Some time ago I was invited by Gareth Evans to step into a hole in the ground of the Old Rectory gardens in Hackney Central. The hole had been dug out of the soil by the Dig Collective, as a poignant intervention and an act of resistance against the imminent loss of yet another free space to the spoils of redevelopment.
Together with another handful of writers, I was asked to read a piece of writing from within the hole, clutching a rusty old handle while breathing in the damp, perfumed scent of the earth. It was a moving and unsettling experience to lower myself, unaided, into the ground, and from there look back at everyone I had left behind, albeit temporarily- the distance between us suddenly swelling to an existential, unbridgeable chasm. I felt cradled by this bare soil, contained and absorbed by it, a sacred home- place of origin and of convergence- that I think of uneasily, or neglect altogether in my hurried days.
No amount of damage or erasure will ever sever us from this compassionate earth.
Here is the story I had written for the occasion:
Every night I fall asleep to the sound of helicopters circling the milky sky of Hackney, tearing through a darkness diluted by the myriad streams of electric light that pour into it like a swollen estuary discharging into the sea. That low rumble decorates the white night, saturating it with a tension that accompanies me in dreams. The city grinds relentlessly, chewing up air, space and time, feasting on the things that we need the most to survive: daily we struggle to reclaim a morsel of that nourishment, gathering the crumbs that spill out of its greedy mouth.
Every night, while the helicopters rattle through the dense sky, I practice my silence with rigour and hope. I summon it to my room, sow it into the pale night and tend to it, so that someday I may harvest real darkness, that thick, star-studded fabric of dreams. There may be others like me who farm this unusual crop: a quiet multitude of night-harvesters, who tend to the silence like shepherds to their flocks. The city winds itself around each one of us, pulling us apart through space and time, and yet the soil that we churn is one and the same, and our solitude but a distraction. The labour of our hands and our minds ripples through the many singular nights that we inhabit, and chimes in unison. One day we will harvest our crops as one.
The soil of London is moist and hidden. It lies under layers of concrete that make our steps faster, keep the dirt from spoiling the neatness of the surface, keep us from falling. The pavements on the street where I live are being replaced: their worn-out surface marked by trapdoors, ridges and cracks- uneven and hazardous- is being ripped from the soil and replaced by clean, white slabs of concrete. Hackney is not inscribed on them, nor will the fast treading of light feet leave on them the same deep traces that time and habit had etched on the old one. As the pavements are lifted from the ground I can see the soil beneath it glinting like moist flesh, hinting at the subterranean rivers that flow through it, unseen and unknown, yet furious and vital.
The new concrete slabs are laid, their whiteness sealing the pulsating ground within, ironing out an even surface saturated with a smoothness that instantly erases the memory of everything it conceals. Over this white concrete, structures are built on shallow foundations: towers stretch so far into the sky that from the top it is impossible to hear the perpetual churning of the city’s entrails. The facades are sleek and impenetrable, their mirrored surfaces reflecting our image until we are blinded by our own speed. The hollow spaces and interstices are filled in for us- each nook and cranny, each gap in thought. Forever instructed to mind these gaps- those dangerous moments of intense possibility- that problem has now been solved for us entirely.
I stand on a patch of freshly laid white pavement. Around me rows of Victorian houses huddle together like sooty orphans, their dirty rags sticking out from under the layers of ill-fitting new clothes. They hold their ground defiantly, their toes in direct contact with the edge of the new pavement, leaving dirty marks where they touch.
These homes were shelters before they were money, and their bare bones groan each time their guts are wrenched out and a new layer of paint sets on the walls.
The last house on the left is plunged in perpetual darkness, its skin a darker shade of grey as though time had settled on it like moss: the front door has been replaced by a sheet of corrugated metal and the windows are blinded by thick layers of dust.
A pale, bent figure sometimes tends to the overgrown garden, moving through it like a crooked ghost. Her presence in the garden is as evanescent as her figure: sometimes she slithers through the leaves, or drapes her awkward body on the dirty stoop. I have once seen her step across the threshold of her home onto the pavement, wearing a green recycling bag as a scarf tucked in her neat black coat, a bonnet pinned carefully to her unruly white hair, whiskers framing her plump smile. When she disappears for long stretches of time she leaves behind her a great emptiness, an unfillable gap at the bottom of which one can see the moist earth tremble. In the shadow of tall new buildings rising all around her forgotten story, her physical presence, whether visible or invisible, is an act of resistance, a point of continuity in the timeline of the city.
