In the mornings, there is a clinging, overripe smell that some people say drifts in from the countryside, a folk memory of what these clipped green acres used, so recently, to be. Mulch of market gardens. Animal droppings in hot mounds. The distant rumble of construction convoys. The heron dance of elegant cloud-scraping cranes. Flocks of cyclists clustering together for safety, dipping and swerving like swallows. Hard hats and yellow tabards monkeying over the scaffolding of shrouded towers, the steel ribs of emerging stadia. Early risers, in the privilege of first-use recreation, a smudge of sun burning off the fug of pollution that hangs over a pre-Olympic city, fall into quiet conversation. Ice-cream kiss of almond blossom, bridal abundance of cherry: pink and white. Yellow pom-poms of japonica, horticultural cheerleaders. In a corner, under a high wall that gives away the previous identity of this public park as a decommissioned energy-generating plant, retired workers sway, stiffly and slowly, in t’ai chi ballets.
I’m fascinated by the elderly Chinese couple who circle every morning for more than an hour around the perimeter fence of the newly laid, too green carpet of the sports complex, achieved in advance of the Great Event. An outwash of generosity, a compensatory gesture for those who must endure years of drilling, dust, demolished schools and theatres, banishment from functioning but inconvenient housing developments. The white block-building, assembled overnight it seems, could have been designed anywhere for any purpose; blinding whiteness complemented by the deep blue of the interior, an aspirational and upbeat colour that we must learn to associate with the culturally unifying message of the Games. The Chinese woman walks, right shoulder to the fence, in a clockwise direction; her husband short-strides with less urgency the other way. And when they meet they do not acknowledge one another, not so much as a nod or a smile. My impression is that he is less enthusiastic about the regime. He wears a monkish hooded top and looks like a sixty-a-day man who has given up his addiction, reluctantly, after receiving bad news. A drag of burned air, one final cancer-stick, is his reward for completing the hour’s penance. The woman, in flat cap, arms pumping, is remorseless, gaining ground with every circuit. ‘The opportunity has come for them to lift up their heads,’ Mao said. ‘The authority of the husband is getting shakier every day.’ Gazing at the horizon, she pistons forward on a self-imposed treadmill: a comrade-athlete driving, by force of will, the engine of the city.
This is East London, four years short of that 17-day corporate extravaganza, the ‘primary strategic objective’ to which we are all so deeply mortgaged. Haggerston Park, E2, a modest enclosure replacing war-damaged terraces and the demolished Imperial Gas, Light and Coke Company, has long been an oasis. It was opened as a public park in 1958. Its scandals are old scandals and have no bearing on the current frenzy for makeovers, peppery paths, wooden obstacles for training circuits, laminated heritage notices. Spanking new carpets are woven for clapped-out football pitches, changing rooms erected to replace shower blocks opened in the dark ages by Wendy Richard of EastEnders. Back in the 1820s Gas Company funds were misappropriated, illegal payments made to council officials and stock accounts falsified. Now, in more enlightened times, when bureaucratic malpractice is exposed and celebrated every day, urban-pastoral reservations hidden behind high walls win prizes for visionary planting schemes and restored municipal beds. Unnoticed, rough sleepers in thin bags utilise the stone terrace of the park café that has been shut for years. Late risers, having nothing much to rise for, burrow deep into dismal kapok-stuffed cocoons, while dog-accompanists use ballistic/prosthetic devices to hurl soggy yellow-green tennis balls for their hunt-and-retrieve pets. And the stoic Chinese couple, accomplishing their own version of the Long March, scorch rubber treadmarks around the padlocked novelty of the pristine football pitches. Artificial grass is better than the real thing, tougher, each blade individually painted. False chlorophyll dazzles like permanent dew, the permafrost of conspicuous investment. Some of the rough sleepers are not elective invisibles, victims of property mania or traumatised war veterans: they are construction workers, possibly Polish, saving their wages and choosing to kip down close to where the action is. The tsunami of speculative capital, wanton destruction, hole digging; the throwing up of apartment blocks, dormitory hives, warehouse conversions along the murky waterways. A new development calling itself Adelaide Wharf, and appearing very much like an aircraft-carrier that has ploughed into a wood yard, replaced a long-standing cold-store operation. ‘With its 147 units (prices up to £395,000), this is a tremendous example of aspiration coming to fruition,’ says Stephen Oakes, area director for English Partnerships. Inch by inch, the working canal between Limehouse Basin and the Islington tunnel has become a ladder of glass, connecting Docklands with the northern reaches of the City. Footballers, with loose change to invest, are rumoured to be buying up entire buildings as investment portfolios; many of these gaudy shells, low-ceilinged, tight-balconied, are doomed to remain half-empty, exhibitions of themselves. The look is mirthlessly playful, Ikea storage boxes gimmicked out of swipe-cards and toothpicks. The urban landscape of boroughs anywhere within the acoustic footprints of the Olympic Park in the Lower Lea Valley has been devastated, with a feverish beat-the-clock impatience unseen in London since the beginnings of the railway age. Every civic decency, every sentimental attachment, is swept aside for that primary strategic objective, the big bang of the starter’s pistol.
