Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Stepney Ginger

My name is Sam Redlark. I am a carrier of the LonB gene which enables me to perceive parts of London that exist outside of the normal sensory range. This blog is an account of the Capital as I experience it. I hope that my writing here will encourage those who find themselves in London, whether it is as a visitor, or as a resident, to seek a deeper appreciation of their surroundings. You don’t need to be a LonB carrier to experience the best of the city. All you need to do is open your senses to what is around you.

Stepney Ginger...

To get to Bullman Wood Prison Cemetery in Stepney, Garry Leggett and I had to walk through the Canarvon Lane Industrial Estate. A service road, bordered intermittently by a narrow pavement, first on one side and then the other, snaked at angles past a pair of competing new car dealerships, a cash and carry warehouse, a timber yard, and the acutely zigzagged roofs of some light manufacturing units. On the corner of the first big bend, a corrugated iron shed, the size of a four-bedroom house, amplified the grating metallic snarl of a circular saw blade biting into stone tiles. The metal roof was rusted a deep reddish-brown. From a distance it appeared to have the texture of abraded velvet. Streaks of corrosion filled the vertical rills in the walls where a television aerial had been bolted onto a barred grill mounted over one of the side windows. A thin film of water meandered through the wide open doors and across a fine layer of white dust, faintly marked with overlapping boot prints, that coated the cement driveway outside. 

We paused at a truncated intersection where the bleached, patchwork asphalt of the bisecting road petered-out after a few metres on either side of the junction. A clapped-out lorry was executing a laboured three point turn, its exhaust spewing diesel fumes in oily clouds. Opposite, a large signboard, lazily tagged with orange spray-paint, announced that we were entering the Shepherds Row Business Park. A rectangular four-storey building with a facade constructed from rough concrete panels, faced the pavement side-on. Behind a grid of plate-glass windows that stretched from the ground to the roof, a deserted stairwell zigzagged back and forth. Hanging down from one corner of the block, a yellow plasticised banner, the length of two floors, advertised office space for rent.

Its neighbour was a smaller brown brick building set away from the road at the back of a well-attended car park, hemmed in with neatly trimmed hedges and flower beds sparsely planted with marigolds. A placard on the wall of the main entrance identified it as Canarvon House and claimed a link to the local NHS trust.

The cemetery was located appropriately enough at a dead end. The road terminated abruptly in front of a ten foot high barrier made from wooden boards painted a matt white and capped with loosely coiled rolls of barbed wire. To our left, an unruly hedgerow, overrun with giant stinging nettles, screened-off the fast-moving traffic on the busy A13. The tangled vegetation closest to where I was standing had been flattened by a cluster of bulging, black refuse sacks, some of which were torn open and in the process of haemorrhaging a putrefying miscellany of slimy Clingfilm, rusting tin cans and soiled ready-meal containers into the undergrowth. Through the collage of dusty leaves I caught mosaic-like glimpses of the turquoise-painted, faux-oriental metalwork of an ornamental footbridge that crossed both lanes of the road.

Garry handed me a pair of shovels, their business ends both caked with dry cement. I waited while he fumbled with an enormous bunch of keys attached to his belt on a long chain, until he had located the one that unfastened the rust-speckled padlock holding the metal latch in place. The wooden gates were slumped on their hinges. He raised the panel closest to him a few inches clear of the ground. Taking small shuffling backsteps, he half carried, half dragged it open before allowing the well-worn corner to fall into a shallow depression in the soil.

Behind the wooden wall there was another barrier – a slouching diamond-wire fence - and another pair of gates, held together with a length of thick chain and another rusted padlock.

The cemetery occupied an immense tract of rugged waste ground, utterly void of monuments and headstones. A light summer breeze that had been restrained by the buildings on the industrial estate took flight across the open terrain. Long gusts of wind cut temporary pathways through the knee-high seed grass, pushing down the silvery blonde tips, that reflected the sunlight, to expose sodden brown stalks, still damp from the morning rain. In numerous places the ground had erupted, the clods of parched soil pushed-up into fragmented mounds bedecked with tiny, white wildflowers.  

Garry unfastened the second padlock. He threaded the chain through the weatherproofed mesh and dragged open the stubborn gates.

