Ok, first up some declaration of interests.
1) I LOVE the Olympics. I cry non-stop during most sports and definitely when there’s a medal ceremony, no matter who has won. I love learning new words from sports I’ve never heard of (‘repechage’, anyone?) and I willingly give myself over to hours of blissful footage of amazing human beings doing amazing things. 2) I live right next to the Olympic Park in London’s Hackney Wick.
But one thing is darkening my Olympic bliss. Why does it feel like all the genuine bits of London around the shiny Olympic Park are being deliberately shortchanged by what was meant to be a sporting event that benefited and enriched the East End of London?
At a very conservative estimate the UK has spent £9.3 billion of public funds on this Olympics. (Others put it nearer to £24 billion). That means UK taxpayers have payed more than nine times the £1 billion put into the games by rather toxic and distinctly un-healthy sponsors like MacDonalds and Cadbury’s chocolate. Yet the draconian IOC Olympic contract that was rashly put into law to enable the Olympics means that everything is done to protect the sponsors but seemingly sideline the taxpayers.
We read about the shocking security botch-up with a private firm G4S fouling up and having to be bailed out by the public-sector, i.e. the Army. And there was a terrible stink when the IOC “VIP” seats were all empty while locals were not able to get to see the sport (though to be fair LOCOG, the Game’s organisers, did sort that out fairly swiftly).
To be honest, the events I’ve been to – the rowing, a dress rehearsal for Danny Boyle’s epic and brilliant opening ceremony, and the water polo – have been extremely well run, friendly, and massively good-natured. I don’t really have any beef with the Games themselves – but I do have a grudge against the way that the areas around the games have been – seemingly, deliberately, – sidelined.
Hackney Wick, my lovely corner of London, is right cheek-to-cheek with the Olympic Park. I can see the Stadium and Anish Kapoor’s red curly-wurly Orbit from my window as I write. And we have benefited greatly in terms of transport infrastructure and lovely new trees planted along the way. But why are people being purposefully funnelled away from stopping here?
Two weeks before the Olympics – after months of ‘consultation’ and letter-bombing by London’s transport organisation TFL – we were suddenly told that our station, the overground at Hackney Wick, – was going to be closed for the duration of the Games.
The neighbourhood is full of cafes, restaurants, bars, artists events and theatre and music venues. Naturally we were all excited by the Olympic Happening (although we maintained a healthy ambivalence to all that corporate nonsense) and many businesses and galleries were geared up for mega footfall. So the possibility that our station would be closed was like a death knell.
My friend James Morgan, who runs the lovely local cafe and restaurant the Hackney Pearl, is a bit of an activist wizard and managed to organise the press and locals to pressurise TFL to reverse their decision – but actually the damage was already done. The timetables were printed and most people I’ve asked assumed that the station is in fact closed.
Meanwhile, the thousands of people leaving the park through one of three exits nearest to Hackney Wick (the Victoria Gate, should you be visiting) are being directed AWAY from walking through the lovely Fish Island (filled with great artistic spaces like the Stour Space and the Greenway Cafe, the Counter Cafe and the slightly controversial Foreman‘s site) to Hackney Wick and instead are being funnelled across the distinctly unlovely A12 into Victoria Park, (miles from public transport) presumably to fill up the deserted BT sponsored Live stage.
The net effect is that all the local galleries, cafes, bars and restaurants have LESS footfall during the Olympics that they would have normally.
This is true of restaurants and the service industry across London, of course. The apocalyptic build-up to the Olympics with a daily bombardment of messages on the Tube, the trains, the media and billboards warning us to STAY INSIDE during the whole games and off-putting visa restriction has cost UK tourism dearly. But it seems particularly mean-spirited to direct people away from the vibrant bits of London right next to the Games.
I’m really not one for conspiracy theories, and the artistic, free-thinking make-up of the Wick means quite a few of them are floating around – but it strikes me as fishy that a gargantuan international sporting event largely funded by the UK taxpayer – is not benefitting the city that is hosting it. It’s not like MacDonalds or Coca Cola really need more publicity do they?
There is a very large Cultural Olympiad that has run alongside the Games – and again the East End has benefited with some great events. The BBC Hackney Weekender was a massive triumph (as has been the BBC’s peerless coverage of the Games), there was a great retrospective of David Bailey’s photographs in the local borough of Newnham and a host of wonderful international events. And a lot of things have been free. But again, I come back to the fact that it is iffy when the Arts Council refuses to fund the Hackney Wicked arts festival, a vibrant three day affair, where the host of artists in the area open their studios and there’s an extravaganza of local London talent on view (cost £100,000) and yet, in a twinkling they can stump up £2 million to fund a 3 day run of Karlheiz Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht. Don’t get me wrong I love Stockhausen – but what does that really have to do with London, with the Olympics or the taxpayers who fund it? (It seems to have much more to do with the coterie of arts funders around the London 2012’s artistic director Ruth McKenzie).
I want to repeat that I am not whinging. But neither will I fall into to the Dubbya Bush “you’re either for us or against us” mentality. The Olympics which began with Danny Boyles triumphant celebration of the wilfully creative, ambiguous, protest-friendly and witty British has largely been a proud success. Largely due to the wonderful volunteers, good-natured planning and amazing sportsmanship of the athletes. But let’s also be alive to what can be improved and what should be flagged up.
The Olympics will all be over in a week or two but the East End is still here and flourishing. So don’t let yourself be funnelled away. Come and visit.