Much of this termite activity, the neurotic compulsion to enclose and alienate, justifies itself by exploiting temporary fences to use as masking screens, noticeboards for sponsors’ boasts, assertions of a bright, computer-generated future. In Laburnum Street, where a construction firm named Mace Plus is inserting a Close Encounters of the Third Kind space-platform school known as The Bridge Academy (an explosion of matchsticks, bubblewrap and extruded terracotta control modules), the surrounding fence boasts an exhibition of sanctioned street art: a pop-Hokusai novella of floods sweeping away the pencil-thin mosque and the abandoned Haggerston swimming-pool. A clever move: jazzy visuals, loud but on-message, pre-empt the attentions of spray-can subversives, class warriors, animal liberationists and wannabe Banksies hoping for exposure in the weekend magazines. There is no requirement now to use the rim of a derelict petrol station as an audition for a Hoxton gallery. As I said to a depressed realist painter with a unit near the London Fields railway arches: ‘The laughing crocodile splashed on your shutters is worth more than any of the stock you’ve accumulated over thirty years.’ Jock McFadyen, showing his edgeland retrievals in a Cambridge Heath Road car showroom, has taken to making painterly reproductions of graffiti cartoons found on canalside walls and condemned breakers’ yards along the broken perimeter of the Olympic Park.
When did it start, this intimate liaison between developers and government, to reconstruct the body of London, to their mutual advantage? Dr Frankenstein with a Google Earth program and a remote-control laser scalpel. In the early 1970s, when the deepwater docks were already ruined by containerisation, restrictive practices, fearful-angry ‘Enoch is right’ marches and the grind of time which reduces every labour myth to dust, Maxwell Joseph acquired the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane. The brewery – with its stables, cellars, cooperage, cobbled yards – acted, along with the Spitalfields fruit and veg market and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, as a buffer-reef against the encroachment of the City. A benevolent and paternalistic employer was lost, along with the heady drench of hops from the brewery and the wild gardens of adjacent streets. Joseph flogged the Gainsborough portrait of Sir Benjamin Truman, the brewmaster, asset-stripped the operation and bought up surrounding acres in canny anticipation of future development packages, the coming world of retro frocks, Moroccan internet cafés and ‘plastinated’ freakshow corpse art by Gunther von Hagens. The eastward shift, towards off-catalogue, underexploited territory, was launched. Spitalfields Market, with its parasitical life forms (small shopkeepers, restaurateurs, allotment gardeners, twilight prostitutes, vagrant drinkers around wastelot fires), was expelled to Hackney Marshes, where it would function quite successfully until the football pitches, alongside the new site, were required as parking space for the 2012 green Olympics. Johnnie Walker, chairman of the Hackney and Leyton Sunday Football League, was enraged: despite assurances from a multitude of faceless authorities that work would not begin for four years, the diggers arrived before the start of the 2007 season. Eleven pitches, trampled by hard-swearing enthusiasts, were lost. Anne Woollett of the Hackney Marshes User Group complained that the Olympic Development Authority (ODA) had sequestered portions of East Marsh, a year ahead of their promise, to construct ‘a huge 12-lane motorway’. The ODA admitted that two trenches had indeed been dug, for ‘archaeological’ research, animal bones and beer cans photographed and preserved; along, presumably, with the rubble of terraces blitzed in the Second World War over which the football pitches had been laid. ‘The heritage must be protected.’
Much of this tricky element, heritage, can be recovered from vintage films as they are reissued on DVD. The tall chimney of the Brick Lane brewery, a significant territorial marker, appears like an accusing finger in stills from Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, which was released in 1947. Bethnal Green masquerades as an expressionist Belfast. James Mason is an IRA gunman on the run. Twenty years later, his Hollywood career in decline, Mason returned once more to an East End of smoky pubs, dark shadows, charity hostels, to narrate a documentary version of Geoffrey Fletcher’s The London Nobody Knows. Umbrella rolled, vowels clipped, he sleepwalks through a gone-in-the-mouth city, struggling to make conversation with marooned vagrants and fire-eyed witnesses. The Gainsborough film studios, where Mason established his reputation, brandishing a horsewhip in high-booted, low-bosomed costume dramas, are now a canalside development with drizzling water-features and a giant boilerplated head of Alfred Hitchcock. The clunkiness of this heritage appropriation proves all too loudly that anywhere is everywhere. History is their story and not yours. When Mason performs his dying fall as a Byronic gunman, gate clutching, staggering across the snow towards the lights of the police cars, he is in Haggerston Park, E2.
Another film, The Long Good Friday, arrived in 1979, so pertinent in its exposure of the coming land-piracy that it seemed prophetic. It was efficiently directed by John MacKenzie, but the meat of the thing is in Barrie Keeffe’s script, his intimacy with tired ground that is about to be invaded, overwhelmed, rewritten. The advent of Margaret Thatcher was announced, as MacKenzie’s crime fable makes clear, by a slippery handshake of mutually beneficial relationships between local government corruption (‘The new casino’s gone through’), kickbacks to rogue Irish Republicans in the burgeoning construction industry, bent coppers and old-style Kray hoodlums making overtures to the New York Mafia with their lawyers specialising in property and gambling tax. Much of this was documentary refraction: it had happened, it was happening, and it described the future we are now experiencing. According to a persistent urban myth, the gang that robbed the Brinks Mat warehouse at Heathrow on 26 November 1983 quadrupled the estimated £26 million value of the gold bars by investing in riverside regeneration. Swashbuckling capitalism led the way for timid hedge-fund managers and City sharecroppers. The defining image of this era – Bob Hoskins (in the movie) with his sleek pleasure craft moored in St Katharine Docks, Margaret Thatcher schmoozing the Reichmann brothers in Canary Wharf – is the maquette of the proposed marina, the city of towers. A Lilliputian theme park of unimaginable wealth creation. A DIY anticipation of computer-generated presentations for the Olympic wonderlands. ‘Water City’, a new Venice (without the memory-mud of centuries), will rise from the stinking filth of back rivers and green-scum canals.
