In this exclusive extract, author and Hackney resident Iain Sinclair takes us on a tour of the London Overground, aka The Ginger Line.
Goat Mask Replica
A puddle of exposed meat and blooded feathers. A first-light pigeon catastrophe at the crown of a frosted road. The small head was already gone and a pair of glistening crows, as if shaking themselves from an ink bath, disputed strips of pink flesh. This roadkill feast was still warm and gave off wisps of steam, as the large black birds tore and gouged.
The chain of causality ran back to a lonely woman who emerged from the flats, crossed to the park, invisible to post-code gangs who were still in bed, invisible to entitled cyclists and charitable joggers. From a black bag, she shook out a carpet of crusts stiff as linoleum samples. Every morning, at the same hour, the feral pigeon cloud descended like a minor plague.
I noticed, as I made my circuit, that she wasn’t there. The crows, mob-handed, strutting and bouncing across the ground with a skunk-smoke swagger, were not bothered. They were glutted on the residue of boozy barbecues, the earth-scorching scars of the party people of new Hackney. The birds gorged, as on a battlefield, on everything – chicken wings, sauce sachets, pizza rinds, saturated card packaging – apart from the bent brown stubs of cigarettes, trodden into the dirt like a midwinter spring. And the grey torpedo tubes of pressurized gas known as ‘whippets’. The kind they use to fire up fancy lighters or put fizz into simulated cream. The small cylinders were the only evidence left of cackle and blah: the shrieks of weekend balloon babies, festival chasers. Grey bone fingers of a defeated robot army. And shreds of coloured rubber like the sad aftermath of joke condoms. Metallic traces of the carnival of laughing-gas sniffers defy the early-morning hygiene crews and the recycling police. Nitrous oxide hobbyists party for a twenty-second buzz. A dissociative anaesthetic snort against the nuisance of city life and the dull pull of the old world bringing them down with its responsibilities. Criminal mortgages. And the price of Anya Hindmarch handbags in Chatham Place.
But the balloon babies of London Fields are not to be denied. They are the present occupiers, supporting a trickledown substratum of Turkish minimarts, secular Muslims working impossible hours to supply wine, beer, vodka, firelighters, charcoal, barbecue trays, fresh fruit, table-tennis bats. The woozy cocktails sniffed from an inflated cartoon bubble also contribute, as an incidental by-product, to the paranoid miasma of greenhouse gases. The fear of the thing is as real as the thing itself. Euphoric ‘hippy crack’ blends with a drench of pesticide perfume from the imported strip of ‘wildflower meadow’ that has replaced the former red-top football pitch kicked to dust by no‑limits communal collisions in the last century: unsponsored Sunday-morning games that ran, more or less, from the 1966 World Cup black-and-white TV triumph to semi-final exit in Italia ’90.
Along with distressing the dignity of ancient, gnarled London plane trees by wrapping them in purple skirts that attempt to take credit for (and impose control over) what was now a de facto party zone, the council razzle-dazzled the red dirt with a drop‑in, industrial carpet of showy wildflowers, sprayed with the pesticide glyphosate. This was a highly selective wildness, applicable only to approved flora, and merciless to bugs. The kill product is marketed by biotech giant Monsanto. Meadow strips such as this, laid out like those psychedelic bandages across the bleeding edge of the Olympic Park, look great in photographs. But they are meadows only in the sense that a sewage outfall pipe is now a Green Way. The designer Katharine Hamnett, waging T‑shirt war (ACT LOCAL THINK GLOBAL), declared that glyphosate usage has proven links to infertility and birth defects. ‘In planting a wildflower meadow,’ Hamnett said, ‘they have planted a deathtrap. Sitting on the grass, eating with your hands near an area that has been sprayed with herbicide is the shortest route to ingesting it, bar drinking it straight from the bottle.’ Kim Wright, corporate director of health and community services for Hackney, a woman charged with ‘improving the quality of life for all’, pronounced: ‘This product has been declared safe and environmentally friendly by government and is used by councils everywhere across the country for weed control.’
