The Everlasting Universe of Things

by ob

We won the commission to create a mountain for the Olympic park. The committee praised our bold vision, our dynamic approach and our sensitivity to budgetary constraints. There was talk of legacy, and local involvement, and opportunities for commercial partnership. Everybody was happy and we were going to be rich and famous.

We conducted exhaustive research. We compiled lists of the world’s most iconic mountain ranges and tried to isolate just what it was that made them so effective. We built models of the most popular alps and pondered them from every angle. We surveyed moraines, mesas, plateaus, crags, cliffs and ridges. We carried out field trips to heaths, moors and highlands. We considered knolls, knowes, drumlins, eskers and even an arctic pingo.

We studied mountain formation, plate tectonics, glaciation and erosion. We read books about spectacular alpine disasters in which entire parties of upright men were destroyed by the elements, or their own ambition, or both.  We all went skiing for a week, drank too much, and tried to get off with chalet girls.

We made fools of ourselves.

We tried to settle on a definition of mountain-ness. Height was important, obviously, but how much? 1,000 metres above sea level? 2,000? We interrogated buttes, escarpments, slag heaps, ceremonial mounds and dry ski slopes. We demanded answers. Where does a hill end, we asked, and a mountain begin? Does location make a difference? Mass? Viewing angle?

We went on a fact finding mission to one of the those mountainous central Asian republics where the former dictator had famously squandered what little oil wealth the country had on vast public monuments in honour of himself. We toured the site of the failed 1976 Winter Olympics bid, high in the cold hills above the capital. The centrepiece was an unfinished, one hundred foot high concrete pyramid, now covered in 35 years worth of anti-government graffiti. Nobody was quite sure what it was supposed to symbolise. There were new plans, our guide told us, for a shopping centre, a luxury hotel, an opera house. We were allowed to wander around taking pictures for half an hour before they herded us back onto the coach. On the drive back to the city we passed the site where another tour bus had plunged off the narrow mountain road and fallen two hundred feet into a river. The British Ambassador invited us to cocktails at the embassy. We stood on the terrace and watched the evening fold itself in over the steppe. Out in the emptiness the lights of campfires glittered like stars in the high desert air. The new President, a thirty-year old telecoms billionaire who’d grown up in the US, impressed us with his vision for the country’s future. Infrastructure and outside investment were the answer. There would be no more boiling people alive. His nineteen-year old supermodel wife sulked magnificently and smoked everyone else’s cigarettes.

The artificial mountain, we discovered, has a long and noble history. In the last five thousand years at least seven different civilizations have independently invented the pyramid. The first rock gardens appeared in China around the time of the birth of Christ. Twelve hundred years later the mad Emperor Huizong removed all the bridges on the thousand mile-long Grand Canal to allow the passage of barges carrying gigantic boulders for his private rockery. It took the Chinese economy almost a hundred years to recover. In nineteenth century Ukraine two hundred wooden hills were erected on the plains south of Kiev under the orders of an orthodox mystic who had predicted the second coming of the Kievan Rus’, in advance of which he and his priests planned to ascend to heaven from the highest points on the otherwise interminably flat landscape. Built from beech or ash and standing up to fifty metres high, many of the hills could still be found on local maps well into the 1930s – when they were focus of a last, desperate religious revival, inspired and eventually wiped out by state-planned mass starvation.

For a long time we kept coming back to the idea of wandering dunes. We imagined them appearing, unannounced, in random parts of the city; thrilling children and creating talking points for the news media. The singing of the dunes – as the wind sheared off their carefully tuned ridges – would offer inspiration and solace to office workers, athletes and Olympic dignitaries alike. The implications for traffic management, however, were horrendous.

We had a meeting with The Minister in Charge of This Sort of Thing at the headquarters of one of the corporate sponsors. The meeting room was on the thirty-fifth floor. It was too early in the morning and the acceleration of the lift on the way up made everyone feel seasick. The room had been chosen for the fantastic view of the Olympic park: from up there the scale of the thing almost made sense, despite the threatening weather. Even the demented lines of the aquatic centre – a five-dimensional nightmare so horrifying it was already causing nosebleeds in the local schoolchildren – looked a little less challenging when seen from the proper perspective.

“It was designed to look its best from a helicopter,” explained the Minister’s sexy young aide. “TV cameras. You gentlemen will understand, of course.”

We understood: the Minister had started drinking again. He was wearing sunglasses and his suit looked like he’d woken up in it. This time it was the landscaping. They were having trouble with one of the local rivers.

“Pollution?” We asked.

“Topography,” the Minister sighed. “It keeps moving. Every time we think we’ve got the bastard pinned down it changes course and turns up somewhere else. It’s going to cost fucking millions.”

He took a swig from his hip flask and burst into tears. We decided not to tell him, just then, about our own problems. Besides, the early morning sun had broken through the submarine clouds and was lighting up the entire magnificent folly – the largest building site in Europe! – in glorious shades of gold, silver and bronze.

