The Owl Man has gone. He has left Hackney, left London. His gaunt property, close to the newly fashionable barbecue pitch and managed wildflower meadow of London Fields, has been made secure and rigged with scaffolding. Above mildewed steps, pasted with boot-smudged council notices, a wonky sign, hand-painted in red on white, is still visible: DISABLED BIRD OF PREY KEPT HERE. GUARD DOGS LOOSE. CCTV IN OPERATION. The faint reek of feathers, rotting meat, might have something to do with the drains, but it persists. Round at the back, on Shrubland Road, the Owl Man extended his wild garden, his choke of buddleia and sycamore, to enclose ground that was once a bus station with its satellite café. When the bus station was demolished, the café failed. David Mills, the Owl Man of Albion Drive, fenced the site, built hutches for his birds and excavated a carp pool. For years, nobody cared. He had, like so many others in this borough, slipped into a crack between worlds. If the council acknowledged his existence and granted him a rent book, they would become responsible for the water running down the walls, the lichen pillows, and the subtle way that interior and exterior had become indistinguishable. Tumbledown shacks contained ailing Land Rovers, self-cannibalising motorcycles and birds of prey in various stages of recuperation: an owl, a saker falcon, a chug and several common buzzards. A protective wall was constructed from corrugated iron and plasterboard. The corrugated iron rhymes very elegantly with the Sight of Eternal Life tin church, painted in blue and white, on the other side of Shrubland Road. But our new thrusting Olympic-inspired Hackney has no place for Mr Mills and his well-behaved raptors. A neighbouring mews property, occupied by shifting generations of squatters and casual craftsmen, and left well alone by the authorities, was put up for public auction with a guide price of £250,000. This alerted a number of successful local artists hungry for more space. The ruin fetched more than a million pounds and will cost almost as much again to rebuild and restore. David Mills, quietly living in a gothic shell for which nobody wanted to take responsibility, was soon identified as an unsightly nuisance, a blip on the unblemished myth of urban regeneration. The Owl Man was old and wild. He was raw nature against the pasteurised alternative, that eco-milkshake of green politics, donkeys in city farms, traumatised sheep dancing to the beat of Danny Boyle’s sensational Wagnerian lightshow.
Before he left London, with a cheque secured for him by a diligent Dalston Lane solicitor, Mr Mills agreed to meet me for lunch. I resumed my early morning walks in good heart. Haggerston Park has stayed clear of the louder grand projet manifestations. Layers of previous history – brickfields, tight-packed terraces – have percolated into the present moment. The flash-fire obliteration of a V2 rocket on 15 March 1945 cleared ground for a park laid out in the form of a large ship with wisteria-draped deck, floral compass and lifeboat-shaped recesses. Hackney Council was generous enough to give employment as a park gardener to Astrid Proll of the Red Army Faction, at a period when she was featured on wanted posters throughout Europe. As well as tending to the rough pastures of London Fields, it was her duty to unlock the gates of other smaller parks for waiting dog walkers.
‘You and your fucking dogs! People are trying to sleep up here.’ ‘Come down and say that.’ ‘I fucking will.’ ‘Come on then.’ Architectural revisions such as the gated community of Adelaide Wharf, where wide orange balconies reach towards the park, set up collisions between incomers and established pedestrians. The Olympic boroughs can barely cope with the constant shriek of enthusiasm spilling incontinently from broadcasting channels that have abdicated any notion of impartiality. ‘I can’t begin to describe the enormous significance of this moment. A bronze medal for gymnastics!’ A choking, tear-drenched spasm, an asthmatic failure to achieve meaningful language is seen as the ultimate badge of sincerity. So the property investor on her balcony, like a first-class passenger, curses the knot of canine accompanists with their plastic sachets of fresh crap on the other side of the curtain of willows. Work-experience security guards move in, reluctantly, but do not intervene. They are in yawning, thumb-scrolling attendance because Haggerston Park has been gifted with a Big Screen. WATCH THE OLYMPIC GAMES. ENJOY ONE OF HACKNEY’S FINEST GREEN SPACES. BICYCLE PARKING PROVIDED. The supersize Orwellian screen, of the kind now compulsory in windblown civic spaces all over the nation, is second only to the arrival of a private helicopter as a newsworthy invader of this retreat. A few years back, when the dead-windowed block at the foot of the park was still the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, a giant Mickey Mouse was choppered in to put the frighteners on the sick kids. And also to act, if only we had recognised it, as a premature ambassador for the coming corporate bonanza. The soft-spoken Californian rodent was attended by his sleepover pal and minder, Michael Jackson.