Keeffe’s ‘Corporation’, a confederacy of villains, is a direct translation of alliances in contemporary political life. Hoskins, a pumped-up Dalston Mussolini, presenting himself as ‘a businessman with a sense of history’, spiels his pitch as the oligarch’s gin-palace powers under Tower Bridge. Thirty years on and he could be making his final plea as a candidate in the London Mayoral Election, right across the river from the crumpled buttock of City Hall. Which is neither a hall, nor in the City, but an architectural doodle with the perverse ambition of bringing Manhattan to Bermondsey. ‘We’ve got mile after mile and acre after acre of land for our future prosperity,’ Bob drools. ‘It’s important that the right people mastermind the new London.’
The scam of scams was always the Olympics: Berlin in 1936 to Beijing in 2008. Engines of regeneration. Orgies of lachrymose nationalism. War by other means. Warrior-athletes watched, from behind dark glasses, by men in suits and uniforms. The pharmaceutical frontline. Rogue Californian chemists running their eye-popping, vein-clustered, vest-stripping robots against degendered state laboratory freaks. Bearded ladies and teenage girls who never have periods. Medals returned by disgraced drug cheats to be passed on to others who weren’t caught, that time. The Millennium Dome fiasco was a low-rent rehearsal. The holy grail for blue-sky thinkers was the sport-transcends-politics Olympiad, the five-hooped golden handcuffs, the smoke rings behind which deals could be done for casinos and malls: with corporate sponsorship, flag-waving and infinitely elastic budgets (any challenge an act of naysaying treason).
The Long Good Friday has a nice tracking shot through the deserted quays of the future Docklands. The TV comic Dave King, playing a corrupt detective, reprimands Hoskins. A car has been detonated outside a Hawksmoor church. ‘We can’t have bombs going off, Harold. We can’t have corpses.’ But that, unfortunately, is the price in the catalogue. Spontaneous public celebration, dancing, hugging, shoulder-punching in the studios, then private grief, explosions on the Underground. Mutilation, carnage. A fluster of bacofoil suits and on-message medallists bouncing up and down as the heavyweight arm-twisting pays off, the celebrity assaults, camera-kissing by Blair and Beckham: we get the Games on 6 July 2005. Then the shock of a traumatised London the following morning, death toll rising, dazed survivors captured on mobile phones as they stumble through smoke-filled, soft-focus tunnels. Bomb carriers looped on CCTV: malignant tourists at a Metroland station. Their posthumous journey, long after the event, a surveillance television spectacular: motorway, car park, train. The Olympic project, from the start, would be about security. Invasion conditions imported. Green zones staked out, helicopter-patrolled.
‘So this is where they were going to build the 1988 Olympic stadium,’ King muses. ‘Can you imagine nig-nogs doing the long jump along these quays?’ We can: vividly. We’ve watched Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, her operatic, body-fascism evocation of the 1936 Games, the triumphs of Jesse Owens, the grim-faced Hitler, the stiff-armed salutes of the Austrian, Italian and French contingents. The map montage in which the torch crosses Europe, Olympia to Berlin, is like an invasion rehearsal. When Horace Cutler, the Tory leader of the Greater London Council, made the speculative proposal, in 1979, that the 1988 Olympics should be held at the Royal Victoria Dock in Silvertown, right alongside Bow Creek, the point of access to the Lower Lea, he was ridiculed by the man who succeeded him, Ken Livingstone. ‘A gimmick’. A megalomaniac right-wing fantasy. By 2008, in a frank admission during the run-up to the mayoral election, Livingstone boasted that he had feigned enthusiasm for the 2012 Olympics as a way of generating funds for brownfield development in East London and Thames Gateway, seeding his favoured pylon-forest estates alongside landfill mountains and poisoned creeks. The recklessly underestimated costs, based on jottings on the back of an envelope, were simply a snare to ensure government approval. The initial tab of a couple of billion, liberated from lottery loot and siphoned from Arts Council vanity projects, escalated very rapidly as the reality of the damaged topography was investigated: towards ten billion (and climbing). Japanese knotweed, radioactive watch dials, endangered newts: another £100,000 here, a million there. No breaks on this rocket-propelled debt elevator: prime strategic objective. Paymasters held to ransom. ‘That was exactly the plan,’ Livingstone told his audience at St Martin-in-the-Fields. ‘It has gone absolutely perfectly.’
In boroughs affected by this 2012 game-show rabies – long-established businesses closed down, travellers expelled from edgeland settlements, allotment holders turned out – there were meetings, protests, consultations. As soon as the Olympic Park was enclosed, and therefore defined, loss quantified, the fence around the site became a symbol for opposition and the focus for discussion groups, such as the seminar convened by PNUK (Planners Network UK) and held at the boxing club in the old Limehouse Town Hall. I attended this public debate and heard the Hackney solicitor Bill Parry-Davies describe, quietly, remorselessly, how, after a series of mysterious fires, Dalston Lane had lost its Victorian theatre and sections of Georgian terrace, facilitating the new transport hub that would service the vital axes, south to the City, east to the Olympic Park. ‘In two houses on Dalston Lane,’ Parry-Davies told us, ‘there were squatters. A couple of guys came to the back door and said, “You’d better get out. Now.” Two days later the houses burned down.’ Nothing slows the momentum, the Olympic imperative. ‘The authorities want a big new station on the theatre site, a huge concrete slab over the railway cutting. That slab cost £39 million. How is it going to be paid for? By planning permission to build a 20-storey tower block right there. Hackney will give the developers half the value of the site, along with planning permission. You build high to achieve a small footprint. Most of the development will be buy-to-let investments, offshore finance. Huge amounts of Russian money. Tenants will move in and out constantly. There will be no community at all.’
