As followers of this blog know I have this thing about hidden London, its lost past and obscure places. Today I visited a website I enjoy – Derelict London – looking at their latest tours. One caught my eye – a wander around Silvertown before it is gentrified. Silvertown is part of the former docklands out east of Canary Wharf and still a poor, tired and industrial area. But as the need for housing grows, those sites, especially with a river frontage, like Silvertown become valuable for residential developments.
As it happens I can’t make the tour but as I glanced at the map of the area I had one of those moments of recognition, a memory from my legal career and one of the oddest cases – what might be called the yellow-faced Doberman.
It started in the late 1980s when an American client spotted an opportunity with the increase in colour printing in our national newspapers. Today, a free daily launched by a chubby entrepreneur called Eddie Shah, had the USP of incorporating colour in its pictures unlike the rest of Fleet Street’s publications. After all the old joke
what’s black and white and red all over?
would have had no resonance if the papers were coloured.
Said client manufactured industrial dyes at an old site in Silvertown near to the enormous Tate And Lyle sugar factory. It wanted to expand and it happened there was an adjacent site that was a former paint factory. There were however two issues. First the factory site was heavily polluted; paint had been made there for over 100 years so the ground was saturated with significant amounts of lead and cadmium amongst other heavy metals. Second, the client’s premises were separated from the paint factory by a short passage that gave access to a public Park, a scrabby bit of open space that had seen better days. If the client was to proceed it needed to be sure that the environmental risks were covered off and it could buy the passage so the two sites could be merged into one.
The local authority were very keen on the deal. Employment, bringing a derelict site back into use, business rates – there were all sorts of pluses. They agreed to fund a barrier between the paint factory and the park to ensure there was no additional migration of pollutants from one site to the other – our client would then dig out the paint factory Earth and dispose of the polluted soil.
As for the passage, well the nerdy Lawyer in me was very excited. The local authority owned it but as it was technically part of the park it was subject to the provisions of the Open Spaces Act of 1906 which, in short, stops local authorities selling off public open spaces. There are exceptions where the land is not used and has been appropriated for planning purposes, which is all a bit technical and geeky and the sort of stuff that delights lawyers and annoys the pants off clients.
‘Sure, Geoff, but can we buy it?’
‘So? You sound unsure.’
‘It may take some time.’
I didn’t want to say Oak trees mature in less time but I think he got the idea. He sighed and reconciled himself to this crazy limey system.
Eventually we passed through the hoops and the paperwork to buy the strip of land landed on my desk. I rang the client. He sounded nervy.
‘What’s up?’ I thought he’d be pleased.
‘We’ve been talking to the authority. They’ve agreed to extend the barrier (to stop migrating pollution, you will recall) to cover the passage as well as the factory.’
‘We found crap in the passage – old migration- and we don’t want it going further under our site.’
‘Sure. That’s good, isn’t it?’
‘It was. Not so much today.’
He took his time. ‘I don’t think this is a good time for the Council to be digging next to our boundary. We’ve had an incident.’
You see, our client had banged on about environmental protection. In the US in the late 1980s the Environmental Protection Act had begun to change behaviours. Similar provisions didn’t appear in U.K. legislation until 1990 so we appeared to be more cavalier. The moral high ground rested with the client and he had milked it.
‘The security guard for our facility was called to an incident in the Park yesterday. A local man had started threatening our staff.’
This local man was a well known member of certain right wing groups who used his body to display various less than liberal slogans via tattoos. He sported all the expected paraphernalia of one of such inclinations: the shaved head, the aggressive piercings and the attack dog held in control by a heavy chain and spiked collar.
He was spitting with rage. ‘What have you done to my dog?’
Dobermann Pinchers are excellent scent dogs. This one had a penchant for sweet smells and, it seemed had picked up some trail when our local jack-the-lad was walking him in the park. He hightailed it to the fence with our clients site, at the junction where it met the passage and where, any time soon, the local authority would be sending in its contractors to build the pollution barrier.
Unbeknownst to anyone – well that’s what I was told – the dog had found an area where a spillage of dye had leeched under the fence. A yellow dye. The dog – let’s call him Spot – dug furiously in the ground hunting the source of this delectable smell. Spot pressed his face into the hole to lick at the sticky soil before our hero – let’s call him Horacio – could pull him away.
I expect Spot was disappointed. He probably looked at his owner with a long lingering expression. Disappointment was his overriding emotion. But it was nothing to Horacio’s reaction. His dog, his status symbol, his exemplifier of his masculinity had a yellow head. I expect Horacio tried to wipe the offending colour away but it was a fornlorn hope. This was industrial strength dye. Spit and a hanky were never going to shift it.
My client had lost his natural ebullience. ‘How can I face the authority if they find we are the polluters? I need you to slow things down until we clean up our site. Can you do that subtly?’
Me subtle? He clearly had no idea. ‘How long will you need?’
‘You know what you said about oak trees….’