We have heard it stated, quite accurately, that construction work on the Olympic Park has been carried out with few casualties. But cycle deaths are mounting, from the early casualties of the fresh-painted lanes at the base of the Bow Flyover, leading to Stratford, to Daniel Harris, crushed by a bus filled with Olympic correspondents being shuttled between venues. The towpath alongside Regent’s Canal has for some time been dominated by a peloton of hard-peddling commuters. Now the strip of pavement at the approach to Haggerston Park is made hazardous by wobbling novices prepared to pay for the privilege of cycling around town advertising Barclays Bank. The mayor, Boris Johnson, has not been slow to claim credit for this form of cheap transport.
You do not need to breech the security-enhanced gate to hear gladiatorial chants of combat from the Big Screen. Mesh fences enclose a zone where a dozen park casuals are reading newspapers, chugging on cans, taking a siesta in thin cold rain, while a minor royal wrestles her sore-hoofed nag around Greenwich Park. I pass through at the moment when the immortal Bradley Wiggins, with his Dickensian name and stylish sideburns, is launching his time-trial through massed ranks of flag-wavers, and I have to take my place on the grass. Cynicism is, momentarily, suspended – in awe of the mechanical perfection, the yogic elegance of body position, the drive towards an uplifting victory (despite the hyperinflated yelps of deranged nationalism). Wiggins, self-contained, a sharp operator, sits apart, job done: for himself, for this less-than-an-hour of English time. Haggerston Park, I have to admit, is as good as anywhere as a venue in which to experience the rush of the moment among local people unwrapping sandwiches, sleeping on the threadbare cricket strip, raising a bit of an apologetic cheer before returning to their quick crosswords. Wiggins understands what viral celebrity is about. He salutes the car that followed him through France, en route to yellow jersey and victor’s laurels: the vehicle carrying young James Murdoch, his Team Sky paymaster. The other stroke of luck with the gold medal was that David Cameron, with his reverse Midas touch, chose not to make the time-trial finish at Hampton Court one of his photo opportunities. While Cameron, with his obedient hair and poached flush, came to look like a spectre at the feast, his strategically shaggy rival, Mayor Johnson, working the Hyde Park mob to a crescendo of orgiastic triumphalism, delivered a masterclass in hogging limelight that had very little to do with him.
Among the traces of the prehistory of Haggerston Park, the shallow declivities and high walls, are memories of a period as a canal basin for the gasworks. Now the last gasometers, featured in so many TV cop shows, are marked for demolition. A canalside development, stalled for years, will surf the breeze of economic adventurism from the Olympic site. Moored alongside the notable bow-fronted wreck of a building beside the garage of Empress Coaches is a nest of anarchic, free-spirited narrowboats. One of these, the most piratical, proudly flying its Jolly Roger, is a coffin-sized craft belonging to a researcher called Mike Wells. He has made it his business, despite numerous brushes with security guards and large dogs, to record and report every stage of the recent enclosures. He helped to commission two substantial scientific reports on the actual (rather than the official) contamination of the legacy landscape. This gave him a certain local notoriety, which had potentially unfortunate consequences. There was an incident – he says a provocation, a set-up – on Leyton Marshes. Protesters were attempting to block the construction of a practice court for basketball. Cardboard signs, hanging from the perimeter fence, are like intertitles in a silent movie, rehearsing all the legends of the dispossessed. METROPOLITAN PUBLIC LAND STOLEN FROM THE PEOPLE OF LONDON BY THE ODA. THIS SITE IS TOXIC.
Wells was charged, banged up, refused bail; as a narrowboat dweller he was deemed to be of ‘no fixed address’. In a blue vest, visibly tired after his incarceration, he still manages something of the flavour of Mark Rylance as ‘Rooster’ Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. There is, he believes, an English Arcadia, between industrial dereliction and the willow beds, marshlands and reservoirs of the Lower Lea Valley. The opposition Wells personifies comes from love of place. He told me that the community of the canals would soon be dispersed like so many other inconvenient elements, those deemed worthy of pre-emptive arrest. Plywood cut-out narrowboats were being prepared to dress the Olympic set, while Mike decamped with the rest of those unwilling or unable to pay a £360 premium for mooring during the fortnight of global spectacle. Glossy new craft appear, hawking running shoes and branded kit for the legacy of Victoria Park athletes with personal trainers and exercise mats.
Wells kept a diary of the time he spent in Leyton police station. He was touched by the concern shown by the duty officer and felt that he was in the right place to meditate on what has been happening to his territory. The only newspaper on the wing was the Sun. He recorded the headline: ‘The Scariest Thing about the Olympics Is Walking into a Dining Room Full of Superstars, Says Victoria Pendleton.’ During an exercise break, he talked to a lad who was doing 13 months for stealing a jumper during the August 2011 riots. Mike was praying that there would be no violent protests during the Olympics, because he knew that a number of his friends were on a ‘domestic extremists’ list and would face immediate arrest.
After a couple of days, Wells was transferred to a new prison called Thameside, run by a private security company, Serco Group. Their brochure, featuring a computer-generated image of playing fields and star-shaped buildings, sits comfortably next to the upbeat promos flowing out of the Olympic site at Stratford. The language is that of the alphabet-soup Olympic quangos. ‘We improve services by managing people, processes, technology and assets more effectively. We advise policymakers, design innovative solutions and – most of all – deliver to the public.’ Serco ‘improve patient care’ and ‘rehabilitate offenders’. They ‘protect borders’ and ‘provide swift, safe travel’. And, as a bonus, they allow Mike Wells the leisure to conduct an Olympic straw poll among his fellow Thameside clients. All were agreed: the Games were total shit. Apart from one recidivist, a personable conman who said: ‘It’s great, brilliant! A once in a lifetime opportunity.’ He meant: for thieving. He works Park Lane hotels. He wants to be back out there, delivering room service, finding theatre seats, tickets for synchronised swimming, and then ransacking passports and valuables.
For a better understanding of the Olympic moment, I felt it was necessary to step back from the razor-wire zone, to take up a calmer scenographic prospect. I arranged for Steve Moore, a former comic-book author and editor, to give me a tour of the missile cluster on Shooters Hill. I had seen the weapons on Blackheath Common taking aim, so it appeared, at the glittering towers of Canary Wharf. Puma and Lynx helicopters carrying snipers, under orders to shoot down low-flying aircraft, were patrolling the Thames corridor. The matter of where the debris would land was addressed in a Ministry of Defence leaflet, Further Information on Armed Forces Supporting Olympic Security in Oxleas Meadow. ‘It would be hard to predict where an aircraft could fall as this would depend upon the direction, speed, height and damage to the aircraft. Firing a missile would be a last resort which would only be taken if it was confirmed that an aircraft was making a determined attack on London or the Olympic Park.’ Anywhere but Westfield then. Anywhere but the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower. (What a bizarre focal point Anish Kapoor’s spiral callipers are: a Laocoönian observation platform strangled in red steel at a cost of many millions, while electricity pylons, with their austere elegance, once hymned by the poets of the 1930s, have been removed, at enormous cost, from the same site to be buried in the radioactive tilth of landfill dumps and industrial detritus.)
The pattern of missile sites around the eastern margin of the site reminded me of a mapping I made, years before, coming from Blackheath to General Wolfe’s statue on the crest of Greenwich Park, in order to look out over the spread of London. You can call these spatial relationships ley lines, lines of energy – or natural sightlines. In 1974, my markers were the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor; now, as Moore remarked, there was a darker occultism in place. Someone with a perverse sense of humour, and a repertoire of arcane information, had laboured with compasses and scrying instruments to choose the rocket sites. The Blackheath cluster Moore assigned to David Lindsay, author of A Voyage to Arcturus, who was born in Lewisham Village, but whose parents lived on Blackheath Rise. The sinister weapons hidden in the water tower of the Bow Quarter, originally the Bryant & May Factory, he dedicated to Annie Besant, who led the match girls’ strike in 1888, and who later interested herself in Theosophy and succeeded Madame Blavatsky as the international leader of that movement. The deployment in Epping Forest, close to the base from which the surveillance helicopters take off, is closer still to Matthew Allen’s High Beach Asylum where John Clare, distracted by agricultural enclosures, was lodged. But it was the launcher site in Oxleas Wood, where locals had fought hard (and successfully) against motorway incursions, that I wanted to inspect.
