Earlier this summer, 25 walkers set off to explore the changing face of London through a group reading of TS Eliot's groundbreaking poem, The Waste Land. Henry Eliot listens for the echoes of the HMS Albion tragedy, the Fisher King and the thunder in the barren spaces of east London
London is a city of fragments and walking through it is always a mosaic experience, an experience echoed by the thickly layered literary references, multiple voices and different languages of TS Eliot's century-defining poem, The Waste Land. Inspired by the vegetation ceremonies described in Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough, Eliot paints a sweeping portrait of the European zeitgeist, and that of London in particular after the first world war. This summer, with London once more on the cusp of transition – fuelled this time by peak oil, climate change and financial crisis – 25 intrepid walkers formed an eclectic fellowship outside West Ham Station, ready to trace change and the returning echoes of past transformation through the landscape of east London.
We began within a circle of rusting upright hammers in the West Ham Recreation Ground. In the late 19th century the employees of the Thames Ironworks Shipbuilding Company played football on this spot, before moving to Upton Park, where the fans of West Ham United still chant "Come on you Irons!" The eleven steel posts are laid out on the construction lines of a cruiser built by the firm in 1898, the HMS Albion, whose launch brought death to 38 souls. The epigram to The Waste Land, which concerns the Cumaean Sibyl, rings strangely among these standing irons. Granted eternal life, she was so frail she had to live in a jar to avoid deliquescing – her only wish was to die.
The first of the poem's five sections, "The Burial of the Dead", took us to The East London Cemetery, where the Book of Common Prayer service of the same name has been read aloud for one and a half centuries. This enormous leafy space is filled with a growing number of mostly stone memorials, but their rose garden is a quiet and perfumed patch of riotous colour where serried roses grow from cremation ashes. Standing amongst the flowers we felt their dull roots stirring all around us, feeding a little life out of the dead land.
A short walk later, past crowds of stones – so many, I had not thought death had undone so many – we caught the first echo of the Albion: an enormous anchor commemorating the tragic accident of 1898. When Mrs Isabel White, 30, was pulled from the water, her two daughters, Lottie and Queenie, were still clinging to her frock; all three were drowned. Huge crowds lined the cemetery avenues to witness the mass burial, and we walked back to the main gate through that ghostly gauntlet, reflecting on the heart of light, the silence.
Next we headed upstream, up the Northern Outfall Sewer to the Abbey Mills Pumping Station. We followed the ridge that hides the massive pipe, flushing the collected effluence of east London down to the treatment works at Beckton before it's emptied into the Thames. In places the Greenway Path is illustrated with riotous graffiti, a heap of broken images; in others it's bordered by a verdant swathe of fecund waste land: roots that clutch, branches growing out of stony rubbish.
Land in London is generally too valuable to go to waste, and it's only on the edges and in the cracks, between a sewage pipe and a cemetery for instance, that urban developers give up and abandon control. Over all these regions of decay hangs the Waste Land of Arthurian legend and the Fisher King, who haunted our walk as he does the poem.
In legend, the Fisher King is wounded and rendered infertile. As a result his kingdom has failed and become barren, mirroring his physical state; all he can do is sit by the river and fish. The Quest for the Holy Grail is a quest to heal the King and restore the kingdom to health. We strode along the outfall sewer, latter-day Knights of the Round Table, hoping that, like Sir Perceval, we too could restore the environmental and economic health of the nation through our Walk of Transition.
Abbey Mills Pumping Station, like its twin at Crossness south of the river, is a glorious Temple of Turd. Both stations are crucial to Joseph Bazalgette's 1860s sewerage system, which relies mostly on gravity to shift London's waste. Here where the Thames basin flattens, the cess has to be pumped forty feet up to give it the gradient to reach Beckton. Bazalgette's Byzantine edifice has now been superseded by a more functional grey structure nearby, but the original remains intact in all its ornate glory. Beside a disused spiral pump, looking like a giant tattooed ammonite on the shores of the Cretaceous soup, we heard Madame Sosostris turning tarot cards. It was the city at its most unreal.
We followed the Greenway to the fringes of the Olympic Park, where rolls of razor wire barred the path. Over the hoardings we glimpsed the coronet of the main stadium and the doodle of the ArcelorMittal Orbit. Olympic regeneration has been much touted, bemoaned by the likes of Iain Sinclair as destroying "magical wildernesses". Its real test will come after the adrenalin rush of the Games subsides. As Paul Finch, Chair of the Olympic Design Review Panel, said in 2009: "The big concern is that it will be a bit like the Millennium Dome, surrounded by huge areas of wasteland with literally nothing there."
