It was the first time I have needed a passport to launch a journey in Hackney.
BACKGROUND TO THE GOLD MACHINE
Never before was it a requirement to produce a passport before being allowed on to the water in my native borough. Under the bridge, on the far bank, clogged pipes released a dribble from the vanished Hackney Brook. Here, on the exact spot where I had embarked on a covert paddle around the Olympic Park in Stephen Gill’s inflatable kayak, an approved culture-craft, holding twelve persons and known as a Floating Cinema, waited for its pilot. This unfortunate woman, who had been making the short voyage to the emerging ruins of future celebration, several times a day, acknowledged and approved by ODA security, had left her passport at home in Camden. Greeted by name, on all previous occasions, this morning, without her little purple book, she was going nowhere. Such is the procedural madness induced by our proximity to the Great DIY Stadium.
Will we move, even if she does make it back? The water is a toxic meadow, duckweed enriched by chemical spill. Ducks don’t swim, they plod from bank to bank, leaving awkward footprints. The electric green of the Lea, contrasting luridly with the celestial blue of the CGI versions, plays nicely against the yellow ball-and-chain barriers erected across the entrance point, like a city under siege.
It was a useful lesson. Carry a passport at all times. I would need it again to go through the security barriers, climb the steps and gain access to the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford. This is the only way clients of the Games are going to be allowed into the stadium. Which appears, from this bleak vantage point, like a vestigial and unnecessary addition to multiple retail opportunities. When I point out this fact, to a BBC London film crew, we are ordered from the premises.
First rule: when you are invited to look at an approved public spectacle, investigate the opposite direction. I was staggered to find that pretty much everything hidden to the south of Stratford High Street, close to the newly branded Green Way, has disappeared into a mess of Business Parks, tolerated leftovers (known as nature gardens), reeking sewage inlets where slimy tyres bask like sharks, and mile after mile of high mesh fence and razor wire. Benches, thoughtfully provided at a vantage point overlooking the sewage outlet, have been tagged. A party-size Coca-Cola bottle with the Olympic logo has been left there, with the shards of a drained vodka bottle, in memory of some headbanging Channelsea cocktail.
I took this voyage, with the little Gold Machine text, as a small homage to my great-grandfather, Arthur, who ventured, in the real world, to the headwaters of the Amazon. Reading his published account, of 1895, I was delighted to discover that he had anticipated Werner Herzog and his Fitzcarraldo expedition. I felt that I had been given license to be as mad as Kinski and as driven as the Munich director, when we took to the water in search of our own City of Gold.
When we returned to Old Ford, passengers were presented with a slice of magnificent chocolate cake, made to my instruction like a stepped pyramid decorated with Olympic medals. The budget also ran to a couple of bottles of fizz. Health and safety regulations, however, denied us this indulgence. Neither on boat, or towpath. We might run amok and tumble into the fizzing scum As the boat chugged home, through locks and barges of reeking silt, Emily Richardson’s heroic record, Memo Mori, played on a small screen: the lost huts of Manor Gardens, the lost kingfishers of the backrivers, the Gill kayak.
THE GOLD MACHINE
It is a dream, for those condemned to live within the belly of the beast, to venture in search of El Dorado, the fabulous City of Gold. Water is our margin, the zone in which all stories tangle and overlap. Rivers of no return. Unmapped. And therefore unimagined. Water greener than grass.
Coming away from solid ground, we risk everything. We cannot know what is hidden behind the curtain of foliage, the high blue fence. That blue flash of the kingfisher whose secret life has been protected by the obscurity of a post-industrial terrain. Flesh-eating plants in a vegetable kingdom. Cathedral-like forest enclosures lit by the diamond eyes of predatory beasts, jaguars, anacondas: they are summoned in aerosol spray-paint visions on brick walls. We are chugging towards oblivion, with nothing to guide us beyond a set of ambiguous postcards scavenged from a street market, at dawn, one damp October morning. London, unsure of itself, dissolves into Peru. Into Africa. Thames to Amazon to Congo. We drift down this tributary of a tributary until we succeed in losing ourselves, losing our familiar markers. The radar beams by which we navigate. Alchemists of ruin trying to convert contaminated soil into a golden legacy. Westward Ho! To Westfield. Speculators in futurity.
I am the Gold Machine, said the poet Charles Olson,
and now I have trenched out, smeared, occupied
with my elongated length the ugliest passage of all the V…
the uncontaminated land which…
does not bend or warp into new expressions
of itself as De Sitter imagined the Universe a
rubber face or elastic bands falling
into emergent lines …
The land was relieved. I had drawn my length all this way
and had covered this place too
Security checks. Passports. Fingerprints. Eyeball identification routines. We must be certain that you are who you say you are. Our guardians will shadow your slender craft, bearing weapons, protecting you from false images.
Joseph Conrad returns, ruined, to the German Hospital, Graham Road, Hackney. He endures: ‘The transformation from a sailor to the writer.’ His single journey up the Congo River also ruined his health, leaving him with a legacy of physical ailments, the lingering after-effects of near-fatal dysentery and malaria, on which he blamed a variety of chronic or recurrent forms of paralysis, nervous disorders, and gout.
There were meetings, interviews, interrogations with blind mirrors. Phone taps, offers of exploding cigars. Pep talks by hired Mormons: short-sleeved white shirts and narrow ties with silver clips. Intimate body searches. Lie-detector tests. Brain scans. Psychological profiles. Aural and rectal probes. The USP of security is that it can never be secure enough. Too many presidents have been executed by their own bodyguards. When you put up a fence, you are dividing the world into excluded and included, commissioned and decommissioned. You are inviting immigrants to burrow in, while emigrants crash the barrier and escape. After the blue fence went up, the only way to experience the interior of the Olympic Park was by water. The photographer Stephen Gill inflated his kayak. Numerous circuits were completed before the floating yellow barrier was put in place.
Sir Walter Raleigh, who would be imprisoned in the Tower of London, a short distance upstream from the point where the River Lea flows into the Thames, risked his reputation on a doomed voyage up the Orinoco in quest of El Dorado.
May 1595. A map as fantastic as the CGI projections of the Olympic promoters. And as unreliable.
Raleigh received royal permission for the voyage… There should be tangible rewards in the form of Guianian gold… The expedition was a fiasco, and Raleigh returned from his second visit to South America a broken man, facing almost certain execution… It was as had been foretold by the ferocious Aguirre half a century earlier: ‘There is nothing on this river but despair.’
My own great-grandfather, Arthur Sinclair, his reserves swallowed in poor investments and a plague that decimated the tea plantations, went after gold in Tasmania, before venturing on the upper reaches of the Amazon.
A woman and two children were tumbled off the raft and drowned… No one enjoyed it more than the woman’s husband, who danced with fiendish glee the whole night through, encouraged by the screaming laughter of the native ladies…
Once more upon the river we were all alive with excitement. Several tributaries fall in; one, the Ipuki, adds palpably to the depth and force of the Perene, upon which we are carried at about 5 miles an hour. Denser and denser became the forest, now no longer relieved by patches of grassy land…
The question here naturally arises, Why has this rich country been allowed to remain, from the creation to the present day, in a wild and desolate condition? Practically, it is no man’s land, for it has never been taken possession of, the present nomadic tribes recognising no laws, no government, no God.
Are men always to despair of utilising this marvellous vegetation, and to be forever overwhelmed by the excessive bounties of nature? Surely the time will come, or will soon come, when this, the richest portion of the globe, will no longer be entirely left to nature and the few wandering tribes who are so utterly incapable of making any proper use of it?
The impulse comes from both sides: to cultivate and improve wilderness and to maintain it, as it stands, dirty and unexplained. And there are those who feel the obligation to bear witness, to turn, when the land is captured, to back rivers and secret streams.
On my next walk to Hackney Wick, I ran up against the blue fence. An exclusion zone had been declared. The only way in, now, was by water. Meeting Stephen Gill at Old Ford Lock, we made a slow circuit in an inflatable kayak, witnessing the pylon forests being dismantled, warehouses and small businesses reduced to rubble. Paddling through tunnels of intertwined and overhanging vegetation, we were noticed but unchallenged by work gangs. We understood very well that even this privilege would soon be suspended.