when he took it I was blown out. But it is another illustration of how grand projects operate. It could almost go without saying that Maddock would have been under pressure from his publisher to use the biggest name author he could find, so I understand what happened from his point of view too. It was just odd to be reminded of the incident by Sinclair’s text. As far as the UK publishing industry is concerned, there is only really room for one big name experimental writer at any one time, and right now Iain Sinclair is the man! After twenty years in the underground (late-sixties to late-eighties), it isn’t surprising that Sinclair is still blinking in the sunlight of ‘mainstream’ success after two decades at the top (late-eighties to now). Sinclair’s ongoing strengths as a writer lie in the score of years he spent in the underground, where he was able to stretch out and develop well away from the distractions and pressures of commercial success.
As you’d expect from Sinclair, Ghost Milk is chock full of faux-cynicism and riffs on characters who reappear like bad pennies throughout his documentary fiction — men such as Michael Moorcock, J. G. Ballard, Steve Dilworth, Tom Baker and Chris Petit. Sinclair is always capable of finding new angles on his material, and at points I found myself speculating about whether he’d deliberately refrained from joining all the dots so that he might do so in future works. Pocahontas is mentioned in passing more than once in Ghost Milk. Sinclair also writers about Chris Petit’s ‘modest’ flat, but what he doesn’t say is that one of the neighbours is a direct descendant of this American-Indian princess. Not that being a direct descendant of Pocahontas is anything unusual — many in the US state of Virginia claim her as an ancestor, and I personally know at least five women in London who belong to this particular bloodline.
In Ghost Milk and elsewhere, Sinclair half-seriously presents himself as a cynic because that’s what his publisher and many of his readers want. He writes: “Ben Watson, who juggled identities as late-punk poet and card-carrying member of the Socialist Workers Party, the SWP, accused me of promoting no values in the contemporary world beyond a belief in poetry. And he was right….” This left me asking myself: what could be less cynical than a belief in poetry? A belief in spirits perhaps (ghost milk), or the notion that the 2012 Olympic development had ruined east London? In Sinclair’s case such positions emerge from his mission as a poet… At the heart of all his books is a poetic kernel, and this is what keeps me reading them. In many ways, with Ghost Milk, Sinclair has returned to his roots, and produced a suitably disguised beat generation travelogue with a hidden message that will slip under the radar of faux-cynical bourgeois readers and lodge in their brains, where it might just nullify some of the toxic waste with which they’ve filled their heads.
When Sinclair invokes writers to whom he is vastly superior — ranging from Roberto Bolaño and WG Sebald to Will Self and Peter Ackroyd — as a means of making his publishers and middle-class readers feel comfortable (with some worthless but currently recognisable signposts), he might be read as being a cynic. But then garbage like Sebald is a cloak under which he smuggles true poetry into the minds of those who would otherwise reject it. Sinclair not only remains a poet, he appears to see this role as akin to that of a shaman or alchemist. Twenty years after the fall of the wall, he is still able to read Berlin through the prism of spy fiction. The effects are delirious, and by the time I reached the climax of Ghost Milk — Sinclair selling his archive to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (and in the process he risks being rewritten as a grand project) — I just wanted this book to go on and on… And it will go on, with Sinclair’s next instalment of documentary fiction. These works are frequently misidentified as a grand literary project by bourgeois critics, but they’re actually the poetic equivalent of a feuilleton!
While I’m sure Iain Sinclair’s publisher would love to turn him into an institution, there is little chance of that happening while their author continues to throw a spanner in the works. The title Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project, works on two levels. As I’ve already noted, on the one hand Sinclair is attacking the way in which the 2012 Olympic development has ruined east London; but on a poetic plane Ghost Milk functions as an auto-critique of the successful man of letters. Sinclair knows ‘there’s no success like failure’ and presents himself as endlessly chasing invoices, doing ads for Audi cars, and getting banned from making public appearances in Hackney libraries. In fact, he portrays himself as doing almost anything but writing. That said, works of documentary fiction are often poetically deceptive, and Sinclair remains a prolific author; as the regular appearance of big books like this one demonstrates. It is in both living through and living out these contradictions that Sinclair remains a poet half in love with what he wishes wasn’t a disenchanted world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stewart Home is Britain’s greatest living underground legend.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 5th, 2011.