Laura Oldfield Ford: Scorched Earth

The artist's latest psychogeographic walk takes her to Poplar, from the October 2015 issue

By Laura Oldfield Ford

You walk back to the zone – lanes of traffic, a toxic trough, effective as battlements separating Canary Wharf from Poplar: Majestic Wines, Bacchus Bin’s, glyphs in a spiral subway, a submerged arcade that feels like China, banks of dried palms, scorched ivy and the tilting view of empty towers. Beneath the DLR, the elevated motorway, two glowing billboards acting as sentries, gatekeepers of the city when you sweep in from the east.

A confluence of boundaries beyond the traffic barrier – triangular yards bounded by metal fences, container stacks, collapsing townships in the rubble – Robin Hood gardens is suddenly there and you feel it intersecting, all these walks, this listless heatwave-pacing – you sense this point is the locus.

Citadel bearing down – Citigroup, JP Morgan, Barclays. That pub, the Steamship, lying in wait in a sunken cobbled street. You searched for it that April night, full-moon eclipse, drifting in circles round Limehouse and Westferry. You had accepted its disappearance, let it fall into that reservoir of lost places; and now, without warning, it reveals itself – mildewed plaster, aerial fronds, George flags strewn across a desolate yard.

You scale a brick wall, a heavy black expanse bordering East India Dock. A millennial garden with bronze statues. Streets named after spices brought into the docks – clove, nutmeg, saffron. An evocation of hallucinatory power, shamanic transformation. An arrangement of stones, public sculpture salvaged from the dock wall, can only be Herma, an unconscious honouring of the navigator. Leamouth bus terminal, not an ending, but a point of departure. Feels like an abandoned holiday resort, empty wine bar, no one around but bored security. New apartment blocks, Elektron Tower, Neutron Tower, reflected in the algae-puffed water, fleuro cotton wool expanding beneath the surface.

Grey silos looking like sealed conference centres. You know, they house data systems, servers; the entire financial-services industry entombed, encoded in these eerie dromes – Selco, Global Switch – if you wanted to do something really mental, you could do that place. Grilles, cooling systems, disaster-aversion strategies. You’re not the first to have circled, thought, made a note. Roundabouts, intersections, crossings, sparse ovals of eelgrass. You stop at a 24-hour garage for supplies: snout, brandy, cans of Boost.

You are drawn into the gravitational field of Chrisp Street, the Festival Tavern. This is the point of intensity where your name, your biography are activated. You sometimes come in for karaoke on a Saturday night; scene on the pavement is spasming, demented – more and more piling in from the market, from the Lansbury Estate. There’s a TV high up in the corner, London 24, more madness going off on the tube, Liverpool Street this time. You stand outside with bottles of Heineken. The street is melting, white people with burning skin, the feverish hallucinations of daytime drinking – must be about 15 of you now, more gathered along the way, Ahmed, Asim, Ish slinking into the bar when imams come past. Skillsmatch, the job scheme on Heron Quay seems a long way away, no one’s going back. It’s early afternoon, unexpected September heatwave. You know the hours could collapse seamlessly here, but you need to get back to the Aberfeldy – just had a cascade of texts saying council are walking round with contractors and police. You cross Chrisp Street, the crushing heat outside cafs and eel shops – all these points on the covert map – the launderette, the bookies, Callaghans, where you hear the latest spiralling broadcasts.

Balfron Tower. You move beneath it, dank concrete chambers, tomblike vistas opening behind metal grilles. You navigate the paths with an easy familiarity, the nest of concrete staircases, dense tangles of blackthorn and the woodland paths banking the Blackwall approach road. You feel the pull, the undertow of the tiled 1960s subway, the tessellated characters with Savage Messiah stickers for eyes. At each exit always a pile of stones, twin mounds of rubble. The Aberfeldy, so remote, held in by the A12, the A13 and the Lea, almost impossible for the outsider to find a way in, apertures behind chevrons, a faultline opening in a wall of perspex panels, that’s where you squeeze through. You are in a bank of briars and convolvulus, a bindweed matrix. You scramble down through brambles, crab apples and the sweet scent of hay. Derelict car yard, metal shutters down, sump oil circles printed into the tarmac. Corrugated iron, bonfire smoke, the smell of diesel. Push through metal railings to the estate – the island.

