By Natasha Lewis
On July 27th at 9pm British Summer Time, the largest harmonically tuned bell in Europe will sound in Stratford, East London and the Olympic Games will begin. For two weeks, a cycle of triumph and defeat will be beamed worldwide and those in other countries will pay attention or not. In a recent poll, 48 percent of Londoners said they were interested in the Games, while 49 percent said they weren’t. Interested or otherwise, everyone in the capital is host to a spectacle that is bringing changes to their city, both temporary and permanent.
According to the TV ads, we’re in this together: proud to sweep up and provide tea, cheerfully subservient and overcome with national pride. But surprise surprise, this isn’t the whole story. Since the success of London’s Olympic bid was announced in 2005, residents have expressed dread as often as excitement. It has rumbled around the city, and continues to do so, in the form of doom-laden predictions: the expected costs covered by the taxpayer will triple (confirmed); commutes—overrun by tourists—will be nightmarish (almost certain); and, after the event, the new facilities will follow those built for the previous two Games in Athens and Beijing, and turn to ruin. (We’ll see.)
The security preoccupations of the Olympics present unprecedented opportunities to push through highly elitist, authoritarian, and speculative urban planning efforts.
So far, coordinated dissent has been specific: bus drivers went on strike to demand a bonus for transporting an extra eight hundred thousand passengers; protestors gathered in Trafalgar Square as part of a global day of action against Dow Chemical’s sponsorship; and East London residents resorted to legal action to try and stop the installation of High Velocity Missiles on their building’s roof. Last week, bus drivers accepted a new offer of a £577 bonus to recognize their increased workload; Dow Chemical is still sponsoring the events; and the High Court ruled in favor of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), agreeing that a tower block was a suitable site for the missiles.
The missiles, put in place as part of an air security plan to protect the Olympic site from terrorist attacks, cover most homes in East London: residents within range must like it or lump it. In an article for The Guardian, Stephen Graham, author of Cities Under Siege, places the missiles in the context of a larger “total security” operation, which will leave a legacy of its own: “The security preoccupations of the Olympics present unprecedented opportunities to push through highly elitist, authoritarian, and speculative urban planning efforts that otherwise would be much more heavily contested–especially in democracies.”
Some have expressed similar worries about new “dispersal zones,” which have been created around the Olympic site. Within these zones, police now have the power to tell any group (two or more people) they deem unsavory to move on. Newham Monitoring Project, an anti-racism organization based in one of the London 2012 host boroughs, is concerned that this heavy policing will have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable groups. They have been training volunteers to act as Community Legal Observers—like the green-capped National Lawyers Guild representatives who recorded arrests during Occupy Wall Street events, but covering a whole community, 24/7.
On July 8th, The East End Film Festival held Olympic Day at the Stratford East Picturehouse, a 500-meter dash from the new stadium. The program, devoted to films about London 2012, included a series of eight short films and two long documentaries, which ranged hugely in quality. The worst was a 30-minute amateur job that didn’t develop beyond their bad title’s pun (Olympisstake). The best films gave the audience a chance to inhabit a new perspective. A ten-minute short, Pudding Mill Lane, filmed in the dark of the early morning at a train station near the site, showed the reluctance of construction workers to answer serious questions about the nature of their work and contracts. “We’re not allowed to talk,” one said.
Shown second in the series of short films, The Best Seat In The World, a twenty-minute documentary directed by Danny McGuinness, is set on a pale brown, concrete cycling track with a grassy center in an area of South London called Herne Hill. This velodrome—the outdoor site where cycling events took place when London hosted the 1948 Olympicshas been near closure since 2010 because of a lack of funds for essential repairs. Via archive footage and an interview with 1948 medal winner Tommy Godwin, McGuinness takes us back to the velodrome’s former glory. Now, the site is run by volunteers who manage the upkeep (we see them shoveling leaves into black waste bags) and, since 2010, have been running a campaign, Save The Velodrome, which aims to stop it from being demolished.
The film arches an eyebrow at the positive spin around London 2012: hosting the Olympics is great for us all, it is claimed, because as well as the money being spent on security and fancy hotels for the organizing entourage, we will all benefit from money spent on local sports facilities. But it is strange to discover that a historic and popular site like Herne Hill Velodrome is not included in that number. As one volunteer put it, “It’s crazy that for the last ten years [the velodrome]’s been hanging on by a thread, while billions is being pumped into the Olympics.”
The Best Seat’s story of neglect is told in visuals as well as words. The camera lingers on stacks of cones and patchy unkempt grass. This shabbiness is contrasted with shots of professional-looking cyclists racing around the track to piano music, evoking determination, pride and this BP ad, which strove to remind viewers of the oil company’s dual dedication to the British team and environmental concern last summer.
Over the music play short extracts of interviews with the activists, sports enthusiasts and volunteers who keep the velodrome going, and it is these voices that set the film apart from the ads. The people speaking in The Best Seat aren’t always certain. They can’t quite always get across what they mean. They disagree on the details. But they are united in their agreement that there is something, tangible or not, about this track that is worth holding onto.
Sinclair is avoiding a word, presumably because it has been contaminated with vapid overuse by the marketeers: “that word being ‘community’… a local culture that is improvised, long-term and mutual.”
The surviving velodrome acts as a connection to the past, to stories of a time when things were different. The film is dedicated to Barry Mason, who supported the campaign to save the track as a fundraiser and cycling activist, and tragically died last summer in a swimming accident on holiday in Spain. In an interview filmed next to the Thames early last year, his eyes shine as he speaks quickly, dashing out funny parables about the track’s use in 1948: “There’s great stories about cyclists from Glasgow getting off the train at Euston and cycling to the velodrome and getting lost and only getting there just in time and sleeping on local people’s floors and stuff, and I wish the Olympics was still like that.” It is hard to imagine an international sporting event organized (or un-organized) so frugally today, without the billions of dollars spent on security and ceremony. It will be interesting to see how Spain’s bid for the 2020 Olympics to be held in Madrid will be received, since the Wall Street Journal reported this week that, “The city’s bid committee is marketing the proposal as a shoestring Olympics—a model designed to show how to organize the event on a tight budget.”
In summer 2011, Iain Sinclair, writer, historian and sometime “urban shaman” published Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project. The book is a rambling, poetic and sometimes over-reaching tirade against what he calls Grand Projects, missions of “warped utopianism,” of regeneration visualized on computer programs and narrated by ad-people. For Sinclair, London 2012 is the grandest the capital has seen for decades.
In his Guardian review of Ghost Milk, Robert Macfarlane suggests that Sinclair is avoiding a word, presumably because it has been contaminated with vapid overuse by the marketeers: “that word being community… as (perhaps) connoting a local culture that is improvised, long-term and mutual, existing as an accumulation of small and reciprocally beneficial transactions.” Macfarlane could be describing the volunteers and sportsmen, women and children who congregate around the Herne Hill velodrome. Many of those interviewed had invested huge amounts of time in the track over the years and talked fondly about the unstructured way that the volunteers worked together. This community could be the key to the velodrome’s long survival.
The final film in the East End Film Festival’s Olympic program, a feature-length documentary called The Olympic Side of London, is narrated by Sinclair with extracts from Ghost Milk, and does what the book couldn’t: it brings the area of East London to life through the people who live there. The film began as a joint project by director and producer, Daniele Rugo and Abi Weaver, who wanted to capture what East Londoners thought about the Olympics. East London has historically been thought of as the unknown area of London, and although in the past thirty years gentrification and the development of transport links have built connections, certain areas are still off the map for many people. Three of the Olympic host boroughs (Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney) regularly appear in the top ten of lists cataloguing the most “deprived” areas in the UK. If East London as a whole is comparable to Brooklyn (immigration, Jewish history, hipsters, a distinctive accent), building the Olympic Village in Stratford is a bit like whacking a stadium down in South Bed-Stuy. For many ticket-holders, it might be the first time they venture so far east.
The Olympic Side of London, then, serves as an introduction to an indefinable place that in some ways remains unknown. A range of locals give their thoughts: Joe Cooke, who claims his great-grandfather was “the first man to put a meat pie, mash potato and parsley sauce on a plate,” (pie and mash is an East London culinary classic) and is still making pies, recalls the effects of high rise blocks on sociable communities. Parent Christine Ali remembers swimming in the docks as a child when the surrounding area was an abandoned wasteland. Now, expensive apartment blocks dominate the waterfronts. Phillip Blond, advisor to David Cameron, interviewed for the film on his balcony, says the moral conundrums of Dickens’ time—those of endemic mass poverty—are evident in the East End. He likes to live there, he says, because he likes to learn from life (at this point in the film, an audience member shouted “prick!” perhaps prompted by the inappropriate level of glee in Blond’s voice).
The sinister side of London 2012—missiles, exploited workers, dispersal zones—is as much a part of the games as the medals and the Olympic flame.
We come away with a sense of people proud of their area and of the connections they feel with it. Peyvand Sadeghian, a half-Persian half-Chinese twenty-two-year old with a nose ring whose parents met at the University of East London says she couldn’t ever “imagine it being a clean and polished place.” It will always be rough around the edges, which she likes. She says that she is uncertain about the Olympic legacy: “I am massively sceptical about what the Olympics will leave,” she says to the camera. “Especially when you look at the track record of other countries as well,” before adding, “I hope I’m proved wrong.” In both Athens and Beijing, the investment made didn’t last beyond the events.
Sinclair’s narration, played over visuals of him walking by East London canals (walking is a big part of his work) brings the film full circle and to a close. For him, “the only real legacy is a huge Westfield”—the shopping mall that opened last September and will serve as an entrance walkway to the Olympic Village. Welcome to the next generation,” the Westfield billboards pronounce, “Over 300 dynamic brands, Gateway to London’s Olympic Park.”
Westfield is not even horrible: “It’s a comfortable two hours before the over-cranked heating system and the low-level electronic hum saps my energy to the point where a jolt from one of the twenty-two coffee outlets won’t mend it. That’s the really disturbing thing, Westfield is like everywhere.” But it’s not everywhere, it’s in London, and these films serve as a reminder of the communities that exist in a real sense and make the city what it is.
Sinclair likes to say that Grand Projects happen to areas and are inflicted from above by planners. Planners, with computerized power points, who like clean lines and perfection. The sinister side of London 2012—missiles, exploited workers, dispersal zones—is as much a part of the games as the medals and the Olympic flame: integral to the sleek version of London that will be presented to the world. The Best Seat In The World and The Olympic Side of London are reminders that the city is messier, and, thankfully, more human than all of that. Try as planners might, that “mess” can’t be swept aside.
Natasha Lewis is a freelance journalist from London and graduate student at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. She has written for Dissent.