Today is a joyful non-event. Nothing to do, nothing to worry about, no-one to talk to, no time to keep. The estate demolition is about to start. George has a perfect vantage point for filming it and making time-lapse content. I can’t suggest that to him. Well, I could, but I won’t. Best to forget about him. Eventually, maybe in two years or so, I’ll be able to do something like that, filming the next phase of demolition from the kitchen window. All the town houses and the first three towers are going, leaving us further marooned here. This block will be the first visible structure from the main road, but the gap between here and there will be bigger, a vast swathe of flattened land, material ground down into averaged dusty concrete rubble. Just matter, really.
I’ve been thinking lately about the purpose of making art, what motivates us, and what happens to our mind and our feelings when that motivation disappears. We have to tell ourselves to keep at it, keep making, keep pushing, even when the results don’t, at first appearance, justify the effort. We have to do it not for the work, but for ourselves, not to satisfy an audience who maybe can never be entirely satisfied anyway. As Bob Dylan, folk poet and spokesman for the disaffected said “you shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you”.
Where was I? Sainsburys was a little odd this morning. No queue, but it seemed more crowded inside. Lighting was low too. I’d like to think that this was a deliberate decision, a futile gesture to enhance and perpetuate the feeling that everything is temporary, hardship is strength, austerity is ever-present.
I feel slightly sad at the demolition starting. Not through nostalgia, or even any sense of wrongness; the flats are already empty, and have been increasingly devoid of life for some weeks now. Windows look soulless without life behind them. The buildings being demolished first are the linear blocks, the first to be occupied, and of the type seen in Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, the type with the large balconies. They are not attractive, nor were they especially fit for purpose during their active life, in spite of the modernist utopian fanfare for them in 1968. It feels strange for this to be the second time I’ve lived in a high rise home long past it’s heyday. For the record, the Wimpey flats in Mixenden were nicer, better built, and have a future, at least for the moment.
The sadness of the demolition is that whole patch of land which will be rendered void, and will now spend a period of time, perhaps several years, being vacant, inaccessible, purposeless. Footpaths no longer usable, new, temporary detours to be found, marked out by turquoise painted hardboard, new feelings and emotions to be found, rejected, accepted, acknowledged, reconciled, compromised. For a place no one likes or wants, this town does drain an awful lot of emotional energy. In a way that metal parts of railway structures are often earth-bonded to ground, stray currents of positive and negative human energy drains through the grey concrete into the poisoned ground below. We are left functioning but devoid of feelings. I want to live in a normal street again.
I’ve just cycled up to and along the Thames Path again. I saw Marcus and his lady friend. I hope they don’t think I’m stalking them. He is very skinny, pleasant looking though. I had the same panic agoraphobia feeling when I left the path of the sewage pipe. It acts as a boundary. Beyond may as well not be a real place. Maybe the sad thing about Thamesmead is the doomed inevitability of it. It was designed with bland “sink estate” features built in, even, perhaps especially the later parts with their Brookside closes, garages, lawns. The neat brickwork has layers of scale rising from the ground. The best thing might be to abandon the town wholesale, strip any valuable or historically important assets, and allow nature to reclaim. Perhaps breach the river wall to create a floodplain water storage and wetland nature reserve. Leave the houses to disintegrate further. The horses could remain semi-wild, with a ranger type person checking up on them every so often. Some goats could nibble the hedges too. A gigantic post-industrial safari park for London. A street or two of the Barrett style houses could serve as a filming lot for generic post-apocalyptic suburban street scenes. The Channel Four soap was quite post-apocalyptic towards the end anyway, and it would be nice to continue the film location tradition. The industrial utilities would probably have to stay, but that doesn’t matter especially. The few people that work at them probably live far away already. All these infrastructure monoliths are grouped close together, there are the old Bazalgette steam pumping engines, polished by very elderly volunteers, sitting resplendent but motionless in their Victorian palace. There were once houses for the families of the workers, arranged rather elegantly around a square with a cricket pitch, all on top of huge sludge tanks.
I once had an exclusive guided tour of the works, led by a small old man of about four feet, who walked and talked painfully slowly. I felt awkwardly tall, being led around, not really following what he was telling me. I was interested in how the different parts worked but didn’t really learn as much about that as I’d hoped. From what I worked out when it was first built, South London’s sewage arrived in a gigantic pipe, sat in open concrete tanks until the solid matter settled at the bottom, the water was pumped out into the Thames, perhaps after some basic treatment, but perhaps not. The solid matter, now called sludge, was pumped into those holding tanks below the houses, waiting to be expelled when the tide is outgoing, to help wash it out to sea. It never occurred to me that shoving it out at low tide would mean it would just sit on the shore smelling. Perhaps tomato plants would grow. The area smells anyway.
The houses are gone, but the tanks are still there, below ground. They are probably empty, and likely not easily accessible. The old pumping station is on land belonging to Thames Water, who lease it to one of the most amateur, commercially unviable charitable trust visitor attraction, opening sporadically, relying on a vast number of elderly volunteers who are all part way through never ending projects only loosely related to the original function of the place. It just serves as a bleak remote day centre really. The river isn’t even visible, as the flood defence wall along the Thames Water owned section is a tall grey concrete barrier, not unlike some prison boundary walls I’ve seen. I left that day feeling quite depressed, but with a hard hat. I planted seeds in it.