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Marshland, dreams and nightmares on the edge of London

‘Marshland, dreams and nightmares on the edge of London’ by Gareth E Rees is not a book about the Olympics! But it is about the ongoing struggle over Hackney Marshes and the open space on the east of the River Lea. In 1892, 3,000 local people tore up rails laid by the East London Waterworks Company. In 1985 a campaign group called Save the Marshes succeeded in beating off the attempt by the Lea Valley Regional Park Authority, the supposed protector of the Marshes, to allow quarrying on Walthamstow Marshes. Then in 2005 London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games and battle was joined once again in the most recent round in the continuing struggle between local people and railway, water and quarrying companies, housing authorities and developers and now the Olympic Delivery Authority.

Rees is not an activist. He is largely absent from the drama unfolding around him. He reluctantly takes a leaflet from a Leyton Marsh protester and has some ‘bad, selfish thoughts’ wishing they would all go away, protesters, construction workers, Chinook helicopters, and let him get on with walking his dog. He has his own slight confrontation with the stupidity and arrogance of authority when he is barred from taking Hendrix onto Hackney Marshes at the time it was fenced off as ‘private property’ for Hackney’s Radio One event. He walks away wishing he could say he did more to protest.

Rees’s account starts with his recent arrival in Clapton from distant Dalston. He is looking for somewhere to walk his dog, Hendrix. But Hendrix is attacked by a bull mastiff and Rees ends up being held by his ankles by the mastiff's owner as he reaches down into the depths of the River Lea to rescue his cocker spaniel, paddling unsuccessfully against the current. This is Rees’ strange baptism into the mysteries of the Marshes on the east of the Lea, the Marshland of the title, on the edge of London.

Marshland is autobiography, psychogeography, mythogeography, history, personal journey, psychedelic discovery, even a soundtrack. Rees turns the landscape and the Lea into actors as people and nature fight back. With his illustrator, Ada Jusic, he conjures up the secrets and history of Hackney and its edgelands. The Lea Valley was an industrial powerhouse with a record of industrial invention, the first powered flight on Walthamstow Marsh, the dash of Lotus, the diode, the first light bulb, the first monorail, all lovingly remembered in the Pump House Museum at South Access Road. But the Marshes are also a hangout for criminals, drug users, drinkers, ravers and, during the War, people trekking to get away from the bombs. Rees combines edgy underworld encounters with fantastic stories of bears, crocodiles, sabre tooth tigers and religious cults. He has dreams of the Marsh, of a micro nation on a narrow boat which rescues a man who becomes a bear, of time travelling water engineers transported from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century who become entangled with the unfolding drama at Leyton Marsh, and nightmares, of strange fires which spread across London and of a biomass experiment at Matchmakers Wharf.

Rees discovers and explores a world, a wilderness, threatened by property development, the spread of concrete, brick and tarmac. It’s a losing battle, over the years the Lea has been tamed, its flow slowed by canals and locks. Indeed it may be worse than he imagines. Rees rejoices at the surging river as it tumbles over the sluice below Lea Bridge Road but sadly doesn’t seem to be aware of the new dam and lock at Three Mills which have ended the tidal flow that used to reach up to Hackney Marsh. The Olympics are something new. This is big money, big power coming east. After a brief protest the Manor Gardens Allotments are shunted off to Marsh Lane Fields, the ODA pushes aside protesters, who bravely lie down in front of lorries at Leyton Marsh, to build their unnecessary temporary Basketball Arena. Dourly Rees records how Leyton Marsh is left waterlogged after the white windowless arena is dismantled and how construction at Essex Wharf next to Leyton Marsh marks the arrival of property developers on the east side of the Lea. Having brought us up to now Rees’ unclassifiable narrative ends with a future water apocalypse brought about by those in the city terrified of the inhabitants of the Marsh.

Except it doesn’t….. But then Marshland, published by Influx Press is that kind of book.

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