Into the Underworld
Iain Sinclair on the excavation of London
They dig and the earth is sweet. The Hackney Hole is eight square metres, straight down through the lawn of a decommissioned rectory. This secret garden is separated from St Augustine’s Tower by a high wall of darkly weathered brick. The proud stub of the square tower is all that remains of Hackney’s oldest ecclesiastical building, a 16th-century revision of the 13th-century church founded by the Knights of St John. The Hole is a statement and it is properly capitalised. The labourers, a self-confessed art collective, work the Hole by hand, with pick and shovel, turn and turn about: four days to complete a grave shaft, without any of the tortured grinding and screeching, the mechanical gouging that attends the uncivil engineering projects that carve so recklessly through the tarmac and concrete and clay of this loudly regenerated fiefdom. And down again through the pipes and wires of the utility companies who treat their cone-protected pits as privileged art installations and block off junctions and towpaths for unspecified months, as an oversubscribed militia in sour yellow tabards retreat to their all-day breakfasts and tabloid-insulated Portakabins. By way of contrast, the lawn-despoilers initiated their modest project at the summer solstice, before returning every grain of soil, with willing volunteers, in October. One of those who went down into the pit spoke of falling asleep every night to the clatter of helicopters ‘circling the milky sky of Hackney’. She relished, by contrast, the silence of the burrow, and the 'damp, perfumed scent' of the living earth that held her firm in a clammy poultice. ‘I felt cradled by this bare soil,’ Chiara Ambrosio, a filmmaker and anthropologist, told me, ‘contained and absorbed by it, a place of origin and convergence.’
When the surface of the world is so overloaded with competing narratives, with shrill boasts hung from every blue fence and plastered over buses and police cars and refuse trucks, there is an understandable impulse to go underground. Oligarchs and overcompensated money market raiders, Premier League footballers and their agents have burrowed under Chelsea and Kensington for generations, commissioning Dr No fantasies of swimming pools and cinemas and state of the art gymnasia in which no uninvited civilian will ever set foot. These windowless sets, finessed by fashionable architects, are like parodies of facilities promised for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. And nobody but the owners can get at them. What could be more empowering than to sit looking at an immaculate rectangle of water, a three-dimensional David Hockney which will never be disturbed by a thrashing alien presence? Neighbours lacking this obscene quantum of liquidity might well complain about the noise, the dust, the inconvenience and the damage to their foundations. It doesn’t signify.
And now, without fanfare, the domestic mining fetish has arrived in Hackney. I visited Wilberforce Road, a generously proportioned artery running south from Finsbury Park. This is a transitional zone of large mid-Victorian properties divided into flats. I noticed a Methodist church with a wood-faced turret and a selection of hostels for backpacking passerines. But despite such awkward neighbours, and a degree of spillage from Finsbury Park kerb-crawlers, and the all too evident desperation of bruised addict-prostitutes, Wilberforce Road throbs with earth-shuddering excavations. Estate agents are busily promoting hikes in achieved selling prices, while encouraging the neurotic impulse to regard your home as a volatile asset. The canny speculator should be alert for the optimum moment to cash in. Three-bed flats are on offer at £750,000. The average rent in the street is calculated at £1666 per month. Inspired by this febrile vision, householders dig. There are seven basement excavations in progress. Wilberforce Road is unlisted and schemes for enlarging properties are waved through in the mistaken belief that more housing units are being created. Specialist earth removers mask their activities behind blocky grey sheds. Which prove to be the ideal surface for protesting graffiti: no excavation! ten more years. no more excavating in wilberforce. Mining operations can take as long as a year to complete. Giant compressors thump and thunder. Security guards lurk, bored and edgy, warning off casual photographers. Backs have been torn from properties, and cavernous pits revealed. Plagues of disturbed rats are on the march.
The compulsion to dive beneath the carpet of river terrace deposits, Hackney gravel, shale and mudstone, down through old workings, the slag and clinker of demolished terraces and lost theatres, is demonstrated by every stratum of society, from City Hall and the major developers, offshore speculators hidden behind front companies and proxies, to unsponsored art collectives and ‘place-hacking’ crews posing for high-resolution selfies in Secret State bunkers and sewage outfalls. Underworld is the coming battleground. The epidermis of the city is so heavily policed, so fretted with random chatter, so evidently corrupted by a political assault on locality, that humans unable or unwilling to engage in a war they can’t win respond by venturing into forbidden depths.
As the first Thatcherite towers sprung up in Docklands, and downriver parts of London agreed to behave as if the fictions of J.G. Ballard were planning documents, the painter Gavin Jones, working covertly and alone, excavated a wartime bunker hidden beneath a grassy mound outside a block of council flats in Bow. He disguised the entrance with an upturned boat, ran out electrical cables and made himself a set of dank studios; he offered one of the four chambers of this pharaonic tomb to an eccentric urban wanderer and dog fancier, who brought back each day’s plunder from his scavenging expeditions across the surface of things, and heaped them into a space that very soon became a single compacted block, an uncelebrated curation in the spirit of Joseph Beuys, or Phyllida Barlow’s recent mounds at Tate Britain. The higher they stack the investment silos of target architecture, the more those condemned to live in fallout shadows dig and scrape. A dowser and ley line tracker called Alan Hayday, formerly employed on the assembly line of the Ford Motor Company in Dagenham, contacted me to pass on his research into a tunnel he claimed to have discovered running from Sutton House, a Tudor mansion on the ridge above the culverted Hackney Brook, to a church on the other side of the River Lea. There was evidence, Hayday suggested, of mineral exploitation, speculative mining. He had tapped walls and waved dowsing rods made from strips of metal recovered from the factory floor.
