Becontree. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: forget the wilderness, true adventurers should head for the housing estate

Public relations flacks should understand this much: any old Prince Harry can take a well-organised trip into the wilderness, but the true contemporary adventurer strikes out for the known.

Waiting for the District Line Tube out to Becontree, I gazed at the poster curving up the sooty wall. “Wake up to the Wild”, a slogan daubed on a stylised piece of driftwood read, and beneath it, hovering over an illustration of a rocky, sandy beach, was this come-hither: “With one of the largest tidal ranges in the world, Guernsey’s coastline offers a new experience each visit.”

This I didn’t doubt – I’ve been to Guernsey and walked its entire coastline (not difficult: it takes a long morning), but then surely visiting anywhere in the world a second time entails a different experience? Also, to make even this strictly accurate claim about Guernsey’s “wildness” seemed to be stretching things; true, it is the thinking person’s Jersey, but with a population density of 840 non-taxpayers per square kilometre – most of whom, so far as I could see, spend their days roaring along the lanes in their Porsches – it’s hardly the Yukon.

Or Becontree, for that matter. This humongous east London council estate was built in the interwar period, and in 1935 it housed 100,000 people in 26,000 homes. The largest public housing development in the world at the time, it was a byword for mod cons that didn’t altogether work, and a civic pride that kept every privet hedge clipped at precisely the same height. I’d never been to Becontree, unlike Guernsey, so I was intent on remedying the deficiency. The Channel island’s public relations flacks should understand this much: any old Prince Harry can take a well-organised trip into the wilderness, but the true contemporary adventurer strikes out for the known.

For this kind of expedition it’s a good idea to have a qualified guide, and mine was one of the pre-eminent: Nick Papadimi­triou, the self-styled “deep topographer”. I’ve known Nick since the mid-1980s, and seen him change from a markedly eccentric urban wanderer into a still more markedly eccentric urban wanderer. His has been a life spent kicking his heels along neglected suburban verges and rummaging through the 50p-or-less boxes outside remote charity shops. At his council flat off the Finchley Road, Nick has spent 30 years assembling an astonishing archive of London’s hinterland, the fruit of which was his amazing book, Scarp (published in 2012), an account of his intense – even mystical – relationship with a landmass called the Middlesex Tertiary Escarpment.

I liaised with Nick in Parsloes Park and we strolled through the leafy roads of Becontree and into Valence Park, where we found Valence House, the only manor house still extant in Barking and Dagenham and now a rather fine local museum. The best thing about walking with Nick is that he resists anything as obvious as a defined route or objective; he is the arch-flâneur, impelled from one place to the next because he wishes to compare the concrete flanges of manhole covers, or the kinds of trident fencing used to segregate waste ground. At Becontree we were both taken by the ornate stone cladding that had been added to many of the houses, together with uPVC window frames and sections of aluminium siding sprayed white to resemble clapboard. Where one of the semis had not been altered, we admired the granolithic façades and curved, recessed porches, which together gave the buildings a curiously organic feel.

The museum was full of interesting stuff, such as a Neolithic wooden idol dug up from the Thames mud, but it being four in the afternoon on a weekday the place was closing. We didn’t mind; Nick had a vague desire to visit the riverside at Dagenham Dock, so we trudged back south through streets teeming with manumitted schoolkids, stopping for a tea at the Castle Green Leisure Centre before crossing the A12 by a footbridge. Alongside an arterial road being hammered by lorry traffic, we observed a particularly rich collection of wild flowers. Nick, knowing his botany, reeled off the names of the plants; I, being an ignoramus, immediately forgot them. Nick speculated about whether the meadow had been seeded, or if these had been dormant seeds germinated once the earth had been churned up preparatory to the establishment of the SUSTAINABLE INDUSTRIES PARK (“Over 125,000 Square Metres of High-Quality Business Space”), a phenomenon that thus far consisted solely in this stentorian hoarding.

Towards Dagenham Dock, the roadway grew quieter and the air of desuetude greater – off to either side stood lowering steel hangars and semi-defunct industrial buildings; buddleia burst from walls; two men struggled with a giant socket wrench and a gianter lorry wheel. Hemmed in by corrugated iron walls, we were funnelled towards a couple of enormous dumps (or “waste treatment centres”, as they’re now euphemised), and it became clear we couldn’t gain the riverside in this direction. Nick didn’t mind; he’d landed on a small traffic island, and so began to rhapsodise, “Isn’t it amazing – perfect in its way, and utterly without a discernible function.” He was right: the lozenge-shaped island was marooned at the edge of a roundabout that no one much ever circumnavigated. With its filthy-white bollard, tidal wrack of automotive wreckage and beaches of compacted dust, it offered me an experience quite as novel as anything Guernsey could. I liked it so much I went back again the following day.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump