London is a town on a series of visible ‘ups’ right now – the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, the Olympics imminent, the annual tennis festival Wimbledon; the town bubbles away in a soup of international visitors and media hype.
But less visible ‘downs’ lurk. Last year’s riots are still puzzled over, as though they were a puzzle and not an inexorable, rippling, shocking outcome of deep social frustration and fragmentation. The rest of the country observes the partying, unsure how to approach the shenanigans – to share vicariously, or to resent. London geographer, scholar and activist Doreen Massey (World City, 2007) comments on the inequalities - of funding and opportunity created by London’s status as the ‘national’ as opposed to anywhere else being ‘regional’ - ‘the national is pulled apart by its very geography’ . The large cultural institutions epitomize this, all the time. The Olympics tops them; it sits with Londoners, invades or enhances their town, but it's somehow also to be owned and paid for by the rest of the nation, hosting the world of sport.
Being there, I got to be interested in what was happening behind the Olympics: after all a site had been nominated and appropriated, and in an urban context this made it inevitable that people had been displaced. There's excitement, argument (ticket-sale management has been a shemozzle) and apprehension. It hardly needs saying that security is an even bigger project than usual; a struggle to address real fears and strategies: in the midst of this the Ministry of Defence decided missile batteries should be installed on rooftops in East London. Affected residents were shocked, angered, galvanized into protest. Last week the Guardian credited this piece of non-consulted idiocy with having ‘brought together communities from across London’ and creating a real sense of common purpose. (See http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/29/olympics-londoners-march-rooftop-missiles )
Against all this, and indulging my own eclectic and increasingly comfortable treks around the city, I thought Iain Sinclair’s Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project looked like a logical read – mandatory for naive visitors and likely to scratch the complaisance of locals. Sinclair recalls the early 70s around Hackney Wick, areas of London later allowed to decline – a process arguably aimed at softening up development grabs for the 2012 Olympics. While I asked questions about location friends suggested that siting the Olympics around the old Hackney Marshes was no great loss, but Sinclair wouldn’t agree. He prods the runaway raptor that's the modern Olympic Games - its teeth feeds on the worst of capital's dodgy underbelly. My words, Sinclair's sentiments. London these days, to an occasional drop-in (which I am; always greedy to return) is highly accessible, a much fonder city than it was 3 decades back. But Sinclair implies this shift has been at great cost to its most vulnerable long-term residents. The smooth-talking bureaucrats turn his stomach. He's savage: his anger's infectious.
Owen Hatherley in the Independent July 8 2011 thought this book fragmented, patchy, showing occasional brilliance. I haven’t read Sinclair’s previous London works (been busy changing other worlds though am now downloading London, City of Disappearances to the iPad Kindle app, and noting for later London Orbital and Lights Out for the Territory ) but can’t agree: this scribbled meandering has a purpose. It builds the anger. Robert Macfarlane in the Guardian a week later seemed to agree: “Ghost Milk has many of the same problems as Hackney. It's over-stuffed, indulgently prolix and maddeningly dispersive. What saves it, though – indeed, what makes it brilliant – is its fury. Anger drives the book forwards, and pulls its details into suggestive order: anger at corporate conjurings, civic hubris and "lachrymose orgies of nationalism". Ghost Milk is documentary writing as opposition, literature as resistance. Or, as Sinclair more calmly puts it, it is an example of memoir operating as "an element within a larger social argument".”
I'm floored by how this book so successfully insists on my seeing a London outside my knowing, as an L-plater still despite all my recent visits and my strange few years in the seventies holed up in Surrey as a wife. Those years I looked to north of the river and the Spare Rib collective, too absorbed in Anglo-Australian feminism to think much about the mouth of the Thames, the Lea Valley where London 'ends'.
Nonetheless in three weeks time this will be, for many, where London starts – and ends. But that London won’t be the Lea Valley. A lot of people – working people, people with no agenda beyond the delight in sport and being there, people whose world is the physical and whose whole being has been focused towards these weeks – will have the time of their lives. And fair enough too. But the five boroughs (Hackney, Waltham Forest, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and Newham) which conceded their land will be invisible and unprivileged and Sinclair will continue angry, hurling good words at societies’ grand projects, their circuses and bread. Lights out indeed, for the territory?