Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics

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From "an astonishingly original and entertaining writer" (Michael Dirda, The Washington Post) and "our greatest guide to London" (The Spectator), an extraordinary book about a disappearing city

The Olympics, the story goes, have transformed London into a gleaming, wholly modern city. And East London--Olympic headquarters--is the city's new jewel, provider of unlimited opportunities and better tomorrows. The grime and poverty have been scrubbed ...

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Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics

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Overview

From "an astonishingly original and entertaining writer" (Michael Dirda, The Washington Post) and "our greatest guide to London" (The Spectator), an extraordinary book about a disappearing city

The Olympics, the story goes, have transformed London into a gleaming, wholly modern city. And East London--Olympic headquarters--is the city's new jewel, provider of unlimited opportunities and better tomorrows. The grime and poverty have been scrubbed away, and huge stadiums and grand public sculptures have taken their place.

The writer Iain Sinclair has lived in East London for four decades, and in Ghost Milk, he tells a very different story about his home: that of a neighborhood turned upside down, of stolen history. Long-beloved parks have vanished; police raids can occur at any time; and high-security exclusion zones--enforced by armed guards and hidden cameras--have steamrolled East London's open streets and public spaces. To prepare for the most public of events, everything has been privatized.

A call to arms against the politicians and public figures who have so doggedly preached the gospel of the Olympics, Ghost Milk is also a brilliant reflection on a changing landscape--and Sinclair's most personal book yet. In an attempt to understand what has happened to his beloved city, Sinclair travels farther afield: he walks along the Thames from the North Sea to Oxford; he rides the bus across northern England; he visits Athens and Berlin, Olympic sites of the recent and distant past.

Elegiac, intimate, and audacious, Ghost Milk is at once a powerful chronicle of memory and loss, in the tradition of W. G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño, and a passionate interrogation of our embrace of progress at any cost.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The 2012 Olympic Games bulldoze soulful working-class London in this lively if labyrinthine urban travelogue–cum–cultural jeremiad. Sinclair (Lights Out for the Territory) decries the “manifest horror” of Olympics-instigated stadiums, condos, and malls, the evictions of anarchist squatters and immigrant shopkeepers, the ubiquitous security checkpoints and surveillance cameras, the promotional “CGI visions injected straight into the eyeball” and the “orgies of lachrymose nationalism.” (He had readings at municipal libraries canceled for “‘diss the Olympics.’”) It’s all the epitome, he complains, of a contemptible civilization of soulless corporate fascism, real estate scams, glitzy spectacles, and elitist privatized spaces that he finds everywhere—hiking up the Thames, busing around Liverpool, surveying past Olympic outrages in Berlin and Athens. Sinclair’s fragmented narrative whirls through impressionistic observations, snatches of history, film allusions, sketches of literary cronies—novelist J.G. Ballard, bard of apocalyptic suburban blandness, is vividly appreciated—and personal reminiscences. His critique of Olympic-sized inauthenticity isn’t terribly novel, and his stereotypically English landscape—intimate, slightly claustrophobic, strewn with cultural referents that Americans won’t get—may leave Yanks feeling a bit lost. Still, the acerbic panache of Sinclair’s prose makes for a lively ramble. Photos. (July 24)
From the Publisher
My favorite writer of the past decade.” —William Gibson

Sentence for sentence, there is no more interesting writer at work in English than Iain Sinclair.” —John Lanchester, The Daily Telegraph

“Sinclair is the poet of the marginal, the interstitial, the forgotten and the occulted.” —Hari Kunzru, The Guardian

“Sinclair [is] a prose stylist almost without peer.” —Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle

“How best to describe Sinclair? 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 twenty-first-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.” —Robert MacFarlane, The Guardian

The Barnes & Noble Review

Late in Ghost Milk, Iain Sinclair praises Henry Miller's travel book The Colossus of Maroussi, and it struck me: Sinclair is England's contemporary Miller — without the sex. In more than thirty volumes of fiction, travel writing, and poetry, Sinclair has used, like Miller, an autobiographical "hybrid medium" (his term) to celebrate his own quirky independence and attack what Miller called the "Air-Conditioned Nightmare" of cultural standardization and soul-sucking consumerism. For most of his sixty-plus years, Sinclair has lived in the East London borough of Hackney, an unpretentious, working-class neighborhood from which he has launched idiosyncratic London walks and his attacks on high-concept, top-down redevelopment schemes. When London was awarded the 2012 Olympics, the government chose neighboring Stratford as the site of the Olympic Village. In a grand irony, the inspiration for this book about the monstrous effects of "grand projects" was thrust upon — or handed to — Sinclair.

