Ten years on, what is the Olympic legacy in east London?

Last night I dreamt I saw Danny Boyle escaping in a taxi. There were no visible flames, but you could smell petrol fumes, taste cinders in the air. Somewhere in the anarchic buffer zone of Hackney Wick, there must have been a party or screening in a concrete warehouse attended by the expelled of the 2012 Olympic clearances: residents, small businesses, community groups.

The dream probably derived from the evening when I tried to forge a link between the dank poetry of Italy’s Po Valley and the enclosures and expulsions of our own Lea Valley, by showing Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il grido in a craft beer joint alongside the Lea Navigation waterway. Nobody came. Not one person.

This subterranean fiasco was in direct contrast to the £27mn opening ceremony for the London Olympics masterminded by Boyle, who had been appointed a year after winning the best director Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. The triumphant heritage circus, involving all the UK’s national icons — from James Bond and dancing nurses to royalty, both blood and pop — divided the mass of the population from the rump of local miserablists who had dared dissent. They were sent slinking back to their caves.

The ceremony, along with the rest of the highly visible hype around the city, signalled a glorious future: crazy budgets for the right projects, pipe dreams replacing facts, and the creative recalibrating of history by a raft of committees and quangos, cheered on by the media.

“Anyone for Hackney?” That was the call. I shuffled towards Boyle and his enablers as they climbed aboard the big black people carrier. The maestro pulled down his cap and gestured to a lackey to wipe his glasses. Then the cab was gone. I woke up.

Fireworks above the Olympic stadium at Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony;
Fireworks above the Olympic stadium at Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony © Mark J Terrill/AP

the Olympic torch is delivered to a barge on the River Thames, London, July 27 2012
The Olympic torch is delivered to a barge on the River Thames, London, July 27 2012 © Kyodo News Stills via Getty Images

That was when I decided that enough time has passed. I would have to start walking again through an area I had chosen to avoid for too many years. A landscape dedicated to amnesia might be persuaded to give up its ghosts. Like the old man I had met near the Northern Outfall Sewer, tears in his eyes, because he couldn’t recognise the street where his father led him for his first job. Like the active community of Manor Garden Allotments, removed to a set of chicken sheds on a flooded patch nobody wanted. Like the rough and ready fellowship of the Eastway Cycle Circuit.

I had heard too much about losses. I wanted to see for myself what was happening in the brave new world, satellite of Westfield Shopping City.

Bulging like a hernia from the flank of the Lea Navigation waterway, the strategically tailored acres of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park flipped the jaded concept of sportswashing. What was being spun, during those hectic days of national celebration in August 2012, was not the misdemeanours of some failed state, but of sport itself. A Blu-ray upgrade for the Chariots of Fire fantasy of self-sacrifice and god-given victory.

Olympic Games in the 21st century were mired in uncollectable promises, in government-approved drug regimes, in medal harvesting excused as patriotism. The London Olympics were the perfect engine, at the perfect time, for transforming tired old-world geography into a shiny upgrade. Newham, an impoverished and struggling borough, would be blagged into a shining City of Crystal, erected on a pyramid of upbeat slogans.

The invasion of our wearied but still enchanted post-industrial terroir deployed place to launder sport. What was evident at the time was that the further supporters lived from the fable of the emerging Park, the better they liked it. The makeover began with the erasure of inconvenient specifics. I felt the anger at a debate, convened for the Cheltenham Literature Festival, in which anecdotes of local crimes, extracted from numerous expeditions across the territory by the artist and activist Laura Oldfield Ford, were greeted with a rippling thunder of disapproval. With scarlet faces and slow handclaps.

Map showing East London walk from Waltham Cross to Westfield via the Olympic Park

The case for more Coca-Cola and circuses was carried, triumphantly, by a perky sports journalist and a medalled oarsman. Ford was nudged and challenged as she tried to use the coffee machine in the hospitality suite. At this moment of national drama, with the Games pinched so adroitly from Paris, it was treachery to voice criticism.

In true Brit fashion, the only acceptable critique came by way of Twenty Twelve, a BBC satire on the manifest absurdities of Olympic bureaucracy. For the sake of balance, the Corporation invited contrary voices to make their pitch but nothing serious, nothing about the tactical arrests of protesters, or poisons seeping from buried radioactive drums into the water table, was mentioned until it was all over. The BBC had acquired the use of a doomed Stratford tower block, part-occupied by desperate tenants, but convenient for interviews during the Games.

It happened. The Park evolved. I kept away. Ten years was long enough to let dust settle and approved wild flowers dress the banks of the infinitely adaptable Bow Back Rivers. But if you want to adequately understand a place, you have to start somewhere else; a day’s walk out. Far enough to see your target emerge from a thicket of pylons, from a charm of linked reservoirs and nature reserves with permitted paths. To appreciate the Olympic Park in Stratford, my journey would have to begin with motorway-rim developments at Waltham Cross.

Travel links have improved miraculously during the Olympic hiatus. In earlier times, before the millennial folly of the Dome, when New Labour boosters were experimenting with flaccid futurism, trains and Tubes, especially at the weekend, were a gamble. In general, it was quicker to walk from Hackney to Greenwich and the Millennium Dome than to hazard public transport.

Housing in the shadow of the Olympic Park development
Housing in the shadow of the Olympic Park development © Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

By April 2022, nothing much had changed at Hackney Downs, where I set out for the Lea Valley walk towards the post-Olympic Park. On Maundy Thursday, which felt like an auspicious day, trains were running pretty well, but not necessarily, as Eric Morecambe said, in the right order. “Shiny new trains”, boasted the official notice on the station wall. “The first of many, bigger, better.”

But not this morning, not here: another signalling malfunction. An amiable guard emerged, carrying a communion dish of miniature chocolate eggs. He dished them out as compensation to confused travellers. Along with printed cards. PLEASE HOP DOWN THE WHOLE LENGTH OF THE PLATFORM TO HELP OUR TRAINS RUN ON TIME. Some older passengers, on sticks and frames, grateful for their premature Easter bounty, did their best to oblige.

One minute after travellers, taking the advice of the guard, had decamped to another platform, a sleek new Overground train pulled in. Carriages were clean, roomy. Service was exemplary. This was a giant leap forward from the pre-Olympic days. Back then, heading out towards Enfield, I had watched low-level drug deals. At Ponders End, a white napkin was unrolled to set off a black revolver, for the inspection of two cash-rich competitive purchasers.

On the stretch of road between Waltham Cross and Waltham Abbey, the outwash of post-Olympic development can be felt in cul-de-sac retreats flanked by car salerooms, fast-food refuelling halts and secret armament plants, such as the Royal Gunpowder Mills, made over to tourism. The towpath alongside the River Lea Navigation has been curated into a series of phone-instructed walks: “Select option 2, pin number 370”. As you advance on the bridge carrying the M25 orbital motorway, you do not encounter pedestrians. There is a regular scatter of musical cyclists, of course. And a few cars lurching slowly back from the narrowboat café.

A grid of charts showing the change in net annual income after housing costs for neighbourhoods* within London boroughs. After the games, incomes surged in the Olympic boroughs of Waltham Forest, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham relative to their 2012 levels

Much has changed and everything is the same. The Navigation manifests as one long street of narrowboats. There are still elements of the 17th-century pastoral of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, but there are no actual fisherfolk. The water looks and feels dead. There are a few argumentative coots. Swans puff and hiss on land, causing cyclists to swerve. The Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, once producing the “soldier’s friend”, the Lee Enfield rifle of the first world war, has now emerged as an odd and unpeopled estate, with a stagnant pond, a gym and a small library.

A waste-disposal furnace with belching chimney is dedicated to “building a clean, world-class facility for turning waste into low carbon energy”. Some narrowboats buy into the upbeat message, while others cling stubbornly to anarchist traditions of junk accumulation, recycling with herb smoke and pirate flags.

Six miles from Old Ford Lock, the hangars of enormous film studios appear, replacing the trashy spillage of the North Circular Road. Wrecked narrowboats, scuttled, are sinking midstream. The Navigation is thatched with dead grass and blue plastic. “Mr Johnson — leaving us to Die . . . Make the Rich Cough Up!” A banner headline across a railway bridge announces the Olympic zone.

Coming from outside, the Park makes immediate demands on recreationalists. The Ghurkhas and the drones brought in as security for the blue fences of the Olympic era have gone, but the weight of legacy is intimidating. Wide roads and steady traffic — delivery vans, Westfield buses, Santander cyclists — define a business park in which non-consumers have no accredited business. Everything is so unnaturally tranquillised that apocalypse is inevitable.

I missed the moment a month before my walk when, in Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre, a chemical reaction produced chlorine gas and hospitalised 29 people, while forcing 200 more to leave their homes. Barriers went up. Public access to the Park was denied. Hazard response teams advised the freshly installed residents of new parkland villages to close all windows.

The splendid avenues of virgin estates behave like suburbs of the Westfield Shopping City and its casino. Streets have been named in honour of Olympic triumphs. There are few moving inhabitants. The impression is of a CGI vision of a drifting crowd frozen by some unidentified catastrophe. There is none of the mess and clutter of an actual street in some economically challenged market town — in dirty old Stratford, for example, before its “city” status.