We thought about volcanoes. Someone in the office had come up with a spectacular idea for the opening ceremony. We visited Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa in Hawaii, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, and Skjaldbreiður in Iceland. We collected samples of basalt and ignimbrite to test as cladding. We modelled the potential route and consequences of an uncontrolled pyroclastic event in the Olympic park. We met with an exogeologist who told us that the tallest mountain in the solar system is, coincidentally, Olympus Mons: an extinct volcano on Mars three times the height of mount Everest.

The results of our pyroclastic flow modelling came back, with potential casualty figures underlined and circled in red. We decided never to mention the volcano idea ever again.

We tried to come up with a nickname. The Rock? The Alp? The Matterhorn? Were any of them likely to stick? For a while we entertained the notion of creating two mountains, side by side, in the hope that journalists might start referring to the piece as ‘The Tits’. We thought it would work on a number of levels.

Strange things were starting to happen along the boundaries of the Olympic park. Weird energies were overflowing and spilling out into the surrounding streets and spaces. Mysterious blue heat hazes shimmered over drains and manhole covers along Stratford Broadway at four in the morning. Cars and buses started breaking down in exactly the same two or three spots every afternoon. Crime figures soared, then collapsed. Fifteen local girls became immaculately and spontaneously pregnant on the same day. Meanwhile we contemplated precipices and investigated the sublime. We read Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant and John Ruskin. We looked at paintings by JMW Turner, John Martin and the Hudson River School. There seemed to be some argument as to whether or not the apprehension of the wonders of nature should create unease and/or fear in the viewer. Then we discovered Schopenhauer. We decided on a sliding scale of effects that ran from “pleasure gained from perceiving an object that cannot hurt the observer” to “total knowledge of the immensity and meaninglessness of the Universe”. We priced everything accordingly.

We went to see London Zoo’s famous Bear Mountain. Built in 1913 from reinforced concrete to show off the possibilities of the new wonder material, it was designed to provide a more ‘naturalistic’ habitat for the zoo’s population of black, brown and polar bears. In its first three years seven bears committed suicide by throwing themselves from the artificial mountain’s 50 metre summit. They are immortalised in a series of sculptural reliefs by vorticist artists David Bomberg and Wyndham Lewis. On the night of the twentieth of October 1917, during the final London air raid of the First World War, the mountain was hit by a fifty pound incendiary bomb, believed to have been dropped by Zeppelin L.46, under the command of the daredevil Korvettenkapitän Ernst Schutze. Although the bomb failed to explode, it punched a hole through the mountain’s concrete shell and into the giant reservoirs which fed the aquarium below, flooding a significant part of the zoo and, so the story goes, allowing a pregnant crocodile to escape into the Regent’s canal, where it was last seen heading towards Camden, its eyes shining with tracer fire.

We were asked to take part in security exercises. What if our mountain became the focus of a terrorist event? Had anyone we knew ever been involved in anti-government activity? Did we recognise this name, this face, this symbol? On a cold January morning we watched army landing craft and reinforced inflatable boats come ashore below Thames Barrier Park while helicopters roared over our heads and Navy cruisers dropped smoke on the sluggish water. From rooftops along the waterfront Royal Marine snipers watched over us with.338 calibre rifles, waiting for someone to twitch.

We attended the press launch for the thrillingly constructivist water polo arena. We drank too much and tried to get off with the PR girls. We were starting to get a reputation. We got write-ups in Sunday magazines and made everyone else in the industry jealous. We were falling apart.

Community groups began making noises about the detrimental effect of living under the Permanent Olympic State of Exception. They argued that seven years of building works, land seizures, business closures, forced re-settlements and increased police powers were impacting on the quality of life inside the zone. You could sort of see their point. Over four hundred people had been removed from their homes and thirty businesses had been forcibly relocated. In order to ensure the sporting legacy of the games it had been necessary to demolish all the local sports centres. Nevertheless we were too busy for this. We agreed to do a presentation and give some photogenic local teens a tour of the site. They ended up selling us some horrifically strong home-grown skunk and persuading us to to scale the unfinished mountain with them. We all sat atop the 1:1 scale reproduction of Mallory and Irvine’s final resting place, passing a joint around and daring each other to leap from girder to girder in the exposed superstructure, while two hundred feet below us money continued to be burned at the most amazing rate in the history of mankind.

Everyone was over budget and behind schedule. The cost of the park had by now passed nine billion pounds. We did the calculation and worked out that building everything in solid gold would have actually saved us money, as well as offering UK PLC a much better return on its investment. Corners were being cut all over the place. The Eagle’s Pavilion – the private viewing platform at 750 metres from which the International Olympic Committee were supposed to be able to survey their protectorate – had to go. The marble-, brass- and leather-lined V.I.P. elevator that we’d had specially manufactured in Italy was scrapped. Even the gondolas were being replaced with chair lifts. There would be no ibex, marmot or chamois capering on the higher slopes of our masterpiece. No Alpine salamander, no snow leopard and no yaks.

