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Look Upon These Works: Iain Sinclair Interviewed
Robin Turner , July 28th, 2011 08:35

Robin Turner talks to the writer Iain Sinclair about new book Ghost Milk and the folly of the Grand Project

One thing you can say about Iain Sinclair – he certainly divides opinion. While a recent Guardian feature by The Wild Places author Robert Macfarlane pondered "How best to describe Sinclair? East London's recording angel? Hackney's Pepys? A literary mud-larker and tip-picker? A middle-class dropout with a gift for bullshit (his phrase)? A historian of countercultures and occulted pasts? An intemperate Wall-E, compulsively collecting and compacting the city's textual waste? ... He's all of these, and more", a recent appearance on Newsnight seemed to provoke an altogether different reaction on Twitter. @GoodNewsHackney tweeted "Uh oh, Hackney's intellectual foghorn and anecdote generator Ian Sinclair is giving it the big one about the #Olympics on #newsnight", while @yatesyman fired in with "If Sinclair thinks water on rubble is an artwork let him sleep there". Today's Times sees him receive a critical going-over by the columnist David Aaronovitch.

I'm happy to admit I stand proudly in the former camp. Since 1997's exemplary New Testament of psychogeography Lights Out For The Territory, I've feverishly devoured Sinclair's work. I'm not going to lie and say I understand every literary reference or nuanced phrase he pens (the tight linguistic knots he weaves on paper must occasionally force even a Cambridge don like Macfarlane to stop, slackjawed and confused) but I've found myself lost in his vision of London; feverishly poring through each newly printed hardback as it emerged, weighing heavy as a boulder in my rucksack.

Modestly describing himself as "knowing nothing, except how to get lost in an interesting way", Iain Sinclair is someone who clearly revels in language. He is also someone who has spent a lifetime consumed by books. Reading, buying and selling, writing; he is a literary gumshoe with a daunting intellect – clearly one that had the power to annoy even in the company of Jeremy Paxman and Tessa Jowell.

Sinclair's last (and most successful book) was a paean to E8 (Hackney, That Rose Red Empire), the place he settled in some forty years before. Since Lights Out..., through London Orbital and Hackney..., the North East London borough has gone from a mute bit part role to the star attraction. His latest, Ghost Milk, picks up where the Hackney book finishes, in the shadow of the ominous blue fence concealing the Olympic Park. The book sets out to document a succession of Grand Projects: those government-led, vanity-driven regenerative follies that seemed so synonymous with what he witheringly describes as the 'Nude Labour' era. From the Millennium Dome to the proposed Northern Supercity (a plan to create a metropolis in the North West of England by connecting the satellite towns along the M62 corridor), Sinclair wears out yards of shoe leather investigating these colossal, ego-driven failures of modern times.

Ten minutes after he answers his front door to me, and after an icebreaking chat that bolts between the weather (and the perpetual bad luck of British festivals), Welsh occult author Arthur Machen and a mutual admiration for Stewart Lee's recent wholly righteous BBC series, Sinclair - welcoming, blackly humorous and self-aware – and I move on to the spectral presence of the 2012 Olympics.

Do you remember your reaction the day that London won the Olympic bid?

Iain Sinclair: I hung my head in my hands. The ghost of what was to come was immediately self-evident, and it went against all the spurious handclapping and the footage of David Beckham glad-handing politicians. I just thought the whole package stank. Within 24 hours the very real horror of the London underground bombings happened. It was just so bizarre. Apart from anything else, the bombings were forerunner to the fact that this was going to be the biggest security project this country had ever seen. We'd landed ourselves this monster and I remember just thinking, 'This is a disaster.' The announcement was the endgame in a whole procession of things that started very visibly back at the time of the Millennium Dome and the failed attempt to hold the World Games at Picketts Lock. We won the competition to hold the World Athletic Championships, then realised we couldn't afford to hold it and had to give it back. So, from the very beginning, I was in a state of gloom.

I'd never really thought of that direct correlation between the bombings and the heightened security around East London and the Olympics.