Lea Navigation waterway
‘There are still elements of the 17th-century pastoral of “The Compleat Angler”, but no actual fisherfolk. The water looks and feels dead. There are a few argumentative coots’ © Sandra Mickiewiczj

The Olympic Village, state funded and swiftly flogged by George Osborne to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his Qatari consortium, took a paper loss of many millions. Flats for 2012’s temporary Olympic migrants were built without kitchens — a design flaw anticipating eat-out hipsterdom.

My preliminary ramble left me staring at the latest cranes, scaffolding towers and white tanks of Euromix concrete, in front of which were parked a squadron of swan pedalos. The 10 numbered swans, doomed to patrol a few yards of backriver, had a special poignancy for me.

At the time of the Olympics, I piloted a plastic swan from Hastings to the mouth of the Rother at Rye, with the film-maker Andrew Kötting. After some cross-country portage, we hit the Medway at Rochester. Then the Thames and, at Bow Creek, the Lea. Our anticipated and provoked confrontation arrived with spiked chains denying access to the Olympic Park. Helicopters overhead. Megaphone warnings. Tactical response units. British surrealism as dumb protest.

When this absurd marathon emerged as a film, a canny operator offered to buy the swan, named Edith, as a visitor attraction for the Olympic Park. Kötting refused to sell and Edith returned to the lamentation at Swan Lake in Hastings. Criticism is neutralised by approval. Being imitated is the death of subversion. Swan pedalos moored in the shadow of Westfield can never escape into tributaries of broken industries, or drift past rebranded salmon-smoking sheds and huts of sheltering survivalists.

The best guide to the missing pieces of the map is another walker, John Rogers. The YouTube reports Rogers delivered during Covid lockdowns were immensely popular. He was out there, talking to himself and to us, eloquent in his confusion.

He makes it clear that any expedition down obliterated tracks — Pudding Mill Lane, Marshgate Lane, Temple Mill Lane — is an exercise in elective disorientation. The perimeter of the Olympic Park — from the axe-throwing tents and perpetual land hunger of Hackney Wick to the collapsing mezzanine floors of Fish Island bars, where 13 people were injured in February this year — registers subterranean currents. Stratford High Street is revealed as a study in shame, where barbers and other anachronistic retailers have been swept away for a rack of mute and mismatched towers.

I concluded my return to a place I seemed to be seeing for the first time, like someone waking from a 10-year anaesthesia, by locating Chobham Farm on Angel Lane. Back in the early 1970s, I worked there, loading and unloading containers, as part of a pirate operation to exploit the collapse of the deepwater docks from Tower Bridge to Woolwich. I managed to locate the convenience store where I was sent to buy sandwiches and cigarettes for our work gang.

Trusting to memory, I arrived at the site, close to the railway, where faint traces of the Chobham sheds were now buried. The New Garden Quarter, a low-rise estate, had evidently been laid out from a Wikipedia entry on sacred geometry. At the heart of the quarter was a pond, overlooked by a tall Wicker Man-type abstraction, which chimed quite nicely with the hollow funnel of the Dane’s Yard development in Mill Meads. Neo-Paganism was underwriting the Olympic Park!

The individual blocks of the Garden Quarter were named from readings of Dan Brown and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail: Odessey, Templar. And then the one closest to the ground where I used to unload stinking sheepskins and sacks of talcum powder: Sinclair House. At that point, spacetime collapsed. I disappeared into a black hole.

Iain Sinclair
Iain Sinclair: ‘Non-consumers have no business here. Everything is so unnaturally tranquillised that apocalypse is inevitable’ © Sandra Mickiewiczj

Exiting the Park, I recalled what John Rogers had said: he was deeply conflicted. He opposed many aspects of the Olympic development, but was charmed by the way that river courses had been rewilded. He liked the mounds shaped from earth dug out for the Channel Tunnel. His son enjoyed ice-cream and street pool tables.

I understood what Rogers meant. A troop of excited Orthodox Hasidic boys, in black suits and skullcaps, were zapping around and around the free rim of the Velodrome. They couldn’t know that this was where, back in 2012, a cyclist had been dragged under a bus ferrying journalists to the venue. The man died when sat-nav maps in the summoned ambulances failed. They had not been reprogrammed to keep up with the pace of development.

Now the section of the Park where Rogers chose to walk had its bucolic delights. It looked good in the flattery of that golden hour beloved by filmmakers. London, I had to acknowledge, comes to terms with whatever damage is inflicted on it. We ramble and forgive. New memories are made. New oppositions. We wander and thrive.

Iain Sinclair is an author and film-maker. His latest book ‘The Gold Machine’ is published by Oneworld

Visual journalism: Alan Smith

Maps: Liz Faunce

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