The Black Helicopters of Hackney

Somewhere in a grey sky over Clapton...

It’s an unmistakeable sound – the deep thukka-thukka of giant counter-rotating blades missing each other by milliseconds at a rate that blows the non-mechanical mind.

Silhouetted against a winter Clapton sky the Chinooks – heavy-lift double-rotored helicopters that often swing by here on an afternoon (always north to south, usually in pairs) work their way noisily up the River Lea; origin and destination unknown.

In winter light, olive drab is hard to recognise and insteady they resemble the ‘black helicopters’ American militiamen warn of, safe in the bunkers they believe will save them during an ‘inevitable’ second revolution. The R-word and the G-word (government) are everywhere in the Zeitgeist and not just in the Middle East.

Perhaps, at the southern extremity of the Hackney Sector,  Occupy protesters enjoying a cigarette on the roof of the UBS building – renamed the Bank of Ideas –  still hear the deep bass sound of these departing choppers above the more mundane sounds of buses and taxis; they fight the one-way system while Occupy takes on the economic system.

Some of these rooftop sentries want to revolutionise capitalism – seeing a softer face as money takes second place; something advocated recently by the most famous British entrepreneur of all, the very un-Che Guevara-like Richard Branson. Others would like to see the full monty: the goverment toppled as the people rise up to take power for themselves, the anarchist dream come true.

Elsewhere, less dramatically, others in caring services speak more resignedly of a ‘war’ on the poor; a ‘campaign’ by an uncaring government that pays no heed to the disparities that exhaust as many as they fire up. None of this is new in Hackney.

From Defoe’s pamphlets and Wollstonecraft’s books through to the Angry Brigade and Orange Fence squatters, the inequities and the inequalities of the prevailing system has long vexed locals. Be it religous intolerance, sexual discrimination or economic imbalance, the folk of Hackney have regularly taken it upon themselves to question the establishment and rail for reform.

Taxation impelled the Founding Fathers, who hung out in Newington Green with other N16 radicals, to instigate the famous uprising against their British masters. A century on, taxation was the driving force behind the smugglers caught on Hackney Marshes bringing not drugs but tea into the city.

Hoping to avoid Customs officers, they instead ran into the local watch in a scene that translates into any culture where trade is regulated. Yet for the modern day rebels at Occupy, it’s the lack of taxation, certainly in the corporate realm and at the super-rich level, that raises their ire.

Some, speaking not from bunkers but from desks in the city, say the Chinooks  follow both the Thames and the Lea: useful building-free areas in the unpleasant event of mechanical failure and a crash landing. An army base in City Road is apparently an occasional point to set down these aerial behemoths.

And as they disappear over the reservoirs by Totteham Hale, the last Hackney residents to hear them – those responsible for the aural handover to neighbouring Haringey – are the owners of Clapton’s canal boats.

Their woodsmoke drifts across the still waters of the Lea and into the nostrils of dog walkers and joggers crunching the gravel by Walthamstow Marshes. Some fight the system and some drop out. And some just like a quiet life on the water.

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