IS: The whole thing took on an invasion psychosis; a huge level of paranoia that evolved its own architecture. First you get a blue fence, then you get a wire mesh perimeter fence put up by a German company, then you get a bigger one and in the end you've got drone aircraft flying over the top and it's all connected up with arrival of the Westfield Mall. It's so horrendous. It's as if all of these things are some sort of Mayan black hole, fulfilling the prophesy of the end of the world in 2012.

I still find the whole idea of transplanting a Westfield mall onto Stratford quite incredible.

IS: The stadium is now going to be rebranded as Westfield Stadium. I thought it was a joke but it turns out it's true. It's going to be given to West Ham football club, which is owned by these two guys who make all their money out of pornography. The team's been relegated and Newham Council are in hock to them for 40 million quid. And the whole site is built on radioactive, toxic soil. I just heard today it's actually much more than the seven and a half thousand tonnes that they were talking about originally. All sitting in dispersal cell there with a permeable skin over the top. The pitch (for the Olympic project) was that afterwards you'd be able to sell the whole thing as land for property, therefore paying back the money that we've all been forking out. But now you won't be able to do that because it's not going to be livable in.

My experience of people reading Ghost Milk and talking about it is that it focuses entirely on this Olympic moment. My own sense of it is that I was actually moving away from that point. The Olympics was a given in the beginning, a conclusion to where the Hackney book had taken you. But then looking further afield and looking backward, you find that the bones and the skeletons of all of the previous Grand Projects from the whole New Labour period – and the Tories before that – are there, scattered across the countryside, abandoned and useless and sucking up money.

The Will Alsop/SuperCity section of the book in the North East of England was something I was never really aware of.

IS: It's an untold story, really. Obviously we're blasted day after day with stuff about the Olympics but what happened with all the millennial projects has been obscured. They fell apart so quickly. Everybody knows about the rock museum in Sheffield [the £15 million National Centre for Popular Music] that lasted a few months. It's like the Ocean in Hackney, this huge building that just sucks up money, fails utterly and is now just sitting there, a bleak space with a huge logo on the outside. A once great library, now just gone. The Sheffield one has become literally a bar for the students union. A very expensive bar. And Urbis in Manchester, which I visited – this huge, meaningless glacier-like building that appears overnight, categorically 'not going to be a museum', and ends up abandoned. There's a whole mindset that I was trying to explore rather than just the sheer Olympic madness.

The thing I noticed with that section was the trippy feeling. After the claustrophobia of London, the journey to the North takes on a much more hallucinogenic feeling. The idea that you could create a SuperCity taking in Manchester, Liverpool, Hull, Leeds is like a druggy dream...

IS: There's an amazing sense of the cultural contour lines pushed so, so tightly together. Even coming through the suburbs of Liverpool, you can feel it shifting incrementally. The whole preposterous notion that this could become one off-highway city was so insane it becomes unbelievable. The only exception being Freeport, this bizarre off-road development that is – in a sense – the only thing that ends up fitting with Will Alsop's vision. It's a kind of grand nowhere that could be located anywhere in the world, stuck out on the edge of any Midwestern city in America – a series of retail parks and big global franchises and movie halls and that's it.

One of the most famous Grand Projects being the Millennium Dome – a pass the parcel between Michael Heseltine and Peter Mandelson. I've been absolutely flabbergasted by its success… the geriatric rock band thing is one thing, but it now works for new acts because youngsters get this whole mall/gig experience.

IS: It does seem to promote slightly cryogenic acts. I mean, Julie Andrews can't even sing anymore and she's up there like a waxwork of herself. Michael Jackson's dead but that hasn't stopped him! The whole experience of getting in and out is so tricky but the whole thing kind ends up working because it's got enough big American muscle behind it. But is that really what should have emerged from what the proposition was to start with? The very same thing will happen with the ghosts of the Olympic Park. It's the only way it can go.

As happened in so many other former Olympic cities…

IS: Well, you only have to look to Athens; the place is in meltdown. All these former stadiums are now completely abandoned. Full of grass and wild dogs.

Your friend, the late J.G. Ballard, is a recurring influence in the book. Lots of failed projects end up like Ballardian visions.

IS: He was ill throughout the period I was writing the book. As I was writing there was a real sense that all of his dreams and nightmares were moving out across the landscape and becoming manifest. Often it felt like he was like a shadow walking beside me most of the way. At the time I was writing, his last book [Miracles Of Life] was published, it's very interesting that in this slim volume he very slightly revises everything. All the myths about his life, he changes them every so slightly, as if he wanted to put the ledger straight in his own terms before he went.

Are the journeys you undertake – walking round the M25, retracing the footsteps of the poet John Clare, tracking the Thames walking from the sea back to source, the Freedom Pass bus ride across the entire SuperCity area – your own personal Grand Projects?

IS: I suppose they are really [laughing]. They're the comedic versions of anti-Grand Projects - the crazy project. You've got to look for something as mad as these epics that can be done by anybody on a shoestring budget. Anybody can get out to the M25 and walk around it – nobody would want to but nevertheless… it's got to be in relation to the Grand Project as well so the M25 was very much in relation to the Millennium Dome, this circle within the circle. They kept boasting of its size – sizeism is a big thing with these Grand Projects. It doesn't matter what it is, just do it bigger. A cornflake packet toy inflated to some gigantic size gives it some sort of epic status. There's a steroid madness in our culture.

But, yes, I suppose my own projects get equally mad but in a way that they stay well aware of their own absurdity. Nothing's coming out of it except for a book or a film or some other account. There's a thing I'm doing with (the artist) Andrew Kötting. It's this deranged idea of taking a swan-shaped pedalo across our landscape, heading from Hastings all the way to the Olympic Park. We're going to do that in September. It's totally an act of comic exorcism in which the things in the culture that I like can be engaged with and the things that I dislike can be challenged.

How near can you get to the site can you get by pedalo?

IS: You used to be able to get right up to it at Old Ford Lock before they put a yellow chain fence up to stop you getting in. I went round in a kayak in the early days with the photographer Stephen Gill. You couldn't navigate the entire blue fence on foot back then but you could get round parts on the water. And this gave me the idea – this is it, you will arrive on a swan. Maybe get a whole fleet of swans pedaling up the canal.

So how do you view the impact on the environment that this is all happening in?

IS: Well, the whole story has been one of imposition. All of the local swimming pools which were tremendous assets even if just for locality – they've been given no funding so they've all collapsed, just so that all the money can go into the one major one which is going to be an elitist thing that no one can use. Every single aspect of the local has been destroyed in terms of the global, this very corporate entity that comes along and wipes out all the things that have grown up organically over decades – centuries in some cases.

Look at the allotments. They've taken 50 or 60 years to become a community and they're just wiped out so the perimeter fence can cut through at that point. Then sent out to a horrible drowned field in Leytonstone, right at the edge of a road that's really swampy. It's hopeless, never going to work. Everyone now has these identikit huts. They're like chicken coops, and they're somehow supposed to replace this straggle of wonderful, strange, anarchic huts that were on the original site.

So if the Grand Projects are a succession of insults to London, which do you think is the biggest?

IS: This is. This is the culmination of a succession of events. I think from the beginning of Margaret Thatcher doing the big Docklands development in Canary Wharf through to the Olympics, which really is the culmination, I think the whole thing has been an invasion of the edgelands and a reinvention of east London's industrial past. You could say that the Isle of Dogs and all of that was pretty defunct - very run down and requiring something – but what you end up with is this sealed off bit that isn't London; a Hong Kong principality with its own private security. Lands disappear and you get this financial centre that's just been parachuted in from somewhere else and it isn't where it is. It sort of is there but it isn't, it's only using the river as a photographic backdrop. The river then becomes a playground essentially to replace its original nature as this strange, dirty wonderful, working river.

In an age where you've got this kind of Blade Runner-esque mini city/police state and all the bits surrounding it, do you think that the river itself becomes one of the few things left with the power to genuinely amaze or surprise? I'm thinking specifically of the London whale… it could never have been stage-managed.

IS: It was a perfect and very mythical moment. And a very sad one. You put your finger on it exactly - it was something that could never have been stage-managed. The future is fixed in advance. It's bullet pointed and the benefits you'll get from it are all laid out. And that doesn't work – it never does. Whereas some strange accident for whatever reason – this whale takes off up the river – the whole of London becomes fascinated by this story.