Insects lifted into the air ahead us as we picked our way between the knolls of broken earth. Our pace was slowed by tough thread-like tendrils, bearing small white flowers, that threaded between the stalks of grass. They snared around our legs and were wrenched from their moorings by our forward momentum. so that we ended up trailing these broken garlands along behind us.

The ground underfoot was uneven and rent apart with cracks large enough to swallow part of a shoe and turn an ankle. A pungent miasma emanating from these fissures settled acridly in base of the throat, stimulating the gag reflex. I noticed that Garry was attempting to counter this by walking with his head inclined slightly upwards. Every so often he would slow almost to a standstill while exhaling deeply.

By the time we reached the centre of the enormous field my summer allergies had driven my body into open mutiny. My eyes were ratty with pollen, my sinuses tingled and the roof of my mouth itched unbearably. A tender island of skin on my right arm glowed bright red, as if begging to be scratched. Instead I settled for rubbing it vigorously with the heel of my palm.

We stood in silence, perspiring in the humidity, the distant throb of the weekend traffic, a muted canvas for the parched chirp of grasshoppers. A pair of cabbage white butterflies danced in unsynchronised tandem over the swaying meadow like puppets tangled in each other’s strings. Overhead,  a lone of swallow wheeled in a blue sky patched with grey and white clouds, making a sound like glass marbles being rubbed together as it dived towards the ground before abruptly veering sunwards, as if repelled by an invisible force field. I raked my tongue over the stubble on my top lip and tasted sweat mixed with the faint residue of orange juice.

For over century the dead from Bullman Wood Prison were buried here anonymously in unmarked graves. The cemetery was abandoned following the closure of the prison in 1978 with the last burial having taken place there the year before. The gaol was partly demolished in 1981. In the ensuing decade the industrial estate and the business park grew up on the derelict site as part of a government-sponsored enterprise scheme, dreamed-up to stimulate the stunted local economy.

A small section of the prison was preserved as a borstal for young offenders. It was here that Garry spent most of his teenage years. “A right little fight club,” he told me one evening, raising the shirt of his replica Westham home kit, unveiling a welt of purple scar tissue three inches in length, etched across his belly, tapering off at one end.

In 1992 the borstal was reclassified as a Searchlight Centre for young offenders. Garry works there now as an anger management counsellor.

“Anna Milne wants to shut us down...” he confided during our walk, referring to the recently elected Conservative MP.

“...It’s no secret. She fucking campaigned on it. Her cronies want to develop the land. The last lot were just as bad, mind. They wanted to cash in on the Olympic games property boom but it’s a bit too late for that now. You know the Chinaman bridge we came across to get here? They want to pull that down. You think how many people on the Tar Houses Estate are employed at the Tesco, or in them offices we passed, and use that bridge to get to work. How are they supposed to cross a busy 60 mile-an-hour road with a metal crash barrier in the middle of it. You either have to walk down to the pedestrian crossings or go in the other direction up to the roundabout and try to get across there. Either way adds ten minutes to the journey.”

During Garry’s rant my attention had drifted across the field towards a far-off skyline that I took to be the city of London. Suddenly I became aware that he had stopped speaking and was looking directly at me.

 “How will we find the graves,” I said “Are their markers?” 

“You can get a general idea from where the ground is broken. The bodies draw all the moisture out of the soil and capillary action gradually brings them to the surface. They’re burrowing upwards at a rate of a few centimetres every year. You see these white flowers we’ve been walking through. Wherever they form dense patches is a good indicator of a body."

“So when Graeme turns up we can get started?”  

I fumbled in my satchel. The crumpled white exhumation order had become separated from its pink and yellow carbon copies in transit.

“He’s nor coming mate. He knows we’re here but he’s got stuff on. I’ll give him the forms when I see him on Monday.”

He took the crumpled top sheet from me and stuffed it into the side pocket of his jeans in a manner that suggested that he had no intention of passing it on to anyone.

I handed him one of the spades. He paced the earth mound nearest to where we stood as if he was trying to get a sense of its circumference. I was suddenly cognisant of what we were about to do and waited from him to make the first move. 

After the first scrapes of metal against loose, dry soil I joined him, working at the opposite end of the grave, shovelling clods of earth so dry that they partly disintegrated into clouds of brown dust as we them cast them over our shoulders.

