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Interview with Iain Sinclair

Craig Taylor

One warm spring evening not so long ago I was able to sit down with the writer Iain Sinclair for a conversation. Sinclair had strayed from his beloved Hackney all the way across north London to leafy Hampstead, to Keats House, where we spoke in front of an audience of around one hundred. Already, early in 2012, it felt as though the London Olympics were bearing down on all of us and Sinclair, after telling the gathered a few anecdotes about NW3, was eager to discuss the folly of such grand projects, the effect this mass visitation of commerce, athleticism and tourism would have on east London, and also the mysterious substance at the heart of his latest book, Ghost Milk.

CT: I remember the day when this manuscript came in to Simon [Prosser, of Ghost Milk’s publisher Hamish Hamilton]. We looked at the title and thought, ‘Only Iain Sinclair could take these two words and force them together in this way.’ ‘Ghost Milk’, what does it mean?

IS: I don’t want the book simply to be some kind of polemic against the Olympics or against great projects. It’s a much more mysterious thing than that and I feel that at the moment in the world there is a substance hovering almost like ectoplasm between the virtual and the actual.

We’re being overwhelmed by computer-generated imagery, I saw it when the lower Lee Valley was enclosed in blue fences – suddenly these images of something that doesn’t exist came into being. They were pin sharp and they included a vision of London that people were persuaded to believe, that was totally contradicted by the toxic reality that was going on underfoot. Between the two there has to be a kind of buffer substance and I think we had to invent something that became that.

CT: This quote from the book I found particularly lovely: ‘CGI 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 and swim.’

IS: That’s the most important I think, this ‘universal element in which we sink and swim’. Because now, London is – and the media reinforces this so strongly – such an atomised, fragmented city.

There is a new kind of London emerging. We have to have a medium between the two, through which we sink or swim, and that’s our challenge, I think, as writers. And you’ve done it [in Londoners] with a very nice solution. Almost like [Henry] Mayhew, you analyse London by wandering and talking to people, just to voice it for themselves. So it becomes a sort of choral history.

CT: In [Ghost Milk] especially there’s a lot to do with lost, forgotten space – space that’s changed. In one part you talk about what this land was: football pitches, a cycle track, a river shared by oarsmen and narrow-boat dwellers . . .

IS: It was all there, and not only that, everything that’s being promised to be brought was already there and was allowed to decay. You had the little running track that someone built in Hackney Wick in the back of his pub in the Victorian period, enormously successful, at his own expense. There were the Manor Garden Allotments and the sporting facilities that were brought in and provided by patrons and then allowed to decay because they wouldn’t put any money into them. And all the little neighbourhood swimming pools, like where I taught my children to swim, round the corner from me. All of that has gone, to go into the big, grand showy thing.

CT: You talk at one point about ‘wanderers who were not filmed, not challenged by security, trusted to make their own mistakes’, which I thought was a good phrase. And that’s something that perhaps is less tangible than a disappearing sports field.

IS: They created, in Victoria Park, the first non-Royal people’s park, and the Lee Valley served as a wonderful safety valve; walkers, fishers, people who wanted to follow the bird life on the marshes, as well as all forms of industry, all went into this same landscape. It was a release, it was a break. It was so important to have that liminal land, that edge-land accessible for people to walk to within twenty minutes or half an hour. And once that’s enclosed, then there’s a deeply disturbing psychological effect that takes place.

CT: One of the interesting elements of the book for me was light. When I was doing my project a street photographer spoke about the way these big projects changed – actually changed – the light of London. In his case he did a lot of street photography in the City of London and spoke about this light that came off the Gherkin and how it illuminated parts of London in a way that had not been done before. And you talked, when it comes to Westfield again, you talked about manufactured light and imported light – ‘quotation light’ is what you called it.

IS: In the Shepherd’s Bush Westfield, what you get is an entirely enclosed environment, a space station. And it has this great play of artificial light, so it’s a sort of film set that gives you a bizarre experience of the world, because it has restaurants that are genetically attached to France, Italy, Mexico, wherever – Vietnam. All of them around a single, central court, so that you could sit down and eat and experience, in a sense, all of the places in the world in a kind of Disneyland version, without having to go anywhere.

There’s the other light that you mentioned, the kind of bonus light, reflections off the glass buildings. But, then, there’s also the darkness that’s cast by the enormously tall buildings. That certain places that were in a light are now in deep shadow. And the rules and regulations concerning how close you can build have been torn up.

CT: There is some wonderfully imaginative ammunition about the Olympics [in Ghost Milk]. It takes, in your own very particular way, a very funny view in parts, but tragic too. You say at one point it’s unstoppable and all we can do is bear witness.

IS: There are other things we can do as well, there must be benefits. The quality of the opposition has provoked people to actually respond, to think ‘What is society? What is local? Do we allow the qualities of the locality and the details of the locality to be set aside for global, corporate entities? Do you realise that the only water that you can get in there is Coca-Cola, the only food you can get is McDonald’s?’ You know, ‘What are you giving up for that?’

CT: So, the positive thing is it brings about these sort of gestures?

IS: Yeah. And it has stimulated that, you know – it’s stimulated a mass of other activity. Because you’re challenged – do you let this thing roll over, or do you invent, create, record? And that’s what I’m trying to do.

CT: There’s a lot [in Ghost Milk] about these CGI, imagined environments you see on the hoardings of new buildings. I wanted to talk to you about this, because I felt – being someone, a writer, who rents a room – I get seduced by this ‘ghost milk’. It’s out there and I feel its pressing force, these bright shiny faces on hoardings.

IS: I feel like this is an age thing, you know [laughs]. I talked to several groups of students and they just said ‘I don’t believe you, we’ve seen the footage, we’ve seen –’ , and what they’d seen were these computer-generated images where the water’s blue and everything’s gleaming. And they really would prefer to believe that to any kind of written text. And pushing further, you discover that they actually don’t read books at all. So it is another world. I’m still in a world that asks that you do this very difficult thing of following the architecture of a book, and I think it is a process that is slowly disappearing from the world.

CT: And that [process] helps when you encounter these things in the real world?

IS: Yeah, exactly. Because otherwise you get into a very fast-twitch way of reading the world. Your attention span is short and you want something exciting and you want it here. I remember when the [images of the Olympic athletes’] flats first went up, it was beautifully cheated that you were in Hackney and you saw this and there was no Hackney. It was the canal and suddenly you were down to the Gherkin and the Shard and whatever else, this fabulous landscape. But the real thing in between was just eliminated, it was gone. They very subtly often combine a real horizon with a computer-generated foreground. And so the middle ground, which is an interesting place, just disappears.

CT: Ghost Milk is a book of righteous anger, there’s some sadness in it. Do you still wander through London and feel wonder?

IS: Absolutely. It’s an embattled wondering through the particular territory I describe there, but then why not wonder in a different direction, come through places that you haven’t seen for a long time. It doesn’t go – it shifts. London has always been a series of tectonic plates where the particular values move and drift. And the things that were in Hackney when I moved there in 1960 are now out in Loughton or Essex. The city revives. And wonderful new communities have grown up. It’s the most multicultural spot on the face of the earth. I move down the canal and I’m hearing Russian, French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish – all the languages of the world. And very little English.

This is an abridged version of Craig Taylor’s conversation with Iain Sinclair. Read the absorbing full-length interview on our website after Peninsula 2012 is launched, on August 15.