Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics, by Iain Sinclair, Faber and Faber, 405 pages, $30.00
July 2012 marks the third time London has hosted the modern Olympics. In 1908, Britain was a rich and imperious nation, and British athletes topped the medals table. For the 1948 “Austerity Games,” London was scarred by bomb damage and suffering under a postwar regime of rationing. There was no money for new buildings, so athletes were housed in Royal Air Force barracks; the USA won the medal count, while Britain slipped to 12th place. This year, Britain is once again mired in economic gloom. Yet the 2012 contest was awarded in the heady, affluent days before the financial crash. On July 6, 2005, when news broke of the successful Olympic bid, scenes of genuine, unstaged jubilation took place in Trafalgar Square. The official talk was of inspiring a generation, transforming British sports, and regenerating East London—particularly a tract of derelict land in the eastern borough of Stratford, a multi-ethnic area of hemmed-in terrace rows, industrial estates, commuter stations, and sketchy urban parks.
“We have got a great chance now to … leave a legacy for the future,” said then–Prime Minister Tony Blair. The next day, July 7, suicide bombers attacked London’s transport system; 52 people were killed, and more than 700 were injured. Blair spoke defiantly of holding “true to the British way of life”; London’s mayor at the time, Ken Livingstone, quoting Pericles of Athens (“All great things flow toward the city”), set Olympic dreams against global terrorism.
Construction of the Olympic Park in Stratford became a high-security venture, the perimeter clad in surveillance devices. Behind the fence, the park emerged: an 80,000-capacity steel stadium decked in striking pyramidal lighting structures, an aquatics center, a velodrome, and an athletes’ village. Meanwhile, Britain passed from illusory prosperity into deep recession, and an ungainly Tory-Liberal coalition replaced a Labour Party irreparably damaged by infighting and the “weapons of mass destruction” imbroglio. Following the banking crisis, the hacking scandal at the Rupert Murdoch–owned newspaper News of the World revealed widespread corruption within the economic and political elite. In August 2011, police shot a 29-year-old black man named Mark Duggan in Tottenham, and London erupted in riots. The violence spread across the city, then further afield to Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool.
In the midst of such turmoil, the Olympics might be expected to supply a stirring, patriotic focus, as did the Games of 1948. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in May, Sebastian Coe, an Olympic gold medalist in the 1980s and now a prominent member of the London Olympic Organizing Committee, struck this sort of positive note: “I just want people to leave London seeing the city that I’m very proud of. Extraordinarily diverse. Multicultural. … I want London to be shown from all its traditional and historic values in a modern setting. That’s what I’d like people to see. A city at ease with itself.”
Yet recently, there have been vehement protests against the sponsorship of the Olympic stadium (officially billed as the “most sustainable ever built”) by Dow Chemical, which owns the company responsible for the 1984 Bhopal gas leak in India, one of the worst industrial disasters in history. Still, there remain plenty of enthusiasts in Britain to castigate the “doubters.” It seems likely that, despite all the pre-event caviling, the Olympics will generate the short-lived patriotism that usually accompanies sporting contests, royal weddings, and jubilees in Britain. Afterward, everyone will go back to workaday default tribalism. Unless, of course, something goes wrong—and the fact that I feel obliged to write “unless” may indicate the general anxiety that has afflicted the whole business.
Into this complex terrain of uncertainty and expectation enters Iain Sinclair, London poet, novelist, memoirist, founder of his own creative anti-canon (a collation of long-lost alchemists, occultists, half-forgotten directors, writers J. G. Ballard and Thomas de Quincey, and many, many others). In prose works that blur the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, Sinclair has charted a lifetime of meanderings around London, dredging up traces of the previously ignored, delving into the shadows. It was perhaps inevitable that high-blown talk of “legacy” would draw him into the fray. Furthermore, the Olympic Park has been hammered up round the corner from Hackney, the eastern borough of London where Sinclair has lived for the past 44 years and which he recently described in Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report (2009).
Sinclair’s works often follow a warped variant of the hero’s quest, opening with the author compelled by some new strand of esoterica: a book he has acquired in a flea-ridden second-hand shop, something salvaged from oblivion, a mystery or a ghost. (In 1987’s White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, it is the lurid tale of Jack the Ripper; in 2005’s Edge of the Orison, Sinclair pursues the Romantic poet John Clare.) In London Orbital (2002), Sinclair walks around London’s M25 motorway (akin to an American beltway), passing through some of Britain’s most adulterated stretches of former natural beauty. In almost all his books, Sinclair meanders, satirizing his obsessions, half in love with easeful bathos, a master of topographical description. Like W.G. Sebald, to whom he nods in Ghost Milk, Sinclair has become his own literary adjective—“Sinclair-esque” suggests prose consisting of unexpected metaphors, collisions of the usually disassociated. The ritual massing of verb-less phrases: “An austere narcissist … A tourist on his own territory …”
At the beginning of Ghost Milk, Sinclair finds himself in the grip of a new obsession. When work begins on the Olympic Park in East London, he takes to turning up there each morning, stalled by an enormous blue fence. “Welcome to the People’s Park,” says one sign. “Security Dogs Patrol This Area,” says the next. Sinclair remembers how, 40 years ago, “I stood on this spot, looking over the rail yards, across the mounds and hoists.” Back then, the area was “a classic edgeland of inconvenient, dirty, fly-by-night enterprises and abortive pastoral relics. Industrial hoists. Football pitches. A cycle track.” Now Sinclair smells something new in the air: “Particulates, red dust. … The treacle of incineration.”
