Made in the USA? Letter From London
The Olympics have served as the occasion or excuse for a new shelf (for those who have long shelves) of books if not exactly about London, then with “London” in the title. “Authors have stored their projects up for this moment or rushed them through, publishers’ catalogues showcase their metropolitan olympians and booksellers’ windows stack London titles high,” the historian Jerry White wrote. As the author of London in the Eighteenth Century, published in England last year, White could be said to know whereof he speaks, but he was publishing his serial history of London long before the bandwagon passed through. The same cannot be said of the authors and editors of the majority of recent books concerning London in various epochs and contexts. A giant compendium of verse about London, edited by Mark Ford, was published to coincide with the Cultural Olympiad, which was the umbrella for several other projects, among them the documentary film London: The Modern Babylon, directed by Julien Temple, whose every archive clip and music cue could be guessed ten minutes in advance.
Little of the work published to coincide with the Olympics or the Jubilee was ambitious in anything other than scale. A book such as Nick Barratt’s Greater London: The Story of the Suburbs offers 500-plus pages of detail while remaining, as John Carey noted, “unspeculative to a degree seldom met with outside railway timetables.” Most of the novels published about London, by writers such as John Lanchester (Capital) and Martin Amis (Lionel Asbo), recycled at greater length talking points gleaned from headlines and op-ed pages. There was certainly no work of fiction that grappled with the city in the way that Fielding or Dickens or Conrad or, in their earlier work, Amis (Money, 1984) or Iain Sinclair (Downriver, 1991) had; and among the nonfiction books, there was no successor to such graceful rummages as Paul Cohen-Portheim’s The Spirit of London, Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s London: The Unique City and V.S. Pritchett’s London Perceived. There has mostly been a fact deluge, with no narrative or focus to curb or control it.
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At least Iain Sinclair’s Ghost Milk offered the excitements of rage, bile and unorthodox sentences (some with no verbs). The book is an addictive and maddening first-person survey of the effects of Grand Projects like the Dome in Greenwich and the Olympics, and was first published in Britain in the summer of 2011 and in the United States in 2012. For Sinclair, the government tyranny necessary for the execution of Grand Projects (or GPs, as he puts it) is a desecration of the London he loves, with its disorganized communitarianism and gift for democratic gradualism. Sinclair’s previous book, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, a “confidential report” on the London borough where he lives, made repeated reference to the coming upheavals, and repeated attempts at trying out the new book’s terminology: “the grand Olympic project” sucking resources, “the tainted illusion of the Grand Project.” In Ghost Milk, Sinclair picks up the same story a little further down the line, at a point when its visible markers are even harder to miss, and alternates the unfolding portrait of Hackney with excursions to Beijing and Berlin, among other places, to see how wrong GPs can go.
At one point in Ghost Milk, Sinclair explains that in 2008, a planned launch event for his Hackney book was scuttled by the local council:
The poor librarian deputed to give me the bad news kept insisting that it was not her fault, there was nothing she could do, orders from above…. I took it as a tribute, after all this time, to be thought worthy of being invited to leave the premises. It’s a tough act to get yourself banned these days and I had pulled it off three months before my book was even published.
Sinclair may have taken the cancellation as a tribute, but he also hoarded it as evidence—indeed, as no less than a confirmation—of his suspicion that “ugly truths were being concealed behind the Olympic smokescreen.” One adviser had argued against the ban, but the “advice was spurned in the thirst for retribution, making it clear to malcontents and naysayers that they would be up against the wrath of an all-powerful bureaucracy, happy to be in agreement, for once, with central government.” What emerged, thanks to the efforts of two journalists working for a self-funded free newspaper, the Hackney Citizen, was that the order came from the mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe, a man sarcastically praised by Sinclair in Ghost Milk’s dedication as a “constant inspiration, as he remakes the borough of Hackney as a model surrealist wonderland.”
A significant part of this surrealist wonderland is the Olympic Village, and though Sinclair can be negligent when it comes to explaining causes, his descriptions are brilliant and unappeasable as arguments. At one point in Sorry Meniscus, his book about the Millennium Dome, completed in 1999, Sinclair asked, “How could you acclaim a people’s park that was guarded like a penal colony?” In Ghost Milk, he again shows that when governments embark on populist ventures, it isn’t long before they call in private security to protect boundaries, block access, ban photography. As Sinclair sees it, there is certainly an Olympics legacy, and it isn’t pretty. “In boroughs affected by this madness, the 2012 game-show virus,” he writes, “long-established businesses closed down, travellers were expelled from edgeland settlements.” The Hackney marshes were turned into concrete car parks, and a spokesperson for British Waterways, the organization responsible for introducing new mooring fees ten times higher than the previous rates, explained, “We have to send the message that in future, living on the river will not be such a cheap lifestyle option.”
Broadly, the aim was to “monetize” an area previously known for philanthropy, affordable housing and underdevelopment. “By 2012,” Sinclair speculated, “there will be no perceptible difference in techniques of control employed in war zones and in homeland development zones: making the world a safer place for shopping.” He is referring in part to the vast shopping complex that was built in Stratford in time for the Olympics. But London has always been a place for trade and exchange—in 1711, Joseph Addison, a founder of The Spectator, called it “a kind of Emporium for the whole Earth”—and Sinclair risks sounding merely reactionary when he complains about these mercantile pursuits.