The majority of London’s residents will probably never have heard of Hackney Wick, let alone been to visit. I, myself, was a Londoner for twenty-four years before even hearing of the place. The reason for this obscurity? Hackney Wick is only serviced by one means of transport – The Overground – and even then, not very well. Infrequent trains slam their brakes on at midnight, when Hackney Wick becomes, to all means and purposes, shut off to the rest of the world. Having a bicycle is a prerogative of living here, and therefore, being young and fit. It is the only dependable means of entrance and exit. It reminds me a little of that Roald Dahl children’s book The Minpins, with its haunting refrain, ‘Once you go in, you never come out…’
Except that, for those who know this small, strange locale, it is a most willing incarceration. There is probably no freer and truly creative place left in London, at least not on the North side of the river. Hackney Wick with the lovely-named Fish Island on its right shores, is like a pariah state, or small semi-autonomous province. It has its own rules and a devoted following.
The Hackney Wick family is made up of a rag-tag crew of boaters, hipsters, artists, hobos and architects. You earn the right to know. Appreciation of the place acts as its own kind of self-selection. If you know it, you will want to be near it. Why? Because it feels free. And by that I do not mean only that it is mainly compromised of a large landscape of warehouses and factories, the night-time kingdom of London’s best ‘free parties’ and a place where people come to get stoned and forget themselves. It is free in other senses. There is little or no advertising in the streets and hardly any businesses around, there is no policing. One small newsagent serves its eccentric population – and their clientele are not at all ordinary. The other day as I was buying a bottle of red wine I noticed a girl ahead of me in the queue. “No plastic”, she said with a grin and gestured for the merchant behind the counter to put the mushrooms into her doffed top-hat.
So what does happen in Hackney Wick? Well there is some commerce, just not of the globalised variety that has become the unhappy bread and butter diet of most Londoners. There is the White Building – built upon principles of sustainable design, a vast white complex which sells beautiful dark, craft ales and artisanal pizzas. There are cafes and art galleries, homes, squats, boats, drinking holes, bread factories, peculiar cult temples. I once said to a friend that it is the only place in London that feels like East Berlin. I think I would still stand by that comparison.
The Wick’s very particular geography – tagged with urban art, murals and graffiti – exists in a semi-precarious state. Its impermanence is probably the reason that it feels so cool, and twinned to that, the only reason it exists. It is a forgotten space between the landmarks of the Olympic stadium and its cursed, lifeless peripheries, gone to wrack and ruin, and the em-placed and residential regions of Leyton, Leytonstone, Walthamstow and Hackney. Resisting stasis, its luminous, chemical glow and clouds of electronic music diffuse throughout Hackney Marsh and Wick Wood, between Bow, Stratford, and several motorways.
It is a growth, a blemish, a biological spot that has seized life in the unpromising and dead wastelands of the city. While it lasts – the revived and the underground, music halls, waterways, dreary dingy places that come alive at night, thrive. While it lasts, its affirmative beauty is a stage for freedom and some of the greatest personalities that live in England.
Long live the Wick!
In honour of this ‘borough’ as I will dub it for convenience’s sake, I have decided that Behemoth’s full name will be Behemoth Wick.