Sunday, November 28, 2010


An expedition

Sometimes, quite by chance, you find yourself in the right place at the right time. A view or an experience which might be quite unremarkable on any other day suddenly acquires a magic and takes you somewhere unexpected.

A short time ago, I took the day off work and went for a walk whose route was largely determined by where I needed to be that evening. It’s no good walking through Enfield Chase (my original plan) if you need to be in Bexleyheath early that afternoon. So I changed my itinerary, took the DLR from Bank to King George V and followed my nose. That route, overground through Canary Wharf, Poplar and Silvertown, is fascinating. No. 1 Canada Square; Robin Hood Gardens; Millennium Mills; the DLR stations themselves. There is no better high-level tour of London’s pluralist approach to architecture, nor a better series of contrasts between different versions of Britain.

I got off at George V and walked through North Woolwich, a district cut off not only from the rest of London, but from Woolwich itself. It consists of a few estates, some shops, a scruffy pub which advertises striptease nights and family nights from the same washed out blackboard, a surprisingly sylvan park, and the north terminus of the Woolwich Free Ferry. I’d intended to walk under the Thames via the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, but it has been temporarily closed because of structural problems, so I walked past the queue of cars and lorries, down the steps of the ferry, sat on the bottom deck and opened a packet of wine gums.

The Woolwich Ferry is a remarkable thing – it seems like a folly until one considers that there are no bridges between Tower Bridge and the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford. It carries over a million vehicles per year (hence the queues) but passenger traffic is minimal. I shared the journey with a young man on his way back from the gym, another who downed a bottle of Becks in one gulp and promptly cracked open a second, and a middle-aged man with a pushchair who seemed rather lost. It is the only mode of public transport I can think of in London for which you need not pay a penny.

The south side of Woolwich is more bustling, though no less depressed. I stopped to look at the splendid art-deco buildings which house bingo and evangelical services at the end of Powis Street, then turned right towards the City. There is much to catch the eye here; not on the landward side, all late-era social housing resigned to the Right to Buy; but across the river, planes come and go from the City Airport, the factory of Tate & Lyle (sponsors of the glamorous galleries upriver) stands as an isolated bastion of industry, and the Thames Barrier fences off (and protects) Central London.

Built after the catastrophic floods of 1953, the Thames Barrier is made up of seven beady eyes looking towards the east, ready to protect the city behind them from surges passing south from the deep waters around Scotland and Scandinavia to the shallower parts of the North Sea. Forecasts of high water levels trigger the closure of the barrier, and all navigation routes to the Thames are blocked. In 1987, the barrier was closed twice; in the last decade, there were an average of eight closures per year. It is a work of art, a deconstructed Sydney Opera House which proudly flaunts its functionalism.

I walked on towards the Hope and Anchor. It was 4.00pm, and the scene through the window looked inviting, but this must be a pub for watching sailing boats, roaring planes and swooping cranes on summer afternoons, so I carried on walking. To my left, containers bunked one on top of the other to form prefab porta-cabins; to my right, brick walls were crowned with barbed wire. At Lombard Wall stood a twelve-foot high pile of rubble. A road to the left led to the safety of New Charlton, but I was more interested in what lay straight on: an aerial network of cranes and trolleys pitted against a darkening sky.

The CEMEX works are a reminder that the Thames was the engine of industry. The gentrification which was supposed to accompany the Millennium Dome never reached this stretch of the south bank. The artists’ impressions portrayed people walking down the tree-lined avenues here, watching movies in the multiplexes, shopping in the malls; North Charlton was to become a glamorous suburb of the City, within winking distance of One Canada Square. Instead, it remains beyond the perimeter of tourist London. Mountains of debris gather, waiting to be loaded into chutes, stirred into quicklime and sold as cement. The dust sticks to your clothes and catches in your throat, and at dusk the narrow paths that skirt the edges of the plant do not feel safe. But whether you arrive at it from the Dome or the Barrier, it is quite unexpected, and the shock forces you forwards.

Was this what the Greenwich peninsula was once like? The topography was different, of course – underneath the Dome is marshland, Bugsby’s Marshes to be precise, and the tube line at North Greenwich is built to float on the quagmire. Before the 17th century, the air around the marshes was not too different from that of the Paraguayan Gran Chaco – malarial, sulphurous, clammy, sickly. Later, its northernmost tip was chosen as the place to hang pirates in cages until they dissolved into the air. Later still, when London’s most contaminated land became ripe for exploitation in the name of Empire, the peninsula became the site for industry: cement, asbestos, animal feed and, of course, gas. But the East Greenwich Gasworks only blistered the air further, and the peninsula remained largely unnavigable, except for the Provisional IRA who bombed the largest of the gasholders in 1978.

The discovery of North Sea Gas rendered the gasworks obsolete, and the advent of Thatcherism in the 1980s destroyed the ashes of riverside industry. I remember, in the early 90s, standing in the offices of the Daily Telegraph in Canary Wharf (really, don’t ask) looking down on the site as some sub-editor crowed about the regeneration of Greenwich. And what has this regeneration bequested? The Millennium Village – a new suburbia where people have bought up riverside flats not, as was once the case, because there is any inferential reason that they should live there, but because the market demands that they must. The Millennium Dome, now badged as the O2 Centre, a glorified tent which, like Alf Garnett, has become loveable only because it has descended into pathos.

There is a strange story about the Dome, concerning Simon Dee. When Dee was expelled from Radio 1 in the 1960s and cast out of the Establishment, he reinvented himself as an architect, apparently commissioned by the Moroccans to design a dome for them. Up until his death last year, Dee maintained that his plans – never funded by the Moroccan government – had got into the hands of the Secret Service, who had passed them onto the British Government. The Millennium Dome, ostensibly designed by Richard Rogers, was in fact the brainchild of Cyril Nicholas Henty-Dodd, aka Dee himself. It is now a music-hall, hosting some of the grizzled acts whose discs Dee played 40 years ago.

Ten years on, it is difficult to loathe the Dome. Built on a foundation of mud and speculation, it is a bombastic monument to neoliberalism. After ushering in the new millennium a year early, it searched vainly for a purpose, its fundamental uselessness gradually winning over residents of London who, deep down, prefer folly to grandeur. Its millennial exhibits were so absurd that few bothered even to turn up: “Body” sponsored by Boots, “Work” sponsored by Manpower, “Learning” sponsored by Tesco and – best of all – “Money” sponsored by the City of London. Why would we pay to see that when we live it every day?

Now, New Labour’s version of the Festival of Britain has found its function: as a venue where people buy inflated tickets to see inflated egos, usually playing on a stage so far away that they are invisible to the audience. Sponsored by a mobile phone company, it exceeds the wildest dreams of its grim trio of auteurs: Simon Dee, Richard Rogers & Peter Mandelson. All have moved on, men of an earlier era. The Dome, too, seems every bit as anachronistic.


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