By Phil Cohen
History, Marx liked to remind us, usually proceeds by its bad side. He could not have envisaged that there would be a popular historiography devoted to a form of dark cultural tourism. But if most of the visitors coming to East London for the Olympics know anything at all about the area’s history, it will most likely have something to do with Jack the Ripper, the Kray Twins or the Blitz. Despite the efforts of local imagineers to promote a sanitised, happy clappy multicultural version of its past, the East End’s low life reputation precedes it. Indeed its turbulent history of violence and crime, suitably glamourised, is all too readily exploitable by tourist and heritage industries eager to add a little frisson of excitement to the ‘2012 experience’.
The Olympic Park itself is home to a much richer and more complex history than this and some of it has been explored through the Winning Words project which has commissioned site specific work from some of our best poets. The question of heritage and its relation to the sense of place is at the centre of this project which has created a network of ‘poetry installations’ across the Park. All the chosen poets have been concerned to dig beneath the well scrubbed surface, and like true archaeologists have unearthed buried treasures amidst what to other eyes was just another heavily polluted brownfield site. Each poem takes us on a journey across a narrative landscape where traces of this otherwise hidden geography and with it, the stink of history emerge, at times surprisingly.
Jo Shapcott’s Wild Swimmer, perhaps inspired by Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, heads off across country and discovers a whole network of ‘lost’ rivers, canals and waterworks. Some of it is tough going: all swamp/and sewage until the Northern Outfall drain’, but the wild swimmer is enjoined to persist and ‘backstroke through the past/and remember how Alfred the Great/dug the Channelsea to keep out Danes.
So some of the familiar, indeed old fashioned, features of our national ‘island story’ surface albeit in unlikely places. Unlike Roger Deakin’s book, the poem does not explore the sensuous delights of swimming and turns into a bit of a travelogue: Count off rivers as you swim: Bow Creek, the Waterworks/the Channelsea, the City Mill, Hennikers Ditch; it ends up, predictably enough, back in the Aquatics Centre, where, mindful of her commission, Jo Shapcott urges her swimmer to ‘swim your heart out, for you are all gold.’ Such ‘winning words’ sum up the poem’s rather winsome quality.
There is nothing winsome about Lemn Sissay’s poem Spark Catchers, which was inspired by the ‘danger of death’ signs that are fixed to electricity transformer enclosures dotted around the site; this lethal aspect of ‘sparks flying’ led him to the old Bryant and May factory on the edge of the Park, where in 1888 Annie Besant organised a famous strike of the ‘match girls’. Never mind its somewhat obvious word play as the different meanings of strike are permutated, Spark Catchers is a poem with attitude; with its jagged rhythms and angry assonances, its ‘sulphurous spite filled spit’, it is made to be performed, chanted, or shouted aloud. Despite its incantatory style the poem has its odd lyrical moments: ‘Beneath stars by the bending bridge of Bow/In the silver sheen of a phosphorous moon/They practised Spark Catching’. But the dominant mood and diction is militant and ‘in your face’ quoting words from Besant’s article on White Slavery in London: “The fist the earth the spark its core/The fist the body the spark it’s heart”/The Matchmakers march. Strike.’
John Burnside’s poem, Bicycling for Ladies takes its inspiration from another famous socialist and feminist, Sylvia Pankhurst, who worked in Bow for some years and was also a keen cyclist. There are two sections, each with epigraphs which point to his sources; these including sayings from some of the working class women who collaborated with Pankhurst, Yardley advertising material and an early text on women’s emancipation through cycling which gives the poem its title. From this disparate set of co-ordinates Burnside conjures up a multi-layered landscape which moves effortlessly between the personal and political dimensions of its subject. He portrays the aspirations of the cyclists in terms of a social geography which lays claim to a national heritage from which they have historically been excluded:
not for them the solitude of some
far crossroads, with its litany of names
from ancient times,
they want to ride for hours, on country lanes
through Saxon woods and miles of ripening grain
and end up at some point of no return,
like changelings, in some faded picture book
from childhood, going headlong through the dark
to some new realm, where no mere man is king.
The sudden shift into a mytho-poeic space, conveys, directly enough, the struggle to transcend the material constraints of working class life – the striving for another possible world. A similar metamorphosis occurs in the second verse, which focuses on Sylvia Pankhurst herself, and takes us from the detail of her day to day struggles to the vision of a shared epiphany, evoking Stanley Spencer’s painting of the Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard:
The marches are done with,
the hunger strikes, danger of death
forgotten, as the sun cuts through the fog
and all the world cycles away, like risen souls
made new and tender for the life to come
in some lost Resurrection Of The Body.
Cycling as a metaphor of a better life to come, but in this world, rather than the next, offers us a vision of sport as a kind of meta-physical education, the body’s own way of transcendence and one that is not the prerogative of privilege but open to anyone whenever the sun breaks through their personal fog.
Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is also preoccupied with questions of aspiration, disadvantage and their long historical legacy, for, as she says in the opening line of her poem ‘the past is all around us, in the air’, and, she later reminds us, ‘still dedicates to us/its distant, present light’. Her approach to the East End’s heritage as a source of Olympic inspiration is characteristically oblique. Although her poem is linked to a site that will be used for Paralympic tennis and hockey anyone expecting a lyrical ode to the achievements of those who struggle to overcome physical disability is in for a disappointment. Instead she has written a poem about the Eton Manor Boys Club whose sports premises once occupied the site. The club was founded by a group of Old Etonians in the 1880’s as part of a broader civilising mission on the part of the upper classes to establish community settlements and youth clubs in the most deprived areas of the East End, where as one of the Club’s founders put it:
boys are yearly turned loose, without aid, without sympathy, without exercise, without amusement, into the burning fiery furnace of the streets of our growing and densely-crowded cities. When they fall into sin and ruin, as so many of them do – when they pass from betting and gambling (a sin fearfully on the increase) into dishonesty and crime, or when they pass from levity and godlessness into the abyss of yet more misery and destruction, there is no-one to offer them help or social encouragement(i).
The founders saw themselves as pioneers entering an ‘unknown country’. One of them recorded in his diary:
Having searched diligently through “Mogg’s Guide to London and the Suburbs” for the correct geographical position of Hackney Wick, and all the Metropolitan timetables for a suitable train to Victoria Park Station, I duly started off one evening in search of adventures in the Wild East….
These new colonisers of the working class city quickly settled in and turned the area into ‘their’ manor. As urban slummers with a social mission their main charitable aim was to inculcate their public school ethos amongst the lower orders through various forms of rational recreation and self-improvement, including sport; in particular they wanted to ‘change the anarchic, clandestine street gang into a well-organised, highly visible and socially responsible presence in the community'(i). To this end members of the Eton Manor club were organised into ‘houses’ to encourage team spirit and healthy competition; regular attendance was required and the highest standards of behaviour.
The club bought a large derelict site in Hackney Wick and transformed into the most lavishly equipped sports facility in London, which they called, without a trace of irony ‘the Wilderness’. The club excelled in boxing and athletics, producing a bevy of Olympic medallists and it certainly succeeded in tapping into the role which sport plays in deprived communities whose access to social mobility by other means is blocked. It offered other perks too – if you were unemployed the guvnors might find you a job (i).
Eton Manor closed its doors in 1967, although it still leads a vigorous afterlife in the form of an old boys network of East Enders who remain loyal to its traditions. But that is not the end of its story. Eton Manor now has a very contemporary message since David Cameron and his Old Etonian chums came up with the jolly wheeze of reinventing upper class philanthropy and Tory paternalism under the populist rubric of the ‘Big Society’(ii).
This then is the complicated history which our poet laureate chose to explore. How did go about it? Largely, it has to be said, by ignoring or glossing over its more problematic aspects. The poem begins promisingly enough with an evocation of its chosen mise-en-scene. Hackney Wick is all: ‘fleas, flies, bin-lids, Clarnico’s Jam; the poor/enclosed by railway, marshland, factories, canal’
We are in the City’s edgelands, that in-between space where the planners writ no longer runs, and whose surreal ecology has been lyrically described by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their recent book as ‘England’s true wilderness’(iii).. But Duffy’s Wilderness, for all that it is a landscape of exclusion, is going to be reclaimed for other purposes. Thanks to the Old Etonians she names, it becomes a ‘glorious space’ connecting ‘the power of place to human hope’. The response of the locals is one of amazement and gratitude, in the one line in the poem where their voice is directly heard: “Blimey, it’s fit for a millionaire”.
I kept listening for a tinge of irony in the poem but it is all grace notes:‘translated poverty to self- esteem/camaraderie, and optimism similed in smiles’. Her definition of legacy is equally soft centred: ‘young lives respected, cherished, valued, helped/to sprint, swim, bowl, box, play, excel, belong/believe community is self in multitude’. It reads more like a paraphrase of the Club’s mission statement or even a manifesto for the Big Society than an engagement with the complex poetics of working class aspiration described in John Burnside’s poem, while the re-definition of community in such individualistic terms is bound to cause controversy in certain circles. Perhaps it is not surprising then, that the ‘past all around us’ has melted into ‘air’ that rhymes in the next but one line with ‘million….’
