Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project
Hamish Hamilton, 2011
415 pp., $45.75
The Ghost Writer
1. In the Year of Our Lord 2001, Iain Sinclair walked around the city of London in an attempt to undo a great curse laid upon the city. He walked alongside the M25, the vast London Orbital: sometimes just inside its circumference, sometimes just outside it, very rarely walking on the road itself. The road itself was the curse he sought to remove, along with the politics and philosophy that produce such roads.
Invoking magicians and celebrants of the paranormal, Sinclair imagines London not as an inorganic "place" but as a living body, a body endangered by its mechanistic physicians, above all Margaret Thatcher: "My superstition, sympathetic to Fludd and Paracelsus, persists: the walk around London's orbital motorway is personal. From Harefield to Purfleet, the rushes, surges of excitement, are connected to an imagined—solar powered?—circulation of blood." Having noted that many great country houses were built a day's horseback ride from central London, and that the M25 itself is set just at that distance, he becomes obsessed with concentric circles of spiritual and intellectual force. He sees the poets and sages of London moving to its periphery either to escape or understand: "Blake at Lambeth, [the Elizabethan magician John] Dee at Mortlake, Pope at Twickenham, [the novelist J. G.] Ballard at Shepperton: the great British tradition of expulsion, indifference. The creation of alternative universes that wrap like Russian dolls around a clapped-out core." The body of London is dying from its heart and being strangled by the great garrotte of the Orbital; Sinclair hopes by walking the ancient lines to make an effectual counterspell, to loosen the malign constriction.
Some sixty years earlier, C. S. Lewis had asked a church congregation, "Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spells that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years." Lewis and Sinclair don't have a great deal in common: the evil enchanters with whom the older man contended (Victorian skeptics, literary modernists, Freudians) bear little resemblance to Sinclair's enemies (city planners and Tory politicians), and where Lewis wished to restore orthodox Christianity Sinclair advocates an older and darker magic. But both rail against what Max Weber called Entzauberung, the disenchantment or de-magicking of the world. Sinclair's walk was a way to rage against the dying of an ancient light, a light given off for millennia by a disturbingly magical city on the banks of the Thames.
What was unusual about that journey, for Sinclair, was its reach and range. For while Sinclair is a titan among walkers, he ambulates primarily near his home in Hackney, in London's East End. As Robert Macfarlane has commented, "Walking is his chief method and the city his chief subject." So it was fitting that after London Orbital, which came out in 2002, he would offer, seven years later, a detailed and passionate account of the nearby: Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report. The title will strike many as ironic, because Hackney is a scrubby place, populated by people of varying colors and nationalities who have little in common save their scraping-to-get-by social status. (Hackney suffered badly in the August riots.) In Hackney there's nothing that a visitor is likely to call charm or even interest. "Rose-red empire" indeed.
But Sinclair treats Hackney unironically, even though the title of his book is a borrowing of the name of an enormous old music hall: "The rose-red endstop of the Town Hall precinct. With its vast lettering: HACKNEY EMPIRE." It's Sinclair's empire, for he knows it inside and out, and possesses that authority conferred by long intimacy. Near the beginning of the book he says that he had been gathering information to write it for forty years. But changes to the landscape meant that what he learned was always going out of date, as new information arrived and demanded attention. Add to that the problems of memory's failures: as he writes near the end, "My rose-red Empire was built around absence, holes in the narrative, faked resolution. Characters had to wear large labels so that I would recognize them when they reappeared."
"How best to describe Sinclair?" asks Robert Macfarlane in a recent portrait in the Guardian:
East London's recording angel? Hackney's Pepys? A literary mud-larker and tip-picker? A Travelodge tramp (his phrase)? A middle-class dropout with a gift for bullshit (also his phrase)? A toxicologist of the 21st-century landscape? A historian of countercultures and occulted pasts? An intemperate Wall-E, compulsively collecting and compacting the city's textual waste? A psycho-geographer (from which term Sinclair has been rowing away ever since he helped launch it into the mainstream)? He's all of these, and more.