Posted in London on Saturday 18th August 2012 at 11:08pm
After the widely acclaimed and nominally successful staging of the Olympic Games, London has returned to a sort of strangely pensive calm. Everyone senses the Paralympics will bring a little of the magic back, but no-one really expects them to cause quite the upheaval in terms of the capital's life. Nevertheless, they want to cling to the moment - maintain a bit of the atmosphere of timelessness that the ancient tradition made modern can create. Perhaps that's wrong, and the Paralympics should cause an equivalent stir of pride and celebration? Or maybe there is in fact an honesty and purity in the feats of humanity unbound and in the sporting focus of the Paralympics - at least in comparison to the media circus of the Olympiad? In any case, I'd decided to waste no time in revisiting London, and in trying to connect with the post-Games mood. I didn't really know what to expect - and in many ways, today was a string of strangely unsatisfactory events somehow tumbling together. Such is London life, and so too is the story of this strange invasion into the Eastern fringes.
My journey up to London was fractured and feverish. The day was already shaping up to be very hot, and my mind was full of other, foolish and absurd things. It was one of those trips where I looked up and suddenly found myself in the suburbs of the city. After a fairly leisurely breakfast at Paddington I headed for the bus to take the familiar journey east. The city seemed quiet, maybe even a little subdued. The football season was starting again today, and later it would surely be the usual mad whirl? For now though it was incredibly easy to get across town, pausing only to let an eccentric old woman unload endless bags of recycled plastics at Euston, the driver patiently waiting for her multiple trips, scurrying back and forth from the bus. Another intriguing woman joined the bus, a larger-than-life African matriarch in her finery, heading for a wedding. She asked everyone where it was and how far, pointing out the destination in the invitation, and in the new spirit of London which has arisen she was never ignored. I'm not sure anyone other than the driver was much help however. I left the bus at Mile End with a half-formed plan to walk through Mile End Park to reach Roman Road. As I ascended onto the Green Bridge I was hit by a wall of intense heat. I was still struggling with the nagging issues which had dogged my journey up here, but water - specifically the Regents Canal - always soothed things it seemed. I hugged the towpath instead of straying into the landscaped and sustainable areas of parkland. I wanted continuity and industry today, over people and events. Regretfully leaving the park to head onto the street, I made for one of the exhibition spaces I planned to visit. It was closed and locked despite being due to open an hour or more before. Someone was inside, but they were obviously far too cool to let me in, perhaps regarding the exclusion of this absurd sweating, red-faced man as an act of artistic defiance. I left quickly, feeling embarrassed and wondering how to deal with the spare time I'd created? Things have a habit of resolving themselves out here, and as I build an increasingly reliable mental model of the terrain, so I find a new confidence in walking it. So I headed north alongside the canal again, diverting briefly into Victoria Park. It was busy with joggers, boaters, sunbathers and walkers. The park was feeding off the sunlight, and it's glistening, virtuous inhabitants looked with scorn on the fat, sweaty old man peering mawkishly at his 'phone. I moved on swiftly - uncomfortable with civilisation I headed back to the Canal and doubled back to the almost inconsequential junction with the Hertford Union Canal. I'd walked a brief section of this before, but was keen to follow it's path throughout. As it widened into a broad, slow cut so I noticed something bobbing in the water. Once I'd decided it probably wasn't a plastic bag my mouth dried and I wondered with some horror what I'd seen floating at a jagged, unnatural angle to the surface of the water. I edged closer and noted rhythmic pulses of ripples streaming from each corner. My curiosity soon overcame my unease and I was able to make out a moss-covered, green shelled turtle surfacing in the khaki stained waters. It was just about the only life on display, as the park was hidden behind a screen of trees and the roads above seemed quiet, except for the occasional drunken yelp from people lounging outside pubs in baking beer gardens. I tramped the long stretch of water contentedly, pausing to let occasional cyclists pass and to inspect the fascinating flight of locks.
