City of Disappearances

“We’ve been sold down the river”, said one of the draymen, “right down the fucking Wandle.” The closing of Young’s brewery in Wandsworth in 2006 was a milestone in the march of gentrification across post-Big Bang London. “A humiliating, downright cry-in-your-beer travesty”, in the words of one local, whose bulletin from the left bank of the Wandle ended with this indelible lament: “When a particularly juvenile men’s magazine article challenged British breweries to organize a piss up, some breweries laid on rock ‘n’ roll bands…another had fish and chips delivered by limousine. Young’s response was to lock us in their small, secret bar in an old stable at the back of the Ram Brewery and give us free Ram and Special until we had to stop. Their point being: this is Wandsworth, we don’t do bollocks, we do beer. Not any more.”

Well, just across the river, they still do any more. At the old Griffin brewery. A bit of a surprise, since Chiswick is sinking under the weight of Chelsea tractors, real estate agents and yellow dumpsters. The Griffin somehow survives on the original site at the west end of Chiswick Mall, near the Hogarth roundabout, where Fuller Ales have been brewed since 1845. I recently returned for a visit.

I first lived in London in the mid-late sixties, at the other end of Chiswick Mall. My lodgings were a garret at 16 Hammersmith Terrace. It was the home of the Zvegintzovs, Mischa and Diana. Mischa’s father had been an Octobrist and president of the fourth Duma; he was killed on the Galician front in 1915. The Zvegintzov family were enemies of the Tzarist state but as epitomes of Russian parliamentary liberalism they had to flee the Bolsheviks. They eventually reached London via Finland and Sweden. The young Mischa was turned into an English gent by way of Winchester College and Corpus Christi, Oxford. There were limits, mind you – his old school chums insisted on calling him “Zog”. He took a job as a research chemist at the Gas Light and Coke company. In 1940 he joined Political Intelligence and ended the war as Director-General of the German Chemical Industry in the British zone. Back in austerity Britain he became a pioneer of food processing for Unilever. When I knew him, he had retired but was energetically leading the agitation for a Thames barrage. Not from any premonition of Arctic meltdown, but because the Thames is tidal at Chiswick and floods daily over the Mall. Indeed when spring tides coincided with cyclonic low pressure and a strong nor’easter, the gardens and basements of Hammersmith Terrace were likely to be under water.

From the high windows of No. 16, one could look east to the ironwork of Joseph Bazaglette’s Hammersmith Bridge, a Victorian baroque structure which was seriously underbuilt and hence the target of three separate IRA bomb teams. First in 1939, when Maurice Childs, a local hairdresser walking home late at night across the bridge, noticed smoke and sparks coming from a suitcase. He opened it to find a bomb inside, which he chucked into the river. The explosion sent up a 60ft column of water.

Beyond the bridge, on the Barn Elms reach, one could just see the roof of Harrod’s massive furniture depository (long before Mohamed Al Fayed flogged it to the property development arm of Bahrain International Bank for stockbroker apartments) and I used to watch flocks of geese on their glide path towards the reservoirs along Castlenau. Through the window, when the wind was from the west, the astringent smell of hops and mashed barley drifted down from the Griffin brewery. Through the wall, no matter what the wind, came the sound of the New Zealand Ladies Massed Choir, accompanied by Mischa and Diana’s son, who had a voice like Chaucer’s pardoner. He passed his days listening to antipodean sacred music, captured in a collection of vintage 78s which he played on an ancient HMV gramophone. To this day, his thin piping descant mingles in my mind with the other music that filled my nights that year. Not that he had the remotest interest in the new sounds emerging from the Hammersmith Odeon, the World’s End, and the Troubador at Redcliffe Gardens, thanks to John Mayall, Alexis Korner, Stevie Winwood, John Renbourn and co. All virtually within earshot, owing to recent developments at the Marshall Amplifier Company.

