How I Ruined Hackney (& the Mystery of “The Hackney Slap”)


Gareth Rees, aka The Hackney Marshman, has been chronicling his explorations of the Lea Valley Nature Reserve and the secret life of the Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes since early 2011. With his book about to come out, he has kindly given us permission to re-publish this piece that explains how he has ruined his home neighbourhood and is single-handedly responsible for the gentrification of the area, and all before the book even hits the shelves…

On a bright afternoon I was on Walthamstow marsh with my dog Hendrix, walking beneath the brow of the old aqueduct path where the brambles grow. He was coming the other way, a stocky man, late 40s, with a collie.

“Watch out for her!” he said, pointing at his dog, “She’s on heat.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” I said, “he’s been done.”

The man’s head began swinging angrily from side to side. He held onto his thoughts for a few paces then blurted: “Why the hell would you want to do that? Why? Why? Why would anyone do that to a dog? You’ve ruined his life! Why take away his manhood? YOU ARE IN THE POCKET OF THE VET!”

Hendrix, poor sod, was castrated because he was born with a serious eye-defect. It was unethical to allow him to pass on his genes. But really it was none of this man’s business.

“It’s none of your business,” I said, as we crossed paths.

The man’s face darkened. By now he was walking backwards away from me, and I walking backwards away from him.

“You… you… you lot have ruined Hackney,” he cried “RUINED IT!” As he spoke, the spittle of his wrath caught the sunlight and formed a rainbow. “Because of YOU I have to move away. You fucking ponce! …Newbie!”

“I’ve been here a decade,” I said, still walking backwards.

“A decade?” Although there was growing distance between us, I could see his face flush with rage. “God, yeah, right, oooh, a decade, yeah, good one, you total arsehole.”

At this point, somewhat unwisely, I raised my middle finger.

Now he stopped walking backwards and stood facing me, head slightly bowed, like a bull about to charge. It was at this point I realised…there was a good chance I was about to get beaten up on the marshes on a sunny afternoon.

Another eruption of violence from the hole in London’s time…

What was really strange was that I’d just finished writing a book called Marshland in which one of my characters – an embittered Victorian filter bed worker – ends up having the exact same experience when he (for extremely peculiar reasons) ends up on Hackney Marsh in the year 2013 during a league football afternoon.

My book – a psychedelic brew of local legend, strange walks and supernatural fiction – posits the marshes as a hole in London in which time eddies, bringing together the disparate events of the marsh’s past, present and future in a kaleidoscopic swirl…

Viking raids up the Lea river… Dirk Turpin’s antics at his watering hole on Hackney marsh… Victorian rebellions against the water and rail companies who wanted to seize their land… Blitz bombs… anti-aircraft guns… sightings of phantom bears and goose-murdering crocodiles…midnight raves…dogging and cottaging… Olympic protests… land-grabs by insatiable developers.

The book begins with a strange (entirely true) incident in which I am lowered upside down into the Lea river by a complete stranger…

So what an amazing ending this would be… beaten to a glorious, bloody pulp on the marshes I’d obsessed over for years… my blood running into the earth… my own story ending in these hallowed water ditches.

Finally, after a lifetime of feeling like a visitor wherever I lived, I’d belong somewhere.

Imagine the posthumous book sales!

Maybe they’d even give me a plaque:

Gareth Rees, writer, died here.
He ruined Hackney.

Truth be told, we weren’t even in Hackney. This was Walthamstow. My potential killer had some valid points about gentrification but didn’t appear to be fully aware of the geography of the place in which he was about to commit murder. That said, I doubt he was bothered by the finer details of borough boundaries. If I pointed them out now it would probably make things worse.

I considered running, but didn’t bother. I held my ground and waited for him to make his move.

“Next time I see you,” he yelled. “I’m gonna give you a Hackney slap!”

Then he turned away and headed towards Leyton marsh.

A Hackney Slap?

I was quite excited by this. I’d not heard of a Hackney Slap. I wondered what it would entail. When I got home and googled it, I found nothing. There’s a dubstep instrumental called ‘Hackney Slap’. That’s it.

Shame really. It has a nice ring to it.

If you’d like to pre-order a copy of Marshland: Dreams & Nightmares On the Edge of London, then click here. It’s available with a 25% discount until the 25th October. The first 100 copies will be signed by Gareth Rees and the illustrator Ada Jusic.

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