Official disapproval of unauthorized pigeon caterers, and persons who stock their suddenly desirable, million-pound property wrecks with damaged hawks and buzzards, had consequences. The bag lady vanished. A deprived pigeon ventured on to asphalt to investigate a pizza box dropped from a speeding motorcycle and was splattered. Very soon, a chain reaction created a meat island that threatened to become a continent. One of the crows pecking at the ex‑pigeon was tyre-tracked into oblivion. Brothers, hypersensitive to the fresh smell of death, fluttered down to feast. The carnage spread. Birds eating birds, in promiscuous same-species and victim-species abandon, were culled by motorists busy getting a hit of smoke into the lungs, while ranting into agitated fist-phones. A horrible skidpan of mashed avians, pecking, dying, grew from the first discarded tomato crust to a bloody road-hogging stain that promised to become a symbol of something much worse than itself.
It was a morning to move on. To explore territory in which I could cut free from a sense that narrative, like our managed landscape, was a fix. Reading matter, however exotic the source, no longer did it for me. The story was the same everywhere. Thomas Pynchon, riffing on another time and another place, seemed to be describing the trivial annoyances of my immediate locality: ‘zapping loudmouths on cellular phones, morally self-elevating bicycle riders, moms wheeling twins old enough to walk lounging in twin strollers’.
This old-man sourness is addictive. Period pains from the inability to accommodate change. When nature pricks and the heart engages, people long to go on pilgrimages. Atavistic instinct draws us to the sacred spike of the Shard and a long, lustful tramp down Old Kent Road in the general direction of Canterbury. I have spent many years postponing that walk as too obvious. Today was the day.
You never cross water without some psychic toll. Careful citizens secrete a coin about their person, to pay the ferryman. Coming down through the permitted gulch of the City, between roadblocks and roadworks, Crossrail dumper trucks and vanity tower quarrying, I overtook several buses decanting irate commuters some way short of their promised destination. Tourists for the dungeons of the black museum were dumped on the wrong side of the Thames. And swept aside by the human surge agitating over London Bridge in a wasp-storm of electronic interference.
The exhilaration for me, above and beyond movement, the glimpse of sedimentary thickness in the river, was the lack of agenda. Nothing to be recorded. Nothing to be written. No maps. No timetable. No rucksack. Nothing ahead, beyond the random impulse of that morning: to start a new season seeking stranger strands, without the Chaucerian requirement to deliver a tale. I thought as ever of John Clare in the madhouse at Lippitts Hill in Epping Forest, and how, after four years of benevolent incarceration, he seized the day, took off, marching vigorously in the wrong direction, before setting his mark on an English road, and hurrying towards the indifferent dead: his inspiration, lost anima, innocence. A journey to shred illusions, burn off the cobwebs of the past. A clean sheet: alienation, severance from family ties, suspension of inherited duty. Writer as writer: a clattering skull on a stick of bone. ‘I am here in the land of Sodom where all the peoples brains are turned the wrong way,’ he reports in a letter to his wife, Patty. ‘I think it is about two years since I was first sent up to this Hell.’
Southwark Cathedral, where pilgrims might have prayed before setting out, if they were not too well lodged in the pub, is dwarfed by overweening structures that don’t quite fit together: all sheen, no substance. Giant shadow-makers. Premature ghosts. If architects were involved they had blundered, but nobody could afford to admit it. There was a satisfying level of activity on Borough High Street; people of all shapes, sizes and persuasions, in work, are coffee-transporting, cell-yapping, queuing for buses, queuing for cigarettes, queuing for top-ups. For misleading information, bacon rolls, chewing gum, haircuts.
I noted David Bomberg House. Good to see the undervalued painter’s name referenced on a block of residential properties for postgraduate students. Bomberg, in his partial eclipse, taught at Borough Polytechnic Institute. He grew up on the other side of the river, in Spitalfields, and never let himself be inconvenienced by false modesty: ‘Giotto stands to Cézanne as Cézanne will stand to posterity; and I who am of the line and inherit the blood stream should not be treated as a stranger in my Father’s house.’
After exhibiting with the Vorticists in 1915, while standing apart from their manifestos and stunts, Bomberg’s strength came from his isolation, the unbroken conviction that he was a spurned man, an outsider. He engaged with London in war, but the great city, its building sites, railways, warehouses, was not really his subject, in the way that such motifs would obsess his two most distinguished pupils, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.
