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The Olympics site: ‘a ticking-clock assault on the residue of industrial history’

In this extract from his latest book, Ghost Milk, Iain Sinclair looks at the toxicity of the soil under the Olympics

December 16, 2011
8 min read

Iain Sinclair. Photo: Joy Gordon

Circumambulations of the Olympic Park were becoming an addiction. Richard Mabey, author of The Unofficial Countryside, a book I twinned with Ballard’s Crash as the great edgeland testimonials of the 1970s, accompanied me on another forlorn excursion. He travelled with binoculars, not a camera. He pointed out the feathery clumps of fennel growing at the cropped margin of the canal, near the Mare Street bridge. He told me that coots and ducks would be unaffected by radioactive spillage into the water table. They breed quite happily, and often, in the teeth of eco disaster. He was impressed by the duckweed lawns clotting the Lea, near Old Ford Lock.

The telling moment on this walk came with our arrival at the stack of yellow containers that operate, in playfully ironic mode, as café, viewing platform and learning centre on the Greenway overlooking the Olympic stadium. We explored a thicket that ran along the side of the railway, where wild nature, profligate and without imposed narrative, thrived in blossom and berry.

Hacking our way out of the tunnel, we emerged on a strip of bare, baked earth beside the yellow tin box. Mabey examined, in grim fascination, a cluster of dying saplings. At which point, a young woman emerged from the education centre to tick him off for having the temerity to intrude on the few yards of precious ground reserved for the education of the disadvantaged children of the Olympic boroughs. Richard pointed out that the pathetic plantings were choked of sustenance, uncared for, coughing their last. And if she really wanted to let the children see something grow, all she had to do was take down the rickety exclusion fence and a fruiting, thrusting wilderness would sweep across from the embankment.

Hear Iain Sinclair read this section. Video: ftbs

Among the cargoes regularly transported down the railway line, through the heart of London’s major development, the site where countless thousands will soon be arriving from across the globe for the great B&Q self-assembly Olympics, are flasks containing highly radioactive nuclear fuel-rods, shipped from Sizewell in Suffolk, and Dungeness in Kent, to Sellafield on the Cumbrian coast. When the Nuclear Trains Action Group (NTAG) contacted the Olympic Development Authority to ask if these convoys would continue to run through the period of the Games, they received no reply. Mayor Johnson knows nothing, remains silent. He has other, more pressing problems. [The shipments were later suspended.]

A protest rally, marching from Victoria Park to Stratford station, staged a ‘die-in’ in front of the CGI Westfield promotional panels, well aware of the official Olympic clock clicking down the seconds like the nuclear triggers in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. Such oddities are part of a conflicted topography: protest into art, political rhetoric into psychotic babble. The Angel Lane bridge over the railway, the route we walked from Chobham Farm to Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Royal and the High Street, has been demolished. Mounds of scoured earth appear overnight, mountain ranges of a rigid formality thrown up by some new collision of the earth’s tectonic plates.

At the junction of the Hertford Union canal and the Lea Navigation, I came across an Olympic art manifestation which stopped me in my tracks. Here at last was a conceptual piece that took the breath away. Between Whitepost Lane and Old Ford, water gushed, cascaded, out of the enclosed site, through the fence, into the turbid and duckweed-infested canal. New barriers had been erected to deny access to potential paddlers heading for the main stadium. It was shapely, the way the water folded, curved and shimmered: a dwarf Niagara coming out of nowhere.

A jogger paused alongside me, hands on knees, taking in this unexpected water feature. ‘Twenty-eight years,’ he said. ‘And now this.’ He had come from Hong Kong and settled on an estate in Hackney Wick. Every morning he ran the same circuit, now his path was blocked. He never knew when he set out which way he would be allowed to return home, or if his home would still be standing. ‘There has never been such division between rich people and poor.’ He gestured towards the cliff of green-glazed windows on the spit of ground opposite us: a man-made island, the triangle between the Hertford Union, the Lea Navigation, and the A102 Blackwall tunnel approach.

This was no art work, in the sense of being funded, approved: punctured Victorian pipes on the Olympic site. No water in the taps for much of Hackney. The security guards brought in to protect the rapidly assembled plywood barriers were old‑fashioned bouncer types, amiable and suspicious, nervous of saying the wrong thing in an unfamiliar language. The inner ring, close to the stadium complex and the construction convoys, was now guarded by regiments of Joanna Lumley’s diminutive and unreadable Gurkhas.

It was only when I studied privately commissioned reports of investigations into the extensive radioactive contamination of the 2012 site that I appreciated the implication of the gushing pipes. The dispersal cell holding many tonnes of treated and untreated soil, in layers under a permeable skin, was positioned right here. As Ian Griffiths revealed in an article in the Guardian: ‘Documents obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) rules reveal that, contrary to government guidelines, waste from thorium and radium has been mixed with very low-level waste and buried in a so-called dispersal cell’. A cell which was placed about 500 metres to the north of the Olympic stadium. The setting for the involuntary water feature.

Bill Parry-Davies convened a meeting at which Mike Wells, who had been sifting thousands of documents and invigilating the progress of construction activity with numerous photographs, gave a lucid and alarming account of his findings. You could not nominate, in all of London, more challenging ground for a landscape blitz, a ticking-clock assault on the devastated residue of industrial history: insecticide and fertiliser works, paint factories, distillers of gin, gas mantel manufacturers, bone grinders, importers of fish-mush, seething dunes of radiant maggots.

Waste: dumped, buried. Disturbed. Distributed.

Decay.

Putrefaction.

Tyre mounds.

The crunched metal-and-glass of innumerable breakers’ yards hidden behind convolvulus-draped fences, under the flag of St George. Snarling dogs. Shirtless men smashing white goods with hammers.

And the dust.

The particulates. Hot cinders.

Blind warehouses with bundles of rags and damp paper waiting for insurance fires. Petrol reek. Black ash.

Oily smoke saturates cloth, fouls underwear.

In the dirt, they prospect: the pinstripe outsiders, compliant bureaucrats. Sanctioned buck passers.

This was where London University carried out experiments with a now-decommissioned nuclear reactor. An area so far off the official map, so hidden within a nexus of dark waterways, that it functioned as the dumping ground of choice for what Parry-Davies refers to as ‘uncontrolled deposits of radioactive thorium’. In an OPEN Dalston blog, Bill presents a photograph by Mike Wells showing ‘clouds of dust, and a skip with unsealed bags of asbestos material, during demolition of the Clays Lane estate.’

In the Leabank Square estate, from which the Chinese jogger had emerged for his restorative morning circuit, mediating rather than remediating the territory, residents were concerned about dust from the Olympic site. ‘A recognised pathway to contamination,’ Parry-Davies said, ‘is by a person inhaling radioactive dust particles. Thorium is particularly hazardous.’ On the estate, as the summer barbeque season opened, families found themselves ‘literally eating’ a relish of airborne dust, a mega-chilli bite on their steaks and sausages. When their worries were published on a website, the ODA threatened the Leabank whistle-blower with legal proceedings. And sent in a dust-sweeping vehicle to patrol the yellow-brick avenues.

Rumours were rife. I was told that the only consequence of the remediating exercise was to spread low-level radioactivity across the entire landscape of the Olympic enclosure, the divided fiefdoms of competing contractors. Toxic soil removed from the stadium was stored alongside bundles of Japanese knotweed, suggesting delirious Quatermass mutations, vegetal Triffid creatures slouching towards Westfield to be born.

Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project is published by Hamish Hamilton

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