The Colossus of Maroussi
Iain Sinclair visits Athens
They hunted dogs with guns, the Berliner said, to clear the streets for the Olympics. He was in Hackney now, an architect, but he had been in Athens in 2002, when the deals were going down and the grand project was underway. I sat in an afternoon pub, beside a street market that seemed to have migrated across town from Notting Hill, close to a stretch of the Regent’s Canal that had been peremptorily closed, fenced, drained. Instead of dogs, perhaps they were going to kill unsightly eels and fish, or the birds that feed on them. No work was in progress, but the exclusion zone had been briskly set up and was policed by the usual yellow tabards. The challenge, of attempting to discommode stubborn pedestrians, always comes from the wrong direction: ‘What are you doing on the towpath?’ Good question. I’ve been trying to find an answer for years. But it is where I am, where I like to be, every morning. The invaders assume absolute authority, without explanation or apology. What are you doing here? The double-banked lines of narrowboats, council tax dodgers, have been dispersed. Cyclists are thrown into the murderous stream of Mare Street. A procession of women, all ages, being taught how to swing their arms while marching (and talking), runs slap against the plywood barrier. As a precaution, the authorities have painted a white line around the former boating lake in Victoria Park, along with a helpful notice: CAUTION WATER. You can’t be too careful of this stuff, this alien medium. Comb off the algae carpet, the scum, and prepare to airlift in a dune or two, with deckchairs and parasols, for an urban beach. A rising hysteria grips the fortunate Olympic boroughs; funny money is available, in serious quantities, for those who can come up with the right kind of fun. If you were going to hunt dogs, Victoria Park wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Those dogs stayed with me when I left for Athens. I had seen film footage shot two years after the 2004 Games, of loping beasts, freelance canine caretakers patrolling the overgrown wilderness of the futurist sculpture park that once surrounded the Olympic complex out at Maroussi. Furtive ghosts in shaggy coats demonstrating a classical trajectory of fate: those who are condemned without justification become the sole occupiers of the deserted palace for which they were the intended sacrifice. Now, starting early, to get to the New Acropolis Museum before the promised crowds, I noticed cats scavenging from the lip of a brightly polished litter bin; sleek, piebald creatures, leaning back, using fat tails for balance, as they sniffed the refuse. The pavements were rain-washed and scrupulously clean. The graffiti, in this high-visibility zone, was in Arabic, framed in cracked marble panels at the base of the steps like calligraphy by Cy Twombly.
The tribal dogs, wolfish spirits of place, skulking guardians of something that has been lost, circumnavigate the major tourist attractions without feeling any obligation to beg or charm. They are the unculled, collateral victims of the Olympic gaze: heavy-pelted German Shepherds, down on their luck, war veterans with a folk memory of clover-munching sheep; fluffed-out, pinkish creatures on very thin legs, like wealthy matrons from the Kolonaki district caught in the rain without their dark glasses. Feral packs once roamed the city, it’s what dogs do: testing out architecture designed to be abandoned, and recalling the years before they were enslaved as household pets. They scrounged at restaurants and tavernas with Balkan insouciance. While unaffiliated cats, halfway to heaven, blanketed roofs like gently stirring underlay; they stretched, arched, settled and resettled the corrugated iron of Monastiraki Station, or the skeleton of a wrecked café on the limestone plug of Lycabettus Hill.
At the dawn of a new golden age for Greece, with the football team grinding out a victory over Portugal, 1-0, in the final of Euro 2004, and Elena Paparizou about to carry off the Eurovision Song Contest in 2005, rough-trade canines were seen by outsiders as a cosmetic issue. You couldn’t blow billions of euros on Olympic complexes, a Metro system, Baghdads of synchronised fireworks, and have TV coverage fouled up with drooling, belly-on-the-floor bandits, begging for leftovers and shitting on your shoes. There was talk – the Berliner was right about that – of taking them out, but not with guns, rather by the traditional Socratic solution, poison. But the dogs were family, and were treated as such: cleaned up, neutered, turned loose.
The €9 billion spent on the Olympic party was equivalent to the amount financial experts reckoned investors were syphoning out of Greek banks to bury in Cyprus or Switzerland when the collapse finally came, just as I visited Athens early in 2010. The people I talked to, students, academics, film-makers, all agreed: it had been a monumental, epoch-defining opening ceremony. The children of the middle-class suburbs, out by the mountains, down on the coast, queued up to volunteer, to play their part as marshals or programme sellers. Everybody had the DVD of the firework night, it was still selling. Nobody remembered what happened after that. One young woman, a highly qualified lawyer, now working off-the-book for around €400 a month, recalled the only Olympic event she’d actually witnessed. ‘There were horses dancing. Very pretty.’ The story of the drug-cheat sprinters and their staged motorcycle accident, on the eve of an appointment with the testers, has been quietly forgotten. There are different takes on this kind of behaviour. ‘Better a thief than a fool.’ Students help each other in exams, everybody gets the same grade. The honour of the group is salvaged. They told me that they demonstrated most afternoons, as a kind of ritual, stoning the Hilton Hotel, or marching to the American embassy: their only form of exercise. Once established as a student, the hard part has been done: you can maintain that status, failing or avoiding exams, for years – it’s an alternative career.
The dogs I had to step over to go down the ramp to Bernard Tschumi’s statement glass and concrete box, the New Acropolis Museum, were crushed and posthumous, unwilling to lift their heads from the slick floor with its spindly reflections of cypress trees. They wore blue collars, they were tagged collaborators whose native territory had been captured. They moved, like tourists with one of those tickets granting access to a number of ancient sites, between quotation ruins, refusing to trade dignity for a pat on the back. Inside the museum, rack-ribbed and stalking, was the thing they had once been: a savage marble hound, from 520 BC, ‘associated with the Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia on the Acropolis’.
I came to Athens, in the clamp of this miserable weather, because my niece was in town for a month; a fluent Greek speaker who had been a student in Crete and was now working in the Athens office of an international publisher. Calling on this connection, for local knowledge and introductions, was a very Greek thing to do: who can you exploit if not your own family? That’s how the system works. Some aspects of the streets around the Acropolis were reminiscent of home, of Hackney: our Olympic makeover. There were newly pedestrianised walkways, planted and primped, in place of the chaos of buses, honking taxis, competitive guides I remembered from holidays in the 1950s. Thickets of incontinent graffiti rivalled Hoxton and Shoreditch. Athens grumbles loudly to itself, on walls and hoardings: tags, slogans, territorial claims for Mao, Panathinaikos, AEK Athens, Guns ’n’ Roses. The most obvious differences from London were that nobody carved me up on impatient bicycles, there were no joggers – and dogs, unmastered, were not required to gum threadbare tennis balls or crap to order. The notion that the Dionysiou Areopagitou walkway, this rock-skirting path, would inspire Athenians to splurge on lycra and air-cushion running shoes, didn’t work. The only joggers, in couples, threesomes, or pumping solo, were corporate Aussies and Coca-Cola executives. My niece, who smokes as heroically as any Greek, tried this circuit, before going in to the office. She was nipped on the heel by one of the dogs.
The New Acropolis Museum had 90,000 visitors in its first week. It was a confident symbol of national revival, following on from the Olympic moment. It was also a challenge to the alleged piracy of Lord Elgin, who struck a good bargain with the Turkish authorities and hacked out the Parthenon friezes now on display in their customised Bloomsbury bunker. I visited the British Museum shortly before leaving for Athens. And heard, behind me at every step, the tobacco-enhanced growl of the late Melina Mercouri, the government minister and movie star who ‘conceived and proposed’ the concept of that migrating honour, the European City of Culture. ‘Culture,’ she pronounced, ‘is Greece’s heavy industry.’ Along with displays of artefacts, shards, pots found during excavations for the Metro system, the new stations with their broad platforms and clean, regular trains, featured what could only be called iconic posters of Mercouri. She is positioned in front of the Parthenon, white trenchcoat and rollneck sweater, with left arm saluting, yellow flowers crushed in right hand: diva of the city, substitute for the missing Athena of Phidias. When we walked out in the evening, past a little restaurant in Thissio, we were told: ‘This is where Melina liked to hold court.’ There is a clip of Mercouri on YouTube, a weird superimposition of Never on Sunday and Psycho, in which, occupying a long floaty number, she prowls up to Anthony Perkins, perching beside him to croon. ‘What’s it about?’ he asks. ‘Like all Greek songs, about love and death,’ she replies. ‘I give you milk and honey and in return you give me poison.’
