Ghost Milk: Calling Time On The Grand Project
Hamish Hamilton, 2011
320 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.
Yes, but the first description is the most fitting. It is recording that Sinclair does best and most—maniacally, sometimes to the fascination and sometimes to the utter perplexity and sheer boredom of his readers. All of his books have their longueurs, but often the moments of greatest fascination emerge from them. His recording can seem like that of an angel through its indifference to the usual human concerns—or perhaps it would be better to say, to the concerns we typically bring to books and other narratives. Sinclair has written of his "final renunciation of the burden of narrative." Like William Blake, his great predecessor as an occult and obsessive Londoner, and one also linked with the angelic, Sinclair's motto might well be, "Enough! Or, Too much." He gathers, consumes, and regurgitates in a seemingly endless cycle. But he also says of his four decades of gathering knowledge about Hackney, the "guiding principle" was stated by Blake: "Tho' obscured, this is the form of the Angelic land."
2. Even as Sinclair was writing his tribute to, or denunciation of, or account of—it all depends on which page you're reading—Hackney, something big was happening there, something far beyond the gradual changes endemic to any place. The apparatus of the Olympic Games came to East London.
He had already noted its arrival in the Hackney book: he says there that the building sites—venues for sports, athlete housing—are "an effective cultural defoliant, an Agent Orange of edge-land jungles, marking out the flight path to dinosaur rock acts in O2, the rebranded Millennium Dome." Sinclair is offended and angered by this as by little else. That book begins with Sinclair describing, in a strangely elliptical way, a gang attack he suffered while walking through Hackney. This he shrugs off: "This is nothing, a toll on the privilege of living here; … It's my own fault, for being visible in my difference, and too ancient to be moving through this place at this hour." The book ends with a strange juxtaposition: an interview with Astrid Proll, an early member of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang, is intercut with visits to a blue fence that surrounds construction of Olympic venues. "An exclusion zone has been declared."
Random assaults on pedestrians, the harboring of violent criminals—these are the ordinary things of the Hackney Sinclair loves. There's a place in Hackney where people dispose of guns, the same place where criminals have ditched their instruments for generations: Sinclair was shown the disposal site by an associate of the Kray twins, psychotic and murderous leaders of the London underworld decades ago. (Tradition!) But the blue fence—that's something different, and infinitely worse. The fence generated another book, Sinclair's newest, Ghost Milk. Sinclair tells people that's the name of the book he's working on, and, asked what it means, he thinks, "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."
Well, what does that mean? It's hard to specify. George MacDonald used to say that the purpose of fantasy was not to convey a meaning but awake a meaning, and that seems to be Sinclair's approach from the grittier end of the literary spectrum—except that what he seems to want to awaken is a sense of foreboding, dread. The "ghost milk" that oozes from the blue fence offers simulated nourishment: the Olympic organizers promise urban renewal, new possibilities for Hackney and the rest of East London, but such promises are empty, Sinclair insists. They're taking the soul of a place and leaving a few temporarily pristine buildings behind: "The pressure of regeneration, forcefed by the Olympics, is such that zones once tolerant of impoverished artists have to turn every waste lot, every previously unnoticed ruin, to profit. To provide more theoretical housing, it is necessary to unhouse those who have already fended for themselves." Similarly, in the Hackney book he had written, "We are the rubbish. Outmoded and unrequired. Dumped on wet pavings and left there for weeks, in the expectation of becoming art objects …. It is my own choice to identify with detritus in a place that has declared war on recyclers while erecting expensive memorials to the absence of memory."
As Robert MacFarlane notes, Sinclair is often seen as the founder of the discipline of "psychogeography" (his follower in the practice, Will Self, has been largely responsible for this designation), and however much Sinclair dislikes the term it remains useful—as long as we remember that psyche in this case does not mean "mind" but rather "soul." It is perhaps Sinclair's deepest conviction that places have souls, that they are lastingly, though perhaps not everlastingly, connected to the universe in distinctive ways. It is hard to erase the spirit of a place, but relatively easy to damage or obscure it. And over the years Sinclair has amassed a detailed inventory of the things that damage a place. In Sinclair's analysis, cheap transport caffs (truck stops) that serve dreadful coffee and greasy English breakfasts do no harm; elegant new coffee shops staffed by expert baristas, though, produce destructive reverberations in the spirit world. An old pub with new owners, offering an upscale dining menu, is a blight on the inner landscape of a street. Indeed, anything that smacks of "planning," "improvement," or "renewal" is sure to distress the presiding spirits, to disrupt the spiritual balance of the neighborhood. So a project the size of the Olympic construction is the psychogeographical equivalent of the Hiroshima bomb.