Another quest begins, this one in search of “the Olympic mystery, the enigma hidden behind the smokescreen of upbeat PR.” “When did it begin,” Sinclair wants to know, “this intimate liaison between developers and government, to reconstruct the body of London, to their mutual advantage?” A 180-acre site next to the Olympic Park has been sold to a shopping-mall billionaire, Frank Lowy (a resident of Australia); the athletes’ village, Sinclair argues, will become “satellite housing” oriented around a gigantic mall. Ken Livingstone concedes that he “feigned enthusiasm for the 2012 Olympics as a way of generating funds for brownfield developments in East London.” Yet Sinclair interviews a London solicitor, Bill Parry-Davies, who suggests that the Olympic Park is contaminated with a radioactive material used in the manufacture of luminous watch dials. If industrial wasteland is being cleared, so are former soccer fields, Victorian theaters, Georgian terraces, and green spaces. “To provide more theoretical housing,” Sinclair writes, “it is necessary to unhouse those who have already fended for themselves.” Extant mini-societies are uprooted, Sinclair suggests, replaced by housing developments offering the very “community” that has just been destroyed.
At one level, then, Ghost Milk is a “catalogue of loss.” It is also an extended act of countermyth. Unmoved by the official legacy-and-pride version of the Olympics, Sinclair travels to Berlin to visit the site of the 1936 games, finding “rings … strung on a wire between twin brick pillars, topped with searchlights. Access to the stadium is strictly forbidden.” At the northwest edge of this Olympic Park lies Spandau, where “Albert Speer … paced the prison yard for so many years.” The 2008 Beijing Olympics is damned as “a dictatorship toy … part of the propaganda of communism,” as Chinese poet Yang Lian tells Sinclair from his home-in-exile in East London. At Athens’s former Olympic site, Sinclair interprets the deserted stadium as a “symbol of a nation’s bankruptcy” and “a wilderness dressed with elaborate and ruinously expensive structures for which nobody has any use.”
There are reasonable counterarguments to many of Sinclair’s assertions. One might, for instance, point out that some Olympics are less miasma-drenched than others or that lots of people genuinely enjoy watching exceptional sporting achievements. Sinclair does make the occasional concession. “Development spasms” in London were “discreet, sensitively achieved, when compared with … pre-Olympic Beijing,” for example. But for the most part, he doesn’t qualify his remarks. Defining the “ghost milk” of his title, Sinclair writes: “CGI smears on the blue fence. … Embalming fluid. A soup of photographic negatives. … The universal element in which we sink and swim.” For Sinclair, it seems, the Olympics are a focusing device for his wider concern that public life is a sort of Zombieland in which no one will tell you what he or she really thinks.
Toward the end of Ghost Milk, Sinclair travels to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, to hand decades of notes and manuscripts over to his archive there. Afterward, he sits in the library with a current notebook. “Dirt—processed, made safe—fell on the antiseptic surface of the desk,” he writes. “Clinker. Coal dust. A residue … of the Stratford railway sheds.” Deciding not to “rub the grains into my skin”—too neat a conclusion—Sinclair instead recalls Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost: “Walking the streets like a revenant, he makes connections that explode his carefully protected solitude.”
Contemplating mortality, divesting himself of so many remnants of the past, Sinclair suggests that this forging of connections—haunting the thoughts of others, emanating your own personal ether—is perhaps the best you can hope for. So Ghost Milk offers a robust defense of the art of writing and, more generally, of the business of fashioning one’s own idiosyncratic interpretation of the world. It is an authorial last stand, a rallying cry to all those “habitués of the worst bars, the grimmest cafés, night birds, defacers of notebooks,” who “feed on the glamour of truth.”
The 2012 Olympics has already staged a major contest of words: official rhetoric and journalism, lobbying and protest, legal prohibitions on non-sponsors (who are forbidden from mentioning the Olympics at all), and similar prohibitions on private individuals attending the Olympics (who are forbidden from posting videos on their private blogs). Yet people watching the 100-meter dash in London’s new stadium will not be worrying about radioactive waste and particulates, the morality of sponsorship deals, or the erosion of civil liberties. They will cheer and applaud the winners; the newspapers will run front-page headlines about the medals and the glory—even those that were printing “All Is Doom” stories a week earlier.
Sinclair knows that he’s dealing with the inescapable heft of sports and patriotism. “Bear witness. Record and remember,” he proposes. It’s the closest he comes to an anti-slogan: If you genuinely love sports, or your nation, then go ahead, just don’t ever be conned, don’t get overwhelmed by other people’s ideas about the world. Leading by example, Sinclair goes his own way, charts a personal course through Olympic history, records and remembers as he pleases. The result is controversial, exhilarating, angry, and brilliant: the unfettered expression of a particular vantage point, and a bold incitement to others.