The London architecture you are permitted to notice, Caroline Knowles reckons, is just money on display. In Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London, she describes the overweening spike of Renzo Piano’s Shard as ‘a glass and concrete arrangement of the Qatar sovereign wealth fund’. The loudest crimes are hidden in plain sight. Look around, you can’t miss them. The topography of complacent surrender. She has a special interest in, and admitted fetish for, the strategies, properties and appurtenances of the very rich. She distinguishes the condition of those unfortunates for whom the world is a melancholy cage of privilege in which their every whim can be immediately satisfied from that of ordinary grafting millionaires and multi-millionaires. There is an unbridgeable chasm between Haves and Have-Yachts. And bigger yachts. And yachts with helipads and missile-launch systems. With Picassos and Warhols and Bacons. Yachts bigger than many tax-avoidance islands. When the ice has all melted and the animals have been drowned or burned, the great ghost fleet of oligarchs will rule the ocean. An elite cadre of Noahs with pairs of butlers, cooks, cleaners, sailors and security operatives.
Knowles’s book acted on me like a goad, a stone in the shoe. I had the notion that somewhere behind and beyond the sharp-eyed sociological expeditions she undertakes was a General Theory of Everything. A resolution of that terrible inundation coming from all sides at once: our ultimate ecological, cultural, financial and moral collapse. Entropy: GET IT DONE! We seem to have arrived at a bleak post-contemporary present where nothing has depth or traction or consequence. It’s here, or almost here, and then it’s gone: politics as a dance of blind men thrashing the air with white sticks, while failing to land a single blow on a Struwwelpeter clown-king bent on slow-puncture abdication by photo opportunity, a different costume or a different country every night. This man changes the rules of the game if he is in danger of losing a piece. Nothing is true, not now. Horrors, incubated over many years: the situation is grave, potentially terminal, but it’s not serious. It doesn’t matter. Our post-contemporary is steam on a funhouse mirror.
I underplay the gravity of Knowles’s proposition. ‘Wealth in London today,’ she says, ‘is concentrated in the hands of an international, globalised plutocracy.’ This situation has been accommodated by successive UK governments, which have claimed that a ripe crust of wealth in private hands makes for a rich country. ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’ A good proposition for yacht owners. Less good for the landlocked, the trapped and the disenfranchised. There is always, as the spinners love to say, a direction of travel. ‘In London, money rises in the East and sets in the West.’ Her book starts ‘with visits to the place where money is generated, around Shoreditch and the City … Continuing westwards through a vortex of wealth … Finally … to the sinister and silent streets of Virginia Water in suburban Surrey.’
This silence is the defining quality of wealth. Private security operatives whisper into their fists while patrolling a zone of distrust. Silence repels unexplained outsiders who dare to trespass on the shaved carpet of a Surrey golf course. This is the mysterious far edge of things, the immaculately pastiched dormitory suburb that completes an epic sequence of pedestrian quests. Knowles has already thrilled at the ‘lovely hush’ of Belgravia. But there is also the silence of the seriously rich who own London: royals, aristocrats, fossil-fuel beneficiaries, bagmen for dubious regimes. They won’t talk. They have people to take care of that. Obliging witnesses Knowles is permitted, after clearance, to interrogate. Real money is mute, Trappist.
‘Walking is how I make sense of the world,’ Knowles writes. ‘Walking exposes politics, like a sediment in the landscape.’ She finds herself window-grazing in South Audley Street, foregrounding the perverse surrealism of Mayfair country wear (Cameron Cotswold) at the point where it cohabits with a stuffed zebra on a wooden plinth. Like something out of place and menacing, sticking its head through the wall in an early Lucian Freud painting. The questing sociologist has an agenda. She is our nominated surrogate in occupied territory. And she is persistent. She comes back until the required witnesses can be persuaded to share a drink and a stroll, to confess in safety, under Chaucerian pseudonyms. As Monopoly board types: Quant, Banker, Arty, Cop, Blazer, Buffer, Wig, Rebel, Soviet.
There is considerable leakage, accurately identified by Knowles, from the interface between finance and technology, what’s now called ‘fintech’. Spare change from brokerage and algorithm-harvesting steals out of the City into the café-bars and floating nightlife of Shoreditch and Hoxton. Leisure business and lifestyle are adjuncts of hedge-fund topiary. Fortunate gamblers in stock markets become patrons of artisan coffee operations, hideaways on Hackney Road with ambitious cocktails, bare walls and odd tables. There are private spaces for hire in backrooms along the chartered streets where livestock were once driven towards real markets and slaughter. An economy of start-up venues in a district of ever-rising property values is painlessly underwritten by risk assessment technicians who are game for a risk. Their product is data and prophecy: ‘what’s the likely trajectory in the future, and what’s the risk if things go terribly wrong.’ The risk is for the non-players, the generators of income.
Of late there has been a rush to engage with EastEnders, a sentimental and claustrophobic soap opera based on a bogus reading of locality. The compacted black-hole set has been devised to swallow segments of authentic geography, the pubs and squares of Hackney. And to compress all that multi-tongued buzz into a single rectangular block where everyone shouts or whispers threats into a mobile phone. Knowles, shaping one leg of her initial walk down Great Eastern Street, finds herself in an event space known as Iron Bloom. Its current iteration was as the ‘Green Vic’, an ethical version of the soap opera’s Queen Vic, where it was required to ‘employ people from disadvantaged backgrounds’. The food was vegan. ‘All over this area, wealthy corporations seek credentials by flirting with alternative value systems.’ A Bloomsday for dressed-down bankers.
On a ramble of my own, I coincided with another EastEnders manifestation, a performative lock-in at the Palm Tree, on the Regent’s Canal near Roman Road, not far from the unrecorded site of Rachel Whiteread’s removed sculpture, House. The artist known as Schtinter started with a 96-hour edit of all the early scenes in the Queen Vic. It probably felt much longer to anyone watching. But some were hypnotised by the diet of fraternal conflict and hysteria. When I arrived, the artist, in unbuttoned casual shirt, was alone at the bar. A couple of non-performative locals, supporting players, drank at a small table beside a wall of boxing memorabilia and photographs of scenes from the lost London. The subversive lock-in was migratory, coming down the Lea Valley and heading for the river. The key point of difference with the ethical profit-spreaders in Great Eastern Street was money: Shoreditch is cashless, and wary of bank cards. Hip venues favour a mysterious communication with iPhone or invisible device. A masonic gesture of head and hand between barista and punter. The Palm Tree only accepts readies: good, dirty, plague-carrying cash; folding paper portraits of folk you’d prefer to keep out of your pockets.
When a couple of art sympathisers drifted in, they were sent off to a filling station on Grove Road to find coins. Back in the Sunday spread of Victoria Park, the original people’s park, where multicultural street fare – Afghan Street Food, Mother Flipper Burgers, Japanese Street Food, Philly Cheesesteaks, Souvlaki and Chips – is on offer, cards and phones take care of the money thing. This is only a street in the sense that it calls itself one. A street with no pavements, no one digging holes. Noting some of the booth names, and heady with competing aromas, I was kneecapped by a four-year-old on his bicycle. His bright blue helmet said: BORN TO WIN.
The spectacle of a well-meaning art communard emptying pockets and bags to find enough coins for a pint in the Palm Tree took me back to 1969 and the moment when real money, the paper kind that came with a few silver coins in a small brown envelope, disappeared. For ever. I had a casual labouring job, unloading containers and stacking trucks and vans in muddy sheds alongside the railway in Stratford. Chobham Farm, Angel Lane, Stratford East: a wonderful bucolic address, backed up by a traditional railway pub and a vine-draped cottage out of Thomas Hardy. The cottage and the titular angel path would be illegally obliterated, with posthumous apologies, at the great Olympic moment in 2012. Chobham Farm workers, soon to be picketed by the dockers whose territory they were invading, were paid, by envelope, every Thursday. Until the sorry hour when it was announced that in future they would receive a piece of alien paper, a cheque. Cash was troublesome, an invitation to thieves. The workforce trooped, muttering, to a bank (now swept away) on Stratford High Street. Most of the men cashed their cheques immediately. They didn’t have bank accounts and money came into and out of their hands over the duration of a week. I needed a few coins to pay my dues to the Transport and General Workers’ Union and to receive an entry on my pink card. The shift to banks signalled the end of the old ways and the beginning of the serious money vision of a revamped territory: tower blocks, shopping malls, architect-finessed stadiums.
Knowles pursues the money trail through Shoreditch, the City and Canary Wharf, looking for wealthy individuals prepared to talk about available, even excessive liquidity, and the burden of dealing with it. Tending it, abstracting it, making it grow. She recognises a blatant and increasing divide between the immoderately rich and the rest, but the scale of the wealth is not yet unimaginable. You can picture it, or view it on your devices: property, clothes, servants, swimming-pool basements, cars and planes. The serious money, it struck me, was elsewhere; it was further out and faceless. It passed, unseen and unchallenged, between government agencies, constructors, developers and planning visionaries; it passed with little serious comment. Everyone understood the reality: £4 billion over budget for Crossrail is a parsimonious bargain for the rebranded Elizabeth Line. This money is flighty, but it is very serious. It maps the territory where we might be able to pick up the threads of the General Theory of Everything. A lot of people are talking, releasing statements, providing updates, playing themselves in promotional documentaries, but nobody is saying anything that matters. The mystery, once the billions are stacked up, is inviolate. It appears that the point where money knots itself into some equation beyond ordinary comprehension is when the public face of the mega-corporation, a grinning wealth farmer gripped in a paranoid fugue like a Bond villain, decides that the world is not enough, and moves out into space as a temporary starman. An evolutionary pioneer ready to colonise nothingness.
Travel in 2022 is an adventure. Covid and its busy variants have never gone away and barely taken a sabbatical. The station announcement invited passengers to secure their masks, but with the new line finally open – one middling segment was achieved in time for the queen’s Platinum Jubilee – the London mood was recklessly excursionist. Naked faces were the order of the day. At Whitechapel, for so long a hole in the ground, there was access to the Elizabeth Line. And, I hoped, a downriver landscape where the strategies of occulted money would become visible.
After a good hike through elegantly curving tunnels of Soviet grandeur to a wide and empty platform, it was clear that the Elizabeth experience was as close as it is possible to come to intercontinental flying without leaving the ground. Automated glass panels slid back to allow us on to the train, which was in air-conditioned and dimly lit pre-takeoff mode. Travelling on a south-eastern trajectory, through halts symbolising major culture shifts – Canary Wharf, Custom House, Woolwich – we time-travelled through remembered eras of colonisation, industry and investment. We were unravelling the Knowles thesis, the assertion that money moved in from the East, like the foul winds of plague and poverty feared by respectable Victorians in their quiet Belgravia squares.
After Woolwich, I was in unearned business-class luxury. I had the cool clean carriage, and potentially the entire train, to myself. Using my Freedom Pass, given out originally to tempt veterans into healthy London fringe expeditions, I was riding like an oligarch in a private jet. I had everything apart from a glass of champagne and a complimentary copy of the Mail or the Times. Knowles points out that the very rich never use public transport. Like Mrs Thatcher, they regard anyone in a bus queue as a confessed failure. There is a prophylaxis of wealth that screens the deserving from the aliens in the streets. The research for Serious Money turned up one eccentric, a Lebanese plutocrat who relished the double hit of a shotgun licence and a Freedom Pass. He used both of them, but not at the same time. A few hundred yards short of the Abbey Wood terminal, where nobody wanted to go, the train made its traditional unexplained halt. It seems that another train was hogging the station. We waited. I relished the hum of mildly violated silence, of stalled construction, and the cool shadows creeping across a concrete flyover.
The station steps are unimproved. No slick Elizabeth Line escalators required. Abbey Wood makes token appearances in Crossrail’s promotional films. But even here money is hiding. There are toilets (temporarily closed for cleaning) in the entrance hall. This is a progressive facility. I chose a nice copy of The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton from the shelves of the free library. Next time I come, I’ll bring something in exchange. The FOODTOGO refreshment cave featured a newspaper rack displaying a thick crop of the issue of the LRB in which Jonathan Meades claims it’s ‘Closing Time for the Firm’. Culture washing, always the first intimation of serious investment and property speculation, has arrived in Abbey Wood.
Coming down the steps to catch the first hints of the river and the Crossness Pumping Station, I headed north. My compass was shaken, but my hunch that the Elizabeth Line’s southern terminal would be the portal to a major development rethink was confirmed. The immediate shopping precinct was in mourning. It was shuttered, lost. K’S SPICE AFRICAN EXPRESS was defiant signage above metal roller blinds. Eastern European builders, working for that considerate constructor J.J. Rhatigan on a 70 per cent affordable tower, suckled Red Bull and gnawed pies on a low brick wall. The PEDESTRIAN CROSSING board had been dumped among the weeds on a verge. Aping the research methods of Knowles, I sat among the builders, trying to eavesdrop. They smiled and nodded. But I was unlanguaged here. The steady breakfast procession into BETHEL MINI MART continued. Nobody walked on to Sainsbury’s. That demographic had not yet bought in. I flipped open my Wharton. ‘Now the little compact, populous island, so policed, surveyed, and administered, revealed itself as a Sphinx-like guardian of abysmal mysteries.’ I was on the right track.
Creative development blossomed in the sunshine. Laminated fences loud with upbeat and meaningless sloganeering – TODAY, TOMORROW, TOGETHER – enclosed dust mounds and lumbering earth movers. A ceramic disc promised a coming EMPATHY REVOLUTION, represented by a floppy elephant that looked very much like Dora Maar’s famous Surrealist portrait of Père Ubu, the one derived from a photograph of an embalmed armadillo foetus. The direction of travel, accessed by the steel ladders of the Elizabeth Line tracks, led directly to the Marketing Suite and Discover Centre, a tidy bungalow nicely embedded in a private allotment of wild flowers. I was eager to inspect the table model of the Radiant City, but it was not possible. Mr Darran Nestel, associate director (residential) of CBRE Limited (Millennium Harbour), told me I would have to make an appointment. Rising from his desk, and limping slightly, he escorted me to the door. As a prospective migrant to the new Abbey Wood, I should email at once, setting out my requirements. He was about to be a very busy man. Build and they will come.
Knowles is much more efficient at setting up these conversations, getting the inside skinny from chauffeurs, security operatives, hedge-fund researchers, lawyers, Russian investors, while enjoying a cocktail, a coffee, an accompanied stroll. I was left with the geography. And it responded generously. The old marshes, once favoured by gypsies and their horses, were braced for another blitz of regeneration. The utopian future of Thamesmead was all used up, as Marlene Dietrich said of Orson Welles in Touch of Evil. Southmere Lakeside and the soothing water features contrived by Robert Rigg as part of a GLC initiative in the 1960s had turned sour by the time of Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange in 1971. Dystopian violence overcame the innocence of Corbusier-influenced architects and planners hoping for a brutalist iteration of the Unité d’habitation. Blocks named after the great and good of reforgotten socialist and libertarian eras were linked by concrete walkways. Residents were to be kept neighbourly and content by being lifted off the ground, securing them from the threat of another Thames flood. The long pedestrian bridges and piers, looking over an isolated Alphaville, were like jetties running into a future airport with no planes and no way out. The New Town plotted in 1964, constructed by 1968, was isolated and doomed by 1972. It was primed, after a long and indecent burial, to rise again in the new millennium.
Redevelopment was now absolute, that familiar state of being permanently unfinished, on the cusp of a brilliant but retreating future. There were empty piazzas of the kind I’d seen alongside the Liffey in the Celtic Tiger dreamtime of Dublin, and outside a grand new gallery in Middlesbrough, with vast screens, mid-square, sited to supply witness to coming Olympic triumphs. Beyond the Legoland estates of Thamesmead, rising on the destruction of previous utopias, and the gently ruffled lake with its surrounding park, its fountain and its wind turbine, the sculpted mounds of the landscape were idyllic. A Seurat frieze waiting for the Sunday strollers to be dotted in. I walked, in happy meditation, through a deserted pleasure zone dressed with robotic exercise machines that nobody was using.
A waterside café, the Y on the Lake, had empty tables and a view, through panoramic windows, of the emerging towers on the far shore. I spread out my selection of maps. They were quite useless: these places had only come into existence a blink ago. They were digitally transitioning. The cappuccino was masterly, with a Y in the foam. The croissant was crisp. Here was a venue for café society when society finally arrived. There had not been much action, the server told me, in recent days. They had opened just before the first big Covid lockdown. Refreshed, I dipped again into my Wharton to see what was coming up on the next leg of the walk. ‘I read the other day in a book by a fashionable essayist that ghosts went out when electric light came in. What nonsense! The writer, though he is fond of dabbling, in a literary way, in the supernatural, hasn’t even reached the threshold of his subject.’
Too late, I noticed that the lakeside venue supplied free coffee to customers brave enough to purchase ‘an English muffin’. GET IT DONE. Beyond the underpass with the satiric graffito of Boris Johnson shovelling shit for St Patrick’s Day, I crossed a set of ancient tracks, the Thamesmead Ridgeway and the Green Chain Walk. Here was the first indication I had noticed of a cult of neo-paganism. Under a shiver of leaf shadows, 1960s blocks with balconies and ground-level garages paid their respects to named mentors: Keynes Court, Webb Court, Tawney Road, Lytton Strachey Path. By following signs displayed for touring cyclists, I picked my way through a last estate and on to the river, right opposite Barking Creek and the great northern sewage beds. It was here that the GLC planners envisioned their crowning glory: a marina fit for Abramovich and his cohorts. Or, more modestly, for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor on their pleasure craft, the Kalizma. Sadly, that vision was premature. The proposed harbour for the Have-Yachts would have to wait. And move upstream.
My somewhat distressed 1993 map had a magnificent but provisional set of dotted lines running down towards the Thames from the Beckton roundabout of the A13. This now vestigial tail terminates in blank white space, beyond the gasworks. It should have been a dual carriageway link to a bridge over the river, high enough to allow shipping through, and low enough for safe take-offs from City Airport in Silvertown. My Nicholson map is still hopeful: ‘Proposed East London River Crossing (estimated completion 1996)’. There was solid ecological opposition from lovers of Oxleas Wood and other green spaces, but Ken Livingstone believed in the necessity of a Thames Gateway Bridge. His successor as mayor of London, as might be expected, brushed the project aside, in favour of an Emirates chairlift taking off from the Millennium Dome, a garden bridge folly, and a reef of fantasy island airports at the mouth of the Thames.
For Johnson, the cost of the proposed river crossing, £500 million, was chump change: not enough to count as serious money. The socialist republic of Thamesmead, with its hopes and aspirations, was doomed. The zone was isolated, poorly served and deeply conflicted. In the tarmac of the highway going nowhere, it was once possible to make out the spectral outline of a painted white H. This marked the site of a proposed heliport, useful for commuting to the mega-yachts that would not be docking in the Thamesmead marina. Livingstone bitterly regretted the death blow to his plans for 160,000 new houses and ‘up to 42,000 additional jobs’. Unusually, in the light of his future career, Johnson decided that the inquiry into the planning decision would never reopen. Inquiries, in the right hands, would later become a prime tactic for burying awkward facts and delaying retribution. Let bureaucrats investigate the misdemeanours of their paymasters. And police investigate the police. It’s a comfortable circuit in which truths can be teased and rearranged indefinitely.
North of Piccadilly, between Bond Street and Park Lane, Knowles indulges her inner window-shopper. She basks in the glitz and the guilt. She has a keen eye for the shoes and bags of those she interviews. Her own jacket is a quality fake, altogether superior to the obscenely ticketed originals. There is a magic in these trophy streets. You detect it in the hotels favoured by ‘Middle Eastern’ men running up bills they are slow to pay and the quieter hotels where their wives and children are parked. In the tall trees of lovely green oases with regulation ironwork fences and locked gates. In strictly private equity and ‘single-family’ offices with no nameplates in Berkeley Square. If you wanted to make serious money in Mayfair, you could do worse than supply cans of magnolia paint to the Duke of Westminster’s estate: it is the only colour permitted. The charity of the super-rich is an obligation. Anything but animals, one benefactor reports. ‘Every donkey in the country has God knows how much money.’ Mayfair is a wealth allotment tended by uniformed butlers and bag-carriers. The hush is called security. Transgress and it’s like the moment when the whistle cuts out and the bomb falls.
‘Luxury is seduction! It’s certainly working on me,’ Knowles writes. The toys. The his-and-hers properties, home and abroad. The creeping karma. The combat veterans employed to walk your children to the black-windowed limo that will carry them to school. This otherness comes with a price. ‘Serious money buys separation from city life.’
Knowles is an outsider, drifting in the reflected glamour of the streets, registering names and brands. But she is also plotting to get inside. In a restaurant at the Royal Exchange, in the City, she positions herself strategically. ‘I eat my salad and tune in to the conversation of a mother and her daughter, both lawyers, at the next table, consuming elegantly small portions of seafood.’ Among the freakishly perverse bankers and investors, she behaves like Orwell in Wigan, like those nice young poets sent north to report back on the dining habits of the natives. To listen on buses and in pubs. Jack London became a disguised tourist in the lower depths for The People of the Abyss in 1902, but Knowles plays smart. She dresses correctly, making the moves that allow her to take her seat in dimly lit hotel bars and in the private offices of those who serve and facilitate extreme wealth.
Meanwhile, in Notting Hill and Kensington, they are burrowing compulsively and competitively, getting others to chew out huge quantities of earth on their behalf, right down to the level of the Underground lines. This form of sub-architectural excavation, disturbing roots and bones, points up the huge distance across town to the morbid pathology of William Lyttle, the scratching and scraping Mole Man of Hackney.This self-funding tunneller was condemned, without planning permission and private equity, to eviction, seizure of property, theoretical bills, and a despairing death. On her way to Tregunter Road in Chelsea, Knowles discovers that professional excavators prefer to leave their voracious diggers buried beneath the new swimming pools and gyms than going to the trouble of closing off a street for their removal. And what happens, I wondered, to all that earth? Where does it go? We know the destination for the token element of social housing required of developers in this part of West London: Peterborough. The fine old cathedral city has become another traffic island, surrounded by a nexus of submerged ring roads, fanning out into trading estates and speculations that are beginning to swallow up all the agricultural land between the city centre and the villages John Clare knew. Peterborough has already accepted, at a price, the forcibly migrated rough sleepers of Cambridge. Its reward is public housing gifted by remote Kensington developers.
When I reached the Thames, coming away from Abbey Wood station, I was reminded of my previous walk, in 2003, downriver towards Dartford, where Thatcher launched her political career and where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards plotted their escape into managed subversion and serious money. As we approached the beacon at the Crossness promontory, the official Thames path was blocked by a temporary barrier guarded by a couple of bored policemen. They were not, initially, prepared to offer any explanation. As the crowd of walkers and cyclists grew, they weakened and muttered that the hold-up was a matter of state security: a royal personage was expected. It was Prince Charles, who swept up in a cavalcade of cars and motorbikes to reopen the Crossness Pumping Station and sewage cathedral, the one now touted on all the Abbey Wood fences as a major cultural attraction.
Heading west towards Woolwich and the remains of the Royal Arsenal, with its buried munitions and restored warehouses, I came upon a stretch of park at Gallions Reach that promised to be the hoped-for resolution of my quest for a General Theory of Everything. This managed landscape was electively megalithic, conceived and delivered on top of an older park in 2017. It looked like a direct translation from Wiltshire, from Silbury Hill with its satellite earthworks. Somebody had been playing with contaminated soil trenched out from the Royal Arsenal. Alluvium, silt and clay, the spoil of local development, had been shaped into a set of humps worthy of the physician and antiquarian William Stukeley. Gallions Hill, a conical mound with gentle helical paths, was the dominant feature. Neo-paganism and sloganised futurism came together as part of the post-Thatcher colonisation of East London. The mounds scattered through new estates in the Olympic Park were contrived with earth dug out for the Channel Tunnel. Beckton Alps, across the river, was a ritual viewing platform, now fenced off and protected, a sculpture made from arsenic and toxic ash from the bombed gasworks.
As a series of ritual tests, I worked my way from the lesser mounds, not knowing if they contained buried mechanical diggers or sacrificed bones of First World War munitions workers, to the breast of the ‘mother hill’, which was encircled by a perimeter fence. Closing in now on a great secret, I scrambled to the summit, noticing that another knapsacked figure, about my own age, was making a more measured ascent by way of the helical path. We met at the compass point indicated on the flattened viewing platform. I did not ask the name of my fellow pilgrim and I did not offer my own, but we enjoyed a long and enlightening conversation. From this height, the spread of habitation, in all directions, clarified the day’s story. The Gallions Reach view offered a route map into past and future.
My new friend, a true walker in a weathered baseball cap, had once been a local man, from Woolwich. He had escaped to Shropshire but was drawn back time and again. For employment he had been, for forty long years, a dustman (sanitation and hygiene operative) in Newham. I told him that back in the day I had tried to land that position, but learned it was a closed shop. The job stayed in the family, as a vocation, passed down from father to son. The Gallions Reach pilgrim gave in his notice when those traditions were replaced by a new kind of positive discrimination. This topic led, with no obvious prejudice, to an account of how Thamesmead had become toxic when ‘flighters’ from South London, choosing to distance themselves from multiculturalism, were billeted alongside involuntary migrants of all races and religions, the uprooted. By the 1990s, tensions were running high and there were constant skirmishes. The British National Party and other neo-Nazi groups had established themselves, with a notorious bookshop in Welling. The Abbey Mead Social Club was known as a haunt of white racists. The Wildfowler pub in Thamesmead, its name redolent of the marshes, did not welcome a diverse clientele. A 15-year-old boy, Rolan Adams, walking home through Abbey Wood, was stabbed and killed in February 1991. In July 1992, Rohit Duggal, a 16-year-old Asian boy, was stabbed by a white youth outside a kebab shop. The people involved in this and other incidents were known to the police. The attacks did not receive much publicity. Some of the same faces would reemerge with the killing of Stephen Lawrence in April 1993 in Eltham, an area my companion tried to identify from our vantage point on the mound.
