The point of a good view is that it encapsulates, and gives relief from, the journey that has led up to it. We no longer (unless we’re professional location-finders or posey MTV directors) feel the need to traipse around with framing devices, some means of turning landscape into a picture. View is accidental, unlooked for, a breathing space.
Walking the ridgeway of Joseph Bazalgette’s Northern Outfall Sewer, slantwise to the south-east, brings the traveller—if he times it right, in the afternoon in winter—up against the glorious absurdity of Beckton Alp, a man-made conical mound that can be ascended a (resting spaces thoughtfully provided). The gentle climb allows the weary pedestrian time to remember how he got here. He can play back the drift along the sewage outlet, the savagely chopped verges, the bright blue benches (metallic and indestructible), the mustard brickwork cleaned by community service miscreants for use by the next generation of spray-can bandits. The gothic folly of the pumping station, the muddy vistas of Channelsea Creek (landscaped by spare Euro-loot that cannot be used on schools and hospitals), the electric hymns in the low-slung power cables: all these memories and effects flare and bum out as you pant upwards.
The summit has it all. Now the orange sun-gas is dissolving over the distant glimmer of the unreal city (Canary Wharf and Docklands). This is a post-urban vision seeded by J. G. Ballard and taken to the point of parody: golden browns, flaring scarlet brake-lights on Newham Way, levels and counter-levels of traffic gunning out of town towards the Estuary, hot colours that are absorbed in the grey-blue distance of the river and the Royal Albert Dock. The quiet excitement, the sense of the machinery of metropolitan life, entropy seduced by perpetual motion, is unmatched anywhere within the M25 boundary. The site is mythic, aligned with the lost mound of Whitechapel and the culture of Silbury Hill. It’s the best kind of fake. It aspires to the language of television: a non-operational ski-slope that belongs in some lowlife drama, a body slumped in a chairlift. But that’s not enough, Beckton wants more. The runway of the City Airport in Silvertown. A floodlit driving range. An ancient, tangled graveyard (now, naturally, madeover into an infrequently opened nature reserve). A business park, more dead than alive. A humming screen: heavy-goods vehicles, commuters, river-taxis freighting an absence of passengers to the airport, water-skis carving patterns in the blue-green algae of the docks, short-haul planes dicing with gravity to scrape the thin skies of the Thames corridor. Black smoke, thick with sugar droplets, from the Tate & Lyle factory.
From the privilege of the alp’s viewing platform, leaning on a creosoted railing, the illusion floats before your eyes: that this city makes sense, thereis a pattern, a working design. There has to be a word for it. Obscenery. A carcinogenic high. An opportunity to enjoy a panorama of blight and damage. And underneath, the secret rush of underground rivers bearing away all our heavy-metal shit to a processing ‘farm’. There’s no way back. Better far to remain here, prayers made at the stations of your journey as by pilgrims crawling on their hands and knees up the rocky path of Croagh Patricj. You’ve done it, pitched yourself into a molten apocalypse. The river is boiled, the land convulsed.