When I reached the river, the tide was on the turn and Chiswick Mall glistened with a film of Thames sludge. The scene at Upper and Lower Mall was remarkably unchanged, though Hammersmith Terrace had sprouted a fresh crop of blue plaques. Under New Labor, the heritage industry has been hard at work commemorating this radical corner of the book world. Edward Johnson the master calligrapher lived for a while at No. 3, the typographer Emery Walker at No.7, May Morris next door at No. 8. Her father William lived a few yards away at 26 Upper Mall, Kelmscott House, from which he sallied forth to harangue the proletarians of the Hammersmith Socialist League. His neighbor and fellow socialist, T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, was a burned-out barrister whom Janey Morris thought capable of something therapeutic with his hands. And so the Doves Bindery and Press came about, first at 15 Upper Mall and later at 1 Hammersmith Terrace. One night in 1915, as blood flowed at the second Battle of Ypres, Cobden-Sanderson, by then a burned-out bookbinder, threw all the Doves type (from which the Kelmscott Chaucer and Bible were composed) off Hammersmith Bridge, to spite his old partner Emery Walker. The business closed down soon after. But not before he had trained an apprentice, the New Town utopian, Douglas “Care of Books” Cockerell, whose own son Sydney Cockerell in turn took on an apprentice, Gillian Cartwright-Allen, who became my life companion.

T.J. named the Doves Bindery after the neighboring pub at 19 Upper Mall. The Doves was a coffee house in the eighteenth century, but lately – since 1796 – has been serving Fuller’s beer. When I was a frequenter of the Dove (it turned singular sometime in the early 20th century) hot food was an unthinkable accompaniment to a pint of London Pride. You could get a bag of crisps (blue touchpaper twist of salt included) or if you were lucky a “Ploughman’s Lunch”. It sounded like a primordial birthright, but was actually a high marketing concept invented in 1960 by Richard Trehane, chairman of the English Country Cheese Council. It consisted of a lump of cheddar, a crust of bread and some Branston pickle. Today the Dove is a designated “gastro pub”, with a two-page menu and a wide selection of organic vegetables picked at dawn, prepared by virgins. Eat your heart out, Trehane.

I crossed over Hammersmith Bridge, and down the steps to the gravel riverside path – pot-holed and ragged and miraculously unimproved. A rus in urbe experience, vouchsafed no doubt only by savage cuts in public works maintenance. The water lapped close to the boathouses at Putney Hard, and over a pint of Dog’s Knob Bitter at the Duke’s Head I pondered the fragility of this riverscape and the coming deluge. The Thames barrage will soon enough seem like a pathetic finger in the dyke.

From outside the Duke’s Head I could see the tower of St Mary’s Church, at the foot of Putney High Street. St Mary’s was my destination, for an evening of 17th century secular music. Last year there was a poll of Guardian readers, who were asked to nominate the neglected event in Britain’s radical past that best deserves a proper monument. Unexpectedly they chose the “Putney debates” over other potential candidates, such as Bodmin parish church in Cornwall, scene of the 1549 Prayer Book rebellion; the 1819 Peterloo massacre site in Manchester; Queen’s Square, Bristol, site of the reform riots of 1831; Discovery House in east London, centre of the Poplar rate dispute of 1921; the Orgreave coking plant in Yorkshire, symbol of the 1984 miners’ strike.

The Putney debates took place in the late autumn of 1647 in St Mary’s Church, the home base of Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain Hugh Peters who preached fiery sermons there on the edge of the Thames. (He was also one of the founders of Harvard University, a role he has come to regret.) The debates culminated in the execution of Charles 1, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, and the institution of the 11-year English Republic. In the words of Geoffrey Robertson’s introduction to a new edition of The Putney Debates (Verso, 2007): “From its first ascendancy here at St Mary’s, there may be traced the acceptance – centuries later in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and now in two-thirds of the nations of the world – of the idea that government requires the consent of freely and fairly elected representatives of all adult citizens, irrespective of class or caste or status or wealth.”