But just as estate agents treat edgeland artists and warehouse communalists as pilot fish for fresh territory, so alphabet-soup quangos plot major regime change for the land beneath London. The shielding fences around the Olympic site, the giant construction projects in Shoreditch and London Bridge, are aped by the shacks knocked up to hide the scooping out of bigger and better basements. How far down can you go without planning permission? Nobody seems to know. Fusty old regulations are much more flexible now. Crossrail’s heavy plant is so expensive, and so comprehensively celebrated in promotional documentaries, that it can’t be retired to some shed or transport museum: boreholes are fated to become a permanent feature of London life. The Crossrail blitzkrieg, west to east, tracked by property speculators staying ahead of the game, becomes a warren of invasive burrows in every direction. Huge tunnelling monsters summon up the Megalosaurus referenced by Dickens, at the dawn of the first railway age, in the opening of Bleak House, ‘waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill’. Mere ‘foot passengers’ struggle through the rain to their places of employment, adding ‘new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud’. The timid prose of Crossrail copywriters perverts Dickens by remediating his visions through a health and safety filter: ‘The giant machines will carefully weave through the capital’s congested subterrain, snaking between the existing Tube network, sewers, utilities and London’s hidden rivers at depths of up to forty metres.’ The beasts are insatiable. They are living entities with a rage for earth. They have been given the names of ‘historical London figures’ and ‘modern day heroes’. Ada (Lovelace), who worked with Charles Babbage on his ‘analytical engine’, is paired with Phyllis (Pearsall), the artist who claimed to have tramped three thousand miles in mapping streets for the A-Z. The most recent partnership, Jessica (Ennis) and Ellie (Simmonds), were christened, as might be expected, after Olympic and Paralympic athletes.
Fracking is the latest wheeze, another US import. When I visited the poet Gary Snyder in Kitkitdizze, his retreat in the Sierra Nevada foothills, he alerted me to the land hunger of the frackers. ‘A lot of public land,’ he said, ‘has to be converted, in the most organised fashion, into hundreds and thousands of gas wells. It’s like the original oil era. They’ve tricked a lot of public land by offering inducements that haven’t been followed up on.’ Our local frackers have their piggy eyes on the Weald Basin, from Kent to Dorset, and after that they’re ready to take on London. Anything that can be talked up as ecologically sound, any quick fix solution to the energy crisis, is going to receive immediate support from celebrity politicians who will always put green bridges and cable-car rides before the serious business of troubled hospitals, failing schools and a shortfall in public housing. A consortium trading as London Local Energy has applied for permission to bore into the crust, to pump water, chemicals and sand into shale rocks, and to release the gas. ‘We want to light a fire under the debate and we want to make money as well,’ the pro-fracking pundit Nick Grealy said. The fracturing will start at Harrow and follow a track across town, in the footsteps of Tory grandees like Winston Churchill, all the way to Downing Street. The gimmick is that urban fracking will be a horizontal manoeuvre, like sliding poker chips across green baize. A blind grope rather than a full-frontal assault. And as for the nimby notion that violent insults to the geophysical mantle would diminish the quality of life, Grealy pointed out that hydraulic fracturing (and the protest shrieks of tree huggers) would present no problem in London suburbs where conversation is already drowned by incoming aircraft and the soothing hum of orbital motorways. We can take our chances with contaminated groundwater and a snort of greenhouse gases. Chemical roulette offers a bracingly Darwinian edge to life in the metropolis: survive and thrive. Winners will burrow down as deep and as fast as Ada and Phyllis can carry them. ‘We should leave no stone unturned or unfracked,’ Boris Johnson said, ‘in the cause of keeping the lights on in London.’
The mania for boreholes reminded me of a cautionary tale by Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘When the World Screamed’. Doyle’s crazed superman scientist, Professor Challenger, who would now be seen a natural performer for the television age, Patrick Moore channelled by Brian Blessed, sinks a shaft in Sussex, going deeper than anyone has gone before, to prove that ‘the world upon which we live is itself a living organism, endowed … with a circulation, a respiration, and a nervous system of its own.’ Challenger’s dig begins with a politic falsehood: he says he is out to prove that there is petroleum under England. Perhaps the frackers have just such a covert agenda. Perhaps they believe that entropy can be reversed by a course of acupuncture for sedimentary rocks. Challenger uses an inherited fortune to construct a model village, after the fashion of Poundbury, the Dorchester Legoland of the Prince of Wales, as a smokescreen for his penetration of the earth. (It should be noted that the Duchy of Cornwall has registered mineral rights for all the villages under its control, including Poundbury.) When Challenger’s miners break through the crust and pass the coal measures, an ‘iron dart’ is fired into ‘the nerve ganglion of Old Mother Earth’, with the resulting howl of ‘a thousand sirens in one … echoing along the whole South Coast’. ‘No sound in history,’ the narrator tells us, ‘has ever equalled the cry of the injured Earth.’ Spectators are drenched in a foul and reeking treacly substance. Volcanoes erupt in Iceland and Sicily. Mexico and Central America suffer the consequences of ‘intense Plutonic indignation’. ‘When the World Screamed’ was published in 1928, the year before the Wall Street Crash.