The opponents of the Grand Project, this unoccupied City of Illusions with its vivid blue frontier, its plywood scarf, are a community bonded in loss. Whisperers approach me from every side: informed, confused or manageably deranged. On the trading floors of London, on manicured golf courses, the word was out days before the decision was announced: we had made the successful Olympic bid. Deals were being done on a nod and a wink, space sold in Stratford buildings that were not yet holes in the ground. Now photographers slipped behind the fence like guerrillas going into enemy territory. Kayak voyages were launched. And kingfishers noticed, a glint of blue among luxuriant, waste-fed reeds. Films were shot and DVDs passed around. Hilary Powell’s The Games was a lovely, parodic restaging of Leni Riefenstahl’s overblown epic: junkyard frolics, athletic events taking place across the panorama of blight, wheel-hubs for discuses. Trail of the Spider by Anja Kirschner and David Panos announced itself as a Situationist spaghetti western shot on Hackney Marshes; where, the makers assert, the land-grab expansionism of the Old West ‘collides with suppressed history’. Range wars erupt along ‘a vanishing frontier, swarming with calculating surveyors, corrupt lawmen and hired thugs’.
At the meeting in Limehouse every impossible conspiracy theory was aired: Catholics, black magicians of global capital, scheming Islamists. It was like time-travelling to the paranoia of the first Elizabethan London, without the rack and the human barbecues. But Limehouse was travelling nowhere; it had given itself up to a slack-jawed catalepsy, a drugged, pre-traumatic indolence. A few yards down Commercial Road, to the west of the town hall, was another blind-windowed institution, more atrophied benevolence, the former Passmore Edwards Library. In front of the library was parked a black box, like an upended budget coffin made from off-cuts of Olympic fence plywood. It came with a spray-on slogan: attlee wuz ere. And it contained the memorial statue of the former mayor of Stepney, Member of Parliament for Limehouse, postwar socialist prime minister, Clement Attlee. Who was presumably receiving a compulsory makeover, not being prepared for removal, like Lenin or Stalin, to some political knackers’ yard. Perhaps, as a courtesy to the dream of the welfare state, he was being shielded from the self-regarding towers of Canary Wharf. And from the padlocked gates of another Hawksmoor masterpiece, St Anne’s. Here, it’s not just, as has been the case for many years, that the doors of the church are closed; I mean the grounds, benches, gravel walks, stacked gravestones, are forbidden to us. No sanctuary. Every point of access secured. You can press your face against the bars, like James Mason in Haggerston Park, or John Rokesmith in Our Mutual Friend, when he came up against this same ‘great iron gate’ and saw himself as ‘a spirit that was once a man’. The white pyramid depicted by Hablot Browne in his engraving of the churchyard is beyond our reach. The author of sensationalist ‘yellow peril’ fictions, Sax Rohmer, had a particular interest in this pyramid. It was known to his evil genius, Fu Manchu, with his fiendish plots and intimacy with London’s riverine quarters, its extensive subterranea. A panel in the pyramid gave entry to a network of underground tunnels. The fabled Chinese Limehouse of Thomas Burke and Sax Rohmer, of Oscar Wilde’s opium dens, has long gone. And now the Good Friends restaurant in Salmon Lane, to which hungry diners travelled from all over the city, has followed them: converted into a store for building supplies. The spirit of Fu Manchu, with his merciless cadre of martial arts bodyguards and assassins, lives on: accompanying the Olympic torch on its progress between the two prime examples of bungled and underestimated Grand Projects, Wembley Stadium (secure and empty on the day of the ceremonial procession) and the Millennium Dome (where a feeble flame would ignite a burger-roasting shrine).
‘They carry this love of secrecy to strange lengths.’ Thomas Burke wrote about Pennyfields and the Chinese community in a book called Nights in Town, published in 1915. He has a press photographer setting out to capture this hidden world. ‘He marched to the mouth of Limehouse Causeway, through which, in the customary light of grey and rose, many amiable creatures were gliding, levelled his nice new Kodak, and got – an excellent picture of the Causeway after the earthquake. The entire street in his plate was deserted.’ Just another London vanishing: the journalist would have to learn what edgeland wanderers already know, that if you are permitted to take a photograph, there is nothing to see.
On the day the blue fence went up – olympic park, road closed here from monday 2 july, footpath closed, keep clear – I met a man called Keith Foster, one of those centaurs of the marshes: camera-head perched on bicycle. Foster, who described himself as a ‘fieldwork photographer’ for Waltham Forest, had been keeping a meticulous record of the Lower Lea Valley, the shifts in land use, narrowboats, wildlife, for more than thirty years. Until today: when he was threatened with summary arrest by private security guards, for the crime of pointing his camera at the fence – this overnight intruder who shadowed the towpath, accompanied the Greenway, stuttered through Stratford, marked out the half-abandoned estate due for demolition on Clays Lane. Foster’s dispiriting experience was a commonplace. Stephen Gill, another compulsive pedaller, haunter of backwaters and scrub woods, produced two finely observed elegies to the doomed territories, celebrations of the sprawling, Babel-voiced car boot fair held at the former Hackney Wick Stadium (dogs, speedway) and of the Olympic Park in its limbo, before the first conceptual stadium slid, blushing, from its computer screen. ‘I used to wander the Wick, completely on my own, exploring and taking photographs,’ he told me. ‘Now there are lots of people in yellow coats, boots and hard hats. “Sorry, mate, you can’t come in here.” Suddenly there are places where you can’t walk freely. “Health and safety. We can’t let you in, you’re not insured.” It’s always the same justification: health and safety.’ On Waterden Road, that impossible collage of exotic food warehouses (torched), evangelical African churches, nightclubs, bus garages, the very essence of edgelands now secure behind its blue fence, now a vista of bilious mud, Gill snapped the Queen. ‘I was standing by the roadside. Nobody knew she was coming. There were a lot of helicopters overhead. I waved. She waved. I took a few shots. The policeman said: “That’s enough.” The big car passed through all the barriers and on down the length of Waterden Road, the allotments, the travellers’ camp. With outriders, helicopters, back to the motorway. She looked quite relieved to be getting out unscathed.’ Gill has another nice capture: Lord Coe and David Cameron, flaccid ties matching the blue of the coming fence, dark suits, hands in pockets, cardinals of capital strolling through the ruins of a captured city. It was in that moment I realised the game was up for Gordon Brown: he doesn’t stroll, he doesn’t do hands-in-pockets. He doesn’t drop in on Hackney Wick, he hits Washington like Livingstone (David) in darkest Africa.
