If, as we’re always being told, the national economy is equivalent to an individual or household economy, how to explain the Olympics? When you’re in debt, the first thing you do is cut down on your social life. Yet the coalition, so fond of hectoring us about the maxed-out national credit card, is set to party like it’s 2005. In April we had the Royal Wedding. Next year there will be another feudal celebration in the form of the Diamond Jubilee. The Olympics will take place that same year, at a cost of around £14 billion. In times of austerity, could not a more practical use be found for the cash? You could understand if London was hosting the World Cup, which resonates, incandescent, in the English soul. But, I mean, fucking discus throwing? Hello?
Outside of self-selecting City Hall polls and rubber-stamp consultations, the question of whether Londoners agree with this use of their money is debatable – and never mind people outside London who are also paying for this. But the political class wants this event, there’s no question of that. Late July saw a ‘One Year To Go’ ceremony, with Boris Johnson and Seb Coe, and live coverage from Trafalgar Square and the Olympic Park. (You should check out the Guardian liveblog of this event, which to the paper’s credit doesn’t even begin to pretend interest or respect.) London writer Iain Sinclair claims purges and evictions around Olympic sites: ‘long-established businesses closed down, travelers were expelled from edgeland settlements, and allotment holders turned out of their gardens.’ The reaction to last week’s riots was: Christ, what about the Olympics?
On one level the madness has method. The Olympic bid was won on July 6, 2005. It has been realised that the five circles might as well be a crosshair. Sinclair’s walking tour around the site is punctuated by fences, signs and guards: ‘Baghdad conditions imported. Green zones staked out, helicopter-patrolled.’ Raids continued. Police officers cited the event in crackdowns on harmless environmental process. The security became hysterical: in one incident, Sinclair says, ‘two enforcement officers burst into a cafe in Mare Street, searching for a woman who had dropped a cigarette butt on the ground outside’. In an act of counterproductivity and silliness, Hackney council banned Sinclair from speaking in any of its libraries, after he wrote an LRB piece critical of the Olympic project. An internal email obtained by the Hackney Citizen under FoI from the council’s Head of Media said that ‘we should not host an event on Council premises promoting a book which has an overtly controversial [sic] and political (albeit non-party) agenda, and actively promotes an opinion which contradicts our aims and values as an organization – in this case the 2012 games and legacy’.
But Ghost Milk is not an investigative expose of the Olympic bid. It’s more an aesthetic meditation on place and what Sinclair calls the ‘Grand Project’. It seems everything has to be what business writer David Craig calls ‘a major reinvention of the wheel.’ A government IT project cannot be a simple upgrade, it has to be a massive overhaul that costs millions and is out of date by the time it’s online. And the same goes with regeneration. What else could explain Media City?
Upscale can kill a project. Overreach can make a good local celebration into an expensive national embarrassment. Yet it keeps happening, because the Grand Project is carried out ostensibly for citizens, but mainly for politicians and businesspersons on the regen gravy train. They are places to work, not places to live, and the contradiction makes the place seem eerie, a hole punched in the universe.
Sinclair captures this sense of placelessness. To him the Olympic dream is a ‘long march towards a theme park without a theme’. He describes the Westfield mall as ‘a waiting room, a room you can’t escape, never having properly arrived.’ The landscape from the M62, all ‘cooling towers, no-purpose sheds and glinting rivers’ is ‘an itinerant area that you can’t define as country or city’. This is of course the problem with globalisation. So good and necessary in many ways, it nevertheless tends towards an effect where ‘cities are swallowing each other, pastiching, making copies of copies’. I think of Houellebecq’s prophecy, that in time, the whole world will come to resemble an airport.
From the early chapters based around the 2012 site Sinclair travels all over the UK and Europe. It’s not always an interesting journey, partly because of the real-ale prose – the recent Private Eye Sinclair parody is cruel, but accurate. Sometimes, he can be pretentious. (In a New Statesman interview he told Jonathan Derbyshire that the Olympic site represented ‘a sort of invasion psychosis that landed not only in Iraq, but also in the Lower Lea Valley.’) Long passages on Ballard, Beckett and Kerouac appear for no apparent reason.
Sinclair would surely appreciate the irony of eighteen-year-old Chelsea Ives, an Olympic ambassador and athlete who has met Coe and Johnson, being turned in by her parents, to answer charges of throwing bricks at police cars and looting mobile phones. It’s like the glossed and tinkly regen dream coming face to face with the reality of an increasingly chaotic, and divided country. It’s also a reminder that national unity is a fragile myth.