In the mornings I walk the Lee Navigation from Tottenham Lock to Markfield Park and it feels like nothing here could ever change.
I’m trapped in an endless discourse, held in London beer gardens, on the Suffolk coast, among ruined churches in Kent, in a friend’s house in Hastings. A conversation trying to tackle the question of London. An impossibility. I have no answers.
I hate the people writing opinion pieces on why they’re leaving the capital, and I’m jealous of everyone who does. I’m terrified by the thought of leaving, and sick at the very thought of staying. I look at uPVC nightmares and Lego-block newbuilds climbing into the skyline and feel the urge to just hit the canal towpath and keep running and running til I escape the city; only to be crippled by questions of ‘would I be bored?’ and ‘what would I do?’ Even my worries are prosaic and clichéd.
The problem is, I love London, I really do. I love my London, at least - how could it ever be one stable thing? But the London I love is a London inefficient, weird, overgrown, ripe for development, a place whose creases are being ironed out. This is a common argument, a point made many times before. What else is there to say? I’ve thought of leaving and I’ve thought of staying and so far I am still here.
What helps is that there are places that still surprise me. That’s a real joy of the city. Not new places, but new to me, and they will always be new to someone.
It takes time to dig into an area, even a small patch, to get to know it in any meaningful way. The best parts of London are the ones I never went looking for, the ones that just slowly made their presences felt. In the city, there is still the opportunity for the unexpected. Still an element of chance, if you allow it.
About a year ago, Influx Press moved our offices in Hackney Downs to a new space in a converted Punkyfish factory on Markfield Road, halfway between Seven Sisters and Tottenham Hale underground stations. I’m aware this must be part of a gradual shift in the area, people being pushed out of Hackney due to rising rents, a slow beginning to the gentrification of Tottenham. But we have to exist somewhere, right? I can’t run a press from nowhere. I occasionally feel guilt, and try not to buy coffee from the overpriced café out front. It’s pretty good coffee though. I eat jacket potatoes in the local greasy spoon looking at faded photographs of Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne, and a poster from the film Scarface.
I was unfamiliar with this part of Tottenham. Markfield Road is home to, alongside the warehouses converted into artistic spaces, a speciality ice-cream-van repair garage (honestly), a noisy and chaotic waste disposal yard with lorries thundering constantly down the narrow road, an Orthodox Jewish kosher-foods importer and numerous studios, units and warehouses whose functions remain opaque. This is a dirty and working piece of London and I like it for that.
On Markfield Road is one of those brown and white signs directing the curious in the direction of pieces of cultural history. Markfield Beam Engine. A machine out of Star Trek, perhaps.
If you follow the sign, along Markfield Road passing the crashing lorries and the churning piles of rubbish in the waste disposal yard, you quickly arrive, after ducking under a railway bridge, a space entirely at odds to where you have just been. Markfield Park, where ridges and clumps of concrete are colonised by wild grasses and flowers, smothered in graffiti, like the defaced fragments of some Neolithic civilisation. Trees and picnic benches vivid contrast to the city’s grime mere metres away. A metal silhouette of a cow, festooned with a bag of crumpled cans. Another one of the city’s green spaces, used by local schools for their sports, home to a small café and a museum dedicated to the Beam Engine, ‘A Masterpiece of Victorian Engineering’.
I walk through the park on my way to the office. I learn slowly that the ruined and grassy concrete was once the walls of settlement tanks and filter beds. This was the site of the Tottenham sewage works, in operation for best part of a century, until 1964. On a sunny day in July, looking at the tasteful café and the Grade II listed Engine House, cleaner and more striking than any of the working areas that surround it, it’s hard to think of shit and sewage. I wonder about the smell.
Markfield Road’s eastern boundary is the Lee Navigation. Friends of mine, recently returned from Australia, have taken to the waterways and now spend half of every month moored nearby at Tottenham Lock.
On my first visit, rocking gently on the water and drinking cider, I realised how close the navigation is to Tottenham Hale station, that often-commented but always surprising juxtaposition between the shabby greenery and birdlife of the waterways with the grey concrete and depressing aspects of the retail parks and heaving traffic (though having a Staples close to your place of work is, I’ll admit, handy). I see the appeal of boat-living. Now, even the waterways are clogging up, an 80% increase in just a year. People who aren’t willing to pay the rents but who can’t bear to leave.
These friends, they’re people from my punk days, when it was all about running benefit gigs in ropey venues and ropier squats, beer and fags, veggie food.
Seeing them triggered a replaying of those times. Part of it, of course, is that I’m getting older. I know nostalgia is poison, but still. We sat on the boat and dredged over the old days, and venues we loved that now longer exist. Is there less visible subculture in the city now? I can’t answer that, but it feels that way. Maybe I just sold out.
Now when I travel into the office, I disembark at Tottenham Hale station – a station decorated with a medieval looking blue and white relief, a man punting along water in a small boat, ferrying a woman clutching a basket of eggs, next to a dog and a box of chickens.
I take the walk from Tottenham Lock along the navigation to Markfield Park. I pass large congregations of mute swans, families of Canada geese, reptilian herons, oily water clogged with the city’s waste. I watch hundreds of swifts when I reach the reservoirs that lie the other side of the water, opposite the park, the birds screaming and darting catching insects by the gobful. I think of the swifts’ journey like so many other writers and birdwatchers have before me, the thousands of miles travelled, their useless feet, the pinpoint precision.
This short walk, it’s an essential reminder of what the city can be. Never one thing, always many.
After I head through the park, passing the café and the Beam Engine, I duck under the low bridge and I’m back on Markfield Road – a different world, of ice-cream vans and vehicles thundering like angry mastodons, of converted warehouse, of a boutique café whose outdoor seating spills out onto a space where lorries come and go and diners dine in sight of rubbish trucks.
Currently in the café is a small exhibition dedicated to a punk history of Woodberry Down, commemorating the squatters of the past. I realise I’ve missed the launch of the exhibition, even though it was five metres from my work desk.
This exhibition brings together prints, illustrations, photographs and text, created by a diaspora of punks who lived as squatters on the Woodberry Down Estate in the Manor House area of London in the 80s and 90s. This show was conceived in response to the estate’s current redevelopment, which recognizes only consenting voices in its gentrification process.
The question of London again, the politics of existence following me around wherever I go. I don’t consider myself a consenting voice, but I’m tired and sometimes just want to be left alone. Once I would have got annoyed that a piece of punk history was being displayed in one of London’s new-breed cafés. Now I just look at the pictures and read the accompanying text.
On Markfield Road, I wonder how all long of this will last. London never was like it was. I think hard about my own role in how all of this is changing; I am reluctantly part of the force that is changing Tottenham. But we would have stayed in Hackney (a place I called home for nearly a decade) if we could have afforded it.
I have no answer to the question of London, of whether to stay or to go, or even if it’s worth talking about anymore.
In the mornings I walk the Lee Navigation from Tottenham Lock to Markfield Park and it feels like nothing here could ever change; but it does.