“Should we be wearing facemasks?” I asked him.

“Probably. It’s a shame I didn’t bring any.” 

Four feet down I felt the tip of my spade strike something denser than the soil that surrounded it. We stopped digging and scraped away the crumbs of earth to reveal part of a bulbous, pale-brown tuber. A wet fibrous wound marked the area where I had broken the rough tan skin. 

After about ten minutes of further excavation we had exposed something that resembled a giant piece of root ginger. It was roughly 6 foot in length and humanoid in appearance, like an abstract wood-carved sculpture of a man. A misshapen arm with bulbous sausage fingers lolled across the bloated chest. Part of a human a jawbone still bearing teeth was partially embedded in what I took to be the head. Wiry tendrils similar to those that we had walked through earlier spouted from hairy patches dotted around on the surface. 

When the British first encountered Cuckoo Root in India they were fascinated by its ability to colonise organic material and loosely take on its shape. Early experiments with the plant were conducted on corpses in the prison cemetery at Bullman Wood. It was this and the end  appearance of the contaminated bodies that led to it becoming known as Stepney Ginger. 

“I’m warning you now it will weigh a fucking ton” said Garry as we stood at either end of the body and prepared to lift it out of the grave. We had lengthened the trench at both ends to  allow some standing room. Our first attempt left us breathless and staggering from our exertions as we paused to reconsider our strategy.

Three more goes and we had the body almost upright with the head and torso propped against one side of the grave. A further joint effort with both of us each lifting a leg and pushing with all our might sent it out of the hole and into the long grass.

“Those teeth...” I said as I climbed out, panting in the heat. “Are they all like that?” 

“It can’t really absorb bone. Usually when you cut into them you’ll find ribs and pieces of the vertebrae. Sometimes you’ll find the root and a big pile of bones next to it where they’ve been pushed out." 

He cast his eye over the body like a coroner coldly assessing a body on a slab.

“You see these two big lumps here,” he said, indicating a pair of bulbous growths occupying the swollen midsection.


“Those are his nads.”

“You’re joking.”

“Seriously those are his bollocks. The bacteria swells them up.”

“Are all the bodies buried here like this one?”

“Yeah, I would have thought so. It’s quite an invasive species. Sometimes if they’re buried close to each other they fuse together and you get these huge lumps forming. I saw a photograph of a mass grave in India where that had happened. It took a crane to lift it out of the ground.   

He stared down at the grotesque specimen that lay before us.

“I know that it was all done in the name of science, but you can’t tell me that when they decided to use prisoner's bodies as guinea pigs there wasn’t a consensus that they deserved it for being criminals. It was a pretty cuntish thing to do, taking revenge on the dead like that. I mean look at this poor bloke. Whatever he did when he was alive somebody somewhere must have loved him...”


Kisses for George

Sam Redlark: “Tell me about Stepney Ginger.”

Grandma Lillian: “The prisons used to dig up the bodies of the convicts that had been taken over by the Cuckoo Root. They used to sell them as scarecrows. When you went past Bullman Wood Prison you would see them lined up for sale at the side of the road.”

Sam Redlark: “Did they make good scarecrows?”

Grandma Lillian: “They made very good scarecrows. The birds don’t like the smell you see. There was a man called Mr Dutton who lived six doors down from us. He used to sell the bodies off the back of his wagon. The farmers and the allotment owners would buy them from him. I knew a woman who bought one for her husband as a Christmas present. She wrapped it up in newspaper and put in under the tree in the front parlour.

“There was one ginger man that Mr Dutton couldn’t sell because it was badly damaged. Nobody wanted it. Eventually he turned it into a mascot for his business. It used to ride next to him in the wagon. He dressed it up in all kinds of costumes. In December he’d put it in a Father Christmas outfit!”

Sam Redlark: “I remember you telling me about a Stepney ginger man in the fields near to where you grew up.”

Grandma Lillian: “There was one in the farmers fields behind our house called George. I can’t remember his last name. I think it might have been Seagrave. He was a murderer when he was alive.

Sam Redlark: “How did you know his name?”

Grandma Lillian: “When you bought them they came with wooden tags around their necks that told you their name and what crimes they had committed. Sometimes at the weekends, after the dances were over, the local girls used to visit George in his field and kiss him goodnight.”

