Over the years I guess I must have read all of Iain Sinclair’s published works, or at least the ones made available through commercial publishers. So it was with surprise that I read the gripes expressed by some reviewers of Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project when it was published last year. Many of them complained about Sinclair’s meandering style, his flitting from subject to subject, the appearance of characters and references to friends without any prior explanation. But don’t they know? This is how Iain Sinclair writes.
All of Sinclair’s stylistic idiosyncrasies are on display in Ghost Milk; regular readers like me would be disappointed if they weren’t. But there is, I have to concede, something different about this book. There is an anger, a sense of battle lines being drawn, a call to arms in support of the human against the machine. Maybe Sinclair, now approaching his seventieth year, feels himself coming towards the end of his creative life. There is certainly an urgency about his writing, a need to take on more, to confront and to challenge.
And the big beast that Sinclair feels it is his obligation to confront is something he calls the grand project. Specifically in 2012 it is the London Olympics but, in essence, it is all such projects: from the Millennium Dome to Athens, Beijing to the M62 linear city. The grand project is conjured up out of money, power, vanity and spin and in its wake lie people and their communities, crushed and dispersed.
The beast has chosen East London, Sinclair’s home territory, as its next prey, sweeping away football pitches and allotments and churning up toxic industrial effluent and Japanese knot-weed. And at the centre of the beast’s lair, like some marketing campaign symbol for the circles of hell, sit the Olympic rings.
For although Ghost Milk is, in some ways, a more political book than his previous ones, Sinclair still uses the power of myth to take the reader to new levels of understanding about his chosen subject. Thus, as he travels through London and beyond we can discern echoes of King Lud, Arthur and the two towers. The routes he chooses to walk seem significant too. East to west across London and along the M62 corridor linking Hull and Liverpool, as if to follow the routes of WW2 German bombers and to exorcise their scarring of our collective consciousness.
Ghost Milk moves easily from the local to the global in Sinclair’s accustomed digressive style. The book opens with his recollections of his time as a jobbing labourer in Stratford and ends with a visit to the post-Olympic wastelands of Athens and the university library in Texas where his archive is housed. In between he takes in Kingston upon Thames, Manchester, Morecambe and Shepperton. Many of the usual suspects are here too: Chris Petit, Renchi Bicknell, Steve Dilworth and, no longer with us in the flesh but ever-present in the way Sinclair writes about the modern city, his friend, J G Ballard.
And after all these years, all those words and, it has to be said, some degree of success, Iain Sinclair is still at heart an itinerant bookseller. He picks up that which is cast off, he recovers, he sorts and he recycles. But now it is not just books that pass through the Sinclair mill, it is words, ideas, places and people.
Image courtesy of Hamish Hamilton