3. When put this way, Sinclair's career-long project might sound ridiculous. It is a tribute to the singular power of his style that one rarely feels this way when reading his books, though the uniformity of the tone does weary the mind's ear. His prose hypnotizes more often than it infuriates; but sometimes it does infuriate. Though his anger is often justified, surely his readers can be forgiven for sometimes wanting something else.
That "something else" might be a substantive vision of the good, or just a good: Sinclair prefers the old to the new, the shabby to the polished, the disorderly to the orderly, the dirty to the clean, even (it often seems) the poor to the well-off. He expresses his preferences relentlessly, mainly through scorning what has come to be rather than celebrating what was—but he never really accounts for them. It is hard to find anywhere in Sinclair's work a clear explanation of why he prefers what he does: what values, what commitments, what view of what makes life worth living, underlies all this outrage.
Sinclair really doesn't write at all like Hunter S. Thompson, the American apostle of "gonzo journalism" to whom he has been compared, but the linkage is understandable. Both of them are writers who like finding an edge and then crossing over it; both (above all) possess a style fueled primarily by deep disquiet sliding into rage. These are writers whose styles are so distinctive, so relentlessly urgent, that they cannot really be parodied: any parody would merely replicate something that's in the writers themselves at some point.
But whereas Thompson got his energy from traveling, from being on the road in big cars, Sinclair thrives as he walks his own neighborhood. He's the Antaeus of writers. The farther he gets from London, indeed from Hackney itself, the more diffuse and pointless his anger seems. Even in Manchester he feels powerless: "It was too late, the story was too rich, I would not live long enough to fix my bearings." Yet farther and farther from home he travels here, to Liverpool, to Hull, to Berlin—and in the book's final pages to Texas and California. A story that begins with Sinclair's recollections of being marginally employed in East London in 1971 ends with his eating an elegant Italian meal at a waterfront restaurant in Sausalito and thinking of traveling to Mexico. He seems to be deliberately disorienting himself, as though determined to replace anger with confusion.
But he keeps circling back. The most distant places serve to remind him of what he has left behind. No matter where he travels, two topics recur: the "grand project" of the Olympics, the book's ostensible theme, but also the life and death (in 2009) of J. G. Ballard. And if anything Ballard is the stronger presence.
Ballard, a dozen years older than Sinclair, was a friend and mentor to him but also a kind of Doppelgänger, like and unlike. If Sinclair's primary task has been to document the layered mundanities and secrets of East London, Ballard's was to imagine future dystopian worlds (most famously in his novel Crash). Ballard lived the last fifty years of his life in solidly suburban Shepperton, northwest of London, a very different place than Sinclair's grungy and sketchy Hackney—but he never wrote about Shepperton. Or perhaps it would be better to say that he never wrote directly and obviously about it. Imagined places were his territory, except in his powerful autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, based on his childhood experience in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai. Sinclair is ever fascinated by what the present is doing to the past; Ballard's thoughts turned always toward the futures the present could someday yield.
In that sense, one might say that he wrote about what Shepperton was (invisibly to others) on the way to becoming. In his dystopian speculations Ballard is as much of a psychogeographer as Sinclair; and Sinclair clearly believes that Ballard drew strength as a writer from that half-century of close observation of a small piece of Earth:
I wondered why, after his great success with Empire of the Sun, he didn't relocate to one of those balconied, sharp-edged properties that were so attractive to the convalescing and blocked advertising men who populate his books. Foolish thought. Ballard was a working writer, first and last: the where of it was not to be disturbed. Fixed routines served him well; so many hours, so many words. Breakfast. Times crossword. Desk overlooking a natural garden. Stroll to the shops to observe the erotic rhythms of consumerism. Lunch standing up with World at One on the radio. Back to the study. Forty-minute constitutional down to the river. TV chill-out meditation: The Rockford Files rather than Kenneth Clark.