On the eve of the 360th anniversary of the debates, Tristram Hunt, historian and New Labor apparatchik, reminded Guardian readers (G2, October 26, 2007) of the events they had voted to commemorate:

By summer 1647, the Roundheads were winning the English civil war. At Marston Moor and Naseby, Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army had crushed the Cavaliers and King Charles I himself was now in custody. But among the victorious soldiers there was a gnawing fear that parliament and the army generals (or “grandees”) were preparing to sell them out. Some MPs, fearing the religious militancy of the army and keen for a settlement with the king, wanted to cut soldiers’ pay, disband regiments, refuse indemnity for war damage and pack them off to Ireland. Most loathsome of all, they also looked set to betray the religious and political ideals the New Model Army had spent the previous five years fighting for. “We were not a mere mercenary army hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth … to the defence of the people’s just right and liberties,” the soldiers complained. The Levellers in the Cromwell’s regiments demanded religious toleration (“The ways of God’s worship are not at all entrusted by us to any human power”); a general amnesty and an end to conscription; a system of laws that must be “no respecter of persons but apply equally to everyone: there must be no discrimination on grounds of tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth or place”; regular, two-yearly parliaments and an equal distribution of MPs’ seats by number of inhabitants.

With Oliver Cromwell in the chair, the general council of the New Model Army came together at Putney church, in October 1647, to argue the case for a transparent, democratic state free from the taint of parliamentary or courtly corruption. It proved to be one of the greatest intellectual encounters in western political thought. What was first of all remarkable was the active involvement of rank and file soldiery. And it is thanks to the shorthand notes of the army secretary, William Clarke, that 360 years on we get to hear their political theory. “Never again, even up to today, have private soldiers been allowed to question their officers,” as one Guardian reader remarked during the competition.

On the second day of the debates, after a good five-hour prayer session, the soldiers focused on the question of the franchise. Who had the right to vote? For the Levellers, the answer was clear: all those who placed themselves under government should have the right to elect it. The vote was a natural right, irrespective of property or position. “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he,” in the celebrated words of Colonel Rainsborough, “and therefore … every man that is to live under a government ought first, by his own consent, to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.”

The wealthy, socially conservative grandees were horrified by this spectre of egalitarian democracy. To their minds, it presaged anarchy and corruption with wealthy politicians able to buy up the votes of the uneducated, dependent masses. Instead, Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton, proposed that the franchise be limited to those with a “fixed local interest”, that is, the independent, propertied sort. For Rainsborough, such a solution was a wretched betrayal of the civil war sacrifice. “I would fain know what we have fought for: for our laws and liberties? (Yet) this is the old law that enslaves the people of England – that they should be bound by laws in which they have no voice at all!” In the end, they reached a compromise that the vote should be granted to all adult males – excluding servants, apprentices, foreigners, beggars and, obviously, women.

The debates then went on to discuss how to deal with the problem of Charles I. And it was during those chilly autumn days, in the pews of Putney, that the mood hardened against that “man of blood” King Charles and a deadly momentum developed to put him on trial for high treason. The road to the English republic – that epic moment in these islands’ history – flowed downstream from Putney to parliament.

Given such subversive sentiments, it was unsurprising that Clarke’s shorthand manuscript (subscribed into long hand after the Restoration) was kept hidden. Many of the ideas expressed at Putney – liberty of conscience; a government dependent upon the sovereign will of the people; equality before the law – would, via the ministrations of John Locke, make their way into American political thought and the US constitution. But in Britain these philosophies remained buried late into the 19th century until the Clarke Papers were finally unearthed in Worcester College, Oxford, by the historian CH Firth.

Tuesday’s recital of 17th century music was part of a week of events at St Mary’s – drama, readings, reenactments, dialogues – challenging establishment amnesia and official history whereby the phrase “English Republic” cannot even be pronounced and the years 1649-60 are rendered in Latin for the sake of decency. Never mind the gap, children, it was only an interregnum, viz., a regrettable hiccup in the glorious pageant of the British monarchy. So this project joins the great works of recovery and levelling – Christopher Hill’s pioneering reinterpretation in The World Turned Upside Down, Kevin Brownlow’s film Winstanley, Caryl Churchill’s play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, and Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many Headed Hydra.

