Hackney Wick, 1.11.2013

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…’

Hackney Wick

Hackney Wick

Moored in Hackney Wick

Moored in Hackney Wick

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.

View of the Olympic stadium from the Hertford Union Canal

View of the Olympic stadium from the Hertford Union Canal

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.

 

Peripheries of the Olympic stadium

Peripheries of the Olympic stadium

The 'Greenway' to Stratford

The ‘Greenway’ to Stratford

Overhead pipes on the way to Bow, Hackney Wick

Overhead pipes on the way to Bow, Hackney Wick

 

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A view from the top of the Old Ford Lock, Fish Island, Hackney Wick

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.

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The Birthday Party, 07.10.2013

I had my birthday on the weekend so Hawisia became, for a time, transformed into a party boat. But she was not one bit like the steamboatsand paddlewheelers that used to plough up and down the ‘chocolate’ brown Mississippi. There were no proud steam funnels piping out smoke or paddles churning the water round. She remained very much moored to her posting by Victoria Park.

I chose that place for my birthday party because it’s lovely spot. Oak and ash trees from Victoria Park splay their branches out above the canal, from behind the fence, like a ceiling. The colours of the bank and the gardens of the semi-detached Victorian houses which back onto the canal are soft and green. The boats tethered along this strip of canal are very pretty and well maintained; their occupants tend to be younger and more fashionable than those of the boats in central London, on the Paddington Branch of the Grand Union Canal.

As we boated past today I peered into the windows of the wide-beams and barges that didn’t have their curtains drawn. (You see boaters normally keep their curtains drawn on port, or by the bank, but wide open on theirstarboard. So you can play peeping-tom best when you are on the move.) One wide-beam owned by a robust looking young man with a blonde beard, had a tall, mahogany dresser in the main galley of the boat. The day before I had spotted a cluster of apples spread out on his kitchen table on a nice piece of white cotton.

The party went well, though the boat rocked a little under the weight of so many strange feet. I had spent all morning cleaning and scrubbing her so that new guests were sure to see her in her best light. Happily a boat does not take as long to clean as a house. In fact, altogether it is probably the size of one large room in a London townhouse, stretched out narrowly across 60 ft.

After the party ended and the last of my friends had jumped off the deck into the dead of night, Gideon and I went to bed. We were warmed by the hearty beams of our wood-burning stove and Gideon’s delicious beetroot and fennel dips.

We woke up the next morning – the morning of the sixth of October, my birthday, to the most beautiful day of the autumn so far. It was a day of summer snatched by October – bright blue skies and warm wind. I don’t think I have ever had a more pleasant birthday morning as I had that day with Gideon, cycling along the Hertford Union Canal and up the Lea Valley, fleeing from the stale smell of post-party and problematic red-wine stains. We cycled along the glorious Lea River Valley, passed the spiked peaks of the Olympic stadium by Hackney Wick,  passed Fish Island  and through Hackney Marshes and Wick Wood in the direction of Clapton and eventually Stoke Newington.

The Lea glittered and gleamed – it seemed to be the Promised Land. My heart swelled with joy at the thought that we were finally – at long last – approaching our destination. The mythic lea river valley – the boater’s valle d’orado.

The weekend is the chosen day for moving. For now we moved on a little to Mile End to fill up our tank. There is sadly a little leak somewhere, although we have no idea where. But somehow the bilge is filling with water, and it is certainly from the tank. Poor Gideon is so weary with drilling out two layers of floorboards and fiddling around with plastic piping. It is not easy work. But we have water! The kitchen utensils haven’t smelled so clean for many weeks.

Tonight we have the wood-burning stove on and watched an episode of Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes. Soon we will sleep. I have work in the morning.