— Stratford East — Chobham Farm — "The social contract is defunct" — the voodoo of capital — another Sinclair —
It was my initiation into East London crime. If Stratford can be called East London. A bulging varicose vein on the flank of the A11, which fed somehow, through an enigma of unregistered places, low streets, tower blocks, into the A12. The highway out: Chelmsford, Colchester. A Roman road, so the accounts pinned up in town halls would have it, across brackish Thames tributary marshes. A slow accumulation against the persistence of fouled and disregarded rivers.
Stratford East. The other Stratford. Old town, new station. Imposing civic buildings arguing for their continued existence. A railway hub that, in its more frivolous moments, carried Sunday-supplement readers to Joan Littlewood's Theatre Royal, for provocations by Brendan Behan, Shelagh Delaney, Frank Norman. For pantomime Brecht. Carry On actors moonlighting in high culture. That was about as much as I knew, when the person at the desk in Manpower's Holborn offices told me I would be going to Chobham Farm.
"Chobham Farm, Angel Lane, Stratford. Right now. This morning. If you fancy it."
This is how it worked: when I was down to my last ten pounds, I would take whatever Manpower had to offer. Employment on the day, for the day. Bring back the docket on Thursday and receive, deductions made, cash in hand. An office of Australians living out of their backpacks, woozy counterculturalists and squatters from condemned terraces in Mile End, Kilburn, Brixton. It was a dating agency, benevolent prostitution, introducing opt-out casuals to endangered industries desperate enough to hire unskilled, dope-smoking day labourers who would vanish before the first frost, the first wrong word from the foreman. There were always characters at the Holborn desk, justifying themselves, whining about the hours they spent trying to locate the factory in Ponders End where they would be invited to scrape congealed chocolate from the drum of a sugar-sticky vat with a bent teaspoon.
Everybody knew, on both sides of this deal, that it was 1971 and it was all over. The places we were dispatched to by the employment agency were, by definition, doomed. From my side, beyond the survivalist pittance earned, there was the excitement of being parachuted into squares of the map I had never visited; access was granted to dank riverside sheds, rock venues in Finsbury Park, cigar-packing operations in Clerkenwell.
"The social contract is defunct," I muttered. I had been dabbling in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, not listening to politicians. Rubbish strikes and rat mountains enlivened our 8mm diary films. If the post didn't arrive, bills wouldn't have to be paid. We collaborated with civic entropy.
On Upper Thames Street, in a cellar under threat of inundation, I sorted and packed screws and bolts alongside a man in a tight, moss-green, three-piece suit. A Nigerian called Abraham Ojo. I remember that name because I inscribed it across the portrait I painted: Abraham Ojo floats a company. Steps dropping vertiginously to a sediment-heavy river. A schematic Blackfriars Bridge. Wharfs. Hoists. Black-windowed warehouses on the south bank. And astern Abraham with his arm raised to expose the heavy gold wristwatch. Those long wagging fingers with the thick wedding band. Like many West Africans in this floating world, and the ones met, eight years earlier, in my Brixton film school, Abraham Ojo never dressed down. Smart-casual meant leaving his waistcoat on the hanger he carried inside his black attaché case (with the pink Financial Times and the printed CV in glassine sleeve). He might, with mimed reluctance, shrug a nicotine-coloured storeman's coat over his interviewee's jacket, but he would never appear without narrow silk tie, or fiercely bulled shoes. He favoured horn-rim spectacles and a light dressing of Malcolm X goatee to emphasize a tapering chisel-blade chin. Like the Russians I've been coming across, in recent times, running bars in old coaching inns in Thames Valley towns, ambitious Nigerians made it crystal clear: I'm not doing this. Not now, not really. I am only here, on a temporary basis, because I have a scheme in which you might be permitted to invest: if you forget the fact that you saw me foul my hands with oily tools in a dripping vault.
It was a privilege of the period to encounter men like Abraham. I was fascinated to witness how he patronized his patrons, sneering at them as a caste without ambition or paper qualifications. He refused to register where he was, the specifics of place meant nothing. The chasms of the City, the close alleys and wind-tossed precincts, were knee-deep in banknotes, he assured me. Loose change waiting for a sympathetic address. My mediocre literary degree qualified me, barely, to be a low-level investor in Abraham's latest scam: the importation of cut-and-shut trucks into Nigeria. Documentation would be juggled. Sources of supply, in Essex and the Thames Estuary, were obscure. When we had enough in the fighting fund to tempt the right officials, cousins of cousins, we would be in clover.
As we talked, in our lunch break, down by the river, he kept his back to my wreck of a street-market bicycle. When I invited him to Hackney for a meal, he came with folders of papers, financial projections, lists of contacts. He enthralled the others at the table, potless painters, students without tenure, the manager of a tyre-replacement operation in Leytonstone, with a vision of hot-ripe places, deals with Russian diplomats and shaven-headed entrepreneurs from Bethnal Green who were looking to reinvest surplus loot from the black economy. He spoke of new cities on the edges of old jungles, a vibrant economy hungry for reliable or prestigious European motor vehicles. The voodoo of capital. The madness. Pooling our resources, the whole Hackney mob might have raised the funds to rent a beach hut in Margate. Seeing or not seeing the hopelessness of his pitch, Abraham continued. Mopping his brow with a linen napkin, pushing away the wine glass. Maybe it worked, maybe he's out there now, gold-plated Merc and bodyguards, in the oil fields of the Niger Delta. He never returned to the warehouse. His replacement, a man from Sydney, was a few inches shorter than me, but otherwise a Stevensonian double. The pure Aussie doppelgänger. Another Sinclair. I never found out the full story of my great-grandfather's experiences in Tasmania, after his investments evaporated. He retired, came back from luxuriant Ceylon to bleak Banff on the North Sea, at the age of forty.
"Now for the next ten years," he wrote, "I extracted as much enjoyment out of life as perhaps ever falls to the lot of ordinary unambitious mortals; but at the end of this time I fell among thieves, and as misfortunes rarely come single, the Hermileia must needs play havoc with securities in Ceylon at the same time, so that I began to look abroad again for investments and occupation, resulting in a trip to Tasmania, an adventure often talked of with friends now gone."
Looking back, the astonishing aspect of life in my late twenties was that I had time to paint Abraham Ojo's portrait. The balance was still there, I suspect, between weeks lost to casual labour, that infiltration into the mystery of how a city works, involvement with a communal film diary, and the writing and publishing of invisible books. Fifty pounds of my wages saved from random employment in 1970 produced my first small collection of poems and prose fragments. The first shift towards separating myself from the substance that contained me, a living, working London. Its horrors and epiphanies.
Excerpted from Ghost Milk by Iain Sinclair. Copyright 2011 by Iain Sinclair. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber.