CultureCritic interviews Iain Sinclair...
A poet, film-maker and acclaimed writer of both fiction and non-fiction, Iain Sinclair's contribution to the literature of London is immense, despite not being born in the capital. In his forthcoming book Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project Sinclair takes on the 2012 Olympics, putting them in the context of other grand projects, and bracing the reader for what to expect after the games are over. We chat to him about the Olympics, Tracey Emin and Westfield shopping centre...
Ghost Milk expands on your well documented criticism of ‘grand projects'. Is the main focus of your criticism directed at the new 2012 Olympic site?
My previous book, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, is about the area that I've lived in for a long time. It was overshadowed by the idea that Hackney would be invaded and remade into something strange and ‘magnificent', or whatever, soon, and the place that I've known for a long time would disappear. So that was the motivation for that book.
The new book starts from the notion that this has already happened. The way that territory law has been treated was at the front of my mind; it's always been an area for pirates and cowboys and minor exploiters of all sorts. The book pulls back to look at an earlier era when minor grant projects were scattered across the whole north of England, and were all pretty disastrous. It's as though, walking through the abandoned theme parks and empty museums that have become bars and all of that, you could see the future in the footprints of what has already happened.
The book finally moves out to Berlin and Athens. You can see Athens as a sign as of how things can become so catastrophic so quickly with the financial meltdown of a country. The Athens site has become a series of very grand monuments that are just full of grass and wild dogs. What you are really creating is new ruins. The Athenians kept saying to me when I was there, ‘we're quite happy with these stadiums that nobody goes to because these are just the new ruins, so we like that, we're happy with it'.
Surely such projects are commissioned in the hope of encouraging regeneration?
The huge global corporate imperative spins the idea that everything is for the best. I point out very carefully that everything that was actually promised was there already and decayed away or didn't receive any support: cycle tracks, swimming pools – they've all been allowed to fade and collapse because they didn't get sufficient financial support.
Everything else is essentially a major smoke screen to cover for a gigantic shopping complex, the Westfield mall. Indeed the stadium is going to be rebranded the Westfield stadium, and that is the only reality. How are you going to financially support even grander and more enormous venues afterwards, in a time of financial collapse?
So you don't see these grant projects as being the same as the urban regeneration they seem to promise?
No, I don't believe it at all. This urban regeneration is nonsense. It's all about clearing land for corporate projects, that's all, and the regeneration aspect is a by-product. It's only an excuse to dredge in money for the other side of it.
Do you view the building of the Olympic site as being corrosive to the ‘history' that exists there?
Yes, absolutely, it's totally destructive. This was vital territory to the people who lived in the neighbourhood boroughs. They had this kind of wilderness parkland where they could wander and pursue any aspects of it that they wanted to.
The other thing is that we're seeing the local destroyed by the global or the corporate. There were lots of local art activities which now can't be funded, such as small theatre groups. I spoke to someone yesterday who puts on events in Victoria Park. A whole series of minor organisations could have it for a weekend to do their own thing, which they'd been doing for years, and all of that has been lost. Next year it's one mega corporate booking and one huge thing has taken their place for the whole year. So, essentially it's an anti-cultural Olympics because it means the destruction of local culture.
Are grand projects inherently bad?
Yes, I think they are basically the equivalent to those rather grim computer-generated versions of the future that you see splattered all over the housing projects. We see this brilliant looking building, and the clean streets, and the blue water, and all of that is not true, and never will be, but people are persuaded by it.
Olympic fences were covered head to toe with versions of how it ought to be or how it might be in the future, even though lots of the Olympic buildings were never going to be built because they'd had their financing curtailed and they were withdrawn. But the images were still up there to persuade you that it was a reality. And people came to believe it.
Is there anything positive to take from the Olympic Games? The Cultural Olympiad, perhaps?
I think people are being forced to look at how they want to interact with the politics of the place in which they live. I think there's been a return to a spirit we haven't seen for a long time, because suddenly you're running up against something massive like a huge invasion. It's like the equivalent of the invasion of Baghdad.
The construction of these buildings is creating a privatized zone guarded by heavy security in the anticipation of terrorist threats. What has happened is that they've created a target, which they then defend and keep people out of. But the way people respond to that is interesting and I think that's kind of positive.
As for the cultural Olympics, it's complete nonsense. You can name it anything you want but what you end up with is Tracy Emin. It's just money being poured away as a bit of razzmatazz PR.
Perhaps more than any living author today you are associated with writing on the psychogeography of London...