Further down the Thames, on the other side of London, some major levelling of quite another kind has begun. On Saturday I cycled from Shepherds Bush to Hackney Wick to take a look at the future scene of the London Olympics. In the last two months an 11-kilometer cyanide blue fence has been erected around a vast swathe of the East End. The Wandsworth brewery would be swallowed up unnoticed in the vast new building site being prepared for three weeks of calisthenics in 2012. The inhabitants of the Blue Zone have all been evicted; fifteen families of travellers who settled at Clays Lane in 1971 were the last to go, earlier this month, not because they refused to leave but because the date of departure set for them by the Olympics Delivery Authority (in charge of “land assembly”) was postponed eleven times.

When the chief executive of the ODA claimed that the purpose of the Wall was “not to separate communities but to protect them”, one local had this to say: “This is exactly what the East German authorities said when the Berlin Wall was constructed. What could you possibly be building that you need to protect the people on the outside of that wall? You’re simply afraid that us we’ll sneak in and start half-inching all your equipment.”

I was only able to grasp the scale of the thing after climbing to the 19th floor of a high-rise block off Carpenter’s Road, at the invitation of a Jamaican pensioner I’d met in the moribund Stratford Arms, a pub suddenly cut off from passing trade by the blue barrier. I cycled northwest along the deserted Hackney Navigation canal in the hope of finding a gap in the perimeter. There weren’t even any viewing ports. Eventually I came across an active works entrance where a platoon of security guards were on weekend duty. They were friendly enough, but got serious when I attempted to finesse my way past. I hung around and photographed them inspecting a heavy goods vehicles on its way into “Olympic Park”. One of the goons threatened to seize my plastic Boots camera. “It’s throwaway, right, squire?” Right.

I headed further north, beyond the Hackney Cut. Apart from one trip long ago to the old Lea Valley Cycle Circuit, now on the wrong side of the fence and under the jackhammer, this was a landscape I’d only read about. I was entering Iain Sinclair territory, the world of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, and Downriver, his playground of weird connections. Sinclair’s psychogeographical fictions have recently got up the nose of John Barker. He accuses Sinclair of giving comfort to the colonizers of East London by making the old docklands exciting and safe for the modern bourgeois with a taste for the off-beat. Mind you, Barker seems even more angry at the sterilizing of his favourite Hackney pubs, which used to cater to the goths and mohicans of the anti-capitalist movement and where the craic was fierce and wild.

I had no intention of getting between Sinclair and Barker, or romancing the Hackney Marshes and the River Lea. I was just aiming to get a feel for the Blue Zone, so that I could compare London’s new enclosures with the social cleansing also under way in Delhi (for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, a kind of Olympics lite) and now more or less complete in Beijing (ready for next year’s Olympics). I would like to understand the evolution of these sportscapes, which are microcosms of spatial form and urban dispossession under capitalist modernity. They have a direct connection to Hitler’s clearances in Berlin for the 1936 Olympics, and to land grabs under the cover of Expos and World’s Fairs.

That deeper history of London’s transformation got an airing last Friday night at the launch of the paperback edition of London: City of Disappearances, compiled by – who else – Iain Sinclair: ” Alongside the London of noise and celebrity is that other city: of the dead, the unvoiced, the erased…and urban myths with more blood and vigour than the contemporary cartoons of manufactured notoriety.” A gathering of weird old England, organized by Penned in the Margins, assembled in the great hall of the Bishopsgate Institute behind Liverpool Street Station. We were witness to a rare urban excursion by the Northampton magus of the graphic novel, Alan Moore. He was in conversation with the anarchist pasticheur Michael Moorcock – sometime Hawkwind librettist, lambaster of Heinlein and C.S. Lewis, the anti-Tolkien, and author of barrowloads of fantasy, most recently The Metatemporal Detective. There was also a reading by the performance artist Brian Catling, although poor acoustics and a uvular delivery combined to obscure his drift. On the other hand, Kirsten Norrie of the low-tech poetics group The Wolf in Winter, galvanized the company with her astonishing vocal improvisation. Using a looper meant for guitar, with a 14 second record time, she built up layers of sound in real time…a solo massed choir.

A sound, it occurs to me, that might have tempted even Zvegintzov fils down from his garret.

Iain Boal is a historian of technics and the commons, a member of the Retort collective, and co-author of Resisting the Virtual Life and Afflicted Powers. He can be reached at: