Iain Sinclair is open about the way his own prejudices and experiences inform his writing. Although the focus on landscape and events, such as the building of the Olympic Park, seems to suggest his books are non-fiction, possibly documentary, he says his writing is generically promiscuous, neither fiction nor non-fiction. The synopsis on the jacket of Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project describes the book as a memoir, which seems to be a neat and rising genre that stretches a number of ways: … this isn’t fact; this is my interpretation of the facts as I see them.
He is interested in the accidents of being in a place, the chance occurrences and encounters. For example, he watches the elderly Chinese couple circling the fence in opposite directions, the muralists on the Olympic front line, and the raids along the canal.
He likes the accidents of memory. He doesn’t make notes as he’s walking, so misrememberances pervade his work, in the same way that they inform other people’s experience of their environment and interactions.
In relation to last week’s text, I’m interested in the subjectivity this implies.
James Agee wanted to really present the place, to make the words become the thing, and to almost write himself out of it, although often, his physical presence was driving the narrative, such as the chapter of him outside the church. At these times, there was a sense of memoir, even if that wasn’t what he set out to do. Perhaps it is this inclination to memoir that caused Agee so much anguish about the ethics of his project.
Sinclair doesn’t tear himself to pieces over the ethics of what he’s doing. He might well consider ethical issues, but he is happy to put his own personality at the centre of the work. Sinclair is often physically absent in the narrative, or almost absent. Yet the language is unmistakably loaded: ‘In boroughs affected by this madness, the 2012 game-show virus, long-established businesses closed down’, travellers were ‘expelled from edgeland settlements’, and allotment holders turned out of their gardens … In front of the library off-cuts of Olympic fence are ‘like an upended coffin’, and they ‘curtain’ the landscape in ‘tacky’ blue plywood.
I emerge on the A11 where a frenzy of indifference awaits the Olympic torch … A procession of police cyclists puff up the hill, reluctant box-tickers for the eco-lobby … The low-loader, with its line of shivering Samsung cheerleaders in white tights and heavy blue mascara, blasts out a triumphalist chorus … They semaphore, dementedly, waving furry pompoms that look like Persian cats dipped in blue-dyed toilet cleaner. [65-66]
I almost want to call this free and direct discourse for the way it embeds point of view, prejudice, opinion, into the narrative discourse.
Additionally, I’m also interested in the style of writing, which was something else discussed in relation to Agee. The question of whether Agee was writing in a modernist or post-modernist style was interesting, and the range within Agee’s prose seems to take it to the point of breaking down in his attempts to make the words work harder.
For Sinclair, I think his style comes, in part, from his poetry, and also his time at film school, the way short clipped sentences might represent a fast-paced film sequence, or a sentence fragment be the breath you take at the end of the line.
Perhaps, Agee was trying to make the text become the thing as closely as possible through his style. Or perhaps, he was using punctuation as a disruptive force, to draw attention to the medium, and thereby stop his readers from taking the representation for the thing itself. For Sinclair, his style relates to poetic metre as a reflection of breath, how sound and perception drive writing style, rather than traditional ideas of punctuation and syntax.
So whereas Agee is being faithful to the external, the landscape and the people that inhabit it, perhaps Sinclair is being faithful to his own perception of the landscape, both through the words he chooses and the style in which he expresses them.
I was interested in the idea of following the old tramlines round Upperthorpe, and looking for evidence of them in today’s landscape. I think it’s interesting to have the different narratives of history rubbing up against one another. In an earlier Sinclair book, London Orbital, he examines the same issues in relation to the landscape surrounding the M25, how historical existence is erased, and the way the landscape seeks to hold on to its past. Sinclair says:
However meticulous the makeover, the back story always leaks, seeps through as an ineradicable miasma … Buildings slip and shift and refuse to settle on a single identity.
I asked him if he is trying to protect a landscape he sees as under attack from a governmental notion of progress, that idea of the ‘Grand Project’ he is concerned with in Ghost Milk. He said, ‘Not protect, but to retain respect, retrieve memory from government’s “cultural projects” – the sense they are trying to revise history – a cultural erasure. I want to retrieve legends’.
The blue fence surrounding the Olympic Park site is covered with a utopian landscape to hide the demolition/building works. He said, ‘It displays a landscape that does not, and may never exist. Construction has become an image exercise. The brickwork across the road is, increasingly, a battleground between the intricate and bold graffitti, and the man in the yellow jacket that comes along each morning to paint over it, protecting the official narrative of the Olympic propagation of Stratford.’
This is the crux of Iain Sinclair’s vision, the official narrative of London, the face officialdom chooses to present to the outside world, and the unofficial anti-London, the human cost to memory of the top-down grand project.
This plural narrative is also the drive for his concern with Will Alsop’s ‘SuperCity’ put forward in 2005. This was a vision of northern England that stretched from Liverpool to Hull, taking in Leeds and Manchester, a vision that saw people commuting between these locations, living at one end, working at the other, socializing and shopping in between, the M62, the spine of the project.
Sinclair suspected it couldn’t work, so he boarded the bus at Liverpool, changing 12 times along the way. At each stage he registered the differences, differences in appearance and language, attitude. He talks about the way these schemes lead to an abandoned architecture, the Earth Centre in Doncaster, the Lower Lee Valley.
But how does the idea of organizing towns along the M62 into a SuperCity model relate to the notion of assemblage. There are differing communities running along this stretch of the country that interact in the way Wil Alsop described, that if you live in Barnsley, you might go shopping in Leeds, and if you work in Sheffield, you might go out in Manchester. I imagine the architect was motivated to find ways to promote behaviour that he already felt was happening.
In Ghost Milk Sinclair laughs at Alsop’s idea that if Leeds go out of the cup, the same supporters could or should switch allegiance to Man City. That does sound pretty ridiculous given that we can’t switch allegiance in a single city, not least because, as a general rule, the closer the club the stronger the rivalry. However, we can drink, eat and shop in the same space as each other. Perhaps then, it is unfair to use the specific principles and biases of football supporters as an example of how SuperCity might fail.
Within Upperthorpe, as we’ve discussed, there is diversity in demographic. There are university buildings, student residences and social housing close together. We’ve thought about how this diversity of the people using facilities in the area works, or expresses itself: through the different times people use the swimming pool, for example. Perhaps this is a microcosm of Wil Alsop’s underlying assumption that different communities could potentially be accommodated for in the same space, that the way they interact could be strengthened, if the architectural structures come out of the community it serves.