Ghost Milk: Calling Time On The Grand Project
Hamish Hamilton, 2011
320 pp., $45.75
The Ghost Writer
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.