It then fits with all the other river myths like Pocahontas coming down the river and dying in Gravesend; it fits with all of those things. And it also relates to London's wealth, which at one time came from whaling. The place where the Millennium Dome is was originally Bugsby's Marshes, where they were boiling whale blubber and making the oil that gave London its beautiful pearly light in the Victorian era. So in a sense, the whale is this ghost from the past. And Melville being in London and seeing an advert for whale oil ends up becoming a scene in Moby Dick. Those kinds of connections are what make London so magical; the river is the big generator of all of those things. The shifting lights on the river are just stunning; you can't colonise it absolutely – even though they try. It just becomes part of the ongoing story.

That said, there's an obvious attempt to take elements of the river and forcibly make them 'acceptable'. When you see what was the GLC building and now it's a series of fast food restaurants with a giant ferris wheel in front. What a weird sense of what you should do with a city – turn the whole of the riverbank into a very loosely themed funfair. Import a beach from Southend and put a bit of sand down behind some railings. All of those things are so insanely committee-orientated, think tank ideas of what you'd do with the river. The thing that no one ever gets is that you don't have to do anything with a river. People are quite capable of inventing and dealing with it themselves. You don't need to be led by the nose to some big circus.

There's a line in the book that says, 'Do we follow Las Vegas and settle for some kind of constant reinvention?'

IS: You've got to think of the next one. There is now a burgeoning series of quangos and committees and curators who are flipping the calendar to see what the next thing they can fit in is, what the next big show might be. The same names keep going round and round every time, they keep getting invited back to be a part of the next project. It's a perpetual state. No sooner had we got this than we were sniffing for the next thing – the World Cup. And that was its own fiasco really. The country is on its uppers yet they can find £260 million to attack Libya, to carry out bombing raids to secure your oil rights.

These things are always so easily justified as well; you find the money if you want to do it enough.

IS: It's the same with all of them. No one knew the cost of the Olympics. When I was interviewing Will Alsop he was saying that it's accepted very early on that the figures that you put in are meaningless. They're just a ploy. The price will easily quadruple before the thing has even begun.

Do you think that after Tories passing the Millennium Dome to New Labour and then the reverse hospital pass being given for the Olympics that in coalition times we'll see an end to the Grand Project due to lack of ambition and money?

IS: The World Cup was such a fiasco that it might have knocked the ambition out of those people. What's emerged from looking at the people who sit on FIFA – this principality that sit outside government, they create their own state with vast palaces tucked away in Switzerland or wherever – that's the reality of these Grand Projects. To go beyond local governments, go beyond nations even to this strange group of privileged people who fly around in executive class and who'll be waved through in London, from Mayfair hotels straight into the wastelands of east London, driving in lanes that none of the rest of us will be allowed to use. All this while the city clogs up and grinds to a halt. I think people are suspicious of that now because of the very obvious and blatant corruptions in FIFA. And the corruption around the Olympics is just as bad.

I think that this is the end of that era. It's partly the evolution of the book – that you're looking at the final lap of this particular form of insanity. The European financial system is going down fast – who's going to want to engage in any of this anymore? I think the French are incredibly relieved that they didn't get it. They were in a much better position than us at the time because they had most of the structure in place. We were using it entirely as a smokescreen for developments that were going to happen in that area anyway. It was just a way of siphoning off lots of public money.

You look at Stratford and it's just not ready yet… the shopping centre that's there at the moment makes the one in Dalston look like a Westfield!

IS: The change that's happening is being imposed. You look at the shopping centre that's there currently – it's Green Street Market brought indoors, a kind of Poundstretcher Land. Now Westfield will be whacked down opposite and that becomes completely redundant. The rest of the area will just die. It'll become a train stop, a transport hub and a shopping mall. The rest of it – forget it. I think it's the vision of what they'd like to do to London in the long run. In Hackney, Tesco would become the major developer. Literally Hackney would become a suburb of Tesco. They were going to expand the Morning Lane site and build housing around and knock down a lot of other stuff. So everything becomes convenient for the Tesco to the nth degree with transport laid on and that's it. The rest of it can forget it. And that's how London would be – a series of epic supermarkets surrounded by Barratt homes and nothing else. The development around Dalston Lane is the vision of what will happen.

