Transit, originally a three-screen video installation, was photographed and filmed in the East End of London. It was first installed in 2006 at the gallery Measure, in conjunction with the London Architectural Biennale.
Today I visited my local launderette—an experience hardly unique in the lives of New Yorkers, but still considered eccentric in some middle-class circles of London. As usual, the laundry attendant registered my greeting with the barest glance above her spectacles; my smile unreciprocated. After over a year of visits, I’m still an outsider, gazing at her easy conversations with other local people washing their clothes, immediately marked out by my Scottish accent.
I am an outsider who has lived in London for ten years, much of this time in Hackney, one of London’s poorest and most diverse boroughs. Originally from Glasgow, I moved to London, as many others do, when the lights of my hometown seemed dimmer in comparison with those of the capital. Most people in London are from the outside, or so it seems. German, Polish, Arabic, Spanish, Yoruba, French, Hindi, Mandarin, and Jamaican Patois—and more than three hundred other languages at last count—pass through the city, with about the same number of speakers leaving as arriving each year: some staying for years, some leaving after the promised quick buck appears, some chasing it for generations. London, after influencing the cultures of countless countries through war, trade, imperialism, diplomacy and colonization, now gets a healthy share of incoming dialogue and culture on its streets.
When will I, or any of these others, be a Londoner? The thought occurs with greater piquancy in the context of the inevitable changes wrought by our successful Olympic bid and the resulting local objections. In a city of outsiders, the spatial congruity of communities emphasize the weakness of social interactions. My experiences of being an outsider have nothing to do with the area in which I live—Hackney has a long tradition of being a first home to many communities from outwith its borders. Instead, everyone, it seems, is an outsider, a foreigner—even those who lived here before I arrived, for generations, the true cockneys of yore. “They” are as much outsiders to the flourishing artistic and social communities in which I move today. Even my regular attempts to talk to my local laundry attendant are rebuffed—I can live here, and I can have my own friends and acquaintances and bars and shops, but it will forever be a world removed from her culture. The cheap rents for accommodation and studios that encouraged artists in the past twenty years to move to Hackney are now as much a fashion as a convenience, just as a new wave of recognition of Hackney’s shared border with the City of London encourages wealthy bankers and traders to live cheek by jowl with families resident here for decades and to walk to work; witness the recent slow resettling of Brooklyn as a convenient alternative to fashionable Manhattan living, something unthinkable ten years ago.
From my window I can see the temporary blue fence around the Olympic development. Now we’re all on the outside, again looking in.
Images of London and the labyrinth are interconnected. The great Argentinean writer Borges always spoke of London as being a labyrinth, and I remember quite vividly a film called London Labyrinth that my friend Chris Petit made in the 1990s which was entirely assembled from found footage, on the notion that you could wander the city, pick up scraps here, there, and everywhere, and assemble them, and the city would become an organic whole, but also a secret. Everything in London goes back to this Manichean beginning of darkness and light. The temple of Mithras, which was on the banks of the River Walbrook and was then moved to be a ruin in front of a banking corporation: This is the idea of something beneath the pavement, something dark and sacrificial—and above it, floating, a layer of golden light. If you go into some zone of the city like Smithfield, still with its dark and bloody history, there’s a layer beneath the ground which would prompt you to undertake a difficult and dangerous journey. The best symbol of this was Michael Ayrton’s sculpture of the Minotaur, which stood very nearby in Postman’s Park, on a little grassy knoll.
Lea Bridge Road
I once saw Lea Bridge Road as being a passage between life and death. Walking up there is interminable. The one end, the Clapton end, is supposedly one of the most dangerous spots on the planet—endless killings outside the clubs. Harold Pinter grew up around there, so it has a kind of cultural history as well. And on the northern end of Lea Bridge Road, in Wansted, by the lakes and in the little bits of wood on the other side, is this flight of escaped parrots. It’s a kind of Douanier Rousseau fantasy. The road has an ancient and magical quality to it, both of frustration and of liberation. You know you’re finally beginning to escape London and make your way onto this outer road system, and you get away.
The nature of things
The original labyrinth is underground. Sacrificial virgins are brought to this place, and they wander through the tunnels until they confront the Minotaur. It’s either a sacrifice to the Minotaur or it’s a sacrifice to consciousness—something is revealed, and the society goes on. That kind of underground myth is enacted in the streets; a pantomimed ritual is based on something dark and subterranean. When it’s challenged, it goes back underground again, so the cycles go around and around and around. We all believe that there are these patterns and structures beneath London, and occasionally chunks of it are revealed; because it’s not known, you can imagine it to be whatever you want it to be. We drift and float—I’m looking at this fish beside me—that’s really the way we go around these streets. Once you get out of the car, it’s not walking. The roads we walk become rivers.