Noises off also informed the launch of the Hole project in the Old Rectory garden. Petrol bombs, breaking glass, stones hurled at cars: the riots of 2011 travelled from Clarence Road, just north of the Old Rectory, down Mare Street to the nexus of commercial enterprises, the betting shops that used to be banks, around Hackney Central station. Funds provided by central government for regeneration were siphoned into factory outlets for Burberry, Aquascutum and Pringle of Scotland in neighbouring Chatham Place. In some unsuspected way, the Hole in the rectory lawn became a focus for resistance without slogans. The Church Commissioners, landlords of the property alongside St Augustine’s Tower, took the decision to sell the site as a development package, more flats. The windfall revenue would help to fund a community centre for St John’s church. Meanwhile, the community living in the Old Rectory would be scattered, house and garden obliterated. Up to the moment of its threatened disappearance and the digging of the Hole, few Hackney citizens knew that this bucolic retreat existed.
On a wet November night, a month or so after the Hole had been filled in, and before those still lodging in the rectory were dispersed, I visited the house by invitation of William Bock, who acted as spokesperson for the collective. Will, as might have been expected under the circumstances, looked pale, convalescent, chilled. He hugged himself under a poncho of blankets, drawing up his legs on the sofa, before he launched into his story. The atmosphere of the room, the soft candlelight, the fire, the heavy curtains absorbing and containing outside sound, was familiar, but I hadn’t experienced it, around here, in three decades or more. Will had taken the metaphor of the Hole, the maimed biosphere, into his body. He had spent the weeks immediately following the conclusion of the archaeological event shuttling to Homerton Hospital: a stomach abscess and a leaking wound. ‘His spirits are higher now,’ his collaborator, Alberto Duman, told me, ‘or is it the drugs that are fed to him?’ A ward at the Homerton was another kind of community altogether, less sheltered, more disparate in background and affiliation. Clients were united in pain, the grudge of benevolent imprisonment and diminished motion: they seethed, they drifted into reverie or chemically induced suspension of reality. ‘Hasidic Jews, mad old Cockneys,’ Will reported with relish. ‘A clinically obese man, a giant of flab, being fed by his mother.’
One by one, the members of the Hole collective straggled in, shaking wet coats, warming their hands around mugs of tea. A challenge was in the air and it was directed at me: what was I after and where was I going to carry this tale? Will, with his Lincoln green beanie pulled right down, his hipstermonk beard, explained that his partner, Andrew, was the official guardian of the building. He had lived here now for a year and eight months. He was interested in photography and performance – and, in the wake of the recent excavation, history. The four-day removal of Hackney earth led the collective towards research into the place where they found themselves. Alberto Duman, the most politically engaged, had the notion that if a ‘discovery’ was made during the dig, a Templar relic like a sword or grail cup, then the demolition might be halted. I wondered if they’d come across Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and the story of the fake artefact found in the tomb of the seventh-century Bishop Eorpwald in Suffolk? They weren’t familiar with the novels of Angus Wilson. Alberto recollected that when council officials ushered around representatives of the Manhattan Loft Corporation, one day before the planning application went through for the conversion of Chatham Place into a monolith of aspiration, complete with Burberry factory outlet, he and an attendant flashmob began to sweep the area with brooms. They climbed up lamp posts, scrubbing and polishing. Security goons could hardly bounce them for civic altruism. The corporate suits stood bemused, wondering what stain had to be scoured away. Further research by Duman into the essential geology of the area traced the buried Hackney Brook across Mare Street, where a railway bridge carrying London Overground to the malls of Stratford had replaced the footbridge seen in period engravings, and on, under Morning Lane, towards the River Lea. Alberto was amused to note that the constructors of the Holiday Inn, muscling in alongside Hackney Central (there are also rumours of a bigger station for the coming Crossrail 2), have been less assiduous in their searches. The foundations of the new building, on the rainy night we met, were a subterranean lake.
Under the influence of Duman, and exploiting the practical skills of Sophie Mason, a garden artist and landscaper, and the person who recognised that they would need a bucket and rope to remove the soil, the collective assembled tables of archaeological finds, trophies of former lives: the usual broken clay pipes, bits of bone, unidentified shards of pottery, junked forks and spoons. There was no requirement, as there had been with the rapid remediation of the Lower Lea Valley, to produce a museum-quality exhibition of their spoils as authentication of a profoundly eccentric project. The Hole very soon dictated its own terms. Earth was not sieved. They dug into a crust of grey conglomerate, older houses, older pubs and theatres, shops reduced to awkward crumbs that resist the pick. It was hard, good labour. Working together provoked intimacy. The artists were excited by how they found themselves telling each other stories, how they confessed, rhapsodised, and forged a fellowship of resistance. This, I remember, is a commonplace of any labouring job for wages, and the best of it.
Bock made the Hole into a camera obscura with lid and lens. The collective painted the walls of the pit white, with gesso and gum. Those who came down the ladder into the earth cell, after their eyes adjusted to the absence of light, found the experience captivating. The world above appeared in phantom form, inverted, a ribbon of articulate shadows, trees like clouds, the ivy-covered rectory building, and people leaning in over the covered grave. By now, each member of the collective was reading the dictation of the Hole from a different script. Will privileged the performance aspect, a provocation for rituals. And for the manufacture of images, including a carpet-sized print made on the floor of the pit, when the excavated space became a pinhole camera. Sophie Mason inspired interactions with the garden as a totality. Alberto Duman, with his intelligent, wary eye, and knowledge of actions in other cities, absorbed and plotted; he interpreted the stages of the Hole’s active life as a future manifesto. Mark Morgan, an excavation theorist, biding his time on the edge of the gathering in the candlelit room, revealed that he had made a calculation, based on the value per square metre of towers going up in Hackney, and basements being hacked out, that every pint of earth salvaged from the lawn was worth £2.50.
They came and they climbed down the ladder, all the invited strands of local activism: poets, musicians, oral historians, solicitors who’d spent years battling over doomed theatres and Georgian terraces trashed in arson attacks. They read their texts and their voices were absorbed, barely reaching the surface. Performers twisted, facing the four walls in turn, boxing the compass, before they could look up. Jess Chandler of Test Centre, publisher and curator, said that being in the Hole made her feel completely alone. She voiced poems by dead artists and authors, Derek Jarman and Steve Moore. In this ‘underground/grave-like setting’, as she described it, she felt ‘as though the audience could choose to bury you at any moment’. She summoned up a quote from Paul Celan: ‘There was earth inside them, and they dug.’ Chiara Ambrosio, like many others calibrating the difficulty of existence in an increasingly pressured environment, where substantial memory traces are redacted and the surface of things is revamped on an hourly basis, used her descent into the Hole as an invitation to balance temporary inhumation, with its intimate silence and slowing of breath, the sudden chill entering the bones, against a manifest of what has been left behind on the surface. ‘As the pavements are lifted from the ground, I can see the soil beneath it glinting like moist flesh.’ Bill Parry-Davies, taking time off from a court battle with Hackney Council over the treatment by the developers Murphy of the last rind of Georgian façades on Dalston Lane, blew his saxophone from the pit in feisty lament. He’d told us earlier: ‘The conservation plan, now, is to demolish them all. To create a tabula rasa. A year zero solution. After demolition the houses will be rebuilt, in heritage likeness, with machined bricks, with machined slates, with machined joinery, as Georgian replicas to create a Georgian theme park.’ His words were swallowed, but the sounds he blew reverberated around the dark pit. He told me that he felt his solo penetrating the earth walls and going out with the spoil and the worms. And it felt right.
Another voluntary prisoner in the white-walled earth kiln ran into technical difficulties with her presentation. Karen Russo, a young Israeli artist, had developed a fascination with William Lyttle, the so-called ‘Mole Man’ of Hackney. Lyttle, talked up by estate agents promoting the auction of the ruined shell of his former house, a gothic property wedged like a ghost ship in the pack ice between Mortimer Road and Stamford Road, was described as ‘a civil engineer’. The engineering project that won him local notoriety involved a labyrinth of tunnels beneath a house from which all other occupants – family, lodgers, students – had been expelled. Rumour had the abandoned rooms filled with rubble, walls papered with yellowing newsprint. And catacombs, clawed out by the solitary digger, running into cellars, cutting through utility cables, and causing cracks in the road surface, into which doubledecker buses tipped.
Lyttle’s exploits inspired a cult. Young boys swapped Mole Man headlines – and there were plenty – from the Hackney Gazette. They imagined a chainsaw cannibal in moleskin netting lost children and populating the underworld, between buried rivers and coming Crossrail tunnels, with gypsum zombies. Russo, living above the now fashionable Broadway Market, heard about the Mole Man in 2006; in very much the way that, twenty years before, the myth of the vanished cabbalist David Rodinsky, invisible in his weaver’s garret in Princelet Street, was dusted down to authenticate the reoccupation of Georgian Spitalfields.[*] New legends of place are required to make somewhere as apparently dim as Dalston a suitable location for a major pre-Olympic property assault. Old histories and acts of witness are discounted. The legacy catalogue is ransacked for ghouls and golems, especially when they are attached to specific addresses. Estate agents, outdoing each other in boasts, became poets of capital: a lifetime of debt demanded potent fairy tales to make those old bricks worthy of investment.
I met Russo in one of the surviving but revamped pubs in Broadway Market. She would be leaving soon for Walthamstow: rent hikes made continued Hackney residence, with her young family, impossible. She went down into the Hole, she told me, to give an account, supported by evocative photographs, of her expeditions with Lyttle into what was left of his tunnels. The Mole Man had been removed by Hackney Council. They plugged the caves with fat concrete boles. The site was secured behind a corrugated iron fence, but Lyttle knew a way in. Unfortunately, Russo’s performance in the Hole stalled. Her laptop did not respond to premature burial. There were no images and her voice did not carry. She remarked on the physical sensation of adapting to the absence of light, and how she came to enjoy the light that was in darkness. She felt like an animal. Russo’s eyes shone as she recalled the splendid futility of becoming an earth battery with no pictures to project on the enclosing walls.