Sam Redlark: “Was it like a dare?”

Grandma Lillian: “It was a silly thing really. We all thought that if you kissed George after dark and wished hard enough, you would end up marrying the man of your dreams.”

Sam Redlark: “You don’t see these scarecrows anymore. What happened to them?”

Grandma Lillian: “They were sold at Bullman Wood right up until 1951 when the law changed. After that you still saw them in fields in out of the way places, right up until the 1970s. You probably don’t remember this but when you were two years old we went fruit picking with your mum. As we drove up the track to the farmhouse I saw a ginger man watching over one of the fields.”  

Sam Redlark: “What happened to George?”  

Grandma Lillian: “The parish council gave him a Christian burial in the churchyard at Saint Marys. They had to put him in a special coffin so that he wouldn’t infect the other people who were buried there. I’ve never seen so many young girls at an old man’s funeral. By that time I was engaged to your grandfather so I was happy to see George being laid to rest. He had to wait a bit longer for it than most of us do!


Garry and I decided that the only way that the pair of us would be able to return the body safely to its final resting place would be to orientate it alongside the grave and then unceremoniously roll it sideways over the edge.  

“Okay, gently does it,” he said as we coaxed it into position. Granules of dry earth cascaded into the hole as the lip of the trench supporting the huge knotted root started to collapse under its weight. 

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

The body wrenched itself out of my grip. A second later it hit the bottom of the hole with a tremendous thump, sending up a huge cloud of choking dust.

“Whose idea was this again?” said Garry, shaking his left hand which had been briefly  trapped under the corpse. His T-shirt was soaked in sweat. Beads of perspiration had formed a glistening sheen on the inky tendrils of the tribal tattoos that lapped around the base of his neck.

I felt a pinch on my arm and flicked a caramel coloured into the grass.

“You told me that when you were a traveller you used to drink Cuckoo Root Beer.”

“We  were new agers and considered ourselves a bit fucking spiritual. I’d read that the Agoris in India drank it. It helped them to commune with the dead. We were all up for a bit of that.”

“Did you make it yourself?”

“There were cemeteries that we knew were colonised with Stepney Ginger. They started off seeding it in the prisons but it spreads really fast. It’s pretty much everywhere now. Most churchyards in the south of England are overrun by it.”

“How did you know before you dug up a grave that weren’t going to find a decomposing corpse?”

“You can tell by the white flowers that come to the surface in the spring. Then there’s the smell and a few other signs. We’d dig up the bodies at night, carve the root into manageable pieces and then boil it up in one of the old caravans.”

“You were consuming a drink whose key ingredient was human flesh.”

“Well I would argue that it had undergone a transfiguration and was closer to plant matter.”

“What about the one we’ve just exhumed? There are pieces of bone in it, so it’s still a body in some sense.”

“Yeah, I know. The irony is that, at the time, we were all militant vegans.”

“So what did it taste like?”

“Have you ever had snuff?”

I nodded.

“It’s like taking a massive pinch of snuff. It feels like your brain’s disintegrating...”

He made an involuntary retching noise. I noticed that his eyes were watering..

“Sam, it’s fucking rank. Just thinking about it now makes me want to vomit... It’s like... it’s like inhaling mould. And it makes you fucking mental. You just want to go around fucking punching people. We used to drink it before we went on Poll Tax demos.”

“But did you feel spiritually enlightened after drinking it?”

“No, not really. It just gave me a massive fucking hangover.”

He swallowed and took a deep breath as if purging himself of the unpleasant memory.

The mutated body of the unnamed prisoner lay before us in a hole five feet deep. As we shovelled the powdery earth back over it, I thought about George. And about my grandmother and her friends, running barefoot in the dark across the ploughed field to press mouths heavy with lipstick against the cold, unyielding face of the long dead murderer.

Garry and I were weary with the aches and pains of encroaching middle age. We walked away from our own George in exhausted silence, with no particular hopes or dreams for our respective futures. Our clothing was streaked with dried mud. The shovels that we dragged along the ground begin us made a dull metal scraping noise that paused intermittently whenever one of the blades bounced off the uneven terrain and momentarily became airborne.