Like the American urbanist Jane Jacobs, Sinclair has in earlier documentary books resisted politicians' and planners' "progress" that would destroy long- standing local communities and replace vernacular architecture with computer-generated visions. But there was no stopping the Olympics. The only options, Sinclair says, are "Bear witness. Record and remember." So in Ghost Milk he describes what Hackney and Stratford have lost: community gardens, recreation centers and soccer fields, businesses, theaters, and homes. There were also ecological consequences of the grand project. Residents were denied access to the River Lea, which empties into the Thames; and because some of the Olympic site was previously industrial, Sinclair charges that new construction released environmental hazards into the air and water. If Sinclair's predictions about political profiteering, real estate speculation, and wasteful building are correct, he will have another book to write about the aftermath of the Olympics.

In her Death and Life of Great American Cities, which helped save Greenwich Village from one of Robert Moses's grand projects, Jacobs was impassioned. Sinclair is enraged:

The urban landscape of boroughs anywhere within the dust cloud of the Olympic Park has been devastated with a beat-the- clock impatience unrivalled in London since the beginnings of the railway age. Every civic decency, every sentimental attachment is swept aside for that primary strategic objective, the big bang of the starter's pistol.
What is not swallowed by development is consumed by the media. When Sinclair discovers he cannot walk "without encountering some species of film crew," he responds with the sentence fragments of Miller's characteristic splutter:
Blood-splash forensics. Fashion shoot. Soap opera. Certain pubs, certain stretches of towpath, abandoned hospitals, are quotations: ghost milk. Invasive caravans of wardrobe and catering. Hurtful bursts of light. The priestly attendants in puffa-jacket black. The episodes of yawning, aggressive, public boredom.
The best of Sinclair's 400 pages have this kind of imagistic recording and metaphoric commentary. However, his subtitle, "Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics," is only partially correct. He walks around but never breaches the blue fence that encircles the Olympic Village. He passes by it on a long walk along the Thames from its estuary to Oxford, an "adventure" to which he devotes the third of his book's five parts. Part four treats northern English cities that have attempted grand projects, and in the last section, entitled "Farland," Sinclair visits the Olympic cities of Berlin and Athens, then Austin, Texas, and San Francisco.

Although Ghost Milk has a general unity — expanding from Hackney to distant locales — Sinclair's method in individual sections and chapters is impressionistic and, like his walks, wandering. He moves back and forth between his youth as a laborer in Hackney and his present role as remunerated gadfly; between super-specific observation of streets and formal commentary on other artists, particularly J. G. Ballard, who have written about cities; between Sebaldian photographs and transcripts of Sinclair's interviews of filmmakers, photographers, architects, and poets; between maps and mysterious epigraphs from DeLillo, Pynchon, and other writers. Sinclair sums up his excursive and discursive method as "modest distances for torrents of justifying verbiage."

When Sinclair is hot, when his prose is most inflected by Miller and the Beat writers Sinclair prizes, his "verbiage" brings ghosts of the recent past to life and imagines how the living will be turned into shades. On these occasions, Ghost Milk should appeal to readers anywhere, not just, as Sinclair worries, "Hackney-born sentimentalists exiled to the north and far west." But much of this travel book does not travel well outside of England. Sinclair presumes very close knowledge of London neighborhoods, recent architectural history, and involuted political dealings. Are you familiar with the O2 Arena or the Westfield Mall? Sinclair will tell you about these Olympic precursors, but he assumes you know their context. Intensely personal and loyally local, Ghost Milk does not offer an objective or comprehensive socioeconomic analysis of how the upcoming Olympics will affect London as a whole or the country. Instead, Sinclair relies on what he calls "psychogeography" — a term borrowed from the avant-garde writer Guy DeBord — to extrapolate London's "future ruins" from his observations of grand projects in northern England.

I admit to only a passing knowledge of the London that Sinclair traverses. I was, however, living in Athens before, during, and after the 2004 Olympics. While Sinclair is right, in his chapter entitled "The Colossus of Maroussi," that some structures from that event are now ruins, I found Sinclair quite selective in his facts about Athens and often hyperbolic in his interpretations of Olympic effects. He drops into Athens for a few days, visits several sites, and talks to some informants who are brought to his hotel. He spends as much time describing how his wife's bag was stolen as he does, for example, writing about the Piraeus Peace and Friendship Stadium, which he calls a wasteful "naked absurdity." I've been to numerous events both before and after the Olympics in that venue. He visits the Olympic Village in Maroussi when it is empty, but the football stadium there is often filled with fans as rabid as England's. Sinclair says the seaside in Faliron has been despoiled by the Olympic site. In fact, the seaside is lined with recreational facilities, and the site was an abandoned airport. Reading Sinclair's late chapter on Athens, I began to distrust his earlier assertions about London, started to wonder where the "psycho" of "psychogeography" ended and the "geography" began.

Near the end of Ghost Milk, Sinclair reports being asked by someone named Mimi what its title means:
"CGI [computer generated imagery] 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 or swim."

"Crazy, Mr. Sinclair," Mimi said. "Crazy again."
Presumably praising Sinclair, Mimi is about half right. Many passages and sequences have the obsession-fueled vitality and authority of the Miller who titled one of his books Crazy Cock. But since Sinclair also records in pedestrian prose the commonplace, the drab, the failed, and the empty language of bureaucrats, Mimi is also about half wrong. Although British or Anglophile readers may well feel these proportions shift in Sinclair's favor, other readers should not be misled by the claims of Sinclair's subtitle. The English edition of Ghost Milk, published last year, was subtitled "Calling Time on the Grand Project," a more accurate description of the book's contents. The new subtitle is yet another irony emerging from the London grand project: although it enrages the author, it generates his book, and then tempts him to a grandiose claim that will give him a chance to ride along on the Olympic commercial wave he despises.

Tom LeClair is the author of five novels, two critical books, and hundreds of essays and reviews in nationally circulated periodicals. He can be reached at thomas.leclair@uc.edu.

Reviewer: Tom LeClair

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780865478664
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber
  • Publication date: 7/17/2012
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author


Iain Sinclair is the author of many books, including Downriver, Lights Out for the Territory, London Orbital, and Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. He lives in Hackney, East London.
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Read an Excerpt

ABRAHAM OJO

 

—Stratford East—Chobham Farm—“The social contract is defunct”—the voodoo of capital—another Sinclair—

 

 

It was my initiation into East London crime. If Stratford can be called East London. A bulging varicose vein on the flank of the A11, which fed somehow, through an enigma of unregistered places, low streets, tower blocks, into the A12. The highway out: Chelmsford, Colchester. A Roman road, so the accounts pinned up in town halls would have it, across brackish Thames tributary marshes. A slow accumulation against the persistence of fouled and disregarded rivers.

Stratford East. The other Stratford. Old town, new station. Imposing civic buildings arguing for their continued existence. A railway hub that, in its more frivolous moments, carried Sunday-supplement readers to Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Royal, for provocations by Brendan Behan, Shelagh Delaney, Frank Norman. For pantomime Brecht. Carry On actors moonlighting in high culture. That was about as much as I knew, when the person at the desk in Manpower’s Holborn offices told me I would be going to Chobham Farm.

“Chobham Farm, Angel Lane, Stratford. Right now. This morning. If you fancy it.”

This is how it worked: when I was down to my last ten pounds, I would take whatever Manpower had to offer. Employment on the day, for the day. Bring back the docket on Thursday and receive, deductions made, cash in hand. An office of Australians living out of their backpacks, woozy counterculturalists and squatters from condemned terraces in Mile End, Kilburn, Brixton. It was a dating agency, benevolent prostitution, introducing opt-out casuals to endangered industries desperate enough to hire unskilled, dope-smoking day labourers who would vanish before the first frost, the first wrong word from the foreman. There were always characters at the Holborn desk, justifying themselves, whining about the hours they spent trying to locate the factory in Ponders End where they would be invited to scrape congealed chocolate from the drum of a sugar-sticky vat with a bent teaspoon.

Everybody knew, on both sides of this deal, that it was 1971 and it was all over. The places we were dispatched to by the employment agency were, by definition, doomed. From my side, beyond the survivalist pittance earned, there was the excitement of being parachuted into squares of the map I had never visited; access was granted to dank riverside sheds, rock venues in Finsbury Park, cigar-packing operations in Clerkenwell.

“The social contract is defunct,” I muttered. I had been dabbling in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, not listening to politicians. Rubbish strikes and rat mountains enlivened our 8mm diary films. If the post didn’t arrive, bills wouldn’t have to be paid. We collaborated with civic entropy.

On Upper Thames Street, in a cellar under threat of inundation, I sorted and packed screws and bolts alongside a man in a tight, moss-green, three-piece suit. A Nigerian called Abraham Ojo. I remember that name because I inscribed it across the portrait I painted: Abraham Ojo floats a company. Steps dropping vertiginously to a sediment-heavy river. A schematic Blackfriars Bridge. Wharfs. Hoists. Black-windowed warehouses on the south bank. And astern Abraham with his arm raised to expose the heavy gold wristwatch. Those long wagging fingers with the thick wedding band. Like many West Africans in this floating world, and the ones met, eight years earlier, in my Brixton film school, Abraham Ojo never dressed down. Smart-casual meant leaving his waistcoat on the hanger he carried inside his black attaché case (with the pink Financial Times and the printed CV in glassine sleeve). He might, with mimed reluctance, shrug a nicotine-coloured storeman’s coat over his interviewee’s jacket, but he would never appear without narrow silk tie, or fiercely bulled shoes. He favoured horn-rim spectacles and a light dressing of Malcolm X goatee to emphasize a tapering chisel-blade chin. Like the Russians I’ve been coming across, in recent times, running bars in old coaching inns in Thames Valley towns, ambitious Nigerians made it crystal clear: I’m not doing this. Not now, not really. I am only here, on a temporary basis, because I have a scheme in which you might be permitted to invest: if you forget the fact that you saw me foul my hands with oily tools in a dripping vault.

It was a privilege of the period to encounter men like Abraham. I was fascinated to witness how he patronized his patrons, sneering at them as a caste without ambition or paper qualifications. He refused to register where he was, the specifics of place meant nothing. The chasms of the City, the close alleys and wind-tossed precincts, were knee-deep in banknotes, he assured me. Loose change waiting for a sympathetic address. My mediocre literary degree qualified me, barely, to be a low-level investor in Abraham’s latest scam: the importation of cut-and-shut trucks into Nigeria. Documentation would be juggled. Sources of supply, in Essex and the Thames Estuary, were obscure. When we had enough in the fighting fund to tempt the right officials, cousins of cousins, we would be in clover.

As we talked, in our lunch break, down by the river, he kept his back to my wreck of a street-market bicycle. When I invited him to Hackney for a meal, he came with folders of papers, financial projections, lists of contacts. He enthralled the others at the table, potless painters, students without tenure, the manager of a tyre-replacement operation in Leytonstone, with a vision of hot-ripe places, deals with Russian diplomats and shaven-headed entrepreneurs from Bethnal Green who were looking to reinvest surplus loot from the black economy. He spoke of new cities on the edges of old jungles, a vibrant economy hungry for reliable or prestigious European motor vehicles. The voodoo of capital. The madness. Pooling our resources, the whole Hackney mob might have raised the funds to rent a beach hut in Margate. Seeing or not seeing the hopelessness of his pitch, Abraham continued. Mopping his brow with a linen napkin, pushing away the wine glass. Maybe it worked, maybe he’s out there now, gold-plated Merc and bodyguards, in the oil fields of the Niger Delta. He never returned to the warehouse. His replacement, a man from Sydney, was a few inches shorter than me, but otherwise a Stevensonian double. The pure Aussie doppelgänger. Another Sinclair. I never found out the full story of my great-grandfather’s experiences in Tasmania, after his investments evaporated. He retired, came back from luxuriant Ceylon to bleak Banff on the North Sea, at the age of forty.

“Now for the next ten years,” he wrote, “I extracted as much enjoyment out of life as perhaps ever falls to the lot of ordinary unambitious mortals; but at the end of this time I fell among thieves, and as misfortunes rarely come single, the Hermileia must needs play havoc with securities in Ceylon at the same time, so that I began to look abroad again for investments and occupation, resulting in a trip to Tasmania, an adventure often talked of with friends now gone.”

Looking back, the astonishing aspect of life in my late twenties was that I had time to paint Abraham Ojo’s portrait. The balance was still there, I suspect, between weeks lost to casual labour, that infiltration into the mystery of how a city works, involvement with a communal film diary, and the writing and publishing of invisible books. Fifty pounds of my wages saved from random employment in 1970 produced my first small collection of poems and prose fragments. The first shift towards separating myself from the substance that contained me, a living, working London. Its horrors and epiphanies.

 

Copyright © 2011 by Iain Sinclair

Maps copyright © 2012 by Oona Grimes

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Table of Contents

Lostland

Abraham Ojo 3

A Pretty Average Mess 7

Chobham Farm 16

Tom Baker 31

Manson Is Innocent 44

Parkland

Fence Wars 55

Raids 80

Funny Money 90

Resurrection 99

Not Here 106

Retribution 114

Dilworth in Mallworld 121

Westfield Wonderland 134

China Watchers 147

Yang Lian Among the Hasids 153

Privateland

Crisis 165

River of No Return 171

Against the Grain 179

Future History: Allhallows to the Dome 188

Northwest Passage 201

Upstream Pavilions 216

The Lemon on the Mantelpiece 226

Fools of Nature: To Oxford 233

Northland

In the Belly of the Architect 247

Freedom Rides 261

Listening for the Corncrake 276

Chinese Boxes 296

Kissing the Rod 308

Farland

Ghost Milk 325

Berlin Alexanderplatz 331

The Colossus of Maroussi 362

American Smoke 384

Acknowledgements 405

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  • Posted August 6, 2012

    I first heard about this book on NPR, and after reading it, I ca

    I first heard about this book on NPR, and after reading it, I can honestly say that it lived up to my expectations. It is a great and completely off-the-charts perspective on the zeitgeist of the London Olympics. Awesome read!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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