Launched, after years of research into sewers and catacombs, on an investigation of ‘the psychogeography of underground environments in London’, Russo had set herself to track down the elusive Lyttle. Her account of the pursuit reminded me, in its determination to liberate a human presence lost behind the smokescreen of mythmakers, of the earlier (and successful) quest of another artist/curator. The way that Rachel Lichtenstein shadowed David Rodinsky from a sealed Spitalfields room, thick with the detritus, the clothes and books and cooking utensils of a stopped narrative, to a ward in an Epsom hospital and an unmarked grave at Waltham Abbey. The facts of the case, recovered after months of digging and sifting in libraries and on the streets, revealed connections between social cleansing, property speculation and the production of art objects. Connections that were now being reprised in bubble-boom Hackney.
Our table in the pub was soon spread with books, papers, and the recovered laptop with its Mole Man presentation – an anti-brochure or auction catalogue in which every pristine CGI interior has rotted into a crime scene photograph. Stone steps went nowhere. Basins for midgets, Morlocks with warped spines, were set a few inches from the floor. Sofas sagged under the weight of coupled bodies that had turned to mud. Tunnels were stopped with sections of cars and propped up by stressed deep-freeze units. Where you might expect a picture on the wall, Lyttle hung a giant keyboard or an electric fire. Russo explained that after she discovered that the Mole Man had vanished from the secure accommodation to which he’d been banished, and after official channels claimed to have lost all track of the unsanctioned excavator, she ran him to ground at the Crisis Skylight Café on Commercial Street. He was taking acting classes. It was said that he had a part in a radio play, but nobody knew when the broadcast went out. Despite being stitched up, as he asserted, by a television company doing a piece on property makeovers that went wrong, Lyttle was happy to engage with Russo. He agreed to make recordings and to be filmed on the platforms of Underground stations at Holborn and Aldwych.
When the tapes eventually rolled, the Mole Man spewed out a venomous diatribe of sexual challenge with racist sidebars. Russo came to this confrontation by way of Novalis, Hoffman, Hoffmannsthal and German romanticism, folk tales of a young miner brought to the surface in a state of perfect preservation, seventy years after the accident that killed him. She found her interactions with Lyttle challenging. ‘How come you have a small nose?’ ‘Jews don’t have blue eyes.’ On and on he went, trying to interrogate her on her sexual preferences. Russo recalled legends of lovers who descended into the depths to reclaim partners enraptured by the goddess of death. Now she was involved with a Celtic minotaur whose wife has moved out and vanished from the story, leaving him to his drills and shovels. Lyttle posed in the rubble, silver hair combed, neat in open-necked shirt and faded trenchcoat. ‘Artists don’t need to take on a moral tone,’ Russo said. ‘I kind of like the idea of the artist as devil’s advocate.’ But she wasn’t prepared to inflict the Mole Man on the editor of her film: she could swallow his vitriol, but it would have scorched the domestic tranquillity of a stranger. Psychotic rants echoed through the tunnels that ran in every direction from the basement of the Mortimer Road house. In the new Hackney, a property of this size, in this location, was worth well over a million pounds. The council were demanding hundreds of thousands from the householder for the damage he had inflicted on his own underworld. Lyttle dropped hints about a fortune buried in one of his caves, biscuit tins containing £50,000 bundled up in rolls of banknotes. It kept the remediating crew interested.
Then the crisis came. Lyttle made a physical assault, seized the tapes and kept them as bargaining chips. In her original thesis, Russo saw the Mole Man’s rogue archaeology as an outsider version of orthodox art practice: a self-starting, self-funded parody of the grand rhetoric of Anselm Kiefer’s labyrinth at La Ribaute, his art compound near Barjac just outside Provence. Mortimer Road was La Ribaute without the budget, without the support of the art-political establishment. The psychosis of William Lyttle was naked behind its inadequate security fence. The hot-breathed monologue accompanying the deranged excavations was obscene. ‘Curiosity is my curse,’ the Mole Man said. ‘If I make a start, I must know where it ends.’ Kiefer’s labyrinth was constructed by a crew of trained workmen, as a metaphor. In subtle layers of darkness, solemn pilgrims would be reminded of the light. ‘Everything that happens in the tunnels is reflected above.’ Haphazard towers on a private estate, in which entrances to the underworld are to be found, which are designed to tumble. Their essence is their mortality. Bulldozers cough and snarl. The artist finesses the alchemy of ruin, a spill of lead here, a scatter of ash there. Film crews arrive to pay their respects.
Kiefer boasted to the documentary maker Sophie Fiennes that ‘116 lorries have already left.’ He oversaw the break-up of his Barjac studios and the removal of artworks to new hangars in Paris. The site was convenient. It was ‘out by the airport, beside the motorway to Germany’. Lyttle’s effects, when he absconded from his council-sanctioned room, were impounded. The tapes of the interview with Russo were among the books and shoes and shirts. He asked her to pretend to be his lawyer. The deception shouldn’t be a problem: after all, she was Jewish. If she agreed to fight his case with the officials, he might return the impounded interviews. But it was too late. When Lyttle presented himself at the housing offices, they told him that his belongings had been destroyed. He died soon afterwards.
