By the time you read this, more than a billion television viewers likely will have tuned in to the London Olympics. The commercial break B-roll will have spooled endlessly. Copter shots of the Thames. The changing of the guard. Tower Bridge twinkling soberly at night. The Queen. London pageantry. All of this has as much to do with London on the ground as Madame Tussauds does with human flesh. But it is a slight bit more necrophiliac than that, in the eyes of Iain Sinclair, the auto-didactic, roving-camera, conscience eye of East London. Because the wax figures at Tussauds didn’t require the butchering of their subjects in order to exist.
If a fillip of bile just rose in your throat, please, stop reading now. On the other hand, if you accept that capitalism destroys in equal measure as it creates, and perhaps a little more, then carry on as Sinclair’s maniacal meditation on the changes of his beloved Lea Valley in the run-up to the Olympics has at last landed on these shores, and it is an extraordinary book.
Imagine if “Walden” were written today, when a shopping mall — not a railroad — was being built on the lip of Thoreau’s wilderness, and you’ll get a sense of the forces of development that this book rails against mightily. These tectonic shifts have been underway for a long time in England: the dismantling of the welfare state, the privatization of land use and its corrupting influence, the erasure of edgelands in the face of the need for constant development. The Olympics, Sinclair acknowledges, are not their cause, but their apotheosis.
Still, no one in Britain has been such a persistent observer of the mess that’s been made in the wake of these changes. From the early 1970s until today, Sinclair’s work as a poet, filmmaker, novelist, and erstwhile psycho-geographer has relentlessly reminded us of what is displaced by “development’’: His novels are full of down-on-their-luck losers, his nonfiction chronicles everything from mental asylums to the endlessly growing number of ring-roads that encircle London. And always there is Sinclair picking through the brambles, noting the landscape, musing grumpily.
In this way Sinclair’s vast body of work has become a kind of ecosystem, ingesting changes and preserving the life of the city’s memory. Having witnessed four decades of the city’s reinvention Sinclair distrusts official remembrance. “London grows its fossils by accretions of indifference,” he writes. “Ghost Milk” is his attempt to stride against London’s “long march towards a theme park without a theme.” He wants to reinsert some natural, cultural, and historical context into the city by haunting its canals, exploring its vanishing allotments, visiting its squatters, and walking with its committed archaeologists — many of whom are poets and photographers — before the past can be all too easily replaced with a new program.
To enjoy this book one must enjoy a wander. It is loosely divided into five sections — “Lostland,’’ “Parkland,’’ “Privateland,’’ “Northland,’’ and “Farland’’ — which trace a kind of journey from the 1970s until today, from Sinclair’s own past to the city’s global self-projection and how this mirrors the Olympics as experienced in Berlin and Beijing. Each section features short chapters; almost every one of these chapters involves a walk, and often, an interview. Like a man-made canal being carved through a valley of associations we watch as the book is made before us.
In recent years, thanks to a book of his being banned and his voice sounding more singular amid Olympics rah-rah, Sinclair has become a kind of minor celebrity. Briefly, here in “Ghost Milk,” that is apparent in how he writes. The mouth of its meandering river is a memoir of Sinclair’s early days in Stratford, odd-jobbing as a day laborer, the entropy of his life mirroring the area’s own lack of a plan. It’s a loving portrait of a time, and an incredibly tedious description of the filmmakers he grew up around.
As always in this book Sinclair’s instinct for self-hagiography is rescued by the ferocious beauty of his writing, by the moment he turns his head to something in the natural world. Looking back on his beatnik youth he remembers how the Lea flowed by mysteriously. “Like a wig of snakes. A dark stream sidling, fag in mouth towards the Thames at Bow Creek; foam-flecked, coot-occupied, enduring its drench of industrial pollution, cars with the ambition of becoming submarines, skinned bears, overexcited urban planners.”
There is no Eden here; but there were edgelands, and as “Ghost Milk” eddies onward, sideways, backwards, it creates a portrait of what that means, so we can understand what we lose when it is paved over. Edgelands are a place where the city and its natural host rub up against one another, where one can wander unharassed, tripping on cattails and car parts equally. It attracts misfits, whose portraits give this book a documentary ballast and pressure valve for the rage that bubbles up in Sinclair’s gorgeous sentences.
Most of this review could be used up quoting at length from Sinclair’s prose, its gusts of lyricism, its heroic belief in the power of language to record. What a talker Sinclair must be! Asked by the Sicilian photographer Mimi Mollica what the title “Ghost Milk’’ means, Sinclair retorts: “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 and swim.” “Crazy, Mr. Sinclair,” Mimi replies. Just as many of the book’s choice phrases come from the mouths of other people, though. Sinclair sits down with the Chinese poet Yang Lian and gets a lesson in how to squash cynicism; he attends pre-dawn raids with police on abandoned buildings and finds not enemies but decent people; he attends ribbon-cuttings and finds the banality of capital jackals strangely familiar. He gets out of his aching head and visits northern England, witnesses the detritus of prior upheavals in the nation’s capital markets. He sees Berlin.
The subtitle of this book would seem to suggest it has a shelf life of about two weeks. What a terrible loss it will be if readers see that word — “Olympics” — and consign it to the dust-heap of just-in-time inventory. Tattooed with photographs and sentences of indecent beauty, this book is one man’s seemingly endless attempt to get it down, to record the world before it changes. I suspect he’s still working on it now, like Whitman with his endless revisions of “Leaves of Grass,” feral with delight, outrage, and wonder.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta magazine and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.”