Rock by rock, our magnificent vision was starting to crumble before our eyes.

Almost all of the world’s major religions recognise at least one sacred or holy mountain. The list includes Mount Fuji in Japan, Mount Kailash in Tibet, Uluru/Ayer’s Rock in Australia, and the Kun-Lun range in China. In most cases the sacred mountain stands at the supposed centre of universe, an interchange between heaven and earth, salvation and damnation. A switching point between this life and the next. Often, the mountain is what brought the world into being in the first place.

It had been raining for three weeks, and across the Olympic site standing water was being pumped out of oily pools around the clock. There was mud everywhere. People were going down with chest infections, fungal diseases, trench foot. The foreign workers had begun to mutter darkly about dengue fever, malaria, even typhoid. Plastic sheeting covered everything.

Wearing transparent plastic raincoats and sheltering under Olympic Delivery Authority-branded umbrellas, the committee representatives hurried through their examination of our works. It was hard to hear anything over the sound of the rain. We were all nursing merciless hangovers: we’d been up all night drinking with the Lithuanian carpenters in a lock-up garage off the Romford Road.

“What are they looking for?” We asked Marius the head carpenter. We were all crowded into the doorway of our portakabin, watching the inspectors go about their business. Marius took a swig from the bottle of schnapps and then passed it back to us.

“Nobody knows,” he said, wiping his mouth. “They’re not allowed to talk to anyone. They’re like fucking priests.”

There were rumours, of course. The electrician found cooked inside a substation. The Gurkha security guard pulled screaming into a hole in the ground one night and never seen again. The crane driver torn in half in his cab by something no one wanted to talk about. It was common knowledge that certain areas of the park were to be avoided. Places with odd magnetic fields that messed with phone reception or wiped computer hard discs. Patches of earth that refused to stick to consistent dimensions no matter how many times they were surveyed. Sight lines that didn’t, in retrospect, make any sense. And, every now and then, the ultra-low-frequency rumbling that seemed to be travelling up from somewhere deep in the Eocene clay below our feet.

What was the nature of the thing we were building, people had started asking – why this particular mountain on this particular site? Why now?

What birth were we all here to witness?

When their checklist was complete the inspectors handed us a copy of the report. It was covered in diagrams we didn’t understand. Someone handed us a pen and motioned for us to sign: here, here and here. Even the clipboard was covered in a sheet of transparent plastic.

Nobody said a word.

When they left we realised we’d been holding our breath the whole time.

According to the official records at least three unexploded Second World War bombs lie buried under the Olympic park. The ground is also full of phosphorus, lead, arsenic, thorium, asbestos, sulphur and other assorted hazardous materials, the run-off from hundreds of years of industrial activity in the lower Lea valley. Before construction could begin the entire Olympic site was covered in a thin layer of plastic in an attempt to contain the unstable, toxic and potentially radioactive soil beneath. At some point, every grand spectacle requires a suspension of disbelief.

But we are not afraid of bombs.

Two weeks ago they found something much worse down there.

We spend most of our time drunk these days. No one minds. We still turn up at the office, and do our best to look busy, and carry out the roles that have been assigned to us. We appear on camera and say the things we’re supposed to say, and lend our names to press releases we never get to read, and turn up at awards ceremonies to accept the usual awards.

And we understand that the thing that is now awake two miles beneath Anish Kapoor’s celebrated Olympic tower – the UK’s largest public sculpture! – is what they were looking for along. We understand that the whole sorry spectacle of the last seven years has been a gigantic act of misdirection. The Olympics as cover up. How else were they going to explain away the obscene amount of money that it costs to raise a monster from its aeons-long slumber? How else could they justify the construction of the gigantic wards and arcane symbols – Olympic stadium, aquatic centre, velodrome, artificial mountain, inflatable basketball arena – necessary to invoke and contain the beast? Where else could you hide such an unholy, insane undertaking but in plain sight, in front of a worldwide audience of over two billion people?

In Hesse, Germany, a 200 metre high potash dump called Mount Kali has become a popular tourist attraction.

A potash dump.

Apparently it is not unlike Mount Kilimanjaro in profile.

The world has gone mad.

Of course, it’s too late to stop the summoning now. The opening ceremony is only months away. The tickets have all been sold, and sold on again. Besides, they say the creature has the ability to make men rich and powerful beyond their wildest dreams, if it doesn’t choose to destroy the world first.

And so we continue with our preparations, our useless ghost dancing. We go through the motions, more out of habit than hope. We know what we are now. We know what our purpose is.

We are accelerationists, attempting to hasten an event the shape of which we don’t understand.

Regeneration? Apocalypse?

Would we even know, this late in the game, the one from the other?