A Hit of Rus in Urbe
‘Best Value’. Somebody somewhere, well away from the action, decided that this banal phrase, implying its opposite, was sexy. Best Value, with the smack of Councillor Roberts’s corner-shop in Grantham, the abiding myth of Thatcherism, has been dusted down and used in every PR puff of the New Labour era. Best Value. Best buy. Making the best of it. Look on the bright side. Spin doctors, post-literate and self-deceiving, had no use for subtlety. Best Value. They hammered the tag into their inelegant, over-designed freebies. These glossy publications, political correctness in all its strident banality, existed to sell the lie. Best Value.
Government-sponsored brochures are got up to look like supermarket giveaways. Strap headlines in green. Articles flagged in blue. Colour photos. Designed not composed. That’s how the planners (the strategists, the salaried soothsayers) see the Lea Valley: as an open-plan supermarket with a river running through it. The valley is a natural extension of the off-highway retail parks springing up around Waltham Abbey; exploiting the ever-so-slightly poisoned territory yielded by ordnance factories, gunpowder mills, chemical and electrical industries.
The documents put out by the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority dazzle with their high gloss. They confuse weight with importance. Lee Valley Regional Park Plan, Part One: Strategic Policy Framework runs to 180 pages – with charts, illustrations, maps. Statements of intent. Best Value. Whatever turns you on, the Lea Valley has got it. A media-friendly zone (close to Docklands). A recreation zone for Essex Man (easy access to the M25). An eco-zone for butterflies, deer, asylum-seeking birds. The nice thing about no-go, Official-Secrets-Act government establishments is that they are very good for wildlife. Thick woods, screening concrete bunkers and hunchbacked huts from the eyes of the curious, provide an excellent habitat for shy fauna, for monkjacks. During a period when sheep and pigs and cows, all the nursery favourites, were being taken out by snipers and bulldozed into a trench on a Cumbrian airfield, it was gratifying to learn that the threatened musk-beetle is thriving and multiplying in the Lea Valley wetlands. Twenty-one species of dragonfly on a good day. The regional park is a safe haven for grass snake and common toad. The Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey boasts of the largest heronry in Essex and a ‘wildlife watchtower’ with a ‘panoramic view’. The 175-acre site should have opened to the public in spring 2001, but the outbreak of foot and mouth inevitably led to a postponement.
The Lee Valley Regional Park was established in 1967, the year I moved to Hackney. We had slightly different agendas. The Park planners wanted to transform areas of neglect and desolation, the very qualities I was intent on searching out and exploiting. The first argument we had was over the name. I favoured (homage to Izaak Walton) the Lea spelling, where they went for the (William) Burroughs-suggestive Lee. Inspector Lee. Willie Lee. Customised paranoia: double e, narrowed eyes glinting behind heavy-rimmed spectacles. The area alongside the M25, between Enfield Lock and High Beach, Epping Forest, carries another echo of Burroughs: Sewardstone. Seward was his middle name.
The Lea/Lee puzzle is easily solved. The river is the Lea. It rises in a field near Luton, loses its identity to the Lee Navigation, a canal, then reclaims it for the spill into the Thames at Bow Creek. The earlier spelling, in the River Improvement Acts of 1424 and 1430, was ‘Ley’, which is even better. Lea as ley, it always had that feel. A route out. A river track that walked the walker, a wet road. The Lea fed our Hackney dreaming: a water margin. On any morning when the city was squeezing too hard, you could get your hit of rus in urbe. Hackney Marshes giving way to the woodyards of Lea Bridge Road, to Springfield Park; reservoir embankments, scrubby fields with scrubbier horses, pylons, filthy, smoking chimneys.
Without the Lea Valley, East London would be unendurable. Victoria Park, the Lea, the Thames: tame country, old brown gods. They preserve our sanity. The Lea is nicely arranged – walk as far as you like then travel back to Liverpool Street from any one of the rural halts that mark your journey. Railway shadowing river, a fantasy conjunction; together they define an Edwardian sense of excursion, pleasure, time out. Best Value. We, East Londoners, support the Lea, as it supports us, marking our border, shadowing the meridian line. It is enjoyed and endured by fishermen, walkers, cyclists who learn to put up with the barriers, the awkward setts beneath bridges. We pay our tithe.
Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s 1944 Greater London Plan was a visionary document: ‘every piece of land welded into a great regional reservation’. The Lee Valley Recreational Park. A perimeter fence around a Sioux reservation. Compulsory leisure. The Lea would lose its subversive, grubby culture of contraband, villainy, iffy businesses carried out beyond the fold in the map. Way back in 1961, Lou Sherman, Mayor of Hackney, got together with representatives of 17 other local authorities, and with the letterhead support of the Duke of Edinburgh, to realise Abercrombie’s vision. A levy was introduced for councils in Essex, Hertfordshire and London. Grander plans, with the passage of time, required more complex financial structures, ‘partnerships’. Local authorities, national government, Europe: more executive producers than a Dino de Laurentiis epic. The Lea Valley was a future spectacle. Water was the new oil. Housing developments required computer-enhanced riverscapes as a subliminal backdrop.
There would be funds for decontamination, a ‘precept on council tax’, unnoticed, except by readers of the small print. Representatives of 30 boroughs had their places on the council of the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority. Regeneration was the theme, the green lung. A ten-year strategic business plan: ‘It firmly embraces the principles of Best Value in pursuit of enhancements of service delivery.’ Management-speak for the open-air supermarket. Best Value. Never knowingly undersold. Eco-bondage. ‘A unique mosaic of farmland, nature reserves, green open spaces and waterways.’
The Lea, given time and investment, would stand physics on its head. It would become a sylvan alternative to the M25. With the motor-car as its handmaiden. ‘Consideration must be given to the needs of the motorist.’ A green halo. An aureole around smoking tarmac. ‘Leave the M25 at Junction 25. Follow the signs for City. At first set of traffic-lights turn left signposted to Freezywater.’ This is the Lee Valley Leisure Complex. ‘We will make our commitment to our duty of Best Value; ensuring clarity of objectives and customer and performance focus at the heart of our cultural and organisational change . . . Major Capital Development will seek to achieve Best Value.’
On 27 March 1998, I set out to walk up the Lea, from the Millennium Dome on Greenwich peninsula to the M25 in Waltham Abbey, where I would begin an act of counter-magic, a pedestrian circuit of London’s orbital motorway. I was joined by the photographer Marc Atkins and the writer Bill Drummond. Did we qualify as Leisure Park customers? Unlikely. Elective leisure was the condition of our lives, endured through a puritanical work ethic. Drummond scribbling away, anonymously, in the cafeteria of a provincial department store. Atkins hunched in his darkroom. We were spurners of Best Value. Drummond burned money and gave away self-published booklets. Atkins printed more photographs than he could sell in ten lifetimes. I wrote the same book, the same life, over and over again. We wanted Worst Value. We refused cashback. We solicited bad deals, rip-offs, tat. If you explained something to us, we wouldn’t touch it. We knew what Best Value meant: soap bubbles, scented bullshit. That’s why our walk began at the most tainted spot on the map of London. Exorcism, the only game worth the candle.