The museum was deserted. The entrance fee had recently been increased by 400 per cent, but it was still good value. Men in dark suits, with laminated accreditation, stood about among the marble heads on plinths, among the shock of white, confirming, if you asked, that it was not permitted to take photographs. The narrative was direct and convincing, the structure was open to the enfolding geology, the temple on the hill; it was both event and quotation. This, against the incontinent stacking of trophies in that great cabinet of curiosities, the British Museum, is a coherent pitch. The building is not separated from the city, it’s not a respite, a dream with too many chambers, collisions, compartments; it tells one story, the rock. The temple and its vanished gods. On each level, a floor-to-ceiling window sets the modelled Parthenon against the structure on the hill, with the colour of the Doric columns shifting through the day from smoker’s teeth to dirty orange to blue-white. Sculptural fragments, torsos, limbs, blocks of stone skewered on poles, are presented like a bead curtain, between viewer and city. Entering the museum, and looking down through the glass floor, excavations are visible, earlier layers as a part of the present structure. Hitler, as his troops advanced on Athens in April 1941, gave the order that no bombs should fall on the city. The solid ghosts of antiquity were his inspiration for the stadium he constructed for the Olympic Games of 1936, and the blueprints of future ruins. ‘If we are asked about our forefathers,’ he said to Goebbels, ‘we must refer to the Greeks.’
We followed the blue-collar dogs to the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the National Gardens. Inspired by what I had seen, the casts of the missing Parthenon marbles, I felt the strength of the argument for their return. The experience of the actual Acropolis, windswept, expensive, hustled by tour gangs, is grim: far better to stroll the floors of the museum, to take coffee in a room with a view. Police cars screech around the tight curves of the Acropolis ascent, and the peddlers, Asians with cheap guidebooks and concertinas of photographs, scatter into the bushes to regroup in time for the next coach.
On the shaded approach to the Panathenaic Stadium, an African man was demonstrating a novelty, throwing rubber blobs at the pavement. Pedestrians responded as if they’d been invited to sample freshly gobbed bubble-gum. There weren’t many walkers to be found: it takes courage and athleticism to cross these furious roads. The great stadium of 1896, built on the site of the stadium of antiquity, was given some new marble cladding for these first modern games, some restoration, but no major alteration. The promoter of the 1896 Olympiad, the Lord Coe of Athens, was a Paris-based scholar called Dimitrios Vikelas, a novelist and publisher of pamphlets. He was the ideal man, an exile with a passionate sense of national identity, and no knowledge or experience of sport. Economically, the idea was madness: Charilaos Trikoupis, the prime minister, told Parliament that the country was bankrupt and that there could be no financial support from the government for this Olympic revival. An obliging patron was found in the person of the Alexandrian merchant Georgios Averof, and a young architect called Anastasios Metaxas was commissioned to carry through the reconstruction. Averof got his statue. The stadium, open to view, is still in use. Thin as a steel ruler, and too tight on the bends to be much in demand for contemporary athletics championships, the Panathenaic Stadium staged the finish of the 2004 Olympic marathon. The rightness of its placement, against pine-thatched hills, a theatrical public space within the polis, is confirmed by the sightlines, the cushion of gardens and broad avenues: it is a civic benefit rather than a crude intervention. Anybody can stroll to the entrance, see what is to be seen: the Olympic rings are not a threat and the sleeping dogs do not stir at the gates. Flagpoles are bare. Joggers, if any can be found, are free to make the elongated circuit or to run up the steeply banked terraces. But noble as the site appears, it is not entirely benign. The poet John Lucas, in 92 Acharnon Street, reminds us that the old Olympic stadium is where ‘the Colonels assembled schoolchildren for parades so that they might learn to salute the Greek flag.’
Across a never relenting stream of traffic, motorbikes cascading from tributaries, was a dog salon, a defunct beauty parlour advertised with a wolfish yellow and blue portrait. Many small businesses in this quarter were shuttered, signed off in a blizzard of graffiti. The single functioning enterprise offered cushions featuring doggy pin-ups, pert chows and shivering, ratty, handbag things floating above black modernist thrones. Lucky babes in an unlucky world. Red and white ribbons giftwrapped the latest auto-shunt. This is a two-car town, congestion addressed by the never successful gimmick of particular numberplates allowed on particular days. Even the flashiest motors are bruised and battered like old prizefighters. But the fug, the sulphurous fume blanket, seems to have lifted these days, and the narrow streets towards Lycabettus Hill were dressed with trees in winter fruit. I picked an orange and relished its sour, enamel-stripping bite. Nobody, I was told, devours this harvest, this urban largesse; the comfortable folk of Kolonaki plant their own trees, but abhor as unclean the fruit of the town. Trucks, in poorer districts, fill sacks with them to manufacture a syrup that might as well be used in soap as sickly cocktails.
The man on the desk at my hotel, with an effortless show of boredom, a refusal to acknowledge any of the nuisance traffic through his lobby, must have wondered what was going on. Every evening I perched on the sofa while a procession of young women turned up to engage in excited conversation, before slipping back out onto the street for a cigarette. The lawyer was late. Even on her modest salary, she managed a car. She drove in from Faliro, on the coast, parked with all the rest in an unoccupied low-rise development in Fix, and took the Metro for a couple of stops. But, really, she didn’t like it: this mingling with poor people, immigrants. Central reservations and traffic lights were enterprise zones run by Africans and Asians: cellophane-wrapped blocks of cigarettes, instant valeting. Walking on those gentle hills was never an option, the tram obligingly stops every hundred yards or so. Old folk cross themselves when they pass a church.
The lawyer, when she arrived in a flurry of unnecessary apologies, explained that there was gridlock. There had been another bomb incident, she was hazy about the details. Nobody had been killed. These things happen most weekends and are unreported. The 17N group, responsible for the assassination of Brigadier Stephen Saunders, the British military attaché in Athens, in June 2000, had been rounded up, so it was claimed, just in time for the Olympics. Savas Xiros, the alleged motorbike gunman, was arrested after a lethal device he was carrying went off prematurely. From his hospital bed, he made a long and detailed confession, naming a list of accomplices. Bundles of explosives were found buried on a site being cleared for the Games. The current bombs, it’s thought, are intended to signal the return of 17N, which took its name from the date, 17 November 1973, when the Colonels’ security forces drove a tank through the gates of the Athens Polytechnic and stormed the grounds, killing a number of people. After the United States, which was blamed for propping up the Colonels, Britain and Tony Blair were 17N’s principal targets, for supporting the Nato bombing of Serbia. Curiously enough, as Michael Llewellyn Smith, a former British ambassador, reports in Athens: A Cultural and Literary History, the young Blair, on a student holiday in 1974, had witnessed the triumphant return of the exiled Constantine Karamanlis after the fall of the Colonels. Blair, as we know, is not immune to the theatrical potential of flag-waving processions, the gladhanding of mesmerised supporters: the rhetoric of regime change, messianic populism.
One benefit of the Olympic extravaganza is the Metro system: trains appeared quickly, tickets were modestly priced and uncomplicated, stations were smart and well lit. Too many nightmares underground, stalled in overheated viral torpedoes, had kept my wife well away from the London system, but here, deep below Athens, it was a pleasure ride, an outing, as we sailed towards Maroussi and the main Olympic complex, built to showcase both the top-dollar panache of the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and the visible pride of the Greek nation. The Olympic Park was sited on a significant patch of ground: the memory field of Henry Miller’s fine but undervalued travel journal, The Colossus of Maroussi. It was written in the shadow of war and published in 1941. It was the first Miller title that Penguin felt brave enough to place on their list. Apart from some nude sunbathing with the Durrells, whose marriage was going through a stormy patch, and many life-affirming meals and marathon drinking sessions, the tone is melancholy and estranged: bad roads in worse weather, radiant ruins guarded by forgotten eccentrics. A dollar goes a long way: Miller takes a room in one of the grand hotels on Constitution Square, hotels from whose balconies it would now be possible to look down on the massed tents of protesting trade unionists alarmed by threats of cuts and redundancies. Through Lawrence Durrell, Miller meets – and loathes – members of the British expat community, effete classicists and cultural carpetbaggers whose practised ironies he fails to appreciate. He also encounters, and embraces, Greek poets of the Plaka, talkers, drinkers: George Seferis and George Katsimbalis. It is the Falstaffian Katsimbalis whom he christens ‘the Colossus of Maroussi’: war-wounded, ever thirsty, a large, limping man whose life is the excuse for a cycle of epic performance pieces. So successful was Miller in mythologising his friend that the poet was set up with lectures and gigs for life. Durrell records Katsimbalis – his ‘blood was roaring with cognac’ – crowing like the king of the city from the Acropolis rock until, from the ‘silvery’ darkness, all the scattered roosters of Attica answer him. In one passage Miller describes Katsimbalis
talking of cities, of how he had gotten a mania for Haussmannising the big cities of the world. He would take the map of London, say, or Constantinople, and after the most painstaking study would draw up a new plan of the city, to suit himself … Naturally a great many monuments had to be torn down and new statues, by unheard-of men, erected in their place. While working on Constantinople, for example, he would be seized by a desire to alter Shanghai … It was confusing, to say the least. Having reconstructed one city he would go on to another and then another. There was no let up to it. The walls were papered with the plans for new cities … It was a kind of megalomania, he thought, a sort of glorified constructivism which was a pathologic hangover from his Peloponnesian heritage.
It’s a pity nobody reads Miller, because it’s all there: the damaged, wine-fired poet playing with utopian blueprints, constructing fabulous cities on overscribbled sheets of paper. De Quincey nightmares that fade in the cold Athenian dawn. Dreams that know they are dreams. All too soon the Germans would arrive and the craziest (and most frustrated) architect of them all, Adolf Hitler, would salute the proud ruins.
Changing trains at Attiki, the mad thesis was confirmed: there is only one city and it doesn’t work. Blue and white ribbons across the stairs, disgruntled travellers, chaos, swirling mobs, tunnels. Expulsion into the street. Polite students handing out leaflets urging immediate strike action. A bendy bus. Standing room only. Metro-loads of Sunday pilgrims heading out to the suburbs, to the green oasis of Kifissia, were grape-pressed alongside regular bus users for a lurching, swaying ride, uphill, past a seemingly endless accumulation of small grocers, peddlers of hub-caps, warehouse sex clubs, graffiti and finger-jabbing Quentin Tarantino billboards pimping whisky: I WRITE MY OWN SCRIPT. After the cemeteries, the allotments, the Euro-funded super-highway, there was that familiar sense of being out on the edge of things, confronted by strident architectural interventions. The Olympic Sports Complex is the paradigm for London 2012: difficult to reach, half-forgotten, but serviced by handsome, flower-bedecked stations. The site looks like a brave attempt to comply with some computer-generated prophecy conjured up in Hong Kong. The clients, such as they are, come from another story: economic migrants, suitcase survivalists offering toy trains, feral dogs. An accidental wilderness dressed with elaborate and ruinously expensive structures for which nobody has any use. A trashed buffer of generic flats assembled as an athletes’ village and potential development, then left to rot, along with random kiosks, garages, slogan-sprayed toilet blocks. An English architect with a Greek wife, who had been visiting Athens at regular intervals for 25 years, told me that the official total of 13 deaths for construction workers on the Olympic project was a tactful underestimate. The pressure to deliver the scheme on time led to a nexus of subcontracting, the blanket employment of cheap and unskilled Balkan labour. And a plethora of brown envelopes. ‘They call it “coffee” money,’ he said. ‘Ten grand to smooth a path to the right officials.’
It is magnificent, the setting, the backdrop. Curved steel ribcages, water features, puffy clouds over mountains scarred with a sort of reverse glaciation: white tongues of speculative housing pushing heroically against the gradient. Sad trees withering in concrete tubs. A security person in a booth waved us through: it was a novel experience, to be granted access to a posthumous project, the symbol of a nation’s bankruptcy. ‘OPEN STADIUMS. PLACES OF CELEBRATION. A WAY OF LIFE,’ the map on the yellow barrier said. We were free to wander and to burn up film on the surreal conjunctions of this mesmerising set. Patterns of herringbone traceries, wet shadows. Girdered tunnels mimicking cypress avenues leading nowhere. The structures in the park are monumental but somehow anorexic: a futurist city that was never completed, the Natural History Museum taken over by Disney. It’s an island between motorway and railway, surrounded by decommissioned dark glass boxes, failed corporate entities, unpopular estates, scrap metal dumps, breakers’ yards, slogan-sprayed mosaic walls with laurel wreath symbols. The death of the grand project is the history painting of our time: W.P. Frith’s Derby Day without the people, the excursionists, gypsies, toffs, gulled punters. All that human noise is missing, only the set itself is deemed worthy of commemoration. Great fireworks, great razzmatazz. And then? Crippling debts. White elephant structures that cost a fortune to keep empty. New roads choked with tractor protests. Airport closed. Angry, stone-throwing mobs demonstrating the consequences of fiscal mismanagement, chicanery by international bankers, a culture of tax avoidance and brown bag-ism. National pride suborned by a word the Greeks patented: hubris.