Gill’s arrest came when he persisted in recording the hustling convoys of lorries churning up new dirt roads. Hours in the nick. Phone calls to establish his bona fides, his connections. Thick wheels taller than a child, red hub-caps. A horrible contract this, between east-surging road monsters, hauling plant, concrete mixers, containers of standard Mediterranean blue, and the cyclists. There have been so many deaths, hell drivers up against the ticking clock and inoffensive or impatient cyclists. Sometimes, as at the junction of Middleton Road and Kingsland Road in Hackney, a young man is dragged under those red-hubbed wheels without the driver feeling a thing. Chasing another project, Gill found himself at the corner of Whiston Road, near St Leonard’s Hospital, where cellophane bouquets were being woven into the fence. He met a group, about twelve people, attaching cards and tributes. To a young man of 17, extinguished in an instant by a left-turning juggernaut with no way of registering his presence. ‘They were wailing,’ Gill said. ‘Yes, wailing.’
On Sunday, 6 April 2008, I set off down the revamped Northern Outfall Sewer, our permitted Greenway, to Stratford. We had been promised a public spectacle, an Olympic taster, a glimpse at the procession of the torch through London. The elevated footpath is accessible through Wick Lane, as it passes beneath the A102, advancing on the Blackwall Tunnel: three crosses, floral tributes, have been wired to the barrier, alongside the spectral outline of a cycle box. Here is the landscape of the future, the faultline where the virtual collides with the actual: a Second World War concrete pillbox, a nervous stutter of built and half-built apartment blocks, discontinued fish-curing facilities, a lock-keeper’s cottage converted into a television set, pylons being taken apart and cables buried, tourist narrowboats showing off the potential Water City, a patch of wild wood being rapidly tamed, a beach of Foster’s cans in on-message blue (one a day, for a decade, chucked over the shoulder of a solitary bench-drinker), and a spectacular fence to mask the mud and dust that have replaced the junkyard café (‘Ain’t No Airs Or Graces ’Ere’) and the mounds of crushed cars, steepling tyres. The dust, you can smell it in Victoria Park, is a visible pall above a desert of the most expensive mud in Europe. The blue of the fence is tactfully echoed by ribbons of tattered plastic, blue convenience-store bags caught on razor wire.
Over the fence itself there is a sanctioned view of never ceasing convoys, showered and scoured cones of treated soil, everything aspiring to a grey-blue colour like drowned meat. White boxes have been attached to slender poles, but this time they are not cameras; we’re so visible here, covered from so many angles, further surveillance is unnecessary. The boxes are Air Quality Monitors produced at the Northwich Bus Centre by Turnkey Instruments Ltd. The contemporary version of budgerigars taken down coalmines to warn of noxious gases: by keeling over. When the white boxes begin to hum, it’s too late. But the new laminated fences, oh yes, beautiful as Japanese screens, frozen frames from a promotional movie: the future previewed, fixed, made inevitable. The mock-ups are so good that I almost convince myself of their veracity: a trompe l’oeil panorama. The real Canary Wharf skyline, fading into blue, is stitched onto a computer-generated Olympic Stadium; the stadium looks like a frozen smoke ring, a souvenir ashtray from Berlin in 1936. And good for nothing very much, after the event: West Ham don’t want it, rugby clubs are not keen to migrate from their West London suburbs, humble Leyton Orient FC is the best bet. Lord Coe, in the vanity of his quest for legacy, has insisted on preserving running lanes which promise to go the way of the old Hackney Wick dog track: boot fair oblivion. Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa, EDF Energy, Samsung, Lloyds TSB, the National Lottery, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Mayor of London: they want their expensive tags sprayed on that shiny fence. Demolish, dig, design. Along with the faked skateboarder 2012 logo, in pink. Hundreds of thousands of pounds to mimic a street signature: the dismembered bubble-gum swastika of the date. Which has been assembled to product-place the O2 element of the fateful year as a wink at the rebranded Millennium Dome. If they had stopped there, with the smiling crowds, the immaculate projections, it would be fine; the whole regeneration package could have been a computer game. The mistake was to take a perfected storyboard backwards into reality. On the blue fence, a handwritten response: a pox on the olympics.