Leaning on his stick, Steve was waiting at North Greenwich station, which is not in North Greenwich, but an adjunct to the O2 Arena, a fancy serving hatch for the Jubilee Line. What adds to the confusion is the rechristening of the Great White Tent, once the New Labour flagship project, the Millennium Dome, but now – O2 not being an accredited Olympic brand – the North Greenwich Arena.Disorientation is the defining characteristic of this riverside zone. I encountered camera crews searching for the Thames path and others in quest of that newly installed Boris wheeze, the cable car. An interrogator from German television challenged me. ‘What are those new tents?’ ‘Nothing now. They used to be the David Beckham Academy. He moved to LA. The academy folded.’
As a reward for my involuntary host duties, I was offered a ride on the cable car. Nobody else, this damp morning, was booked for a flight on Emirates Air Line, between the Dome and ExCeL Centre on the other side of the river. ‘Why would you have a ski lift and no mountain?’ the German persisted. Ah, but there was a fondly remembered mountain down here, the Beckton Alp, with a fully functional ski lift and a log cabin coffee shop – until, when they were considering, in advance of the Olympics, an iconic Antony Gormley piece to dress the A13 corridor, they discovered that the conical manmade hillock was largely composed of arsenic from the demolished Beckton Gas Works. The spectacular view from the pod – available at £86 for a private flight – provides the ideal invader’s vision of Novum Londinium, the future city of enterprise. ‘You will be flying, this morning, at around 200 feet,’ a hostess in trim Emirates uniform announced. The empty pod ahead of us was decorated with a blue-sky spread of towers: HELLO DUBAI. ‘And where,’ the puzzled German asked, ‘are the famous Pleasure Gardens?’ I had to explain that, due to unforeseen circumstances – strategic road closures, denial of entry to anyone not possessing a ticket to events at ExCeL – the competition-winning, Boris-backed, festival-staging venue at the Royal Docks no sooner opened than collapsed, despite a £3 million ‘loan’ from Newham Council. This is remarkably swift even by the catastrophic standards established by millennial follies undertaken by New Labour across the North of England. Thousands of holders of tickets for the cancelled festival are waiting on news from the administrator, Parker Andrews. Architects, designers and site workers have not been paid. The half-built wasteland, close to ExCeL (where female boxers have been slugging it out for medals) and to the minatory hulk of Millennium Mills, is a theme park of the vanities. If you sneak beyond the perimeter fence you find a mock-up of Canary Wharf, a weirdly reductive (and pointless) model of what’s found at the end of the City Airport runway. A complimentary car full of Croatian officials was driving around in circles looking for the Ramada hotel. Parties of Hasidic Jews straggled towards a high fence, behind which you could see a moored cruise liner. Those with a rind of cultural memory will carry away images of Derek Jarman, who staged his punk apocalypse on this ground. Shrouded figures with flaming brands coming down to the dock: The Last of England. Jarman’s torch, carried out to sea in the morbid darkness, was a romantic gesture mingling hope and disillusion. His riposte, long before it was required, to Danny Boyle’s manipulative, budget-stretching excesses. ‘I scrabble in the rubbish,’ Jarman said. ‘An archaeologist who projects his private world along a beam of light into the arena.’
On the lower slopes of Woolwich Common, in the place where, according to Moore, the first Elizabethans practised archery, white block tents, crusted with red nipples and suckers, have been planted for the Olympic shooting events. Security is casual, military personnel chatting over coffee. And keeping an eye on potential troublemakers, I’m sure. But with a lighter hand than the bouncers of the discredited G4S operation in Stratford. The random gunfire sounds quite soothing, like the compulsive popping of trapped air blisters in a sheet of Bubble Wrap. They no longer, as in Paris in 1900, blast away at live pigeons, and count up the tally of dead birds before declaring a winner.
Slowly, Moore punting along on his stick, pausing to point out the cottage where Wordsworth stayed, we made the ascent of the old coaching road of Shooters Hill. The clearing in Oxleas Wood drops away in a wide funnel of open meadow from the rusticated park café, built on the site of Wood Lodge, the birthplace of Algernon Blackwood, the Golden Dawn occultist and author of dark fantasy. Even for a man such as Steve Moore, who once worked on Dan Dare comic strips and a series known as Future Shocks, the enclosed rocket pen was hard to credit. A large policeman, leaning on the bonnet of his car, chatted to curious members of the public. Children roamed the sward, running and tumbling, and not taking much interest in the diesel thump of the generator. A passing hiker on the Green Chain trail asked me if this was a travelling fair. The quiver of sharp-nosed rockets in the Rapier missile battery lurched and aimed with a robotic motion. They had a nasty habit of seeming to track spectators who came too close to the fence. Two or three soldiers rested in a tent. It was a very tranquil English scene. Dogs and picnic parties and distant traffic heading out of town on the A2. Star Wars repainted by Stanley Spencer at his most Cookham bucolic.