Eventually I reached familiar territory, and decided to press on. The Olympic Park now loomed large beyond the entrance to the canal where it joins the Hackney Cut. Along this stretch a series of miniature, human figurines cast in iron line the water's edge. People were walking towards me so there must be some way through, surely? Over the Cut, the closed Towpath which had first dragged me into this mess of waterways months ago basked mockingly in the sun, unused except by prowling patrols. Forced to ascend from the canal at White Post Lane, I found the fence manned half-heartedly beside an impressively security hardened gateway. An empty police landrover stood by, it's inhabitants unseen. I lingered a while, tried for some pictures, but realised I was attracting the interest of the guards. A lazy sort of interest which was soon distracted by a crowd of lost cyclists and a proper photographer. Backup was called for. It felt like this was the busiest things had been for a while. I sloped off around the corner and found "The Walls Have Ears", a street long mural celebrating the industrial success stories of Hackney Wick, alongside some of the notable local events and snippets of history. I lingered here in the incredible heat, the sunlight reflecting off the dry dusty ground. Eventually distracted by a passing freight train, my trainspotter's eye never quite closed, I headed under the station and into Wick Village. It was fruitless trying to reach the Cut again until the pleasant stretch which edges along the Tenant Managed community. I wasn't sure I was supposed to be here - it was almost deserted. Windows were open and snippets of sound drifted out of the pleasant little homes, many of them decorated colourfully or decked out in flower baskets. Utterly out of character with the shining silvery hulk of the utilitarian end of the Olympic Park just over the water. I stopped to take a picture and a voice was raised from the opposite bank: "Are you OK?". Of course I was. "What are you doing? Why are you taking pictures of me?". I assured the lime-shirted LOCOG guard I wasn't doing any such thing, and turned the tables by asking a few questions about the towpath on which he was standing. He was factual but evasive and said "You can't take pictures here, and you have to leave". I assured him I didn't and despite being initially perplexed, he eventually started to gruffly snuffle into his radio. As I sat on a conveniently shady bench near the Eastway overbridge, within moments the little orange boat left its mooring and started slowly paddling north, and a couple more bodies peeled away from the fence in the distance, and began slowly walking up the towpath...
By the time they reached the guard, I was up on the Eastway bridge. They pointed and shouted, but I was out of range. Initially feeling the triumph of defiance, I realised that it was now midday and I was flagging. I turned east and struck out along the northern fringe of the park, along the edge of the carpark beside the IBC/MPC building. The various accesses were open and active, but well-guarded with a distinct British Army presence. The soldiers were bored and seemed tired of the whole setup. One stopped me to ask if I was lost, and I assured him not. I suggested that sitting out in the sunshine was probably a popular posting today but he grimaced and said "No, it's boring to be honest pal". I asked if he'd managed to get asked in to fill empty seats during the games and he did that thing I've heard so much about from others - that subtle but ultimately firm and direct change of subject designed to dodge all potential PR pitfalls: "How about you? Did you get any tickets?". I left him sprawled in the sun and tried to negotiate the road junction. Here, the A12 is effectively a motorway and Eastway takes a strange mixture of routes onto it, with a branch swinging sharply underneath to emerge as Ruckholt Road. On the map it looked impossible, on the ground it was utter folly. Crossings were closed, paths blocked. Signs removed. I guessed and finally made it across but not without terrifying myself that I couldn't move fast enough. Turning a corner to find the finery and pomp cranked up for the Eton Manor entrance, the painted lanes on the road were a tangled mess of currently inactive Games Lanes where once there had been filter lanes for the various complex left and right turns. It's easy to see how tragic accidents occurred near here - no-one seemed to fully understand even their own path through the complex.
For my own part, I was now in some physical distress. Feeling every year of my age and cursing my weight and sluggishness, the sun was blinding me. I felt woozy and sick. I drank water endlessly, tried to slow my pounding heart and wipe the sweat away but couldn't seem to. A LOCOG car prowled not far from me, keeping pace with my erratic wanderings. Things were quiet enough to deploy individual security now? I wondered if I was sick, was going to collapse here out of the way of humans without cars? I felt like I was trapped in a JG Ballard world as traffic beat a strangely hypnotic rhythm over joints in bridge sections. I pushed on into Waltham Forest, as if crossing the county line would provide the mysterious sanctuary it seemed to offer in all the best films. I'll never know quite how I struggled over the bridge which spans Temple Mills Eurostar depot, which seemed endless and silent. I told myself there would be shade around the next corner, but it never came. Not until I finally careered down the stairs and collapsed into a seat on Leyton Station, the official car at last deserting me and speeding off towards Stratford. No doubt there were sufficient cameras to track my every move from here, I thought - paranoia finally being allowed some room in my racing mind. The train back to Stratford, then Liverpool Street was a blur of people and confusion. It had been a strange morning, but intentionally or otherwise I had covered the ground on this side of the Park which I feared I'd never get to walk and in this respect at least, I'd completed my circumnavigation of the park. Was I any the wiser? Probably not. The scale and complexity of the project still bewildered me, and it's effects on the surrounding communities seemed starker than ever.
I will of course be back. There is a story yet to tell here. One of legacy, of potential futures - maybe even a return to the wilderness for Stratford Marsh if developers cannot be found. For now though I tried to travel backwards in time via a visit to the Clays Lane Archive. That too was closed. I felt shut out and abandoned, and decided to find refreshment and contemplation in a city churchyard. The powerful sun still glaring at six in the evening, and questions still largely unresolved. On my journey home, the weather would get the better of a fractious group of young men on the train too, causing a disturbance and threatening passengers. The uneasy consensus that "everything is fine, we're all happy" which dominated the last few glorious Olympic weeks, is clearly over.
You can see more pictures from the walk here. As an experiment, you can also follow the route on the map below - the blue line is the walking route.
Posted in London on Tuesday 14th August 2012 at 8:08am
This is something I posted on Facebook, largely in response to some of the negative comments I received following expressing my views on the London Olympics. It's not the post I'd like to have written which details my personal connection with the area, but it goes some way to explaining why I feel how I do about what's happened here over the last several weeks. It should be read as a hurried, rather fractious response to having to stay fairly quiet for a while!
So, it's over...
There have been some emotional moments over the past two weeks - from athletes shedding hard-earned tears of joy and pain on the podium, to people venting their spleen in my inbox! It's been a very strange and uncomfortable time to be an Olympic Sceptic, and I'm aware it's made me come across as more humourless and cantankerous than ever in the process. But was I anti-olympics really? I certainly think there were some amazing displays of endurance, strength, speed and humility - all the values which the Games were founded on. While I'm not a sports fan, and I didn't recognise most of the names which seem to have had everyone on the edge of their seats, I've never, ever commented negatively on Team GB or indeed any of the athletes from any nation. I wouldn't dare to have done - they're all astoundingly good at what they do and maybe the Games will propel a whole new generation of youngsters towards Rio in 2016 too?
My concerns about the Olympics are based essentially on two things - firstly, the big stuff: the whole circus of the bidding process, the role of the IOC and the financial risks to the host city, the security and militarisation which we may never now be rid of etc. Secondly, I'm really concerned about the specific effects on everyday life in a little corner of London - one that struggles and usually survives, but which is genuinely threatened by the 'legacy' if things go off course. I've not idly jumped on a bandwagon here just to be contrary. I've read many, many documents running to thousands of pages and learned a huge amount about democracy, planning and environmental issues. I've tried hard to see both sides and find the benefits among the drawbacks - and of course I recognise that there are benefits, but question where they'll land. I've repeatedly gone out and walked the park and it's environs as far as I've been able over the past seven years, trying to understand its changing role and character - and I'll carry on doing that. I don't do this for any reason other than finding it a fascinating and surprising, if perpetually liminal, place to wander. Not least, I worry a great deal about the acceptance of 'private' public spaces which are not for everyone - and the Park may well become one of these in time.
We may never know the real price tag - and the leaps in cost over time have casually and repeatedly multiplied a figure which was already so big that it was beyond comprehension for most of us. £2bn became £4bn, then £9bn then something closer to £11bn of public finance. This doesn't include the compulsory purchase of lands, remediation of polluted soil, or any contribution to the transport infrastructure or Westfield Shopping Mall. After all, these are being sold as Olympic Benefits! What is certain is that we can't afford this just now. As for Freedom of Information, the Olympic Delivery Authority is not a wholly public body - so we'll never really get the numbers.
The legislation which has entered statute around the Games is a really worrying legacy. It has seen global brands using the law to protect themselves from competition, has seen democratic and local planning processes sidelined, and has seen the individual rights of citizens limited. Today ministers are talking about retaining the relaxed Sunday Trading laws post-Games - in itself probably not a bad thing. But it illustrates how these laws will tend to remain in place, and how the right to walk certain paths, to protest peacefully and to choose which companies you support with your money has been eroded in the name of the London Olympics.
Life around the games was tough for people in Stratford, Hackney Wick, Leyton and Bow - from the start of "Dig, Demolish, Design" in 2007 right up to this morning. I number some of these residents as my friends and correspondents, and they've suffered upheaval with a degree of dignity because many of them thought this was a fantastic, positive expression of British hospitality and sportsmanship. However, it seems only fair then that these communities should share in the prosperity. Largely though, they didn't. They were treated desperately unfairly during the planning and building of the venues, were marginalised during the games, and the danger is that as the Olympic Park is transformed into its post-games state it will form a new, very separate neighbourhood which has nothing to do with the landscape it inhabits. For the people who were evicted from their homes and who saw their jobs moved away from the area though, they will defnintely not get to share in the local legacy of the games. And the term "legacy"? It has been strangely redefined during the games as something you can build in advance rather than something you leave behind. And again yesterday it was being hastily rewritten to focus solely on the sporting and cultural legacies, rather than the bricks and mortar and economic legacies which were a major component of the bid. I'll watch this process with interest over the coming months and years.
Finally the question comes - am I not proud to be British today? The answer is, yes I am - but some of the things I'm proud of are the facts that we can question the decisions of our authorities without fear of reprisals, can express our frustrations and disappointments alongside our triumph, and that we let local people have a say in what happens in their neighbourhoods. All of these things have suffered setbacks since July 2005, and not all of them due to the Olympics. However, it has provided the ultimate rug under which to sweep some pretty dramatic changes in the UK. It's time we stepped back from this mob-culture thing of "if you're not waving a flag you're clearly a terrorist" - it's lazy, dangerous and pretty damn silly.
I probably won't get back the lost Facebook friends and twitter followers - but if you actually know me in real life, none of the above will have surprised you one bit of course!
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.