The poem’s closing lines, celebrating the continuity of this tradition of sponsored aspiration, contains its most powerful but also, for me, most problematic imagery:
The same high sky,
same East End moon,
above this reclaimed wilderness,
where relay boys are raced by running ghosts
The sudden appearance of a spectral geography does not disturb the elegiac sense of a wilderness reclaimed. Nor does it point to another possible and better world where the poor would not have to depend on charitable handouts from the rich to get by. These ghosts are not about to haunt the Games with their uncanny presence, or spoil the Olympic dream with their message of lives unredeemed by private philanthropy. They have been recruited to run for Team GB and they are simply there to spur the athletes on.
Lyric poetry is made for celebration, but what is celebrated about the Olympics or East London’s rich political and cultural heritage is a matter of moral and political as well as aesthetic judgement. All the poems, in their different ways, attempt to interpret the aspirational agenda of 2012 in terms that are consistent with the poets own voice and vision and they will certainly make visitors to the Olympic Park reflect on what the place meant to now long vanished communities; they conjure up a memoryscape whose legacy of struggle is only dimly recognised in the official rhetorics of London 2012. In doing so they honour to varying degrees poetry’s special vocation to unsettle official discourse, and ask awkward questions, although in some cases this effect is attenuated.
There is a question mark too over the siting of some of the poems. Several of them, including Caroline Bird’s Fun Palace, a homage to Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price’s project for a ‘university of the streets’ in and around Stratford, are located on wooden screens which hide the electricity transformers that disfigure the site. The use of poetry to conceal ugly if necessary realities is, to say the least, problematic, only Lemn Sissay actually makes use of the opportunity presented to make a statement about it.
The Olympics will be a significant landmark in East London’s history, but whether or not 2012 will mark the moment in which it finally overcomes its long history of disadvantage and ceases to be the West End’s poor relation remains to be seen. Certainly there has to be more to legacy than creating a bubble of gentrified prosperity in and around Stratford.
Cultural legacy is an important and underestimated dimension of 2012, and one that has a significant bearing on the future reputational identity and status of the London Olympiad and of East London as its host community. The Park itself will be an important lieu de memoire, not just as a place of pilgrimage for Olympophiles from around the world but for all those who worked on its construction or who have been living with it over the past six years. Wouldn’t it be great if in each of the legacy venues there was a listening booth or audio trail in which you could hear about the history of its construction in the words of those who actually did the job?
The approach of the London Legacy Development Corporation to issues of site heritage is to say the least disappointing. Amidst all the strenuous imagineering of the future East 20 there are no plans so far announced for an East London Heritage and Olympic Studies Centre to be located in the Park. This needs to be more than a glorified visitors centre with a shop selling Olympic souvenirs; it should include an archive of material related to the construction of the Park, as well as the 2012 event, a reference library containing material on East London’s history, a reading and seminar room, and could be run in conjunction with local universities, oral history projects and the Museum of London.
One piece of work on site heritage has however been commissioned as part of the ongoing art in the Park programme and if it is the sign of things to come then we are in for a bumpy ride. ‘History Trees’ consists of a series of large trees planted to mark the entrances to Olympic Park. Each tree has a brass ‘memory ring’ placed in its crown, with words and phrases reflecting the area’s local history engraved into them.
The official handout tells us that ’over time, the tree branches and ring will slowly fuse together, becoming a living memory of the Olympic Park’. All the trees had, of course, to be sustainably sourced and the first three have been procured from Belgium. There was considerable concern from local environmentalists that the bolts used to pin the rings to the trees might stunt their growth or otherwise cause them injury. Even Prince Charles was reported to be alarmed and the intervention of the Royal Horticultural Society was required to reassure everyone that no arboreal harm would result from this installation. The words on the rings are, needless to say, completely invisible from the ground and so eventually will be the rings themselves, at least in Summer. An artwork that is designed to celebrate the living heritage of East London and the Olympics will thus serve as a visual metaphor of forgetfulness in which cultural memory and history are overgrown by the work of Nature and Time. You couldn’t make it up. But if that is to be the theme then, given the current post Olympic prospects of the main stadium, I would be for going the whole hog and commissioning a large mural from a latter day Joseph Gandy depicting it as a prophetic ruin.
This article is a drawn from a forthcoming book On the Wrong Side of the Tracks : East London and the Olympics 2006 – 2016. A more extended discussion of the issues raised here can be found in ‘Carrying the Torch : Poetry, Sport and the Cultural Olympiad’ published in Agenda Vol 46 No 3 April 2012. I am grateful to the editor Patricia McCarthy, and also the Winning Words project for permission to reproduce this material.
Phil Cohen is Emeritus Professor in Cultural Studies at the University of East London; he has a website and blog at philcohenworks.com
Address for correspondence : firstname.lastname@example.org
(i) The quotes and details of Eton Manor Boys Club are from a lecture by M Johansen ‘Adventures in the Wild East- The early Years of the Eton Manor Boys Club’ available online at www.villierspark.org.uk