‘While there is no reported threat to the Games,’ my pamphlet said,
we need to ensure the safety of those attending … The overall police-led plan includes a range of equipment and personnel being located across London including Typhoon aircraft, helicopters and the Royal Navy ship HMS Ocean at Greenwich … The MoD has sought advice from the Royal Borough of Greenwich and English Nature to ensure that the location of the Rapier system will not damage protected plant species. By restricting the size of our footprint on Oxleas Meadow, we hope to ensure that our soldiers operate in such a way that wildlife is not adversely affected.
Moore calls this place ‘the hill of blood’. He has made arrangements to have his ashes scattered over a Bronze Age burial mound here. He pointed out the damage to a tree caused by a car, pursued by the police, which took to the air after lifting from a traffic-calming speed bump. While I waited in the rain for the bus back to North Greenwich, there was a terrible crunch, which I took for an uphill vehicle smashing into a barrier as it made a sharp turn into one of the dozy suburban tributaries. It was worse than that. As we moved off, my companion pointed to a pair of twisted legs sticking out from beneath the car. The crumpled wreck of a bicycle. Sirens were working their way through the snarled afternoon procession.
The Farm Shop on Dalston Lane, where I met David Mills, is sandwiched between an Age Concern charity shop and Nails 4U (who have a sideline in Western Union money transfers). It had just been announced that the Dalston Lane ‘Slab’, a £63 million bus stop, would not now be used as a transport hub for the Olympic Games. Hackney Council demolished a Victorian theatre and a terrace of listed Georgian houses and handed the land over to the developers Barratt on a peppercorn lease, on the understanding that the traffic interchange overrode all historic precedents and social contracts. ‘The only people to profit from this foolhardy venture,’ local activist Bill Parry-Davies said (he brokered my introduction to the Owl Man), ‘were the construction companies Balfour Beatty and Carillion.’ Perhaps their profits will help to pay off fines exceeding £5 million each, imposed on them in 2009 by the Office of Fair Trading, as a result of their involvement in corrupt bid-rigging activities for public sector contracts in the Midlands.
We sat under the hoop of a polytunnel, out back, away from the tanks of fish, the cases of seething greenery, the chickens. The Owl Man couldn’t eat, but he took a cup of tea. He was creased, weathered, with a trim rusty beard. He wore a grey Triumph logo cap and a leather biker’s jacket. His manner was assertively tentative, amused, but a little wary. Now that he has secured a property in West Wales, with room for the birds, a bit of a stream, he’s able to bid an undeceived farewell to Hackney. It was once the good place. He haunted the Lower Lea Valley, knowing every fishing spot for barbel and grayling. He flew his hawks in Epping Forest and in the now contaminated zone where, he says, there is no wildlife left. The Lea, in the reach between Hackney Marshes and Old Ford Lock, is a dead river. The towpath, running alongside, and trumpeted as a green route to the Olympic site, has been closed to pedestrians and cyclists (who have been engaged in several mass protests).
I notice, in a photograph of the Albion Drive cave, an artist’s palette hanging on the wall. ‘My father liked to paint,’ Mills said. ‘He was a tailor. He loved to draw in chalk on the cloth. And then to rub his picture out.’ The Owl Man held to the family tradition and bartered oil paintings of horses and dogs for goods and services. He brought up his son in the ruined house, showing him how to ride a motorcycle and how to fish. He named him Lea, after his favourite river. When I think of the winners who have emerged from this unreal fortnight of mass hallucination, I don’t focus on the justifiably proud cyclists, the strong women in boats, or those youthful triathlon medallists, the Brownlee brothers, who look like scrubbed kids in pyjamas, allowed to stay up late with Christmas baubles around their necks. I think of two men: Boris Johnson clowning so effectively towards office, like an idiot emperor from Robert Graves – and David Mills, spirit of place, who knew just when to step away.