When the news broke, two years later, that the Mole Man’s house had been bought at auction by a couple of well-known post-YBA artists from Shoreditch, for north of a million pounds, the equation between land value, art intervention and psychopathic burrowing became critical. David Adjaye, the ubiquitous architect of the moment, was already onboard. Adjaye was responsible for the Idea Store, a glitzy structure that replaced the old book-burdened Whitechapel Library. Set beside Sainsbury’s car park, this colourful block looked like a Rubik’s Cube made from Perspex. The moving stairs didn’t move but there was a nice café with a view of the Jewish burial ground in Brady Street and the improved and extended Royal London Hospital. Alberto Duman, recalling his action with the broom outside the upmarket shopping hub in Chatham Place, told me that the Pringle sock shop on the corner, the one flagged up as you step from the Overground at Hackney Central, was to be demolished and replaced by a David Adjaye tower. But the impetus that brought the media-friendly architect responsible for the International Finance Corporation headquarters in Dakar, Senegal, and the modification of the presidential palace in Libreville, Gabon, to a trashed shell in Hackney was friendship, fond memories of an earlier collaboration with the artists, Tim Noble and Sue Webster. That collaboration involved a private compound that was also a conceptual artwork in which the raven-haired couple could hang out and manufacture their signature products: the Dirty House in Shoreditch.
Redchurch Street, a thin line between the retro-frenzy of Brick Lane and the reefs of public housing, the small furniture and shoemaking operations of Bethnal Green, was about to detonate. The area had been cooking quietly for years. Coming artists, taking advantage of opportunities offered by decamped industries, found the space they needed for cultural production and family life. It was a period of inward migration. Where, once, established immigrants escaped the ghetto by moving to leafier Stoke Newington and the purlieus of Victoria Park, now, becoming successful, being taken up by Charles Saatchi or White Cube, meant a shift in the opposite direction. Rachel Whiteread came down from Hackney and into a former synagogue in Chance Street, E1. ‘There is real estate and unreal estate,’ Don DeLillo said. Whiteread made casts of abandoned mattresses, flaccid hot-water bottles, ‘things that leaned against walls’. The stairs of the synagogue, after being cast as mysteriously solid ghosts, were presented for display in the Serpentine Gallery. Tim Noble and Sue Webster also mastered the rubbish racket, compulsively scavenging, trawling, sweeping up: transforming, by smart curation, the unrequired into the essential. They were addicts of entropy. They modelled junk heaps and projected silhouettes on gallery walls. The shadows, miraculously, evolved into self-portraits. All the grunge traces of the embattled city were waiting to become phantasmal avatars of the twinned artists. The Dirty House, a former timber factory, was recast by Noble and Webster, with some professional help from Adjaye, as a light-swallowing black monolith, a stockade: a poke-in-the-eye, style-magazine intruder that seemed to have been there all along, waiting for this moment. Dealing in novelty and artifice, the Shoreditch artists, under the insidious influence of place, were drawn to engage with whispers from the past. They liked the idea that their designer bunker had once been a pub called the Blue Anchor.
But then the view changed. It was no longer so pleasurable to gaze south from a high window. The Bishopsgate Goods Yard development went ahead. Pop-up shops were stacked like brazen Tilbury containers on a carpet of artificial grass. It was party time for cross-town retail tourists. Graffiti retreads were being sucked up with malarial relish. The twittering of cellphones replaced the dawn chorus of birds in the London plane trees around Arnold Circus. Artists with property portfolios feared for the exclusive romance of their horizon. The conversion of a tea warehouse into Shoreditch House members’ club, with swimming pool and fine dining, brought numerous satellite galleries in its wake. High-end schmutter slots offered minimal stock laid out on naked tables like a business class customs inspection. Lights were slung low to invoke a Victorian coffin warehouse, bulbs without shades. Investment coats hung from racks as if in the private changing rooms of performance-art shop assistants. The males favoured tight trousers with highly polished shoes. And big frontiersman-fundamentalist beards. The young women imported a fearsome disdain from Bond Street. Happening bars were red as antechambers of hell. Golden-slipper boutiques were indistinguishable from galleries in the permanently pissed Redchurch Street opening night. There was a great fondness, now that the sawdust and noise of labour had suffered extraordinary rendition, for the word artisan. Cut-price denim from the expelled Cheshire Street market stalls, by coming indoors and migrating a hundred yards north, gained £1000 on the price tag.
Whiteread let her synagogue go, for a very good price, and relocated to Hampstead. Sue Noble cycled past the Mole Man’s Hackney ruin and recognised the possibilities. A new obsession was born. The very clean interior of Adjaye’s Dirty House, white as the gesso-painted walls of the Hackney Hole, was unreadable behind treated mirror glass. Neighbourhood casualties, caught in the cracks of an ever widening social and financial chasm, lurched up against the building like matchstick boats against a black rock. The impenetrable surface, coated with a thick wash, repelled all contact. Mirrored window rectangles, some of them indented, were a display of dark prints reflecting spray-can panoramas from the opposite side of the street, while staying free of personal defacement. Webster had a vision. The roof of the Mole Man’s beyond-dirty Hackney house had fallen in, bringing down all the floors. She would construct a three-storey home with the infamous basement as a studio. Whatever could be preserved of the tunnels would remain as evocative quotations, concrete-cancer molars from the spooky London past nudged into the bright light of the now.