The whole story around the new railway - the London Overground – I just thought was crazy. When we first moved here forty years ago, the railway was fine. It ran from Dalston Junction down to Liverpool Street; that's how we used to get about. Then they said there was no call to have a railway there and they closed it. That was essentially because they wanted to do the Bishopsgate development so they pretended there was no possible use for the railway. It became a really interesting wilderness. Everybody used it in all kinds of ways, kids would play up there, it was a wild walkway into the city. And now they've brought it back at enormous cost and it's exactly the thing they got rid of. And that's the whole process. They pretend they're giving you something wonderful when in fact it's always been there – it's just been let go, it's died. And the whole story of the Lea Valley is like that. There was the equivalent of the Olympic Games in Victorian out the back of a pub on Wick Lane (The White Lion). There were the football fields, the boating clubs and rowing clubs on the Lea Valley but they were all allowed to decay.

I was going to ask about the Hackney pub Olympics.

IS: It's a wonderful story. It was very much in the spirit of those times to have these athletic contests but you tie it to your own pub and you use the coming technology – the railways – to make the embankments into stands for people. It was one of the first times that people had been to East London. 10,000 people turned up which meant they organizers could afford to bring in Native American runners and people from around the world. It was all done at one man's expense. He takes the risk and he makes a big success of it. Then it all goes away again. I heard the story and thought – that's how you do it. The spirit was still there with the Austerity Games after the War, people making and mending, bodging. Nothing epic is built, they'd just use Nissen huts and people would stay in B&Bs, get buses everywhere. And of course it all goes off fine – it's a sign of the country coming back to life. Now though, it's an entirely global, corporate entity pretending to have some connection to London or to England. And it doesn't really have any at all. They aren't allowed to sell food products other than McDonalds or Coca-Cola.

In Athens they created these zones that had never been there before where you could jog through the city. The only people doing it were Coca-Cola executives because there's a European headquarters in Athens. There weren't any Greek people running – they all thought the idea was preposterous.

I was wondering whether on the smallest level the reinvention of something like the local pub can almost trigger the inception point of a Grand Project.

IS: It's very connected in the same way that people say it's squatting artists that move into an area first and then the property developers are right on their heels. They can see there's a certain mystique to the area as it gives off a bit of a buzz. At first, it's all happening and a lesbian quarter or something will evolve. Before long there's the gastropub and boom, the next thing is there's an Olympic stadium going up. I think there's a very direct connection. I'm just interested in what happens after because there isn't any way that we can keep the whole thing running. Because the things that they couldn't keep running previously were on a much smaller scale.

Look at what was in play previously. The Lido in Victoria Park – a lovely place – it was entirely taken out when the great storm came in the late '80s. When all the trees came down they used it as an excuse and removed the whole thing. There's nothing ever gone there in its place. It was leveled out, filled in, flattened with the possibility of it maybe becoming a car park. It had been gifted as part of Lansbury's Lidos with the purpose of offering people living in the clutter of the East End somewhere to take recreational exercise to improve their health. It was in reasonably good nick – it was much like the one in London Fields that had also been closed for a very long time before getting made over. But the Victoria Park one just disappeared. So what I want to know is how if you can't keep up things like that, how are you going to keep up these gigantic structures that are being put up in the Lea Valley – a less populated area, more difficult to get to – these buildings that aren't serving anybody as of yet. It makes no sense to me at all. I think you're going to get the sense of an area of partial dereliction on the edge of an epic Westfield shopping mall that will obviously draw people in for a time. And it'll be an island, out there on its own.

One final thing. I loved the fact the book was dedicated to Jules Pipe [Mayor of Hackney].

IS: All you can do really is highlight the crazy absurdity of it all. There's no comedy in the presentation of it from their side though - there's a panic, a very real fear that it could go horribly, horribly wrong, so they've got to keep this upbeat message all the time. Whereas if you're off-message, you can take any tone you want. It doesn't matter. Nobody's listening.