The Books Interview: Iain Sinclair
Your new book, Ghost Milk, describes walks around the Olympic site in east London, as well as Manchester and Hull. What connects them?
It was a trajectory that came out of the Thatcherite era, with its inconvenient ghosts of the past, such as trade unions, and the creation of a new type of city in their place. Along the way, all sorts of bones were left in the landscape, sometimes very grand and sometimes small and puny. I wanted to make a psychological excursion into this mindset. I thought that, gradually, the political imperative had come towards the idea of inventing something that created endless work and construction, process and enclosure. It was a sort of invasion psychosis that landed not only in Iraq, but also in the Lower Lea Valley.
That comparison will strike some readers as absurdly hyperbolic.
Yes, that's true, but we are living in a media world, and the other invasion is that of new technologies, in which the virtual endlessly overrides local particulars. The mindset which decides that you will simply enclose an area, as with the Olympics, is exactly the same as that which decides
you can revise the political histories of various countries. Of course that's much more extreme, and the Olympics is on a much smaller scale. But I stand by my comparison.
Why is the fencing-off or privatisation of public space such a persistent preoccupation of yours?
Any journey around London is now a series of suspended permissions. The negotiation of city space has been made more difficult with the idea that redevelopment is an improvement for some vague future - but it's never like that, is it? Once you get there, for economic reasons you have to generate the next project - so you're immediately starting to dig up something else, and so it goes on. What will the Olympics be? A couple of weeks of corporate athletics, a spectacle, and then it's gone.
Well, there's the "legacy" . . .
You can't impose a legacy. To try to fix the future is a manifest absurdity.
You present these coming Olympics as a kind of apocalypse. How far has the spirit of the Games changed?
The postwar Olympics in London was a modest and pretty local event that didn't involve the machinery of huge capital, nor a massive interconnection between the politics of local government and the media.
Is urban regeneration always a kind of confidence trick?
No. I'm making a case by taking an extreme position. Single regeneration projects can work very well when carried out in conjunction with a community. It's their imposition from above that disturbs me, and the attitudes that go with it. Ground that local people have used for years - Victoria Park [in the East End], for example - is suddenly closed off one morning. When security guards appear and ask, "Who are you?", your status as a user is immediately thrown into question.
When did you first sense that London was up for sale?
I worked in the Truman Brewery on Brick Lane. It was a very paternalistic employer. And then, in the 1970s, it was bought by a developer who started to snap up the territory around Brick Lane - Hoxton and Shoreditch. As an outsider coming in, he could see this was the beginning of something, that part of London was being heavily packaged and a new version presented. A new generation of artists came in and made it
sexy and attractive. By the 1990s, the process was a given, and now it's happening almost by the hour.
What are you working on next?
At the moment, I'm working on a lot of American material. Two of the big influences on everything I have done have been American cinema and writing. I never went there, though - I was completely buried in the matter of London - but of late I have started to visit America.
Iain Sinclair's "Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project" is published by Hamish Hamilton (£20)