Today was a strange one. A day off yesterday so a run was on today. I had a very light breakfast. Worked a little. Then,
ENOUGH! It’s Sunday for God’s sake. I put on my trainers, said I would be gone for 60-90 minutes and stepped out the door, not knowing how far I was going to go.
|The Ferrier Estate, in glorious full colour
The first mile passes a little quickly. Am I going a bit fast? Then something odd happens. Instead of turning up towards Blackheath, to snake up to it through Atkinson-Grimshaw land, I find that I have gone straight. The road is awful (Lee High Road). I drive on it all the time and I know that it is shite and has nothing whatsoever to offer me, but here I am. Today, for some reason, I don’t mind the noise at all and am driven by wanting to do something a little different. So I do.
After a mile, I turn North off the main road and head towards Kidbrooke. I have driven through here a few times, but I don’t really know it. I have seen the council estate from the road and it looks, huge – like a city in itself, one that it is about to collapse at any moment. Mile 2, done. At last, I touch concrete that I’ve neither seen nor sensed before. The road is deserted. The estate is boarded off, solid metal fences block pathways, deserted flats have had doors and windows covered by huge metal panels, their numbers graffitied on them in freehand figures. I suppose it is all being demolished. The road is quiet. It is straight, and it is long. I run down the middle of it.
This landscape is amazing. This is life in black and white. No, that’s wrong. This is life in grayscale. There was a deep cerulean sky, now there are only varying shades of colourlessness. The buildings are such a deeply hostile grey that the sap the colour from the few trees that surround them.
They are all connected by intestinal walkways. Some have prosthetic growths, huge grey boxes that hang from the side of the blocks. Everything is piped, vented, rivetted. Some are connected by ladders that were once painted pink, a long time ago. They have hoops all the way up to protect a climber from falling. But to look at, the first rung would crumble to rusty ashes if someone was to step upon it. The concrete on the blocks is so jaggedly ridged that it would rip open your skin just to feel it. Tarkovsky would not have needed an art-director to shoot here. No set dressing would be necessary. Welcome to The Zone.
I circumnavigate the entire estate. It is going to be developed. Everywhere are banners and borders shouting that new life is about to begin. But that is all. I run for well over a mile around the complex, and I see no one. A bus goes by. What the fuck for? Nobody’s here. The bus is empty. I find it hard to believe that anyone was actually driving it. My iPod has been on random, and this is the moment that I first hear Ghostpoet’s ‘Survive it’. It is a sort of ambient dub-step and it sounds so much like it belongs here that it is sweating from the pores of these condemned buildings. Curtains hang in windows, not ‘hang’, but hang from maybe two hooks. My God! Some of these flats are still occupied. Some have no windows – I don’t mean that they have been smashed. I mean they have no windows. No glass. No frames. Just a wide open aperture looking out onto an erupting A2. I see a poster, so big that it is the size of one the blocks.
‘For today, for tomorrow, for the future’.
I don’t know what this means. For whose future? The council tenants that have been turfed out so the valuable commuter land could be sold to developers?
The developers are making space for the new buildings. Some areas on the eastern side of the site are fenced off by solid panels, green and glossy like trees just into leaf. They are eight foot tall and plastered with empty marketing rubbish like ‘for greener living’. There are pictures too. The boards continue in an unbroken motif for hundreds of metres.
- A woman, in her twenties, is hunched over her bike. She concentrates hard. Her cheeks balloon slightly as she exhales hard into a chimp’s ‘ooo’. She is wearing oyster-coloured Lycra. Her earphones are clipped and taped efficiently to her body. She concentrates hard on her balance. But she is surrounded by blurred taupe. She is inside. The bike is in a gym that doesn’t exist yet.
- The next is of a young man. He lies back on some green grass, fingers interlaced behind his head. He has a blissful, or is it a smug, smile on his face like he is being sucked off out of frame. He wears a huge pair of silver headphones. His eyes are closed.
- Next, a Taxi, stylistically blurred, speeding through the reddened night of London’s streets.
- Then a landscape with … a blue river. A nondescript one. A generic one. The simulacra of one.
- And finally, the Cutty Sark – a tea schooner in Greenwich which has been under cover from public view for at least four years.
All of these images are an absolute denial of place. One works hard to escape on a stationary bike, performing with considerable intensity and focus, an exercise that will get her nowhere. Another shuts his eyes to close himself off from the world and drowns out the noise with fuck-off ‘phones. The other three are definitively about not being here. And all this primary-Technicolour seems like it is a distraction. A magician’s sleight of hand to distract visitors from seeing what their luxury new apartments are destined to become. Live here long enough and you will see it become The Zone once again.
Then something odd. On my left is a height cross-wire fence looking out on to some fields. Right by my head as I bounce along is a squirrel. It runs with me on the top of the fence. At first I wonder if I have startled it and it is trying to run away from me, but it is stuck in the one-dimensional world of the wire of the fence-top. But it could have run the other way. It has a hazelnut in its mouth. It matches my pace for a few metres, then like it’s fallen from a great height, splats its limbs at a tree, quickly climbs and is gone. Does it gambol like this because the landscape is so static and unpeopled. I have had enough of this devastation and I need air. I have a narrow desire to get up high somewhere. I head North out of Kidbrooke and the first thing I see is a giant Homebase. I laugh aloud – what a terrible advert for that shop to have such a state on its doorstep.
A couple of days before, Adam and I were walking out of Hilly Fields and he asked what that hill was in the distance. I hadn’t the least idea. It took us a few minutes to work out that it had to be the old A2 and Shooter’s Hill. It looks so big with a huge watertower on the summit. I don’t care how far it is, that’s where I’m going, now.
After the run I check the climb. Had I known it was 500ft, one of the highest points in London, that the climb went on for over a mile, would I have done it? Hmmm…
The climb seemed interminable and I was reminded of the fact that for well over a thousand years, marauders have hunted here, preying upon exhausted horses and their rich passengers. They were still doing it 800 years later when Dick Turpin hunted here. Pepys remarked upon seeing the deterrent of men hanged from gibbets (11/4/1661). But none of this stops me from wanting to run to the top of the world and look over the precipice. To see land. To see something that isn’t concrete. To touch a void as a remedy to all this tightly-compacted civilisation.
Silent comrade of the distances,
Know that space dilates with your own breath