|Partway through Iain Sinclair’s GHOST MILK and finding the wading hard, I commented to a writer friend that it read like an auto-obituary. The friend recommended I persevere, even though he found himself in agreement. Which didn’t bode well. But here I am at the other end of the book, and my initial impression remains. It’s like watching someone give his funeral audience a lengthy disquisition on his life while digging his own grave and knocking together his own coffin in front of them.
The “grand project” of the subtitle is nominally the Olympic structure being imposed on east end London for this coming summer’s games, and all the other airdropped corporate constructions attempting landings across the country. But there’s a clear double meaning: the project being called in is Sinclair’s own.
If there is a next Iain Sinclair book, I will buy it automatically on sight, as I bought this one, because the man can write like Promethean fire when the drive is there. And perhaps, if there is a next Iain Sinclair book, he will do so again. But GHOST MILK feels like a last Iain Sinclair book. I hope I’m wrong.
There’s an awful pall of failure over the whole thing, thicker and deader than a modest blanket of self-deprecation. He trots out his friends as a parade of doomed losers, sketching out a difficult and often charmless eulogy for his generation of wasters in the arts. He carefully balances the milestones of a somewhat buggered career by the roadside for us and plots his own course into irrelevance in neat little chapters. And there’s a lot of “back in my day, all this round here were
fields and trees wastegrounds and condom dumps and canals wi’ bicycles sticking out of ‘em.” There’s a sense that the life of the deep urban flaneur closes when corporations and governments can do in concrete and steel what the derive can achieve only in air and ink – remake the streets according to their own will.
Also, there’s only so many snotty comments about new buildings you can commit to print before you start to sound like the sort of inverse-snob who preferred Hackney when all the toilets were outside. The book has the tone of a man who’s done. It’s a tired and miserable monologue. His prose has, for the most part, lost its arcane crackle.
In 2002, Sinclair said: “London gives you anonymity, you can spook about the place like a spy with no problems at all.” Not any more, mate. And, worse: when, in GHOST MILK, he gets spotted trying to spook around, he’s not spotted as a writer, a filmmaker, London’s last lost mythologiser. He’s assumed to be an unemployed indigent and pointed at a nearby hut where he can get a proper job.