Alfred Dickens, the novelist’s brother, wrote a General Board of Health report on the area soon to be occupied by the Olympic athletes, recording that ‘the cholera raged’ and there was ‘neither drainage nor paving’ – ‘in winter the streets were impassable.’ More recently it was a site of old warehouses and weedy dereliction. It smelled of the oil and paint and chemical effluent that had leached for years into the land around the Hackney Marshes. Underneath, there are stones from the Roman road that led from London to Colchester and bones from people who died in the Great Plague. But it was the varnish makers and the soap producers of the 19th century, the rubber plants around the River Lea, and the printworks, iron foundries, fertiliser factories and distilleries of the Bow Creek that made the whole area a dumping ground for the kind of waste that doesn’t go away. Over this spongy ground came the railways – the Eastern Counties Railway joined, in 1847, by the Thames Junction Branch – adding to the pollution. Today the soil has been cleaned in giant machines like twin-tubs, to neutralise the toxic elements left behind by two hundred years of industrial adventure. Never, in the ?elds of leisure and national prestige, has so much dirt been scrubbed so expensively and with so much hope invested in the particles. You could almost eat the soil now.
LRB 9 February 2012 | PDF Download