I stand on the pavement and I begin to dig. At first the ground is so hard and impenetrable that the shock form the impact ricochets through my body like a stern shiver. I inspect the spot where I have struck and I can see a small dent, hardly a mark at all but undeniably there, right in the middle of the slab. I strike again.
It is morning when I begin, and by nightfall the mark has grown to the size of a hand. The helicopters tear through the white nights of Hackney as I continue to dig, sweat pouring from me in steady streams. By dawn the hole in the ground is wide and deep enough for me to step inside. So I remove my shoes and socks and enter the crack. The soil is damp around my feet and it envelops them instantly, appearing to absorb them like water. I stand on the spot as people walk past me on their daily commute. As they rush by, they don’t seem to notice me plunging deeper and deeper into the soil. I am now knee-deep inside the hole and it is twilight, the in between hour. I watch the same people return to their homes, wrapped in their clothes like armours, their downcast eyes willfully missing the curious sight of a woman sinking in the white concrete slabs of their new pavement. The streetlights flicker on and I am now neck-deep, as the helicopters resume their nightly rides through the thick sky above me. The soil holds me like a mouth, warm and soft, wet and quivering.
One deep breath and I am under.
I follow the riverbed, black soil under my feet: the water glints and shoots arrows of light through the pitch-black air that envelops me. I advance confidently, listening to the sound of the river beside me, its steady gurgling tearing through the fragrant darkness. I admit that it is an act of faith, this blind progression through uncharted territories that appear to exist beneath everything that I remember: and yet as I turn around I can discern a pathway unraveling behind me, lit-up by a mysterious glow, and further back, in the distance, the sound of footsteps following along the same path. I am ploughing this black earth, but I am not alone in my pursuit.
Each step expands the space around me and makes it breathe.
The river is ancient and wild, strewn with sediment it has dragged along with it through time and space. It is filled with life and death and all stories in between. It is divine and infernal at once, a perpetual flow beside which I appear like the small, temporal being that I am. I continue walking. Sometimes I become so scared of my loneliness that I consider forsaking the path: I agonise at the thought of the many white roads I have renounced when I first began to dig, pushing through this unformed dimension underground. But the river beckons me forward, unmoved by my faltering.
I look up, and the air is glowing faintly now, lit up by a beam of light that seems to originate from somewhere above my head. All around me the silhouettes of numberless staircases loom like strange totems, all of them rising out of solid foundations, all of them interrupted abruptly in mid-air. They look like trees, mythical weeds that stretch up to the sky, falling just short of the surface. They oscillate ominously, creaking like rusty hinges, impossible thresholds that once may have bridged great distances. I look up at the surface above my head, a thick membrane, milky white and opalescent. From within this hole I’m in, moist and fragrant, I consider the distance that separates me from the other side: it seems to be at once imperceptible and insurmountable.
The earth is warm and comforting here, it holds me together, it contains me, and I don’t want to ever leave again. But the tide is rising, and the river is swelling: I can hear it gaining force and pace, and erupt from the riverbed that cradled it. If I am to save myself from drowning I must build a raft. So I tear off pieces of wood from the ruined staircases and I tie them together with my hair.
It is a humble vessel, but it is all I need to float.
It is nighttime again when I emerge. Above me I can see the helicopters tearing through the white night, but I can no longer hear their low rumble, erased by the sound of the water that rushes me forward over the white concrete, past glass towers and council flats and though the empty streets of the city. I sit on my raft as the waters continue to rise. Now the tall buildings are submerged, and when I look into the dark waters I can see their mirrored facades refracting the light into a myriad shards as multitudes of people walk in single file along discarded train tracks. Above them I continue to rise until the sky is below me, and the helicopters are engulfed by the current and disappear instantly, like fish in the deep. In the black, star-studded night that now surrounds me I can see other scattered vessels, curious rafts cobbled together with great imagination. I nod at the passengers who nod back at me, as we all slide along, steered by the current. Bound to our vessels by hope, we have dug into the heart of the city and risen again with its tidal blood. We hold on to the leaky planks that support us, and we tell each other stories as we sail on: although we cannot see each other’s faces clearly we cast our words into the night with intense conviction. The journey ahead may be perilous but we are many: with soil under our fingernails and windswept hair, we gaze into the water at the city, glowing like a mythical wreck under the surface- secret, majestic and obsolete.
We know that as soon as we hit land, we will have to build again.
photograph by Mark Peter Wright