Oldfield Ford October 2015

It’s all heating up again, Angolan, Somali, Pakistani, English, Irish, Bengali, forging new alliances, reimagining the zone. Since the yuppie flats went up and the shantytowns emerged, ties are dissolving, reconfiguring. Dormant seams of BNP are melting, families know which way it’s going; you’re pushing for occupations, know it’s your only chance of keeping your flats. They’ve threatened you with resettlement and this crew you have now are up for a fight, they despise the council, Poplar Harca, the Tory government: we’re not going to Birmingham, Hull or any of them places. Now, on the service roads around the new developments, it’s like Calais, husks interconnecting, black plastic sheets stretching over spindly plywood frames. You walk through overgrown rose gardens, the sweet vanilla scent of yellow roses. The Aberfeldy Tavern.

The pub sealed the autonomy of the island, stuff being fenced, ancestral habits brought over from the loop of Bow Creek. After the slum clearances, they all came here, the same families dominating: the Lammins, the Scanlons, a white working-class ambience. The scavenging for flotsam and jetsam, the sale of rope and coal round the neighbours, was translated into knockoff perfume, snide gear, boxes siphoned out of loading bays and fire exits – a self-perpetuating, self-contained economy.

When the pub closed, the vigour was sapped from the estate. L-shaped bar, pool table, Sitex on the windows and those hoardings outside depicting the masterplan, Aberfeldy Village. You broke through plywood fencing, cut the razor wire and were in. Old scents of damp and cigarette smoke, the sugary stink of spilled coke. Everything preserved: mahogany bar, fluorescent posters advertising DJs and turns. Now you put nights on there, run cafs and legal centres, it’s a centrifugal force across the estate.

You stand in the yard at the front, where the dealers used to circle, always white blokes with dank estuary accents. Your Nan used to come in here. There was a corner they presided over, the ones who remembered Orchard Place. And at the other side the pool table and the jukebox and the lads playing darts. Burgundy walls, ochre ceiling, spider plants catching in your hair.

A crew came in a few weeks ago from the Aylesbury, that big estate in Elephant & Castle, you knew quite a lot of them, some Scottish, mostly Leeds. You saw how the council had locked them out of their flats, tangled the whole place up with fences and razor wire. You knew they would do that here, if they could. You’re planning to take the six sealed blocks radiating from Blair Street; get the locks changed, use bolt cutters to prise off Sitex and get the electricity rerouted from the grid.

The sense of isolation from the rest of London is intensifying. The pub stays open all night behind heavy black drapes, like the war. Militant techno and stretchy grime, sound systems stacked like pyramids in the yard.

The little biro drawings, the notes and diaries that make up your life, are etched into this island. You keep coming back to it, drifting around London with the gravitational pull always there. You live with your Nan. She’s got a two-bedroom place, a lounge with damask pink wallpaper and a view across Canary Wharf. There are coral-pink lamps with pleated shades and velvet curtains, a deep damson colour. In winter it’s like a cocoon, with the heating on and the glow from the lamp.

You have a laugh watching Deal or No Deal, knocking back sherry. Your conversations span the decades, her teenage years in the Blitz, the glass factories and boatyards, the journey from Orchard Place. She was the last of the family to be born there, just a baby when they were forced over the twin peninsulas, the convulsing loop of the Lea, to Oban House, the flat you have now.

She keeps the balcony immaculate, cascading red geraniums. Rosemary in earthenware pots.

4PM

The yard is enclosed by a wall of plywood. Parched heat and the scent of sandalwood unfurling from a balcony, peng lemon fat bags, rum and cokes, bag of ice from the ZR shop.

A loophole, a hidden anomaly – all those dissociatives from that chemist on Chrisp Street, David’s Linctus, Robitussin. Metal beer barrels, palm trees in plastic containers. Psychedelic loopiness – mini rig, instrumental grime. L-shaped room with a crystalline brightness, maroon walls with marker-pen glyphs. You stand there reading them, decoding them, the proliferating dreams of revenge.

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue.