The English love a moaner, as long as he doesn't challenge their habits or demand action. This is why Iain Sinclair has been able to publish so much weak non-fiction over the years - and make no mistake, that's all 'Ghost Milk' is (it's not a 'docu-novel' or part of an art project, whatever anyone half-heartedly claims).
Insights shared here include: Iain doesn't like the new buildings much; people at the council have got computers now; and "spam email - what's that all about?" There's a strong whiff of the Partridge throughout: substitute 'Hackney' for 'Norwich' and you'll see what I mean. Dull details of his daily wanders, meetings with small-time media contacts, complaints about the council you'd expect to hear from the Taxpayers' Alliance, a cancelled book reading, and a contretemps with a friendly French listings magazine - it's accidentally quite funny in places, read in Partridge's voice. That's the kind of survival tactic you'll need to develop to get through it. He wakes up a bit when discussing other writers, and remembers a couple of times to describe the light on the canal poetically, but these are very meagre rewards when spread across 430 pages.
The opening reminiscences about his Hackney life in the 70s are quite interesting, but they do remind you that he was an engaged, creative writer back then. His career since seems to reflect the decline he sees in the country quite neatly. I get the impression publishers have steadily become more brand conscious and commercially minded, and light reading like 'Ghost Milk' won't frighten any horses; it's basically bit of travel, local history and news speak mixed together - all idioms familiar from newspaper leisure sections - which must be why so much of it has been commissioned. And of course it gets him a gig as the "I think it is a bad thing" guy on pre-Olympics news coverage (he actually seems to hate everything, almost indiscriminately, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day). That's a much easier pitch than his previous, densely written fiction and esoteric poetry, because it's so bland; but he's not good enough company for it to be a pleasant read in that mode. Neither, sadly, is he doing anything creative or challenging enough to earn a grand label like 'psychogeography'. Psychological awareness is singularly lacking here, as is an insightful survey of the London landscape. Instead, we get endless moaning about the minutiae of our narrator's apparently very pleasant life.
He walks right past the big subjects without offering any useful perspective on them. He doesn't know much about architecture. He doesn't understand how politics and town planning work (he can't even tell the difference between New Labour's central government spin-masters and the local council). He doesn't give you any sense of how people's lives have changed during the Blair-Cameron years. There have been some great recent reads that get stuck into these issues and show this book up for the lazy work it is - Owen Hatherley's A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, John Lanchester's Whoops! and Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism spring immediately to mind.
Sinclair badly needs to put his feet up and come up with some new ideas if he's ever to write another word worth reading. (Cue a follow-up about the aftermath of the Olympics....)