Ballard had no need for ostentatious slumming or for cultural striving under the guidance of the learned and urbane Clark, host of the famous BBC series Civilisation. (And anyway, who needs to learn about civilization when civilization is what's dying?) According to Sinclair, Ballard's loss of his driver's license in the 1970s merely helped him to focus on all that he could learn within walking distance of his house, which, as it turned out, was more than enough. Sinclair seems to see Ballard as someone who could be evisceratingly critical of modern life without being personally fretted by any of it—in contrast, it would seem, to Sinclair himself. Sinclair concludes one of his meditations on Ballard with the following signal compliment: "Ballard was nothing if not precise. He said what he meant and he meant what he said."
4. In the last chapter of Ghost Milk Sinclair voyages to America, which he perceives always through the scrim of the movies he's seen: Texas via Red River, San Francisco via Vertigo. This doesn't bother him, because he holds to the view that America "remains a tabula rasa, bereft of ghosts …. Writing in London is about archaeology: trawling, classifying, presenting. Here it is the blank page of an elephant folio." These are tiresome old clichés, lacking even the truthfulness residing in most clichés; which makes one wonder why Sinclair would bother to come to America in the first place.
The answer brings us back to Ballard, by a circuitous route. Sinclair comes to Texas to visit his own literary archive, which he sold some years ago to the Harry Ransom Humanities Center at the University of Texas. He is self-scornful about this: we recall the subtitle of Ghost Milk ("Calling Time on the Grand Project") when he writes, "I became my own grand project and sold the memory-vault for the dollars to keep me afloat for another season." And then he tells us that when Ballard had been approached to sell his literary remains, he told everyone that they didn't exist, that he had discarded or burned everything he had made and whatever had come his way.
Only after his death did Ballard's children discover that he had in fact kept it all, from documentation of his time in the Lunghua internment camp to his school records to complete and meticulously edited manuscripts of his novels. His family ended up selling the hoard to the British Library, just a few miles from Shepperton, still within the metropolis that he and Sinclair loved. Meanwhile, Sinclair's stuff lies in Austin: an old hard drive awaits repair and recovery, but "everything else, my false starts, abandoned projects, drafts, proofs, corrected typescripts, had been sorted, listed, entombed."
Entombed. And then Sinclair flies to California, pays an inconclusive and disappointing visit to San Quentin—another failed "grand project"—then returns to the mainland to enjoy his dinner in Sausalito. In those final pages he is a convincing chronicler of his own inauthenticity, his fixed belief that Ballard was the one who somehow got it right.
Meanwhile, back home, he has at least the comforts of being a prophet without honor in his own country. Hackney's city council was so enraged by his opposition to the Olympic developments that they prohibited Sinclair from doing a reading at a local library. "So sorry," the librarian told him apologetically. "The launch is off. You dissed the Olympics." The last words of Ghost Milk are: "This book is dedicated to Mayor Jules Pipe, a constant inspiration, as he remakes the borough of Hackney as a model surrealist wonderland." But for a writer so long stimulated by mendacity and thoughtlessness, here the inspiration seems weak, slack. Though the book is dotted with occasional brilliancies, Sinclair has gotten tired, I think, of his own method. He describes himself as a "madman talking to himself in public." He's living off the fading adrenalin of wrath, which is itself a kind of ghost milk. Maybe the worst kind.
Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. His edition of Auden's The Age of Anxiety was published earlier this year (Princeton Univ. Press). He is the author most recently of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, just out from Oxford University Press.
1. In an interview with Daniele Rugo, Sinclair expanded on his choice of title: "One of the reasons for the title is precisely to provoke the question, why this title? You can't have too descriptive a title or too bland a title. A title should be mysterious enough to interest me for a few days; otherwise it means it is not the right one. There isn't a specific meaning to this title; in the book I keep going back to it to try and justify this initial paradox. I think it has to do with creating a strange membrane between memory and the world, that impervious zone—material and immaterial—that is like the milk of a ghost, if such a thing could exist. The two elements push one another. Sometimes the title refers to the pollution coming off a site and creating those strange clouds that make up the sunsets in Los Angeles or Beijing, some other times it indicates voices of ghosts that become dominant. "I took a walk towards the river, to Wapping, once I had finished the book and in King Edward's Park I found an obelisk—a war memorial of some sort. The commemorative plaque had been dug out, so that the monument looked like the memory of nothing. Just before stepping away I noticed that below the missing message someone had graffitied 'Milk' and someone else had added 'Ghost.' Somehow this was the confirmation that the title was already inscribed into the landscape."
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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