This was the scene that greeted me at North Greenwich Station yesterday as I alighted the bus from Eltham – a brave new world of golden tower blocks rising from Bugsby’s Marshes. Whale oil to property development, money magicked from mud. I’d just gazed across a moat at the Tudor Eltham Palace, and here new palaces stacked atop each other jutting out on a peninsula in the Thames. Eerily the website for the development has a headline that I’ve been using as the work-in-progress title for my new book.
The mirror by the Mulberry Tree at Charlton House made this shot impossible to resist. Being with Iain Sinclair by a Mulberry Tree made me think of the detailed description of the silk trade in WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, silk worms feed on mulberry leaves. I’ve just read the chapter in Iain’s forthcoming book The Last London where he retraces an East End perambulation from Austerlitz with Sebald’s friend, the poet Stephen Watts.
This black mulberry is believed to be around 400 years old, just marginally younger than Charlton House, built in 1607. But unlike the bricks and mortar of the grand Jacobean mansion the mulberry tree is a living being, arms reaching out into the park and the fine public convenience behind by the road.
We were passing through the park filming a thread coming off the Watling Street project, a tributary running off Shooters Hill, another film now taking shape to be presented in the autumn.
Down to Brighton to see Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore speaking at an event in the Brighton Festival Spiegeltent celebrating the amazing history of Watling Street, a road so old, as John Higgs told us, that it may even predate humans, being carved out by migrating animals.
Iain Sinclair recounted his walk along the section of Watling Street from Dover to Westminster, with the footage shot by Andrew Kotting and myself projected on the screen behind. He talked of the mysteries of Shooters Hill, Andrew’s constant banter that on one occasion led to missing the last room at a Travelodge and having to sleep on the floor of a disabled toilet. He told the story of walking to Mortlake with Alan Moore to visit the home of John Dee, Moore arriving at his house with a bag laden with esoteric books.
After a musical interlude Alan Moore took to the stage and gave a long and beautiful riff on a conversation with a scientist (I think) who’d explained the probability that we are living in a computer simulation. Alan’s own intervention on this theory was both funny, enlightening and poignant linking it back to explaining to some people in Milton Keynes how he could be their God as he had worked on the building of Milton Keynes. He also gave a brilliant explanation on the meaning and importance of psychogeography, how you can create your own epic mythology for where you live and your own place in that world. It was one of those evenings that makes you feel differently about the world around you, mind expanded, horizons widened.
Afterwards I went and ate fish and chips on the beach and pondered Alan Moore’s idea that perhaps we live the same life over and over again instead of merely ceasing to exist after death – this, he posited, was a good reason to fill your life with great moments. With this in mind I bought two cans of Adnams Southwold Bitter to drink on the train back to London.
‘Roll Up Roll Up for all the fun of the fair in the Olympic Park’, nobody said. A pound each just to enter. Barely a soul around, like one of those ghost theme parks somewhere out in the American midwest, or a scene in a zombie movie. Loitering too long at one of the amusements meant being descended upon by eager, underemployed staff. My son didn’t really fancy much apart from the mini-Zorbs bobbing in a paddling pool in the corner that I managed to persuade him away from. Three arrows for £3.50 to win a wan-looking soft toy. £3 for a bag of pink candyfloss that was mostly air, my son wanted a fresh one on a stick, ‘the lady who does that ent ere’, the girl behind the counter said eyes glued to her phone. The burgers were solid black like discs of coal, the sausages resembled greasy truncheons. The dodgems sat idling remembering better times. The Ghost Ride was in good company this evening. The deserted Fun Fair should become a permanent fixture in the Olympic Park, an Olympic Legacy.
We left with the bag of pink sugar vapour and made our way to East Village in search of food that wouldn’t kill us. The illuminated apartments seemed to be far outnumbered by those in darkness, whether this indicates a large number of vacant flats or the late working hours of the inhabitants I wouldn’t want to say.
There was some sign of life at street level along Victory Parade, even a posse of teenage boys ambling along and a smattering of people in the bars and restaurants. I’m told militant vegans were out in force protesting at the cheese and wine fayre at the weekend, noisily picketing the Gelateria until the police were called. That’s an event that needs adding to the social history of the site.
It’s nearly 4 years since I was given a tour of East Village before the first residents moved in, a tour that focused almost entirely on the impressive environmental sensitivity of the landscaping missing out any mention of the 51% stake owned by the Qatari government purchased at a £275 million loss to the British taxpayer – an interesting idea when looking at skyrocketing property prices in London and an ever-worsening housing crisis.
I tried to point out to my son some of the things I remembered from the tour, but he was distracted by his hunger with his heart set on pizza. I was about to tell him we might have to settle for fish and chips when he spotted what turned out to be really good pizzeria that allowed us to park my son’s bike inside and served a favourite pizza from my Modena years.
I’m determined not to give up on East Village and the Olympic Park, to not let the cynicism ringing in my ears even louder than my tinnitus completely cloud my view. Nor do I want to be seduced into a SOMA daze of compliance by good pizza and swan pedalos. The deserted fun fair and the good pizza seemed to provide a decent balance on this occasion.
Near the foot of the vertigo inducing Jacob’s Ladder at Ramsgate Harbrour sits The Sailors’ Church and Harbour Mission. It was built in 1878 to provide spiritual guidance to the crews of the sailing smacks operating out of Ramsgate, particularly the young apprentices known as ‘Smack Boys’. There were rooms above the chapel where the boys could stay in relative comfort when ashore. The church also provided refuge for the survivors of shipwrecks.
There was not a soul around when I popped in yesterday. The peacefulness of the space put me in mind of the Sailors’ Reading Room in Southwold.
Great screening of London Overground at the Transport Museum last night followed by a Q&A with Iain Sinclair. Always learning from these discussions. I have to be honest that I got an added buzz from the fact that we were showing the film at one of the great destinations for London lovers – the Transport Museum – I get a thrill every time I step through the door of that place so to be doing an event there felt special.
Sat on the floor next to my chair is a proof copy of Iain’s new book The Last London, really excited to read this.
The next screening of London Overground is at the Flatpack Film Festival, Birmingham 9th April with the fantastic Video Strolls.
Wanstead Flats looked resplendent the other morning cloaked in a thick frost.