The way the energies operate
There always has to be a market, an open space into which things flow from other places and are then taken away. And beside that a hospital, in which the damaged and the injured are taken and recover to go through these processes again. And then a church. These three things together are the nature of London, the essential triangle of London life. And all of these three things are threatened. London is like a series of tectonic plates; nothing actually disappears, it just breaks up slightly and drifts off. But the symbol of the Beast, the bull-like creature, can turn very sour and trample everything underfoot if it’s not approached in the correct way. The bull becomes the bulldozer. It’s like a great, great mouth chewing up the City of Mammon. These towers are just hung curtains of glass that can be revised into anything—the more we go up, the more we lose the essential and original spirit that was hidden in chambers beneath but related to buildings above. Now you hack out the foundations of things, and if it happens to reveal a medieval church or monastery or burial ground, it’s rapidly photographed and tidied away. It’s not left there. The ground itself becomes starved of meaning, it gets thinner and thinner and thinner as time goes on—anti-labyrinthine.
In terms of developments at the moment, there’s a virtual picture of London, there’s a computer-generated version. This is how the developers and politicians operate: Before anything happens, you are presented with a perfect version of it, as with the Millennium Dome—something beautiful but equally impossible. And that is set against what can’t be seen, which is the real mystery and worth of London: It’s something that has to be discovered, particularly by walking or navigating in circular patterns, back on yourself, going back on your own traces, digging and repeatedly digging. It takes years and years to get to it. That is meaning that’s earned. As against meaning that’s offered and floated in front of you, like magic, and never actually achieved. You go through a terrible hinterland wilderness of roads that you can’t go down, privatized estates, gated communities, CCTV cameras. All of that crap swallows you up and takes you away from the essential nature of the place, which is human spirit in conversation with itself and others, and ways of life that are harsh but rewarding. All of that is swept away.
The nature of London is that you simply do not penetrate. When you do penetrate one area, it only leads you into another and another and another, a whole series of mirrors and cellars. It goes back to the original myths of the founding of London. There are two ways you can read London. One is the forensic way, which is how an archaeologist or a scientist would pick at the ground when the city is being dug up, discover some fossil or bone, and from that assume a particular way of life and build up from the dust a city that could be assembled in a museum: a version of what a city might be. And there’s the dream, the literal dream, of London, in which you float backwards until you sense a foundation, which is London as New Troy. After the destruction of Troy, a particular group of people flee the Mediterranean and arrive up the Thames and found a new city. The new city, being Troy, has to be protected against the threat from outside, so they build a series of passageways and secret ways and particular ways of transit.
The notion is that the east will become the place of wealth, and even, in the future, where to live. The grand David Beckham palaces are in Essex, which, though north of London, is defined as the east. The new Versailles of celebrity culture are out there in the east. The Russian oligarchs have moved south into Surrey and Kent. So the west is beginning to feel a bit archaic. Artists and filmmakers are also drawn to particular sites, not so much for the film they are making, which is only a smokescreen, but to make these journeys. The important thing is actually the passage through which they go, and the heightened attention and nervousness of that passage, not the product they bring back. That is only a pale Xerox of a spiritual journey.
Ridley Road is one of the places threatened by current development. Markets are crucial to the lifeblood of the city, and Ridley Road has always been a very exotic market. It was originally very much a Jewish market, and it became the scene of great dramas and violence just after the Second World War, because Mosley’s Blackshirts had a headquarters on Balls Pond Road in an old Methodist chapel. They held regular meetings in Ridley Road, very much protected by the local police, many of whom were sympathetic to their political notions. And they were attacked by the Forty-Three group, who were made up largely of Jewish ex-servicemen who were appalled, having gone through the war and now knowing about the concentration camps, to think that in London, and particularly a very Jewish part of London, that someone could now publicly espouse forms of fascism again. So these battles went on, with Ridley Road as the front line, somewhat in the way that Brick Lane became the front line in the BNP-versus-antiracist riots in the 1980s, with battles every Sunday morning.
The pattern of the city
The ground where the Olympics is being constructed was some of the worst in London. You want industrial development and stinking factories away from the human population, and yet you want a cheap labor source around you. The river had these large communities of Irish settlers who were working on the docks and so on; gradually it spread eastward, and all the smelliest, nastiest, dirtiest things were dumped there and allowed to be, because nobody else wanted to be there. It had access to water, which was rapidly poisoned. Well, you can’t just change that overnight.
It’s literally the end of the world at Carpenter’s Road. There’s nothing there except laminated notices of compulsory purchase and Murphy’s signs and endless plywood walls that run everywhere, hiding everything. It’s a blight, a terrible blight, instead of an ancient right-of-way that passed out of East London and over the river, over Old Ford and out to Stratford, which was an important religious and commercial community. After the Great Fire of London, Sir Christopher Wren planned a New Venice—these are exactly the terms we are now hearing applied to East London. The Docklands developers and the Olympic developers want something called Water City, which links all of those toxic back-streams into a kind of Venice.