It’s only a question of following the helicopters. I emerge on the A11, where a frenzy of indifference awaits the Olympic torch. Motorcycle outriders in yellow jackets cover the sideroads and form threatening lines, white-helmeted against the blue shutters of potential tower blocks. A comic procession of police cyclists puff up the hill, reluctant box-tickers for the eco lobby. A scarlet open-top Coca-Cola bus – Supporting the Olympics since 1928 – waits for the action, for somebody to enthuse. The low-loader, with its chorus line of shivering Samsung cheerleaders in white tights and heavy blue mascara to match their headbands, blasts out a triumphalist chorus. The girls charm-assault motorists held back by cycle-cops; they semaphore dementedly, waving furry pom-poms that look like Persian cats dipped in blue toilet cleaner. But the ultimate blue belongs to the anti-contamination shell-suits of the phalanx of stone-faced Fu Manchu guards in baseball caps who protect the sacred flame as it wobbles towards us out of Stratford. Lord Coe, in thrall to the Sax Rohmer stereotype, refers to the torch-minders as ‘thugs’. The Chinese ambassador insists that they are mild-mannered PhD students, volunteers. But the expected London mob is elsewhere, down the pub, or at home watching playbacks of the mayhem that attended the torch on its faltering progress across the city, on and off buses, under attack from kamikaze cyclists. Two or three mobile phones are raised in tribute from behind a steel sculpture that looks like a dynamited palm tree. A balding Chinese gentleman from the takeaway waves a tiny red flag. Poor David Hemery, the 400-metre hurdles champion in Mexico City, is obliterated by his protectors. The torch is a cone of flaming banknotes, a brand to light a witch’s bonfire. Black-clad APS crowd safety operatives with shaven heads and yellow-top joggers in acid-drop cycle helmets shoulder-charge a solitary Free Tibet banner-waver outside the Gala bingo hall. Security service cameras registering dissidents outnumber the embedded television crews in their blast-resistant trucks.
When, a few days later, I return to Stratford, the ‘rail hub’ due to receive the full blitz of post-Olympic regeneration, it seems that nobody has given them the good news. The Rex Cinema is defunct. The main road difficult to cross and vandalised by public art. The Labour Party offices are boarded up. But the library is operative: it features a maquette, a scale model of the coming Stratford City tended by ‘legacy’ fundamentalists, sharp suits schooled to pounce like Mormons on casual observers. ‘Is there anything you’d like explained?’ I back off immediately, in the English fashion. ‘How did you get away with it?’ doesn’t need asking. Here, in essence, is the solution to the Olympic mystery, the enigma hidden behind the smokescreen of upbeat PR, websites, viewing days, junk-mail publications and strategic obfuscation. Stratford City will be ‘the largest retail-led mixed-use urban regeneration project in the UK’. In other words: a shopping mall. With satellite housing we can call, for convenience, the Athletes’ Village. But the heart of it, the land swallower, is a gigantic mall conceived and delivered by the Westfield Group, which is controlled by Frank Lowy, the third-richest man in Australia. Westfield is the fourth-biggest shopping-centre developer in the world. It has assets of £30 billion. A last-minute deal was struck so it could take control of the 180-acre Stratford site, for which privilege it paid £140 million. The brothers David and Simon Reuben, who held a 50 per cent stake in the site, were put under some pressure to sell out. Ken Livingstone, with characteristic tact, invited the Indian-born siblings to ‘go back to Iran and try their luck with the ayatollahs’. City Hall and the various Olympic quangos prefer to deal with a single monolithic entity. Westfield would also take on the White City shopping mall (a traffic island separating the Westway and Shepherds Bush), thereby defining mid-town London, the exhausted souks of Oxford Street, as a dead zone between exciting new retail destinations west and east. Planning permission has been given to Westfield for 13 million square feet of ‘mixed use’ development, with the Olympic Village being converted into housing after the Games. The word on the street is that if nobody can be persuaded to take up residence in this reclaimed toxic wilderness, the tower blocks (generic and architecturally undistinguished) will serve as holding pens for asylum seekers and economic migrants, until they can be processed or shunted back through the conveniently sited Channel Tunnel rail link.
In this gold-rush land-grab of flexible futures – hyper-mosques, evangelical cathedral-warehouses (£13.5 million was offered to the Kingsway International Christian Centre to move off the nine-acre site it was illegally occupying), disposable stadia – legacy is all important. It’s like reading the will and sharing the spoils before the sick man is actually dead. ‘The legacy the Games leave is as important as the sporting memories,’ Tony Blair said. And the legacy is: loss, visions injected straight into the eyeballs, lasting shame. We have waved this disaster through, we have colluded: dozens of artists roam the perimeter fence soliciting Arts Council funding to underwrite their protests. It’s so awful, such a visible horror, we can’t believe our luck. The meetings, the little movies. Oceans of digital imagery recording edgeland signs clinging to mesh fences alongside compulsory purchase notices: We buy gold, we sell boxes. Gold from the teeth of dying industries, cardboard boxes to bury murdered aspirations.
In Stratford I met some of the legacy professionals. They have an office in Westminster, close to Green Park. This is the invention of something that will never happen by people who won’t be there when it does. In the entrance hall of the library, I notice the head of Keir Hardie in a perspex box. He’s not quite forgotten, the first Independent Labour Party Member of Parliament, voted in at West Ham on 4 July 1892. Cast in bronze by Benno Schotz, he has his place in the scheme of things: a paperweight, a legacy we prefer to forget.