As we retraced our footsteps through the industrial estate, the fractured plastic exoskeleton of a ballpoint pen, lying partially crushed on the asphalt, got caught on the tread of Garry’s shoe. It ricocheted between his footsteps for a few paces before flying off into the gutter.

NEXT... Beamer, Mayblush, Ragsail, Nersha

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The go anywhere river

My name is Sam Redlark. I am a carrier of the LonB gene which enables me to perceive parts of London that exist outside the normal sensory range. This blog is an account of the Capital as I experience it. I hope that my writing here will encourage those who find themselves in London, whether it is as a visitor, or as a resident, to seek a deeper appreciation of their surroundings. You don’t need to be a LonB carrier to experience the best of the city. All you need to do is open your senses to what is around you.

The go anywhere river...

A week after Emma Priestnell and I made a rather unsuccessful attempt at mapping the lost Langbourne river, I find myself sitting face to face with the man who has been given the task of restoring the ancient watercourse to the streets of London. Florian Lehrer is Chief Architect for the German construction firm Rothstein and Ackerman. He is also a founding member of the Stadrorchester Group – an underground alliance of European architects who, for over three decades, secretly incorporated designs for large-scale musical instruments into the blueprints of their buildings.

Well known within his profession, Lehrer’s sudden rise to wider fame occurred during the late 1990s when the founding members of Stadrorchester voted to reveal their work to the general public. He was subsequently appointed coordinator of a project in which 100 previously undisclosed meta-instruments, hidden in buildings around the world, were unveiled and later united to play a 24 hour long concert on the millennium eve, with the geographically scattered strands of music being brought together on the internet.

We arrange to meet in one of Lehrer’s creations: The Langbourne Reservoir Tower on Mark Lane is a 33-floor high-rise, cocooned in blue-green mirror glass. Its unconventional apexes and trailing steeples lend it the appearance of a straight-jacketed Rhineland castle reflected in a fairground mirror. The warped, shape-shifting spires that snake from the tower’s upper storeys have a strange gaseous quality, giving the impression of a building in the process of sublimating into the London skyline.

Inside, commercial offices are arranged around a central core that houses a vertical reservoir and water treatment plant.

At the time of my visit the tower’s media centre has been gutted as part of a refurbishment program, prior to the official opening of the reservoir later this year. I step out of the lift and into acres of barren, open-plan office space. Stacks of chairs swaddled in protective plastic wrapping, kidney-shaped pine desks and computers still in their boxes have been neatly corralled at various points around the enormous room, where they await distribution.

My host has pulled some of these disparate furnishings together in the middle of the floor to create a small office for himself. A nearby drinks vending machine, connected to a distant wall socket by a grimy orange extension cable, dispenses plastic cups of sugared water when asked for coffee.

Now approaching 75, Florian Lehrer retains the wiry physique of a man who still likes to get hands-on with his construction projects. As we ruefully stir our steaming cups of sugared water, the ceiling clanks and groans with the sound of government contractors, noisily dismantling the building’s sound pulse generator – a legacy of Stadrorchester project. Concerns that the device might, accidentally or otherwise, damage the surrounding buildings means that it has only been used once, as part of the Millennium concert. A failed court appeal in June sealed its fate for good. Lehrer seems to have taken this defeat philosophically and won’t be drawn on whether his famous meta-instrument will be destroyed outright or reassembled elsewhere.

“I am one of the few artists working in the world today whose music is still considered a threat by the establishment,” he says.

SAM REDLARK: “You are a vocal critic of what you describe as ‘inaccessible fortress architecture’ and have spoken about the need for modern buildings to integrate themselves more into communities. Is the Langbourne Reservoir an example of this principle in action?”

FLORIAN LEHRER:  “When I use the word ‘integrate’ I am referring to something far broader and deeper in scope than simply designing a building with a pleasing exterior that compliments its surroundings. I strongly believe that the way in which buildings enrich their environment should go beyond their outward appearance. They should also have a functionality that benefits their local area. A library can be a beautiful building but it is also has a purpose and the potential to improve the lives of all those who live nearby.

