Itâs 1940. The black gulls of the Luftwaffe have flocked over the East End. Incendiary bombs light the sky and high explosives obliterate the earth. Fire rains. The air screams. The river turns to smoke.
In the city below,Â garrulous cockneys stand in their front rooms and shake their fists at the ceiling. âIf you take my house, then you can bleedinâ well take me too, Mr Hitler.â
Families huddle around tins of spam and sing Roll Out the Barrel in Anderson shelters. A hand bursts from a mound of rubble and finds the grip of a fire warden. The warden puts a lit cigarette into the hand first, then begins to pull out the man.Â He recognises the face that emerges. Itâs his old school headmaster.
âOld Phippsy. Well Iâll be damned.â
They stagger down the street as bomb shrapnel whizzes over their heads, sharing a hip-flask, laughing. And when the smoke clears the next morning the milkman skips through the rubble, business as usual madam, stepping past boys playing âBattle of Britain heroesâ with planes carved from shattered window frames.
This is Londonâs narcissistic lie-dream.
Tormented by guilt, her psyche re-imagines an inevitable war where acts of violence are purely self-defence in the face of annihilation. Sheâs exorcised the memories of panic, blind fear and self-interest. Her brain has sealed off many of the neural pathways that carried these messages. Theyâre like abandoned underground tube stations. Still there, but with no public access. Londonâs somnolent mind is nourished instead by a flow of legend, truth, popular fiction, film reels and state-generated propaganda.
Despite these psychological defensive mechanisms, itâs still possible to access the dark regions of her mind where long lost truths lie. But to do this you have to come to the edges of the city.
The edgeland of the urban psyche
By their very nature, urban legends require a town or a city in order to survive. The streets, public transport networks, pubs and living rooms of London form a closed circuit system which perpetuates myth with elegant efficiency.
In turn, the city needs urban legends to thrive. Stories are its life-blood. They unify the city. They provide its collective memory. Theyâre the only connection â albeit fragile and illusory â between the homeless drunk and the pampered Queen, between the Bulgarian immigrant cleaning the toilet and the City millionaire whoâs about to shit in it.
But what happens to these stories when they spill over the edges of cities?
Here on the marshes, in that inter-zone between rural and urban the cityâs memory begins to break down. Cracks show in the narrative. Weeds break through the concrete of anti-tank bollards hidden in the shrub. Drunks and wanderers, outcasts from mainstream society, can tell you different stories.
The lie-dream has it that Londoners stayed resolute and took their punishment with gusto and good humour.Â In realityÂ the marshlands were the haunt of those who couldnât â or refused to â live up to the government sanctioned ideal.
As dusk descended on the city in 1940, figures would emerge from Hackneyâs streets and cross the canal pushing their belongings in prams, carts and trolleys. These people were known as trekkers. They didnât want to stay in their homes, or the shelters, or hide in underground stations. Instead they made nightly journeys to Hackney Marshes and Epping Forest to sit out the bombing raids.
The state may have gone to war. Perhaps there was a good reason for it, too. But they werenât going to sit there like good citizens and wait to be buried alive. They were frightened and they wanted to run away. And so they did.
Expelled from the Popular Narrative
The government did everything it could to whitewash trekkers from the wartime story. No newsreel mentioned these people. They spoiled the âLondon Can Take Itâ narrative which was being carefully constructed for global export. By 1940 the government, in league with the media, had begun stage-managing a mythical London populated by fearless, good humoured sing-along-a-cockney heroes and stiff-upper-lipped toffs, which they could hold up to the Germans as a form of psychological defence.
The idea of terrified Londoners fleeing to the marshlands and woodlands clutching children and their most prized possessions smacked of self-interest and cowardice.
It was an affront to the bulldog spirit.
It simply wasnât cricket.
In the end, the government didnât have much to do. It was easy to pretend the trekkers werenât there. There were no film crews in the Lea Valley. No press. No pubs. No streets. No buses. Outside the infrastructure of the city there were no conduits through which tales of these trekkers could spread and embed themselvesÂ in local urban culture.
When these trekkers left the confines of the city, they also exited the narrative. They stepped out of history into the cover of obscurity.
You can empathise with them. Come out to the Lea towpath on a moonless night and stare into the marshes. Now imagine a wall of fire rising from Hackney behind you and think about how alluring that deep blackness must have been at the time.
I know in which direction Iâd have walked.
For more on the War and Hackney Marshes, see Blitz Balls, Â How Hackney Marshes Did and Didnât Save St Pauls
COMING UP: Â CONTEMPORARY TREKKERS IN HACKNEY MARSHES – RENEGADES FROM THE CITYâS SURVEILLANCE CULTUREâŚ BUT FOR HOW LONG?