Spring is here. I’ve had washing hanging out today. I’m happy with the white wall, it needs another coat, then the floor and the radiator. I’m looking forward to light and space.
I’ve just watched a John Rogers film about Hackney Wick. He made a similar film of a walk there in 2016, today’s is following up, re-treading the same path. Many psychogeographers do that; following the steps of the forefathers of the … of the.. what is it? Movement? Tradition? Pursuit? It is almost religious, certainly cultish. The rural types all flock to Orford Ness, then write about W G Sebald. I suppose I fell into the habit (not a literal religious habit) before I really understood what it was, that it even had a name, certainly before I knew of people like John Rogers. As a teenager I used to roam to places tangentially off the tube map. I lived close to Hackney Wick around 2014-2016 when I returned to London for university. I lived in a Ballardian student “village”, brand new and already falling apart, full of primal masculinity, broken windows and empty beer bottles. There were ferocious winds that blew across the flatness of the Olympic Park, strong enough to blow doors off their hinges once or twice. That feels like so long ago now. I can get on the DLR train and be back there in half an hour, but I don’t. Much as I sometimes long for the familiar streets of Leytonstone and the forest beyond, Stratford is just a necessary battleground to force oneself through.
In the latter film, John Rogers comments that in the intervening years between his visits parts of Hackney Wick have changed beyond recognition. This is unsurprising. Being on the fringe of the Olympics site change was inevitable. The now standard cycle of dereliction, artists, bars, gentrification, sterilisation has run its course. John mentioned the disorientation felt in streets and vistas which now bear none of their former landmarks, especially noticeable when new constructions are all near identical square edged apartment blocks, with fake stuck on orange brick render, abstract vertical columns in contrasting colours, tiny inset balconies. They will look dated and unkempt in a decade or two. This is the problem when places are planned and built wholesale, they don’t feel real or human in scale, there is no sense of place, identity or history, however hard developers try to invent community-invoking names, usually chosen to memorialise something that the development itself has just destroyed. Gradually this glass-brick-beige force is spreading north up the Lea Valley, towering over and dominating natural open spaces with their out-of-context forms. Meridian Water, around Edmonton, is a good example. A gargantuan Tescos, an Ikea, unfriendly dual carriageways, vacant land with piles of scrap metal, no identity. A couple of years ago you could look on google earth and see outlines of old gasometers and an old railway line, like scars concealing the history of the land. They’re gone now. The sadder part, often ignored, is that this process actually destroys, obliterates, scatters existing communities which no one has really noticed because they are normal people, working, living, conducting their business, not being remarkable or part of any agenda or scene, so therefore expendable. One exception to this is the man who owns the fish smoking business on Fish Island, he was allowed to stay and be a media-friendly example of local independent entrepreneurship, employment, regeneration, and so on. His building is pink and quite ugly. So is he, actually.
When watching John Rogers’ second film today, I too felt disorientated, dislocated. I recognised street names, buildings and views, but I can no longer piece together a reliable map in my head. It is strange and slightly terrifying that the memory can become fragmented and damaged in a period of only a few years, for no obvious reason. I imagine this is what it must be like to slowly lose one’s faculties. Some memories are there, some aren’t, they aren’t in order, they don’t connect to each other. I haven’t sustained any physical injury, but parts of my memory are gone. Something has happened. Perhaps this is why I also get the visual hallucinations. Random images occur in my brain for split seconds, usually images of places I have been but since forgotten. I don’t think I can ever stop that happening now. The Archers is presently dealing with psychosis, also competitive carol singing but it’s best to disregard that.
In a previous chapter of my life, long before I knew of John Rogers, the Leyton-Leystonstone-Walthamstow artists, filmmakers and place-people, I knew the pre-Olympic area well, a grey semi-abandoned labyrinth of industry, brick sheds, abandoned cars, railway sidings, chemical smells. A few weeks ago I watched “What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?”, a film by Paul Kelly made in 2005, shot around this area. News reports of the time used in the film talk of the pride London felt, a sense of achievement at the announcement that the Olympics would be coming to London, spelling the end for this part, all would be destroyed, replaced, renewed, regenerated. Phrasing it like that suggests an undefeatable, unstoppable force of nature, something to be cautiously accepted and prepared for, like a tornado or a war. By 2005 I was in Yorkshire, making a point of not thinking about London, I had convinced myself I didn’t belong there, had somehow failed there so didn’t deserve to indulge in London, or associate with it. At that time there had been few significant changes since I left. The Jubilee line still ended at Charing Cross. Watching Paul Kelly’s film triggered those exact feelings of disorientation, of failing to accurately map the places in my mind. I recognised streets, buildings, railway bridges which are no longer there, and can’t ever remember how they interconnected. Unlike when watching John Rogers’ film, I know that I can’t go back to those places now. A part of my history is erased. That sounds a little melodramatic, but history exists in places, doesn’t it? There is an old iron footbridge over one of the sections of river, painted brightly, in the shadow of the big stadium, now used by the West Ham football troupe. The bridge is gently curved in an upward arch, I think for barge horses to be able to cross over. There are huge sewer pipes around here too, Mr Bazalgette’s northern outfall sewer which carries North London’s effluent towards Beckton. It used to just wait there until the tide washed it out into the sea. There was contaminated waste buried at Clays Lane, the pioneering housing co-operative, and the old cycle track. Rumours suggest some was uncovered during the redevelopment, and hastily buried again, rather than be taken away. I once found what I thought was a part of the old cycle track left over in the middle of the new concrete dual carriageway roads. I wouldn’t be able to find it again now, obviously. I think it was near the new road called Abercrombie Way after Patrick Abercrombie, the pre war town planner who had the unpopular ringways idea, a network of interconnected inner London motorways. There’s never been traffic on the new road named after him, as far as I know. There was also a gate, never locked, which gave access to the railway yards. I still miss that old land.
There’s another related film, Seven Summers, by Sarah Cracknell, made in 2012 at peak Olympic time, although the fringe areas were probably still in states of turmoil. When I returned in 2014 it still felt temporary, fluxuous. I haven’t watched this film yet, I don’t feel ready. I don’t know what may happen when I do.