On 26 September 2007, I stood outside Stratford Station – like those unfortunate celebrities on Millennium Eve, who waited two hours for their connection to the Dome – in the hope of spotting John Hopkins and his black seven-seater Land Rover. Along with Nathan, the official name-badged driver. Hopkins has the title of Project Sponsor, Parklands and Public Realm. He is employed by the Olympic Delivery Authority: as an explainer, facilitator, tour guide. He is an affable, well-informed man with an interest in London history. He recently attended, so he tells me, a public conversation between Peter Ackroyd and a journalist ‘who looked like Hugh Grant’. Stephen Gill accompanies me: he photographed the site so often, before the occupation, that he can’t pass up this opportunity. The spill-zone in front of the station has a triumphal arch with an electronic timer ticking down the minutes to Olympic glory, a corkscrew clock tower (with broken clock), a steam engine called ‘Robert’ (home to dozens of incontinent pigeons). Beggars, junk-dealers and God-ranters have been expelled from more salubrious districts. Across the road is a labyrinthine mall-tunnel of Poundland bargains, sachets of Calf’s Pizzle at £1.99 a hit. And an underpass with computer-generated night-blue skies dedicated to the legacy of Stratford’s own poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Circle-citadels indeed. Stratford Circus, as we drive past, has swallowed up Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Royal in a rash of Pizza Expresses and Caribbean Scene restaurants and budget multiplexes dressed with more commissioned vandalism: a silver hoop sculpture. ‘Ah well!’ Hopkins wrote, ‘it is all a purchase, all is a prize.’ David Mackay, author of the original Stratford City plan and lead architect for the Barcelona Olympic Village, is horrified by what is happening: ‘The silliest architecture seen for years … The Olympic legacy is more likely to be a Hollywood set for a ghost town or an abandoned Expo site.’
The first thing that goes, when you get behind the fence, is any sense of place. There is no ‘there’ by which to orientate ourselves, only the legend: ‘Bronze Age, Viking, Roman and Norman inhabitants have enjoyed its temperate climate, fertile land and powerful river … A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revitalise this valley, leaving in its footprints world-class sports, business and leisure facilities.’ Twelve thousand new jobs; 1.2 million visitors; ‘billions of TV viewers’. Our slow circuit is respectful of the tadpole beds, the Museum of London ditches, the reservations of wild wood, wire and crushed concrete arranged in gallery-quality exhibition piles. Gill wants to record some of these abstract patterns, but permission is refused. He emailed me soon after we got home: ‘I had a kind of territorial feeling, everything had been taken away. I almost cried in the back of the car, it is such a political experience. Whenever the guide talked about removing fish, saving the newts, making homes for insects and butterflies, I always checked on the opposite side to the one he suggested, it was much more interesting.’
Nathan, our gap-year chauffeur, told us, while we waited at yet another checkpoint, that he was multi-tasking; they had given him another job, filling in tax concession forms for the contractors, allowances for asbestos removal, handling pollutants, manufacturing cake. That’s what they call the heaps of crushed and rendered mud. One area I do recognise, even in its peeled form, is the mound on which the Clays Lane estate once stood. Bill Parry-Davies was employed to represent tenants who felt themselves threatened by work on the site. There was documented evidence of radioactive material, used in the manufacture of luminous watch dials and buried in cesspits on the site. This led to concern, as Parry-Davies told me, ‘when the contractors started boring deep holes … The nature of radioactive material is that it only becomes dangerous once it’s been disturbed. Once you release it into the air, as dust, it becomes a major problem … At the end of last year, they undertook tests on the run-off into the River Lea. They found levels of thorium in the water. Atkins, the engineers, considered that it was possible that thorium had dispersed along the water table, south-south-west, where the estate is. And the cycle track. Thorium is ductile and malleable, it’s used as a source of nuclear energy … When they found the run-off in the Lea, not at dangerous levels, it was enough to confirm the engineers’ prediction of what could happen. The effect being that the entire Olympic Park is contaminated with thorium at water-table level.’
Even if figures are fudged and scare stories buried, it is going to be tricky to fulfil Livingstone’s promise that the money for the construction of the Olympic Park will be earned back, afterwards, by flogging the land. ‘They won’t be able to do it,’ Parry-Davies confirmed, ‘unless they clear the whole thing up, which is a huge undertaking.’ It’s a grim scenario, especially for the travellers expelled from their established camps at the base of the Clays Lane mound and for the tenants who tried to hang onto home and community. ‘Those who are still there,’ Parry-Davies reported, ‘are woken at five in the morning, to find a police and army exercise going on, anti-terrorist war games, bombs and guns and helicopters, clouds of smoke. Nobody told them this was going to happen.’
The Olympic Park is zoned liked a city under siege: Murphy, Morrison, Nuttall have separate checkpoints and their own private armies. We have to sign our names on clipboard forms at every barrier. We drive through troughs of blue disinfectant. John Hopkins, with his twinkling grey moustache, keeps up the patter. The vision is in place, new jobs are being created, look at those Polish women from the relocated salmon-packing operation enjoying their alfresco lunches. The next night, on local television news, I see Hopkins in a boat, giving other clients the word-for-word pitch. Say it often enough and it becomes true. They are very good, the explainers, at delivering an unchallenged riff, but when the hard questions come, a brief time-delay kicks in. They struggle like flak-jacket correspondents unsynched by video-phone technology on a desert road.
Gareth Blacker, the pale, black-suited Irishman sent along by the LDA to patronise the folk at the doomed Manor Garden Allotments, had the same soft-spoken affliction. He stood in the rain under a large umbrella, staring at highly polished shoes, while his PR adviser hovered in the background. When Blacker responded he seemed to be answering the wrong question, the one asked a minute ago. The allotments, an island oasis ticking every possible regeneration box, stood in the way of the perimeter fence. ‘This is part of the Olympic Park and the Olympic Park legacy. It’s a temporary move. We want the allotments back after the Games. Everything will be in place. The only thing that will come out is a lot of concrete.’ So why make the move? ‘How can something return once it has been destroyed?’ I asked. Blacker admitted that it was a question of security, simply that. ‘The highest levels of security on a building site for a long, long time. More security than this country has ever seen.’ End of story. Sheds come down, blue fence goes up. Some of the gardeners relocate and start again in Leyton, others wilt, shrivel like the summer’s crop they will never see.
The tacky iron-blue of the zigzag perimeter fence does not appear on any of the computer-generated versions of the Olympic Park. The prospect from the north is favoured, down towards Canary Wharf, the Thames and the Millennium Dome. The regenerated heritage site looks like an airport with one peculiar and defining feature: no barbed wire, no boundary fence, no barrier between Expo campus and a network of motorways and rivers. The current experience, in reality, is all fence; the fence is the sum of our knowledge of this privileged mud. Visit it as early as you like, first light, and there will be no unsightly tags, no slogans, a viscous slither of blue: like disinfectant running down the slopes of a silver urinal trough. The passage of the fence painters is endless, day after day, around the entire circuit, repairing damage, covering up protests. Trails of sticky blue drip into grass verges, painterly signatures: the plywood surface never quite dries, subtle differences of shade and texture darken into free-floating Franz Kline blocks.
But the major artworks, self-sponsored galleries of opposition, occur at the back of the fence, on the unexposed panels of giant off-highway hoardings. Two artists in particular, white boys emerging from the Hackney Wick squatting and warehouse-occupying nexus, have undertaken projects of revised topography: mile after mile of two-headed crocodiles, grinning gum-pink skulls, Mayan serpents, clenched Philip Guston fists. A punk codex using industrial quantities of emulsion. Railway bridges. Condemned factories. They have been there: Sweet Toof and Cyclops. Fun-house mouths eating the rubble of development, the melancholy of this black propaganda limbo. The exhibition, behind the hoardings on Chapman Road in Hackney Wick, is worth crossing London to see. Rubbish mounds, brick heaps, trashed containers all contribute to this dynamic set: the separate panels become a graphic novel, energetic as Robert Crumb. Gestural, ecstatic. The single eyes on the walls of the Lord Napier pub are melting, in an acid attack, but they are alive, noisy, full of themselves. The perfect antidote to the liquid cosh of blue-fence thinking.
The pressure of regeneration, steroidally boosted by the Olympics, is such that liminal zones that once tolerated impoverished artists and free-livers have to turn every wastelot, every previously unnoticed and unrequired ruin, to profit. To provide more statistical housing, it is necessary to unhouse those who have already fended for themselves. Walking down the Regent’s Canal from Victoria Park, on the morning of 8 May 2008, I witnessed another eviction. Around thirty police, with attendant vans. Bailiffs, hired muscle. Council officials in dark suits clutching upraised clipboards. Loud bangs, crunched hinges, and the door is battered down. A towpath cyclist is enraged. ‘How long was that building empty? Twenty years? The squatters cleaned the whole place up, it was going to be a community centre.’ A barrel-fronted property, dressed in weeds and tendrils, between the Empress bus garage and the gas holders. A presence at the edge of consciousness for anyone passing this way. I noticed, a few years ago, a sticker on the cobwebbed window: back the bid. The recent squatters, who had filled a van with rubbish, reclaimed this ghost, using Tibetan gods and prayer scrolls for blinds.
Plodding home from Stratford, after discovering that much of the Olympic Park was fated to become a termite shopping centre, I picked my way down what was left of Ruckholt Road and Eastway. They were taking down the blue fence. Panels were hacked out and dumped on the wood-chippings that surround the stump of an inconvenient ash tree. The blue bandage had served its purpose – and, already, I was feeling nostalgic about it. Blue plywood was being replaced by more of those hardshell virtual reality panels: archers, swimmers, cheering crowds. High-definition digital photography and ethically-challenged fakery. Signs for pedestrians are unreadable, arrows point towards mesh fences and motorways. I try to cross the Quarter Mile Lane bridge, but I’m soon engulfed in security checkpoints. They don’t understand the concept of walking, for its own sake, wandering without a fixed agenda. ‘You want a job?’ This is spooky, I’m about to become an example of positive discrimination, slots reserved for decrepit locals of retirement age. ‘See that caravan? Go down there and they’ll take you on.’ I’m tempted. Why not go back to the era when I cycled out here, onto the marshes, to paint white lines on two hundred football pitches? And, before that, to the bucolic-sounding Chobham Farm in Stratford. A warehouse shell, beside the railway yards, well within the present Olympic fence. An attempt to circumvent labour regulations on the docks by using casuals like me to load and unload containers of reeking sheep casings, or to smash up ‘damaged in transit’ washing machines. After all these years, I was being offered regular employment: I could help to dismantle the blue fence.
Returning to Victoria Park, in the golden hour, I am stopped by a troubled and short-sighted Chinese man. ‘Excuse me, sir.’ He is flanked by five women of various ages, daughter to grandmother. They have lost something, somebody, and recognise me as a park regular, foot-dragging and respectably distressed. ‘A little man, tiny. No teeth. Not normal, simple. Very very small.’ Spotted twice, last Thursday, by a dogwalker. Nothing since. This tiny simple man has vanished. He carried an umbrella. I don’t want to ask if he is Chinese. ‘Does he speak English?’ ‘Not at all.’ A man seduced, so it appears, by crowds, a grand public event, noise. The ‘Love Music Hate Racism’ free concert. He wandered into all that and was never seen again. Disappointed in my response, but polite, they move on, east, in the direction of Hackney Wick, where everything disappears or is revised.