The Hackney Hole
St Augustine’s Tower in 1750
From London Review of Books:
They dig and the earth is sweet. The Hackney Hole is eight square metres, straight down through the lawn of a decommissioned rectory. This secret garden is separated from St Augustine’s Tower by a high wall of darkly weathered brick. The proud stub of the square tower is all that remains of Hackney’s oldest ecclesiastical building, a 16th-century revision of the 13th-century church founded by the Knights of St John. The Hole is a statement and it is properly capitalised. The labourers, a self-confessed art collective, work the Hole by hand, with pick and shovel, turn and turn about: four days to complete a grave shaft, without any of the tortured grinding and screeching, the mechanical gouging that attends the uncivil engineering projects that carve so recklessly through the tarmac and concrete and clay of this loudly regenerated fiefdom. And down again through the pipes and wires of the utility companies who treat their cone-protected pits as privileged art installations and block off junctions and towpaths for unspecified months, as an oversubscribed militia in sour yellow tabards retreat to their all-day breakfasts and tabloid-insulated Portakabins. By way of contrast, the lawn-despoilers initiated their modest project at the summer solstice, before returning every grain of soil, with willing volunteers, in October. One of those who went down into the pit spoke of falling asleep every night to the clatter of helicopters ‘circling the milky sky of Hackney’. She relished, by contrast, the silence of the burrow, and the ‘damp, perfumed scent’ of the living earth that held her firm in a clammy poultice. ‘I felt cradled by this bare soil,’ Chiara Ambrosio, a filmmaker and anthropologist, told me, ‘contained and absorbed by it, a place of origin and convergence.’
When the surface of the world is so overloaded with competing narratives, with shrill boasts hung from every blue fence and plastered over buses and police cars and refuse trucks, there is an understandable impulse to go underground. Oligarchs and overcompensated money market raiders, Premier League footballers and their agents have burrowed under Chelsea and Kensington for generations, commissioning Dr No fantasies of swimming pools and cinemas and state of the art gymnasia in which no uninvited civilian will ever set foot. These windowless sets, finessed by fashionable architects, are like parodies of facilities promised for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. And nobody but the owners can get at them. What could be more empowering than to sit looking at an immaculate rectangle of water, a three-dimensional David Hockney which will never be disturbed by a thrashing alien presence? Neighbours lacking this obscene quantum of liquidity might well complain about the noise, the dust, the inconvenience and the damage to their foundations. It doesn’t signify.
And now, without fanfare, the domestic mining fetish has arrived in Hackney. I visited Wilberforce Road, a generously proportioned artery running south from Finsbury Park. This is a transitional zone of large mid-Victorian properties divided into flats. I noticed a Methodist church with a wood-faced turret and a selection of hostels for backpacking passerines. But despite such awkward neighbours, and a degree of spillage from Finsbury Park kerb-crawlers, and the all too evident desperation of bruised addict-prostitutes, Wilberforce Road throbs with earth-shuddering excavations. Estate agents are busily promoting hikes in achieved selling prices, while encouraging the neurotic impulse to regard your home as a volatile asset. The canny speculator should be alert for the optimum moment to cash in. Three-bed flats are on offer at £750,000. The average rent in the street is calculated at £1666 per month. Inspired by this febrile vision, householders dig. There are seven basement excavations in progress. Wilberforce Road is unlisted and schemes for enlarging properties are waved through in the mistaken belief that more housing units are being created. Specialist earth removers mask their activities behind blocky grey sheds. Which prove to be the ideal surface for protesting graffiti: no excavation! ten more years. no more excavating in wilberforce. Mining operations can take as long as a year to complete. Giant compressors thump and thunder. Security guards lurk, bored and edgy, warning off casual photographers. Backs have been torn from properties, and cavernous pits revealed. Plagues of disturbed rats are on the march.