EastLondonLines talks psychic collapse and the darker side of the Olympic legacy with the award-winning author and chronicler of the capital.
What makes London distinct from other cities?
All kinds of things, even the way it’s grown up; the recalcitrant nature and bloody-mindedness of London is unique. Here, people chose to stick around very early on, they chose to actually dig in and put in these enormous stone structures and defensive walls. They built cathedrals and churches. They built commercial enterprises – cargoes of the world were pouring in. Because of the Thames, there has been this constant pattern of immigration. I’ve been working with Germans recently who find London amazingly different to Berlin. They’d never encountered such a diverse, multi-voiced culture.
There are also areas of London becoming the same. There is a kind of universal city. Say you’re in Docklands, or some of the new areas, you could be in a part of Amsterdam, or on the outskirts of an American city. There is a kind of generic city incorporated into the organic mass of London. It started at the edge, and now it’s spreading through the middle. Most of it is set into chunks of other stuff, but when they start joining up maybe it will feel very different. At the moment, London holds its quality, no question.
Can you talk about the city’s smells and sounds?
They provoke memories and enrich experiences. A lot of them are grim and vile and toxic. Walk through the Olympic zone now and you’re aware that the stuff you’re breathing is shredding your lungs. Then you turn some corner and there’s a strip of wild nature, amazing plants along a strip of muddy old river. Then you get another set of smells: the emotive smells of food and even cigarettes. It’s richer in a city than anywhere else, probably better in London than in European cities.
You have been walking in London for almost 50 years. How will it be different for somebody walking 50 years from now?
If people are walking at all it will be incredibly more difficult. At the moment there is an emphasis, politically and socially, on encouraging bicycling. Bicycle tracks are taking over the canal bank, which would have been a space for people to walk. Certain pathways through places like London Fields have become cycle tracks, and there will be more and more cyclists. If the population continues to expand, so, too, will the necessity for digging up and rebuilding. It’s getting physically harder to walk, and that will become more extreme. People will walk for exercise in particular areas, but the notion of the urban wanderer will be redundant.
Population growth is so enormous that London is on the point of psychic breakdown, of not being able to cope. Laying out the railways was the first bang. It ripped the city up. London shivered and shuddered, and recovered. Then you had the damage of World War II, which allowed a rethinking and a resetting. It let the Atlee government lay out London in a more socially coherent way. The Thatcher and New Labour eras have undone all that and blown it wide open, allowing it to be manipulated by market forces entirely. Now it’s become a kind of open but deranged, collapsing city.
Is the erosion of urban wandering a loss to London?
It’s a major loss because it’s associated with a particular kind of writing, and an accumulation of strange knowledge that has a long tradition. Thinking about what I’m writing, I’ll do the same walk again and again. It frees up my mind to think of the next section. So it becomes a real collaboration with the city. You might notice little details on a particular day that will feed into something you thought you knew. If I hadn’t become an urban writer the prose would have a totally different form, because it adapts to the rhythms of walking; wandering and poking, stopping and starting, digressing and quoting. That’s going to become a much more difficult. There will be another kind of writing, more suited to the Internet: jumpier, and with a faster consciousness, sampling images and little bits of knowledge. The complex, textured prose I’ve tried to do – it’s not going to be around.
The cover of one of your books features Blake’s pilgrim, stooped under a rucksack, reading as he walks. Can you talk about walking as reading?
The way to explore London’s territory initially was walking, which involved a burden of other people’s knowledge. So the rucksack represents this unread mass of material. Not just fictions, but testaments, documentation, statistics, obliterated council papers, adverts – more than you could manage. Working and walking and reading became completely interwoven. Walking is a form of reading, in the same way you can read a painting, or landscape. Therefore a journey is a form of turning the city into a film, or a book. I came to Hackney more or less by accident, and found it an underwritten landscape. Places like Whitechapel and the Thames already had powerful narratives, but Hackney was quite a blank.
Now you’ve forged this deep connection with the place?
I don’t feel any deep connection with Hackney. It’s ephemeral in the end. Take Shepperton. It’s deeply associated with J G Ballard’s mythology. Thomas Love Peacock lived there; H G Wells set a section of the War of the Worlds there. But these things disintegrate and fade into the ground. I’m dissolving away from Hackney already because it’s changing so astonishingly fast. My children were born in a house there, and my grandchildren, so there’s a kind of lineage. But I didn’t grow up there; I didn’t have any relations who’d been there. I’m not overwhelmed by personal ghosts. Wandering through, I happen to have stayed. It had the things I like in a city: run-down markets, parkland, wasteland. Cuisines from other cultures were emerging all the time, so you weren’t stuck with the dire pies and chips and eels. Hackney is a good space to look at, and be in, relatively anonymously, and get on with my work. If I was in a small Welsh town where everybody knew everybody I wouldn’t be able to walk down the street without having engagements all the time. How would I ever wander, and observe, and write, and gather?
The Olympic regeneration is something you’re talking about a lot just now.
It’s a major disaster, a huge project that’s sweeping away a whole known landscape. Everything the Olympics are giving back, like the public park – it was there already, except you had to look for it. There had been versions very like the Olympics in the 1880s – athletic contests round the back of a pub in Hackney Wick. There were athletic contests in Victoria Park that involved people coming from all over the world to take part. You don’t need this vast, top-down structure spending billions of pounds to obliterate a landscape. In time London will absorb it and go around it. But whatever happens, it’s the end of a particular kind of London.
I’m working on a book that deals with the philosophy and the consequences of the Olympic project. I start at the site and zoom out through the experience of the Olympic park growing up, and then push out wider through Britain, to look at other kinds of buildings and projects that were fiascos, and finally out to previous places like Berlin and Athens.
How are shopping centres such as Westfield affecting London?
They are part of the structure of colonisation by global capitalism. You end up with a blank edifice, selling itself on having multiple generic outlets that supposedly represent every kind of culture, but all in the same zone, as if the differences don’t mean anything. It sits with theories like the architect Will Alsop, who had notions of a “supercity” – that you could go from Liverpool to Hull along the M62 and it’s all one city, one culture. There is a sense of that happening, and it’s pretty disastrous. If there is any quality, it’s in the local particulars, the changes of voice and attitude.
How are the city’s disappearances, caused by projects such as the Olympics, felt?
They are obviously felt powerfully, by a lot of people. In compiling City of Disappearances – a book that grew enormously as I mentioned it to people – the overall sense of the city was that London was magnificent in the things that had been deleted and lost. London isn’t a new city; it isn’t a city that relishes destruction. Certain people, like J. G. Ballard, felt that you could sweep away all the old stuff, that you don’t need it. If there were no back-story, I wouldn’t be here. I feel quite spooked by the newness of places like Austin, Texas.
What are your favourite parts of the city?
I won’t say, because then they wouldn’t be obscure. The most threatened thing today is obscurity. It’s treated as a crime to not have a story to tell, and so you think everything that’s blank has to have something whacked down on it. To find and hang on to little pieces that are still out of the way is very important. I’d like to hang on to places I don’t visit very often. I’m not hoarding them, but there are so many books that want you to note your favourite magical, obscure places. It’s a culture of listing, exposing, producing the guidebook. I don’t want to be a part of that.