Psychogeography was a theory in Paris back in the 50s and 60s that had to do with a conceptual way, a philosophy of the city that was trying to maintain a subversive energy of a time. It was a sense of the city in terms of alignments and almost an occult, a secret history of the city that seemed to be overwhelmed by current political developments but that lead to a mapping and a pattern beneath.
It was very seductive up to a point. In the 1980s it played very well against Thatcherism, which seemed to be almost an occult medium in that she was so focused on bad will and manipulation. I think Alan Moore was probably the person who made it most visible and popular.
You're speaking at this year's London Literary Festival, which prides itself on being an arena for face-to-face debate in the context of an increasingly online world. Are you active online?
No, not at all, none of that. Essentially, doing these public things like the literary festival or going to local book shops is for me a way of getting some feedback about the things I write. I find that all those Twitter things just suck time that I don't have. I'd rather be getting on with work or actually out and about exploring. It might be that I am too old and stupid to do it, but I'm just not drawn to it at all.
I think the internet is a strange, banal-making version of communication. It's also a kind of deep addiction. I keep seeing kids of about 14 or whatever going down the street to school staring at these things in their hands, tweeting and emailing and texting, and nobody is actually looking at where they are. It seems to draw you deep into this interesting (or not) cyber-world and you end up disconnected from the real world because you are so obsessively connected that you don't actually look at the things around you.
Recently there was a series of talks at the Royal Academy where famous Londoners were asked to volunteer their nomination for the most important building in London. Do you have a nomination?
No, I actually don't. I actually really don't want to play the listing game, which is a sort of journalistic compulsion to turn everything into lists.
I have numerous buildings that attract and haunt me, which I spy on regularly. Once upon a time it was the Hawksmoor churches. But in a sense, if you go on about something it gives it a different kind of status. It's better to keep these things mysterious.
Will Self argued in favour of Stockwell Bus Garage, which is a building that most Londoners wouldn't pass on a daily basis. Surely it's a good thing to argue the importance of out-of-the-way buildings, especially in an era of faceless regeneration?
Oh it's a good one to do, absolutely. Most people wouldn't see it. In Hackney there's actually a bus garage which still has tram tracks. It's a mysterious space people don't see and next to it is St. Augustine's tower, a surviving stump of probably the oldest building in Hackney. It's great. You can only get in on the last Sunday of each month, and if you climb to the top of that you have a stunning view that shows you how green the spaces in East London are. You get a view of the bus garage, St. Augustine's tower and the great spread of Tesco on Morning Lane. If you can put together a supermarket, a bus garage and a medieval church tower, you get a kind of sense of what London is.
Your official unofficial website describes you as a flâneur, a figure typically associated with nineteenth-century Paris. Does that description sit comfortably with you?
I wouldn't describe myself as one. In a book called Lights Out for the Territory back in the 1990s, I argued that the idea of the flâneur in London was replaced by the stalker, who is much more intense, much more eclectic. More searching and stopping rather than drifting and meditating and looking at your own reflection in shop windows, which is the end project of the flâneur. I think flâneurs petered out in the Second World War.
A lot of 'modern' urban experience seems to be in internal environments...
Absolutely. Look at the Westfield Mall in Shepherds Bush. It turns inside into outside and outside into inside so you create an completely enclosed world but inside it, it has trees, real trees inside the building, and outside are fake metal trees.
In a way if the flâneur exists anywhere now, he or she would be inside those buildings. The only way you can walk around the various levels of Westfield's is to sort of drift in this sleepwalking style, and drop in at one of the dozens of enclaves they provide. So I think the flâneur is an internal thing instead of an external. Wandering is flung more and more to the fringes of the city. Will Self's friend Nick Papadimitriou roams about the western edges of the city endlessly, gathering up materials and evaluating them. That's not a flâneur, that's more like a long-distance walker.
These days you are most well known for your work on London but you were once closely connected to the British avant-garde poetry movement in the 60s and 70s. Do you still consider poetry to be a significant part of your work?
Yes, I do. It's really at the heart of what I do, but it's sort of invisible because the particular avant-garde world that I was involved in then has vanished into the academic world. To an extent, some younger poets and people who put on readings have been resurrecting it. There were ways that the 1960s and 1970s poets were able to publish in small presses and they had a network of places like Compendium in Camden Town that have completely gone. My connection is on a tiny scale whereby I still put out books with small presses, but you would never know. It's invisible.
Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project is out on 7th July. Read the latest reviews here.
Iain Sinclair is talking at this year's London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre. Click here for more information.
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