We turned downstream and followed the River Lea away from the stadium and towards the empty territory of the Dome, squeezing between a dull canal and a stretch of high-tensile fencing, along a feral corridor of wild poppies and long grass. We were allowed a shortcut across the yard of Regional Waste Recycling, specialists in wet slurry, offering a rare sight of raw refuse in its most uncompromising state.
The River Lea is named after Lugus or King Lud, the Celtic God of Light, whose temple forms the foundations of St Paul's Cathedral (hence Ludgate). We heard the start of "A Game of Chess" on the river path below the Bow Roundabout. In this dark subaqueous space the water is lit by horizontal shafts of light that stir the pattern on the coffered concrete ceiling. King Lud is thought to be an early iteration of the Fisher King, making the Lea an auspicious watercourse to follow. The rats' alley led us past the tidal mills and oasthouses of the Three Mills film studios before leaving the river for the Bromley Gas Works.
In a secluded clearing below the peeling gasholders stands a war memorial, illuminated by flickering gas, for the employees of the Gas Light and Coke Company. These men never lived to be demobbed and see their Lils again, or eat hot gammon, but alongside their collected memory we heard the poem's post-war pub conversation, an encounter reported to Eliot by his maid, Ellen Kellend.
The area south of Star Lane DLR Station is full of stacks: scrap metal mounds, teetering skips, high-rise piles of wooden pallets. We passed the Legendary Bridgehouse II, seemingly marooned in this inhospitable hinterland.
We had paused to discuss their Jägermeister sponsorship and the logo of the legend of Saint Hubert when we spotted an incongruous blue Rolls Royce, parked and glinting amidst the scrap, and looking closer, found its number plate read LUD: the God of Light, the river we were following, the Fisher King. Our path was becoming charged with resonance …
Sliding under the A13 we passed the Green Flag Award-winning Bow Creek Nature Reserve, whose extraordinary ecological diversity is due to years of foreign cargoes docking nearby, and on the banks of the river again, we started "The Fire Sermon", musing on the wreck of the Fisher King. Finally, curving east we reached the mouth of the creek and the sudden expanse of sky at Trinity Buoy Wharf. The cloudscape and the brown choppy sweep of the Thames were a welcome contrast to our morning's industrial cramp. Opposite, the Millennium Dome mushroomed massively and away to the left some of the first passengers were riding the North Greenwich Air Line. Another unreal place, huge and gaping. This spot was the site of the HMS Albion launch and disaster, and before lunch we completed that story, which had taken place on almost exactly the same day of the year, more than a century earlier.
Up to 200 people had crammed on to a temporary wooden slipway to get a better view of the launch. After three attempts to smash champagne against the ship's hull, the Duchess of York gave up, cut the cord and workmen released the vessel. A powerful wave created by the ship's momentum engulfed the slipway, smashing it to pieces and plunging onlookers into the river. Many were killed and injured but their cries of panic were initially drowned by the crowd's applause. It was a full ten minutes before the rescue party was launched.
The sombre tone was lifted by the thriving artists' commune at Trinity Buoy Wharf, which serves as an inspiring example of positive transition. In London's only lighthouse, Jem Finer's Longplayer is in performance: computerised Chinese singing bowls chime according to algorithms that will not repeat for a thousand years. You sit in the lantern with wraparound views of south east London and the music, both high-tech and ancient, transports you. There is also surreal shrine to Michael Faraday in his experiment hut – various Da Vinci contraptions in rusted steel – and a deliciously authentic and cheap American diner, Fatboy's, where we ate lunch. Avocado, bacon and cheese burgers gestured to Eliot's American heritage.
After lunch, the wheel turned. In the morning we'd walked through waste and industrial scrub. In the afternoon we'd be charting regrowth, striking through London's Docklands, now converted into warehouse accommodation, open public spaces and the foremost financial district in the world. Geometrically, the morning had been a curved, meandering route between two circular structures; the afternoon would be a beeline between the tallest phallic symbols in the country: 1 Canada Square and the Shard. At this cusp of feminine and masculine, we heard the man-woman Tiresias, "the most important personage in the poem" according to Eliot, describing loveless coitus between a resigned typist and a carbuncular clerk.
Tiresias, though blind, is all-seeing, forced to witness these sad events. During one of my earlier research walks, I had met an old lady in Narrow Street and helped carry her shopping to her spectacularly eccentric penthouse, full of fading magazines, books and jungle plants, with floor to ceiling views from Canary Wharf to the Gherkin. It transpired that she was Rae Hoffenberg, a South African actress turned architect and urban visionary, who had single-handedly catalysed the transformation of the whole London Docklands area in the 1970s by campaigning for change to existing planning permission.
Despite her enduring grace and energy, I can't help imagining Rae as a modern Tiresias, sitting above the Thames at the heart of her own handiwork, watching the violet hour descend over London, the sun's last rays touching the towers of glass and steel, foresuffering all that will be enacted …
On towards Canary Wharf, passing Virginia Quay – from which the first settlers left England to found Jamestown, Virginia – and climbing up metal stairs to the famous financial compound. Down to our right was the corrugated hulk of New Billingsgate Market, its fish vanes shifting in the breeze.
Walking into Canary Wharf, the corporate façades narrow like the walls of a gorge and the shadows of high finance give the air a cavernous coolness. But it's a science fiction landscape as well, with waterways, treelines and train tracks at multiple levels. Hunched pods are portals to the Underground; silent doors are gateways to the clouds. We stopped by a sculpture of a fragmented centaur and heard the song of the Thames Daughters, connecting nothing with nothing through broken fingernails.
Once we were past the Isle of Dogs, we gathered on a sunken landing stage with the water sloshing around us, and listened to a recording of Eliot himself reading "Death by Water", the short fourth section of the poem. The water whorled and flopped against the stones and we considered Phlebas the Phoenician, drowned and ageing in reverse, the current picking his bones in whispers. Eliot's voice is clipped and sonorous and made a strange accompaniment to the river noise. Nearby the gathered testimony of a London night was clumped by the water: empty bottles, sandwich papers, a football, cardboard boxes and cigarette ends…
We stopped for tea at the Wapping Project, a converted Hydraulic Power Station reimagined as a restaurant, bar and arts venue. A long candlelit table was ready for us amidst the Victorian equipment. A disco ball hung from the brown ivy roof. The art installation was SeaWomen by Mikhail Karikis, a sound and film installation depicting a community of Japanese women on the North Pacific island of Jeju, who dive for seafood and pearls with no oxygen supply, communicating underwater through otherworldly squeaks and screams.
Moving on we saw a real Fisher King on Shadwell Basin and descended through Wapping Woods towards Tobacco Dock. It was here that our gathering storm of resonance broke with the fifth and final section of the poem: "What the Thunder Said".
As we passed a deserted multi-storey car park we heard violent shouting: a man and a woman. We called to see if they were all right and a young guy appeared from behind a pillar, gesturing angrily and asking who the fuck we were, a silent hijabi behind him. We moved on and began our reading, but were again interrupted by shouting: a couple behind us had also spoken to the man and he'd attacked them. The wife was crying for help. We ran back. The husband was a former Royal Marine and pinned the man to the ground. Agony in a stony place. Two female police officers arrived within minutes. Prison and palace and reverberation. I was reminded of Eliot's working title for the poem: He Do the Police in Different Voices.
The incident left the group shaken – it had been sudden and unexpected – and we walked in near silence along the Western Docks canal, a spruce but deserted residential estate. Had the dream of dockland regeneration turned to nightmare? Was this the Unreal City, a social wasteland devoid of community, a vacuum sucking in violence? We imagined red sullen faces sneering from the doors of mudcracked houses.
Tower Bridge burst upon us and then we were in the bustle of St Katherine Docks. It wasn't until we reached the Tower of London that we regained full equanimity. Here we discussed Bran, the Welsh Raven God, another Fisher King archetype. In Welsh legend, Bran was a giant King of Britain whose head was buried at Bryn Gwyn, the White Mound on which the Tower of London now stands. While his head was buried the kingdom could not fail. This is why there are still ravens at the Tower, and why there is an abiding belief that if ever they leave, the kingdom will fall to ruin. One of the ravens at the Tower is still called Bran.
Most of the London locations mentioned in The Waste Land are in the vicinity of London Bridge. We walked down Lower Thames Street, past the fishy architecture of Old Billingsgate, and stopped at Saint Magnus Martyr with its "inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold". We entered the Chapel Perilous, a strange Arthurian ruin, empty among the mountains, in which strange apparitions test the knights' mettle.
With a flash of lightning we walked past the Monument, a fiery reminder of another period of transition and rebuilding, and we stopped on Lombard Street by the old Lloyds Bank where Eliot worked on foreign accounts. We gathered in Change Alley, the Lloyds beehive symbol way above us. We shouted "DA!" The thunder bouncing off the bank. "DA!" The thunder's single syllable that was interpreted differently by the gods, men and demons in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
The poem was surging to a close now. We curved around Saint Mary Woolnoth, with the dead sound on the final stroke of nine, and flowed down King William Street to London Bridge, falling down falling down falling down. We stopped in the middle, high above the Thames and voiced the final fragments shored against Eliot's ruins.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song …
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih.
Henry Eliot is co-editor of Curiocity and will be launching his own literary walks and events company this autumn
This walk was part of the Festival of Transition, a month-long series of events coordinated by the New Economics Foundation focusing on the triple challenge of dwindling fossil fuels, climate change and a broken financial system