Noticing the nameplate, David Bomberg House, was as far as I wanted to take it. That a man who regarded those years of instruction, imposing his strict doctrine on students and amateurs taking evening classes, as a banishment from the light, a necessary drudgery, should now be a permanent aspect of the street: without the residents having any idea who he was or without the students looking closely at any of his works. Bomberg’s methods live through Auerbach and Kossoff, the intense scrutiny they bring to place; the practice of drawing, over and over, until the moment arrives for the physical assault, the statement painting.
The proportions of the tight street, with its courtyard pubs, its access to a major rail hub, open out into a road that is also a destination: Great Dover Street. Generous pavements almost as wide as the road itself are planted with London planes that break up pavings, splitting asphalt into interestingly fissured mounds. And then, after negotiating a notorious roundabout, I find myself on a route fitted for all categories of urban pilgrimage, however debased: Old Kent Road. Fragments of Georgian and early-Victorian terrace coexist with opportunist detritus, metal-shuttered premises and secure booths where visibly wired penitents hop from foot to foot trying to remember the five-digit number that will give them a crack at an extension of a payday loan.
THE DUN COW SURGERY IS A REGISTERED YELLOW FEVER CENTRE. I remember talking to an old Haggerston villain banished to this part of town when he came out of prison on licence. The idea being to keep recidivists away from former associates, familiar drinking dens where they would be lured back into crime. A futile proposition: the senior contractor for the disposing of inconvenient East London stiffs operated out of a small boozer on Borough High Street. But that three-mile move was too horrible for my man. He died within six months, his best Friday-night suit still in hock. The shame of it: to be found slumped in a plastic recliner in a pair of elasticated tracksuit bottoms and a Billy Bonds T‑shirt.
Lebanese fast-food war-zone escape hatches. Bike-snatched phones unblocked. Money transferred to Nigeria. HUNGRY BEAR HALAL BURGERS. HOTEL ELEPHANT. LA CABANA with its flyers exhorting voters to register for Bolivian elections. Self-medicators in condemned railway terraces without the stamina to crawl out for their yellow-fever injections. Windblown shuttered piazzas marooned from earlier eras. ‘Looks better by night,’ says a passing disability Hummer, snowploughing me off the pavement.
The valid action is all in the road. A few walkers, of varying ethnicities, went about their business; quietly, discreetly, with none of the powerwalk entitlement of my side of the river. Ankles were safe from bankers on roller blades, balloon-sniffing Twitter analysts on customized skateboards. And Boris Johnson dressed as a fireman.
The sharpest youths of the current generation, those who respect the past by stealing some of the hippest style fetishes, navigate by way of infinite layers of spoiled pixilation, pink-dyed negatives, seltzer-fizz surfaces strobing and seething. They muddy perception with pictorial degradation, looped sound, weird fragments that reverberate like operating-theatre chit-chat as you go under. Ordinary working streets, if they encounter them, seem perversely undercooked. Techniques of recording have a bias towards banality. The world is all noise and discriminations of headache.
But Old Kent Road was a powerful antidote. Much of the swirling cloud of cannibalized imagery, pictures of pictures that could be sustained only by tapping on a tablet, was left in Shoreditch, buried with the utility cables and the accidentally excavated Mithraic artefacts in the Crossrail quarrying of the City. It fell to modest incomers to rescue the old pilgrim route.
I settled to a quality coffee that really was coffee, by smell, look, taste, in le panier a brioche, a lower-case patisserie managed by Mr F. Rafik. It catered to solitary males of a dignified Somali appearance who sat with their phones on saucers, empty cups in hand, waiting for messages that never came. From time to time, a woman in a hijab would step inside, and stand waiting at the counter, studying all the possibilities. On being served, the successful client would leave immediately, nursing her purchases against dark folds of enveloping robes.
I admired the racks of colourful fruit and vegetables on display outside a minimart on the far side of the road. And I wondered about how much lead and heavy metal the skins of those peaches and apricots had absorbed, how much carcinogenic dust from the zone around London Bridge Station, how much road dirt lifted by the remorseless passage of traffic.