I waited where I had mooched about so many times, at the fenced perimeter of the Mole Man’s house. Sue Webster had agreed to give me a tour of her property. She arrived on the button: a slim, brisk woman on a slim-wheeled bicycle. She wore her fame lightly with an aura of post-punk, think it/do it realism. We slipped through a magic door and were soon ducking under scaffolding and jumping from ledge to ledge above the pit in which a team of builders laboured, clearing tunnels, securing foundations. A solid slab of concrete had been laid over the water table. Lyttle couldn’t go down any deeper than his basement, so he branched off in every direction. He had a relish for en suite fittings: toilets hidden in cheese cupboards, rat holes equipped with broken basins and light switches cut in half. He imagined his hidden kingdom as an underground Piranesi prison for lodgers. The half-completed passages and perpetual burrowing reminded me of the fractal architecture of the Elizabethan palace contrived by Michael Moorcock for his Spenserian 1978 novel, Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen. Moorcock, in his turn, was paying his respects to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. Being outside the literary mainstream, and seeing the landscape of the city as just one description of a multitude of parallel universes, stimulated the urge to invent biographies of secret spaces behind mirrors and behind walls heavy with velvet drapes and faded portraits. ‘There we find corridors within corridors, like conduits in a tunnel, houses within rooms, those rooms within castles, those castles within artificial caverns.’
I traded information with Webster: we were both collectors of Mole Man anecdotes. I mentioned Karen Russo’s experiences and the sour sexual monologues that bubbled up, incontinently, from mephitic depths. Webster told me that her builders had not unearthed any biscuit tins of banknotes, but they had discovered caches of pornography, specialist magazines featuring very large ladies. Lyttle buried his own fertility figures, tubers encased in white fat, Willendorf Venuses in lurid colour on water-damaged stock. I said that I’d heard that the Mole Man inherited the property from his parents and that he’d lived there with wife and daughter until they walked away. Then he took in lodgers, but they proved too much of an imposition when he began digging. Webster pointed out the traces still visible, like spectral imprints on the cast of Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 House in Bow, of the tabloid newspapers with which Lyttle improved the walls of tenants who wanted an upgrade. It’s thought that the reluctant landlord once worked as an electrical engineer. He did all his own wiring and plumbing. The aborted caverns, tunnel entrances and supporting columns had a fungoid charm that Webster associated with Gaudí and his unfinished Sagrada Família in Barcelona. The Mole Man’s work could never be finished. But Noble and Webster, as his elective heirs, would honour the heritage. The assault on the subsoil of Mortimer Road was a neurotic scrabble, a butting and chewing at the earth that echoed the haunted prose of Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’:
So I must thread the tormenting complications of this labyrinth physically as well as mentally … and I am both exasperated and touched when, as sometimes happens, I lose myself for a moment in my own maze, and the work of my hands seems to be still doing its best to prove its sufficiency to me, its maker, whose final judgment has long since been passed on it.
Kafka’s mole creature hears terrible noises. There are other things in his tunnels. New occupiers are coming. ‘Yet if these creatures are strangers, why is it that I never see any of them? I have already dug a host of trenches, hoping to catch one of them, but I can find not a single one.’ Lyttle’s excavations are a map of paranoia constructed to hold off the future owners, and superior artists, he senses on the horizon. The investors who will invest in the residue of his madness.
Tim Noble joined us, another slim-wheeled bicycle to padlock. His hair, once as inky black as that of his collaborator and former wife (they were ‘married’ by Tracey Emin on a Thames boat), is now bottle-blond like a road movie hitman from a Barry Gifford story. The couple got their start in East London as factory assistants to Gilbert and George in Fournier Street. They laboured on the ground floor while the celebrity conceptualists took their ease upstairs, reading the Telegraph. ‘But they were always very prompt in paying their invoices.’ You can see how well it went for Tim and Sue. They are one of those hard-working, faux-slacker, pretend-dangerous couples doing their spiky best to look like a True Crime mugshot. Clearly, they love the fabric of what they have acquired. They admire Lyttle’s DIY expertise and the way he made moulded pillars carry a load. The persistent low-level stench of brick dust and albino mushrooms, sewage overflow and drowned leather carries an aphrodisiac hit that takes the artists back to their first date, a visit to the house of Fred West, the Gloucester serial killer. West was another builder and bodger. Noble remembered the way that a side return had been roofed over, using a tree for a supporting column. The house of horror in Cromwell Street was demolished, reduced to dust, made into a landscaped footpath. Now Noble explained that they wanted to retain the Mole Man’s façade, so that the house appeared to outsiders as a ruin lost in time, while behind the untouched and peeling sour-cream paint, the sticky-gravy window frames of ugly coal-smoke London, an uncluttered contemporary home would be created. ‘I love the way light falls here,’ he said.
After we parted, intoxicated by my tour of the site, the burrows and ledges and lumps that confused all previously established notions of scale, of what constitutes inside and outside, I decided to return home to finish reading a book I’d extracted from a narrowboat moored beside Cat and Mutton bridge, at the end of Broadway Market. The book was by Joseph O’Neill and it was called Land under England. The towpath, a fraught negotiation with cyclists, joggers, machines stacked with small children to be delivered to schools and nurseries, has become a double (and treble) banked waterborne dormitory for those who cannot afford to, or prefer not to, join the property ladder. The smell of woodsmoke is enticing. Freelance operations of the kind that once found room in Portobello Road or Camden Passage markets have transferred to the Regent’s Canal. They sell tea and homemade cakes, knitted hats, haircuts, yoga and Tarot readings. Word on the Water, a book barge based at Paddington Basin, sometimes chugs downstream to Camden Lock and Hackney. The Paddington mooring is threatened by demands for another essential coffee franchise, in keeping with the speedy buzz of the development. The book business, started by a man who spent twenty years helping to rehabilitate former addicts and a partner with a shop at Archway, caught the eye of sympathetic journalists by displaying a full complement of shipboard cats and open boxes of Beatrix Potter. The floating bookmen drifted for a time, up and down the River Lea, until they were wearied by threats of fines from the Canal and River Trust. Stewart Lee came aboard to record a message of support. ‘This is a land grab,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure what of: the air between the edge of the boat and the quay?’ It is all a question, he concluded, of making a case for the necessity of eccentrics, of what we decide to value in our culture.
As a former professional in the scavenging trade, I went through the narrowboat stock in about two minutes. Unexceptional. Harmless reading fodder in paperback ranks. Glossy art books, slightly weathered. Then there was Land under England, a first edition from 1935, in pristine yellow Gollancz jacket, with an introduction by Æ (George Russell). The title sat nicely with my current preoccupations. O’Neill was permanent secretary to the Department of Education in the Irish Free State and an occasional but always interesting novelist. The cover copy describes Land under England as ‘a work of genius’. And goes on to say that ‘on the spiritual plane it is a book of the most profound significance for our time.’ Æ glosses the novel as a political satire against totalitarianism and the dangerous seductions of dictatorship. ‘The highest form satire can take is to assume the apotheosis of the policy satirised and make our shuddering humanity recoil from the spectacle of its own ideals.’ At the period when Land under England was written, the glamour of fascism touched Æ’s friend and associate W.B. Yeats, who pledged his support for Eoin O’Duffy’s militaristic Blueshirts. Francis Stuart, a self-condemned Irish Dostoevsky, who was also published in yellow-jacket Gollancz editions in the 1930s, had a special gift for putting himself on the wrong side of every political argument. He took himself off to wartime Berlin, where he made broadcasts, and dreamed of heading east into the firestorm of Russia.
O’Neill’s subterranean fantasy absorbs these currents. Finding a copy in contemporary Hackney, smuggled in by water, feels like recovering a message from a bottle washed ashore after almost eighty years, at a period when the entire city, from politicians, corporate entities, property speculators, psychogeological artists, damaged solitaries, is digging. Going under. Ripping up the surface. Hacking out pits and shafts in a frantic bid to turn the world on its head and to colonise the land under London. The conceit of O’Neill’s novel is that a decayed gentleman with an inherited Mole Man pile, up north, returns from the First World War with nothing left except his passion for the classics, for Latin, for the values of the Roman imperium. He tramps Hadrian’s Wall, poking into every cranny, tapping at stones like Tony Robinson and his television Time Team. Until one day he succeeds and vanishes somewhere beneath the ground. His son, in a lather of Oedipal conflicts, follows him down. The technical aspect of the descent is overwhelmed by the Miltonic conviction of O’Neill’s eschatology, a terrifying slither across badlands to a dead sea. Descendants of Roman legions, minds sucked to an affectless conformity, work at their tasks, controlled by Masters of Knowledge. They are like post-digital zombies, all individuality leeched into some flickering universal screen. ‘I saw that I was the only human being left in that world outside that machine,’ O’Neill wrote. ‘Under that dome, which was the land of England, I must make a stand for humanity.’ The insanity of attempting to impose a limited version of history, an apology for conquerors and occupiers, while brain-burning pockets of token resistance, incubates the threat of future war. ‘The danger would be greater because nobody could suspect that, under the green earth of England, an outcast offspring of its own people … was gathering itself for a spring into the upper world again, under the urge of a madman who combined the evil of the light and the darkness.’
I came home to find a piece of paper on my doormat. ‘Dear Sir/Madam. You are receiving this letter because your property or business is located within 200 metres of land that may be needed in the future to build the proposed Crossrail 2 underground rail line.’ We lived, so it appeared, in ‘an area of surface interest’. And if the shadow of the Crossrail pit blighted any potential property sale, we were free to make a claim for ‘statutory blight’. I thought of the actual blight of the current enclosure during the construction of Crossrail 1 of Finsbury Circus, an oasis among the towers of the City, sacrificed to the impossible ideal of smoother, faster transit for workers at the financial hub. We had come full circle. Forty-five years ago, we moved into a terraced Victorian house, with outside lavatory and tin bath, under threat of demolition when the towers of the Holly Street Estate came south. The previous owners were moving out to Essex. The terrace survived and became, in the course of time, part of a conservation area. Given the struggles of present day artists, inspired to dig holes in threatened lawns, or to excavate wartime bunkers, we were fortunate. London moves on.