“I would like see a similar mindset embraced by the private sector, whereby commercial properties are designed with multiple purposes in mind and exert a positive social influence over the areas they occupy. A very elementary and somewhat controversial example of this practice in action is the use of high-rise commercial properties as hosts for mobile phone masts. It was because of this network of masts that I was able to contact you this morning and warn you that I would be an hour late for our interview.

“The Langbourne Tower provides office space in central London; however its primary function is as a reservoir and water treatment facility. The building has the potential to affect change across the whole of the city. Ordinary people who have no connection whatsoever with the companies who rent floor space in the tower will benefit from having clean water which can be used to irrigate parkland, to fill swimming pools or ice rinks, to power fountains and water sculptures, or for any number of other purposes.   

SAM REDLARK: “Is this the mindset that drove Stadrorchester – designing buildings for private companies that also engaged with the public?”

FLORIAN LEHRER:  “You have to remember that for 30 years Stadrorchester was a private joke among a very small group of people. It was very self-indulgent. Nobody knew what we were doing.

“In a way I have come around full circle. As a young man I was strongly influenced by my father. He worked at the Department of Urban Planning and Resource Efficiency in Hamburg. It was through him that I came to believe that buildings should have clearly defined roles, and that it was the moral duty of the architect to ensure that the structure fulfilled these demands as efficiently as it could, with a minimum of waste and distraction. When I met my wife, Giselle (Giselle Lehrer, founder of Jugendlich Records, married Florian in 1965) she loosened my tie a little. The buildings that we worked on together as part of Stadrorchester were extremely playful. My younger self would definitely have not approved! I think that maybe in the 1980s some of my designs were a little too frivolous. Now in old age I try to strike a balance between fun and functional: An interesting building that serves its purpose well.”

SAM REDLARK: “The reservoir is the first building since 1809 with a facade designed to appear different to LonB gene carriers.”

FLORIAN LEHRER: “It’s certainly the first legal one! In the past it was very fashionable to design buildings in this way, with hidden features that only a select few could see. If I remember correctly the LonB gene wasn’t identified until 1967. However, it was well known before then that there were people living in the capital who had visions and could see things that others could not.

“Inevitably various dissident groups took advantage: When Joseph Waters built the Royal Palace at Chiswick in 1807, his assistant, Ernest Devving, covered the exterior with anti-monarchist slogans that were only visible to LonB carriers. That is why King George III disowned it and why the current Royal family still attempts to censor parts of the structure.

“It was this scandal that resulted in the Buildings Concealment Act that prevented anyone from hiding secret messages in architecture. In 1985 I worked on a small community project in Plaistow in East London (the Sealeaf Estate Community Centre). When the building was complete a very serious man came to inspect the property. He was convinced that somewhere in the building I had concealed insulting messages about your Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. When I asked him why he thought that I would risk my professional reputation by allowing such a thing, he gave me a lengthy explanation. I remember it began: ‘Well, given the troubled history of our two nations...’

“The construction of the Langbourne Reservoir was postponed for a year while we waited for the Concealment Act to be overturned. In its place there are strong guidelines: You can’t incorporate libellous images into a design or build anything that might appear threatening or upsetting to LonB carriers.”

SAM REDLARK: You are not a LonB carrier. It must be strange to design a building knowing that you will never see it as it is intended to be seen.

FLORIAN LEHRER: “Of course I have seen computer simulations, so I do have an idea of the end result. I know that the version I saw when I arrived this morning is far less avant-garde than the one you see.

“As you know, Martin Beardsmore, my collaborator on this aspect of the project was a carrier of the LonB gene (Beardsmore was killed in a cycling accident on Fenchurch Street in 2005). We both wanted a design that reflected the tower’s role as a reservoir. Literally, we wanted the building to look like the reflection of a skyscraper in a body of water! Martin spent many hours cycling around London staring into ponds and rivers. He took many photographs of puddles!  

“I remember one day he showed me video footage of some low rise flats reflected in a stream. A branch from a willow tree had broken the surface of the water and was snagging the slow-moving current, pulling the reflection out of shape. That is where we got the idea of distorting the exterior of the building. You have probably noticed the way that some of the double windows have been dragged down into a V shape. Here we were attempting to replicate the effect that a boat has on a body of water.

SAM REDLARK: “Is it true that parts of the tower are made of water?”