Yellow-green ambulances. Fire engines. Unmarked squad cars with sirens screaming. A conviction that road accidents, birth pangs, outpatient axe attacks in betting shops, were being attended to so efficiently warmed the heart. Those exhausted professionals are under constant threat from a system and a philosophy that can no longer afford them.
I had not walked more than twenty minutes towards Canterbury when Old Kent Road began to promote out‑of‑town ambitions: a giant green free-standing ASDA sign, the triumphalist yellow arch of MCDONALD’S, the pale blue office block of NEW COVENANT CHURCH. A 78 bus shuttled a quorum of the undead towards the cemetery park of NUNHEAD, a destination that once signified a safe distance from the city. The kerbs, I noticed, were thick with red paint, double lines spilling over drains and obstacles like tyre tracks after a gruesome fatality.
At the junction where Rotherhithe New Road swings away towards Deptford and Greenwich Reach, there was a disaster exhibit framed by blue-and-white tape and guarded by two solid community-support officers, while the real cops, windows down, sat in their car checking registration details and scrolling porn sites. The van driver was smoking beside his dented vehicle, explaining himself to a potential witness, while a policewoman took down his details. A lot of blood was trickling into a storm drain, which was embossed with raised letters: NIAGARA 5760 METRO. On the black- grey boards of the barrier separating the road from a small retail park where a low shed hawked BUILDING PLASTICS, TIMBER, INSULATION, ROOFING, I noted the spectral remains of a promotion poster: E SKULL.
Now came the necessary confirmation that I was still on the right road. On the side of a building offering FREE WALK IN CONFIDENTIAL MEDICAL ADVICE: BLOOD SUGAR TEST, URINE TEST, PREGNANCY TEST was a set of ceramic tiles depicting various London journeys, including the Canterbury pilgrimage. I thought of Chaucer’s doctor and his Natural Magic, grounded in astronomy, his understanding of the bodily humours. A man ‘rather close as to expenses’, the quack held gold tight to his heart as a natural stimulant.
AND OFF WE RODE AT SLIGH-
TLY FASTER PACE THAN
WALKING TO ST THOMAS’
THERE OUR HOST DREW
UP, BEGAN TO EASE HIS
HORSE, AND SAID ‘NOW
LISTEN IF YOU PLEASE –
Chaucer is depicted, riding with his fictional pilgrims. Like Alejandro Jodorowsky taking the lead in his own midnight movie, El Topo. Religion, the road, stories within stories.
The pilgrims left behind a city dominated by what looks like a premature vision of the Shard, a weathervane cock on its summit. Jack Cade’s peasant army from 1450 are marching in rebellion to London on the next panel. Men of Kent driven to protest government corruption and the crippling drain of foreign wars. They are met by armed citizens ready to defend London Bridge. The last panel is a feathery coop of Pearly Kings and Queens, grim-faced under a black sky in which a red airliner is about to collide with a red helicopter, before the debris smashes into a tower block.
After this potted history lesson, the next stretch of the road was notable for George Livesey House, a former library, former museum, now under discussion as a potential venue for yoga classes. The charitable Livesey (1834–1908) was the owner of the South Metropolitan Gas Company and ‘one of Southwark’s greatest industrialists’. A man in a beard stood at the door, explaining that there was no longer a museum, no funding for that, no books, but that an empty shell with legacy was a museum of another sort: a museum of memory. Another house of refuge, its grey windows masked with slatted blinds, declared itself: HOLY GHOST ZONE.
The man in the goat mask and the girl in gypsy skirts and flounces were hanging out, waiting for something better, beside the London Overground station at New Cross Gate. A whiteface voodoo drummer in top hat swayed from side to side, accosting random commuters who looked as if they were hurrying to or from hospital appointments, juvenile courts, drinking dens. Or slouching, reluctantly, towards an art school. That is what I assumed: kids from Goldsmiths in fancy dress, as performance or concept or video demonstration. Another girl, waving, in full theatrical slap, long funeral coat and not much else, slalomed through honking traffic. After hugs and kisses and cigarettes, others joined the group: a short man in a rubber owl mask with sharp beak and huge yellow eyes, and a scowling girl of Slavic inclination with a prison-cropped head.
I bought the goat a coffee. There was something compulsive in the radiant bone-whiteness of that mask. Ridged plastic with rudimentary horns and stiff ears became a mirror, the death cast of some reforgotten poet. The shape of the mask contrived an elegantly contoured triangle willing me to contemplate pedestrian adventures far wilder and less predictable than my suburban trudge towards Canterbury. The albino goat, coming out of nowhere, saying little, was a whole new story.
If this boho rabble could be persuaded to walk a little way down the road to Shooter’s Hill, drumming and bird-whistling and frolicking with Afghan hounds, it would enforce my sense of pilgrimage. And I would treat them all to pints in a pub I knew, the Bull Inn, in exchange for their unmediated anecdotes.
They had other affiliations. They belonged to the Ginger Line, as they called the recently completed circuit of the London Overground railway. They met to party, mystery locations revealed at the last moment, by text, somewhere along the line: it might be Peckham Rye, Imperial Wharf, Kensal Rise. Today it was Shoreditch, the white goat said.
I was reminded of the microclimate cooked up by the launching of the M25 orbital motorway in 1986, and how the simultaneous arrival of bathtub- cooked ecstasy and mobile phones turned the tarmac tourniquet into a floating fiesta. Locations for raves, in barns or abandoned airfields, were announced to initiates as the start of an era of instant, compulsive communication. Everything, back then, tended to Essex: the rise of security on the door as figures of cultural significance. Steroid gyms. RIBs skidding across to Holland. Butchery with power tools in new estates perched above chalk quarries. Range Rover assassinations.
The New Cross goats and rubber owls had responded by morphic resonance to their motorway predecessors. They texted and tweeted and ear-wormed their way around the novelty of this railway circuit of London. The Ginger Liners met at previously unknown stations for balloon parties, gossip, the taking of selfies. The traditional antisocial, mute, infolded, hate clusters of the Underground now became a means of Internet partnering. And the investigation of territories where accommodation might not be so ruinously expensive. It was sad to see that much of their conversation was about money, competitive levels of debt.
‘My friend, he gets a one-bed flat and develops it into a two-bed. Lives out west, Willesden or wherever? With the Overground, no problem. He can buy in . . . Clapham, Shadwell? You’re looking at two hundred for a one-bed. Living space is tiny. Like, “legal” means nothing. He rents to the council. Guaranteed return. This guy’s clearing seventeen grand a year. Like, guaranteed.’
The gypsy, the drummer, the futurist girl with the shaven head are unimpressed.
‘He uses his brother’s income. He takes the train. Like, he jumps off anywhere, Forest Hill? Finds another property. I’ve got two jobs now: property and charity. Charity’s just great for contacts. Councils love charity.’
By now the double red stripes at the edge of the road are trumped by the lurid orange coveralls of railway maintenance staff preparing for chemical warfare. The Overground, linking everywhere with everywhere, had spawned dining clubs for young marrieds bored in Denmark Hill. And changed the lives of lecturers living in Walthamstow and teaching in New Cross. There were also, so the rubber owl told me, orgies in Peckham Rye, partner exchanges in Kensal Rise: no guilt, no chance of running into your rug date on the school run. Late trains were reliable and patronized by a democracy of nightworkers.
Once again I aborted my Canterbury walk without reaching Bexleyheath. I followed the Ginger Liners down to the platform and took a train home to Haggerston.
At Rotherhithe, two sets of twins, male and female, faces painted the Lucozade-orange of sunbeds, joined the New Cross coven, whooping, helium-high, and synch-spitting their ‘likes’ and ‘omygods’ and sweet little nothings in Mickey Mouse cheeps and trills. A late goth, a phone-slate in each hand, came aboard in Whitechapel. There was an intriguing and affectionate communality at work. It took me a couple of stops to appreciate that none of these people knew each other. They had never met, but the train made them, instantly, brothers and sisters of the night. When they spilled out into Shoreditch, I realized that I had blundered once again into a version of London about which I knew nothing. And which I would have to find some way to investigate. As he passed my window, the goat held up a finger to his lips. A warning I was foolish enough to ignore.