The site has its own microclimate: melancholy. Unnatured winds gusted around the struts and piers, the slippery walkways and mounds of unused chairs and broken barriers. Two or three swimmers completed lethargic laps under the instruction of dark figures with hands in their tracksuit pockets. Other pools, a vast gymnasium, an indoor tennis centre, a steepling stadium overlooking a puddled garden with limp palm trees, were all deserted. The highlight of our dazed perambulation was an encounter with a small troop of men with bulging rucksacks, who emerged like phantoms out of the desert, and vanished again behind an improvised fence of corrugated iron. There was no obtrusive CCTV monitoring system and no visible security presence. This was a dreamscape out of de Chirico, who lived in Athens as a young man, attending the polytechnic, and who understood all too well that great cities achieve their essence as ruins. The Agora, Acropolis, Temple of Zeus and all the Olympic parks and fields have museum ambitions; to be spectres of themselves in perpetuity. Haunted labyrinths of memory made from broken columns. De Chirico was present during the first Olympic Games of the modern era. He witnessed the arrival of Louis, the Greek man who won the marathon. The crown prince embraced him. ‘The public was delirious.’ But the attempt to invoke the ancient tradition of a parallel cultural Olympiad was a fiasco. ‘Dreary, tedious and above all artificial,’ de Chirico wrote in his Memoirs. ‘A destructive atmosphere of intellectualism lay over the public and the actors. It looked as though everyone was stifling huge yawns … But the organisers of open-air spectacles do not want to understand and continue, more through stupidity than through obstinacy or conviction, to give these clumsy performances in all countries.’
The security man in the office of the main Olympic stadium, now taken over, despite the running track, by the football team AEK Athens, gave us permission to inspect the empty, rain-slicked bowl. The recycling appeared to be successful, another example of a commercial enterprise surfing public funds. The Markopoulo Olympic Equestrian Centre, I was pleased to discover, had also found a use: corporate Australians staged inter-firm cricket matches there.
Out towards Piraeus, near the Karaiskakis Stadium of the Olympiakos football club, the derangement is absolute. The argument between vanity architecture and random post-architectural infill, self-designed termite colonies wedged into every nook and cranny, is presented in all its naked absurdity. The great white monster stadiums, with their choked plants withering in stone beds, are a beached fleet. The Peace and Friendship Stadium (which hosted the volleyball in 2004) has docked from some totalitarian regime that got lucky with oil and gas. Peering inside its cavernous depths, the acres of waxed boards, I saw a solitary depressive shooting hoops like a Category C prisoner enduring his hour of sanctioned exercise. Families, enjoying their Sunday at the seaside, manoeuvre around these useless mastodons, to cluster in a beachfront bar with a panoramic view of the yachts of the oligarchs, the marine insurance brokers.
What is beautiful, in this abandoned urban steppe, is the way the official narrative is ignored and subverted. The overpasses and underpasses, the stilted highways and giant hoardings, the irrigation ditches and empty canals, the mesh fences and graffiti-splashed junction boxes form an edgy parkland where anything could happen. Permitted paths vanish into dunes of landfill, into neurotic traffic, into rail tracks and tramways. But the old road, the ghost road, the one that was here before all this madness, has become a favoured route for joggers and cyclists. The Olympic Park, that corrupted legacy, is like mid-period Fellini: kite flyers, moody urbanists in long coats, white cars parked in unlikely places, a glitter of sea you can never quite reach. Across the coastal highway, over the tracks, is an area of balconied flats, steel-blue offices and sex clubs with scarlet promises: STRIP LIVE SHOW. And multiples of that leering Tarantino with his bottle of booze and his accusing finger. A film-maker called Aristotelis, a former student of architecture, explained it to me. ‘The Games are just empty buildings, we have no use for them. But they have become monuments, so we can handle them and live with them. We are used to living among ruins. They are just ruins, they were never anything else.’
Returned to Hackney, I found the canal was still blocked off, barriers put up in time to use up this year’s cash reserves, but not one brick had been touched and no workmen were to be seen in the entire fenced-off strip. Parking in my street, for which the council charges a good fee, was suspended – without consultation – so that a film crew could lodge their catering vans. ‘Be advised,’ said the document shoved through the door, ‘using these suspended bays at any point during the day will accrue a parking ticket.’ But the borough never fails to surprise and inform: a number of the anarchists who were giving a cutting edge to events in Athens were living right here, in a communal building near the canal known as The Greek House. They flew out at regular intervals to take part in the action in Athens, and then regrouped in what they described as ‘Occupied London’. I watched film clips of protesters swarming through the narrow streets of Kolonaki, under the orange trees, marshalled by young men with megaphones. I read about the police opening fire on students at Palaio Faliro. And I saw, as if I needed to be told, that London becomes everywhere: the Greek anarchists were making films transposing the conditions of the West Bank and Hackney. That dog-culling, pre-Olympic moment had finally arrived, as the papers picked up on the growth in ownership of ‘status’ dogs, attack animals bred in tower blocks and back bedrooms. The call was out: it’s them or us.