FLORIAN LEHRER: “That is correct. The tower isn’t a completely solid object. The spires on the upper floors are made entirely from airborne moisture which we can manipulate so that their shape is constantly changing. We achieve the effect by pumping out clouds of water vapour. This is sculpted by tiny mirror arrays that reposition themselves according to randomly generated computer algorithms. Unfortunately much of the detail occurs beyond the normal human visual range. Only LonB carriers can really get the full impact.

SAM REDLARK: “The reservoir is integral to restoring the lost Langbourne River to the city of London. How does one go about recreating a river?”

FLORIAN LEHRER: “The original Langbourne was a ghost river (For further information see the previous entry in this blog). It existed predominantly as clouds of water vapour that condensed around airborne Storm Elm pollen. On the ground the river had an intermittent presence as a network of ponds that sometimes ran together in periods when there was unusually high rainfall, to create a fast-flowing torrent. This is what people think of when they imagine the Langbourne – a ‘join the dots’ river with the tree trunks as the dots!

“Of course it is no longer practical to plant giant elm trees in an urban area like London, or have bodies of water springing-up randomly in the streets. In recreating the Langbourne we have had to reinvent it for the 21st century:

“When I started work on this project I wanted the new version of the river to bear as much resemblance to the old one as possible. This meant that we had to simulate many of the organic processes that had brought the original river into existence.

“We have just finished mounting a series of cannon on the roofs of buildings, in areas that correspond to historical locations of Storm Elms. These cannon will fire clouds of hypoallergenic synthetic pollen into the lower atmosphere, three times a day, at regular intervals. The pollen particles behave in much the same way as regular Storm Elm pollen does: They form sticky molecular bonds with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the air. This is what enables them to maintain a constant altitude. While the pollen is airborne it stimulates the surrounding atmosphere causing water vapour to condense into small rain clouds. After about seven or eight hours the pollen begins to lose its stickiness and drifts back down to earth where it biodegrades harmlessly.

“We don’t want the airborne water vapour that collects around the pollen to fall naturally as rain, as it would have done in the past. In fact when the river was first proposed we had to make legally binding assurances that we would not make it rain anymore that it already does in London. It is in our contract: We can be sued if precipitation rises above expected levels in the area where the Langbourne is operational!

“Instead we aim to harvest the moisture from the sky and transport it to the reservoir. To achieve this we make use of a particle accelerator which is mounted on the roof of this building. The accelerator projects a Collop-Mounsey beam on an irregular wave-form pattern, which recreates the meandering course of a river. The shape of the beam has been designed so that it intersects with the pollen clouds. The suspended water vapour is drawn along it in the opposite direction by a process called condensate transference. When it reaches the tower it is drawn down into the reservoir through absorbent panels. The end is result is a permanent vapour corridor flowing towards this building at an altitude of roughly 600 feet and at speeds of roughly 13.5 metres per second: A river in the sky.

SAM REDLARK: “Will the river be visible in any way from the ground?”

FLORIAN LEHRER: “Yes it will, since we are effectively smudging rain clouds together. On clear days you should be able to see the Langbourne as faint grey line, like a vein in a slab of marble or a thin wisp of smoke.

“We are currently performing phase one tests to ensure that it doesn’t interfere with mobile phone signals. When the river is fully operational at the end of 2011 it will be the first virtual object anywhere in the world to have required planning permission. In time it could even become a listed structure. I very much hope that people living and working in the capital will embrace it, and that it will become a defining feature of the London skyline 

SAM REDLARK: “The reservoir has a very novel water purification system.”

FLORIAN LEHRER: “In 1992, as part of my research for this building, I spent several weeks in the Gerllerterd region of Hungary. The focus of my visit was the river Gerller which is naturally purified by the ecosystem that it supports.

There is a species of trout that lives in the upper reaches of the Gerller called the Sebes Pisztráng. It is a rare fish that can only survive in very pure fresh water. Its natural predator is a heron known as the Bellman’s Wader. It is also sometimes called the Carrion Wader, as it is more of a scavenger than a hunter, and picks off injured or dying fish as they float to the surface.

“Many years ago a team of Russian scientists who were studying the river discovered that a strain of bacterium found inside the stomach of the Sebes Pisztráng mutates in the digestive system of the Bellman’s Wader. When this bacterium re-enters the river, it has evolved into something that is very efficient at removing impurities from water.