The landscape, on both banks of the Thames, was this man’s autobiography. With no trace of New Age mysticism, the former dustman pointed out where an earthbank had run from Lesnes Abbey Wood to the phantom marina. Looking across to the north shore, I registered how Gallions Hill aligned with Beckton Alp, and how it connected, upstream in Rotherhithe, with the conical elevation of Stave Hill. The seductive ‘Plan of the London Mounds’ in Elizabeth Gordon’s Prehistoric London (1914) showed a triangulation between the Llandin (Parliament Hill), the Penton Mound (the site of the New River reservoir), Bryn Gwyn (at the Tower of London) and Tothill (Westminster). Here, at the cult centre of the emerging Estuary London, was another energy generator, with freshly initiated lines of force running away in all directions. Every walk had become a question. ‘For certainly it is a striking and inspiring thought,’ Gordon wrote, ‘that practically the only traditions that have reached us of the occupation of London in prehistoric times should be those connected with the worship of the “Most High”, crystallised in the descriptive titles of the four conical mounds.’
Before we parted, my friend alerted me to the frosted roofs of HMP Belmarsh, a high-security prison for terrorists and other media-profile offenders. Belmarsh had been built on grounds once occupied by the Royal Arsenal. During construction of the prison, a six-thousand-year-old trackway was discovered: a ladder of wooden sleepers to carry travellers across the marshes. To reach the prison complex, it was necessary to navigate a route through a housing estate, cut off from the main road by a series of teasing cul-de-sacs. I knew I had found the right place when I encountered a waddle of prison officers, male and female, white shirts, black trousers, polished shoes, refuelling on a £3.50 Tesco Extra Meal Deal. As the man in the local charity shop snarled, ‘Doesn’t say much about the scoff in the prison when the screws get their grub from Tesco.’
Drifting in the wake of the crocodile of carton-carrying prison custodians, I came to the outlying barriers and camera poles of the human storage facility. HMP Belmarsh emerged, without friction, from the smokescreen of a smart neo-pagan estate, with block names like Tor Grove. The setting was bucolic: wooded hills, close-planted copses, terracotta tiles, a brown rivulet. The prison complex belonged with the retail-park sheds and storage facilities that disguised its presence. Bushes, from where I tried to get a decent photograph of the procession of fast-food warders, were choked in a profusion of flapping yellow ribbons: FREE JULIAN ASSANGE! STOP THE TORTURE!
Belmarsh houses around nine hundred inmates. There are 48 HSU (High Security Unit) single cells. As well as political prisoners detained indefinitely without charge or trial, among those who have passed through the prison are John Worboys (taxi rapist), Ronnie Biggs (veteran Great Train Robber), David Copeland (Brixton and Brick Lane bomber), Ali Harbi Ali (assassin of the Southend West MP David Amess) and Michael Adebolajo, who mutilated and murdered the off-duty Fusilier Lee Rigby as he walked along Wellington Street in neighbouring Woolwich. Short-term prisoners have included two members of Thatcher’s circle, the perjurers Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken. In those days, perjury was considered a crime and not a political necessity. Aitken found religion. After less than a month in Belmarsh, Archer had gathered sufficient material for the first volume of his Prison Diary.
Knowles’s circumambulation of serious money, across and around London, concludes in Virginia Water, a Surrey suburb as secure and inaccessible as Belmarsh. Thatcher’s triumphalist progress from Young Conservative dances in Dartford and the acquisition of a wealthy businessman husband from the locality, to a safe seat in Finchley, to high office in Westminster, had a necessary coda on the golf course at Wentworth, where her ally General Pinochet lived in modest retirement. Hidden away against the threat of extradition to Spain, he was an invisible neighbour to veteran entertainers like Bruce Forsyth. By this point London is no longer walkable. And therefore no longer scrutable. Pavements disappear, traffic-calming bumps infuriate the entitled. The streets are not streets: they are too clean, too niche. When irritated, the wealthy threaten to leave the city. In response, Knowles quotes the economist Brett Christophers, who points out that the real money left long ago for ‘its offshore boltholes’. The super-rich are already on the high seas, navigating between safe harbours where their mega-yachts will not be impounded. The General Theory of Everything, as revealed on the mound at Gallions Reach, suggests that there will be many more floods, more forced regenerations, more unaligned earthworks, bridges that go nowhere, before the fiction of achievable wealth is discontinued and the social contract is renewed.
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