They keep talking about Venice. It’s exactly what Christopher Wren did in the great developments after the fire, when the opening of the Fleet River had a little bridge over it and there were paintings commissioned that made it look exactly like Venice. It was very grand. But very rapidly, it silted up, and all the houses that overlooked this narrow stream chucked their rubbish and their shit and everything into it, and Smithfield Market used it as a place to dump carcasses, offal, skinned lumps of meat—all of this stuff went there, from which generate the myths of the black swine of the Fleet River. As if some other creature had knitted itself together from all these bits and pieces of rubbish. And very soon it was so foul and so stinking that it had to be covered over. It’s still there, but it’s now part of the subterranea, it’s part of the mythology rather than part of the actuality of London.
One of the oldest surviving legends, or myths, of London are the black swine of Hampstead. Some pigs supposedly escaped from Smithfield and got into the Fleet underground system where they thrived like the alligators in New York, in Thomas Pynchon, and now supposedly down there is this tribe of blind black pigs that roam between the mouth of the Fleet on the Thames and Hampstead. They are there, either actually or as spirits of the chthonic lost dead.
Conference of the herons
There are bits that aren’t mapped because they are secret. These white spaces are under threat because of the helicopter’s-eye view of politics and landscape—which is, you fly over, and if there’s a horrible blank you say, OK, let’s generate something and put it in that spot, especially if it’s anywhere near London. There are soon going to be no blanks at all, which means there’s no room for your imagination to move, which is why we are enduring such a loss in East London, by losing this mysterious and grungy corridor which combined landscape with ghosts of industry with water you can navigate. You don’t want there to be a Venetian bus service running up and down the River Lea. You don’t want every inch of the path to be laminated signs telling you what you should look at. You don’t want herons wearing labels around their necks like a conference of sales representatives.
The head of Bran, the Celtic giant, is buried at Tower Hill: you can’t see it, but if it is ever removed, the city falls. Most of our strength comes from burial and the erection of a series of walls, and I think when they moved Michael Ayrton’s Minotaur from Postman’s Park—there it was relatively secret and you had to walk through the city in a particular pattern to come across it—and put it in the Barbican, it became part of another system. It is now much higher aboveground and it’s much more visible, it represents itself much more clearly. I think at that point the city starts falling. We are now threatened with a complete development makeover. The dark side is going underground and may have to find other manifestations.
Ridley Road II
Ridley Road had that dark sense of violence. There are endless descriptions of people staggering, covered with blood, out into Kingsland Road and wandering down. The pubs round and about all sympathized with one group or another, so if you went into the wrong pub, it was likely to end up very badly. There was one occasion when it turned into a major riot, and there were police horses charging up and down Kingsland Road trampling old women. It was like Battleship Potemkin in Hackney. Ridley Road has got that, as well as, more recently, the selling of jungle meats of all kinds that are deeply suspicious and suspect and kept in unsanitary conditions and always being challenged by the police; and there’s the smell and noise and paranoia. It’s an important frontier between the new gentrified Hackney and the old immigrant Hackney with its freedoms to operate, to sell on the street.
Waterden Road to Kosovo
Waterden Road is spectacularly otherworldly, it’s the end of everything. And yet there’s this huge block that has very dodgy clubs and minicab businesses and all of that. But right next to it and hidden away on a secret island is this allotment. There are eighty allotments tucked away around the back which have been there for thirty years, and it’s been made into some of the best soil and gardens in London by the people who’ve labored there. And of course they’re being cleared away. There’s a fantastic photograph that Stephen Gill took at the bottom of Waterden Road, where you drive toward this Olympic nowhere: It’s of the Queen arriving in her limo looking like she’s had a terrible away day to Kosovo, sitting in this car with helicopters and police outriders, and nobody there, in the backend of nowhere.
Looking at previous Olympics, there are two pitches. Either it’s a monstrous way of underwriting a hideous political regime—the Berlin Olympics were Hitler, and there’s a sense that what’s going on with China is a way of bringing China into the economic fold while sweeping aside all human rights. Anybody who stands in the way of development there is literally bulldozed aside so you can build what you want. So there’s that kind of Olympics. The one in Barcelona really did regenerate zones of the city—nothing had happened in Barcelona, because it was a Republican city, so Franco was against it. And there was room to actually do something, in a place that was ready for it and organically adapted to it. London is definitely going the other way, taking a wilderness and using the Olympic Games as an excuse for mega-developments that were already in place before the Olympics were ever mooted, to create this “New City” the size of Leeds and tie together all kinds of dubious economic packages offering London as a new kind of park zone. What the hell use is a park zone out there, when it’s not available to anybody from most parts of London? It already is a zone of the imagination, in that people can walk up the Lea Valley or have allotments. There’s been a whole slew of stuff going on for centuries that essentially will be swept aside. It creates a fantasy that nobody wants.