It is hard not to respond to Ghost Milk on a personal level. It is a book about the Olympic Games – an issue I am fascinated by – and its setting is Hackney – the place where I live. On another level I am thanked in the Acknowledgements at the back of the book. This was, I think, for having commissioned an article from the book’s author, Iain Sinclair, on the opening of the Wembley and the Dome when I was editing Blueprint.
Although I still love the way that Sinclair writes, in Ghost Milk he has started using his stylistic verve as a smoke-screen for a strange poetics of place which leaves me unable to recognise the place I live in. What I love about his work, the way he reflects on an immediate reality of urban life – the transient to the intransigent; the way his prose style is lyrical yet somehow unmediated, the way the past informs the present, all this exists in Ghost Milk but I must admit that my admiration is challenged by the highly personal slight that Sinclair takes in the granting of the Olympic Games to East London.
Let me meet, cautiously then, Sinclair half-way then and respond to Ghost Milk on a personal level. In the first chapter Sinclair describes walking through London Fields to the newly refurbished lido, glimpsing the swimmers through the entrance and becoming immediately dismayed. He refers to the pool as ‘excercise purgatory’. Of course, I’ve only lived in Hackney for 3 years unlike Sinclair who has lived there since time immemorial but I love the Hackney Lido: crowded and boisterous on one hand, yet strangely able to accommodate private space and a moment to relax on the other. A picture of that strange ability that Hackney has to crowd you with life and distractions yet allow you to be yourself simultaneously.
I must admit that it gets busy. Many go there though just to relax in the sun. I go there to swim, which I must admit to finding a little like purgatory anyway. An expiation of sin. A payment for pleasure had but in a good way. Perhaps I am more inured to crawling up a pool in line than Iain Sinclair. One would have thought though that if he found his local pool too crowded he would be grateful that in 2013 he will have a massive Olympic sized swimming pool to go to. That is not the case.
Perhaps I should not respond on a more objective level. I should not take it personally that in parts of Ghost Milk there is a gross misrepresentation of how human agency has formed the ‘wilderness’ that Iain Sinclair loves so much. I shouldn’t take it personally that he totally misrepresents the Lea Valley Regional Park Act. However, I must admit that I do. I would argue that in actual fact this Act preserved a whole swathe of land from the Thames to the M25 for the recreation of the people of London. Far from being the jumped-up Town Councillors he describes, the people behind it were remarkable. Lou Sherman, an ex-cabbie and Communist established a Civic Trust to retain the Lea Valley. Rather than the jumped-up potentate Sinclair describes, a man who committed the cardinal sin of planning and making and building, he thought of the people of the city as a collective.
His plan, to me, was a noble one. Sinclair picks out the more outré moments of his plan. He exaggerates, he selects choice moments. At its heart the Park was an advanced piece of urban planning which has helped define the singular beauty that Sinclair so relishes in the Lea Valley to this day. The plan said that the park would “be a playground for Londoners against the background of London. This background – power stations, gas works, factories, railways, houses and flats – must be accepted and acknowledged in the landscape theme.”
Anyone who has read Sinclair’s books will recognise this landscape as the very one that the writer relishes. I have written elsewhere about the way in which other parts of the Lee Valley have, if anything, been allowed to return to a wilderness to be enjoyed by individuals rather than a space for more organised, less conventionally picturesque leisure activities. However, the truth remains that the very aesthetic of post-industrial atrophy that Sinclair himself has thrived in was acknowledged in this plan and preserved. But surely we have a right to build on this plan, not flagrantly but out of necessity?
In previous works the city to Sinclair was a received object, which he enjoyed in its multiplicity. I had no problem with the games he played with fact and fiction, but in Ghost Milk one really has to wonder about his retrospective tinkering. He would rather see the Lee Valley as an untouched idyll when in fact the whole place is determined by man’s intervention and subsequent crafting.
Far from being the failure that Sinclair describes the Plan has been very successful. Not only preserving and retaining the industrial heritage of the place – the very habitat in which Sinclair’s imagination finds root. – it also has hardwired recreation into the valley long before the Olympics came along. In addition to football and rugby, canoeing, rowing athletics, swimming, horse-riding, skating have found home along the valley running north. I find Sinclair’s attitude to collective actitivity deeply suspect: the last to be picked at games getting his revenge.
Whereas Sinclair had hitherto constrained his critique of development to the present, in Ghost Milk he now criticises retrospectively. His remarks about Joan Littlewood and the abortive Fun Palace are dubious. The whole idea of the project was not that it would be, as he suggests like the Palace of the Republic in Berlin- a monolithic architectural object. In fact Price’s intention was the exact opposite. He thought that it should be a machine, a kit which could be endlessly reconstructed, a building in the mode of the adapatable architecture Debord and others hoped would be the end of their derives.
The intention for the fun Palace, which has admittedly been bastardised by the Olympic stadium, would have no form as such but endlessly mutate. The Fun Palace was one of the most challenging ideas from a British architect of the 20th Century. Sinclair, often economical with the truth about the present – “what needs to be true, is” as he puts it at the end of Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire – is now reinventing the past, deforming his poetics of place.
Rather than entertaining a political distrust of the Olympics his disregard for it is anti-political. At their most reductive, and in Ghost Milk I fear they are, Sinclair’s poetics are based on memory and by extension, place which for him is a recepticle of memory. If that place changes, for whatever reason, he finds a rupture in his sense of self. Rather than placing his faith in a negotiated process of change, he sees all change to the place around him as an erosion of his own identity.
I am Hackney. They have changed Hackney. They have changed me.
Indeed whilst he plays with the past to suit himself, in Ghost Milk it is even harder than in his other works to imagine what his vision of the future is. One gets the impression that he is against change per se. Butted up against the Olympics, which is a mighty obstacle, his stance seems to be to go against man’s ability to control and improve his own environment. He takes intellectually from the characters he meets and offers us his imagination as a transformative agent. Sinclair’s poetry though feeds on the decay of old buildings and old structures. In Ghost Milk he leaches on that which he professes to despise.
It will be interesting for me, if no-one else, to hear how Sinclair describes the Olympics as soon as they over. How will it have changed? How will it then change over time? At what stage, will their sting be lost to him? When it’s less busy at the Lido? Or when the stadium takes on a patina of age? Maybe he will never comes to terms with it. Maybe we will have to wait a few years for a new writer, fed – God help us – on scraps of Debord to write books about the great romantic moment of the Games and how somehow those moments have informed the present, and how the old swimming pool is worthy of being retained in the face of all common sense because the writer attaches great personal sentiment to what transpired there.