“It is a beautifully symbiotic system: The old and sick Sebes Pisztráng are eaten by the Wader. In doing so they ensure the clean water that their offspring will need to survive.

“That is why the water in the river Gerller is very clear and safe to drink directly from the source. There are also very strict laws regarding the use of chemical fertilizers on neighbouring farmland, and industrial pollution is outlawed.    

“Having seen the river Gerller first hand I wanted a similar method of water purification for the Langbourne. Of course it is not practical to have birds and fish living in a closed artificial environment like the one we have created here. We had condense the processes at work in the River Gerller down to their essential elements. We had to ask ourselves: What is shorthand for Sebes Pisztráng? If you give me a moment I will just show you the answer to that question.”


Lehrer reaches across to the desk behind him and shuffles a computer mouse around on a mat. A monitor clicks out of power-saving mode. The Langbourne River Company screensaver fades to reveal a simple picture of fish - a greyish brown ellipse with a red belly and a triangle for a tail. He clicks through a series of dialogue boxes. At the end of the desk a printer stirs into life churning out an A5-sized piece of paper bearing the perforated image. He presses it out and hands it to me.

The fish is coloured-in on both sides. There is writing along the base of the belly that reads: ‘Hello Sam Redlark’.


FLORIAN LEHRER: “Here is the answer. The fibres in the paper are arranged so that the fish will float naturally on its side. Electro-chemical processes in the water cause the tail to move back and forth allowing it to swim in random directions. The coloured dye is made from the bacterium found inside the gut of Sebes Pisztráng.

“Now, to simulate the Bellman’s Wader we have this...”


He reaches into a cardboard box under his chair and takes out a yellow plastic cylinder, about a foot in length. One end is flared into a horizontal slot roughly six inches long. Large black flippers, like duck’s feet are attached to each corner. He turns the device over so that I can see the propeller housing and a small round opening underneath.


FLORIAN LEHRER:  “This is our robot. We call it a Bellman’s Biobot as it contains living organic material. We currently have 16 of these programmed to hunt the fish in the reservoir. The filtration system is made from the stomach cells of Bellman’s Wader’s, which we are able to grow in the laboratory. As it digests the paper the bacterium mutates in the same way as it does in the wild.

“When we first introduced the Biobots to the reservoir they were too efficient. Pretty soon there were no fish left. Now we are able to calibrate their hunting behaviour based on purity levels in the water. They are quite graceful to watch. It’s a shame that the tanks aren’t open today or I would show you.

“With this technology we are able to simulate the processes that occur naturally in the river Gerller. The result is very pure water. I would say it is probably the cleanest water that you will find anywhere in London. “

SAM REDLARK: “What is the long-term plan for the Langbourne?”

FLORIAN LEHRER: “The Langbourne River Company is a public/private venture with the balance of ownership skewed 70/30 in favour of the public. If everything is managed correctly the initial cost should be recouped within a decade.   

“The first phase of the project will be completed in August 2011. By that time the ghost river, the reservoir, and the water treatment plant will all be operational. After that we will begin to plumb the reservoir into other parts of the capital. This will enable us to move Langbourne water around the city via an underground network of pipes. We are also looking at more creative ways of channelling the river such as through railings and street furniture.  

“It will be a working river designed to generate a profit. We already have contracts with three city gymnasiums and a number of hotels to provide water for swimming pools.

“There are also more ambitious projects on the horizon. The Christmas Sea in Stratford is planned for December 2012 and will make use of the Olympic site. It will be a modern-day take on a Victorian ice fair and will feature large temporary structures made entirely from ice.

“In addition The Langbourne River Company has pledged to commission 25 new public fountains in the city of London. They will be built at a rate of one a year and based on designs submitted by the general public. The first of these will be the Raven Spout in the grounds of The Tower of London.”

SAM REDLARK: “Do you have a date for the public launch of the river?”

FLORIAN LEHRER: “Stage one of the media campaign will begin in a few weeks. I wish that I had some of the posters here so that I could show you... Somebody has moved them... They are very beautiful. We all thought long and hard about a slogan for the Langbourne. Eventually we decided to call it ‘The Go Anywhere River!’”

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