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On the wrong side of the track?

East London and the post-Olympics


Phil Cohen


London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2013

Paperback. 424 pp. ISBN 978-1907103629. £17.99


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London



Twelve months after the 2012 London Olympics, television channels in Britain showed recordings of the opening ceremonies, and journalists reflected on the days they spent reporting events. Some adopted a broader viewpoint and began to speculate on the possible legacies of the Olympics for the people of East London, for the environment of the lower Lea valley, and for the economy of the metropolis as a whole. Of course, it is far too early to come up with any definitive answers since the Olympic site is being refashioned and the future health of the metropolitan economy cannot be predicted. The basketball stadium has been demolished and many concourses have been removed. By contrast, the velodrome survives, the aquatics centre is being remodelled for ordinary swimmers, and the mega-stadium is in search of a new function as the home of one or more football teams. Housing built for Olympic athletes will provide much needed accommodation for Londoners, but one wonders at what cost. The post-industrial environment of the Lea valley, located beyond the boundary of the former London County Council, and hence permitted to receive polluting industries in the first half of the 20th century, has been transformed. The Westfield Centre has brought a temple of consumption to Stratford, which is already endowed with an ‘international’ station at which EUROSTAR trains do not stop. All this has happened almost in the shadow of the office towers of Canary Wharf and mid-way between the ‘old’ East End located, just beyond the fringe of the City, and the wide suburban expanses of East London, once energised by manufacturing industries and port functions that have long disappeared.

Phil Cohen’s marvellous book first explores the social, economic and environmental changes that have taken place in East London in recent decades, and then focuses on the Olympic events of 2012, with their promises of triggering economic regeneration, material transformation, and jobs for generations of young people. It draws upon a wealth of research undertaken over many years by the author (now emeritus professor of cultural studies) and his colleagues at the University of East London. Beginning with what may be read as an imaginary post-Olympian nightmare of failure and decay, it highlights the contrast between optimistic ‘Olympophiles’ and pessimistic ‘Olympophobes’. East London in transition is the guiding theme of the first three chapters in which Cohen identifies both negative and positive aspects of local life: deep-rooted unemployment alongside the arrival and proliferation of ‘creative industries’, racial tension but also inspiring examples of social integration. Chapter Two, devoted to ‘Island Stories’, uses the results of direct interviews to present the hopes and frustrations of residents on the Isle of Dogs when confronted by the establishment of corporate headquarters for global financial institutions. Attention then turns to the wider milieu of the so-called ‘Thames Gateway’ area that stretches eastward from the Lea valley to the mouth of the Thames and has been identified in policy terms as a space for accommodating new housing and economic activities.

The second and larger part of Cohen’s book turns to the 2012 Olympics that embraced not only an ‘artificial paradise’ but also a ‘beautifying lie’. Seven chapters explore how an image of London (and especially of East London) was fabricated as an environment of promise that was projected not only to members of the Olympic Committee but also to the world at large. A richly documented analysis of building work ‘in the zone’ is presented through the direct speech of the men who dug tunnels, moved earth, and constructed buildings, as well as by a handsome array of photographs. Here is a representation of physical masculinity that is very different from the prowess of athletes on the track or in the pool, but one that is nonetheless successful in terms of achievement. These manual workers also brought a social challenge with them, since many were not locals but were ex-miners from other parts of Britain, Ireland and from eastern Europe.

Cohen then probes the problematic notion of the promised ‘Olympic legacy’ with its messages of sporting participation for all, community regeneration, and national pride. These and many other motifs figured prominently in the opening ceremonies that were conceived and orchestrated by Danny Boyle around the theme of an ‘Isle of Wonders’ for the main games, and of ‘Enlightenment’ for the subsequent para-Olympic events. Here Cohen moves beyond a narrative of these carnival-like happenings to an in-depth cultural analysis and interpretation of what was performed in the arena and displayed on television screens around the globe. Once the fun and games were over, East Londoners reacted as optimists and pessimists, and held all positions in between. Many were grateful that nothing bad happened, there were no terrorist attacks, and people from near and far thoroughly enjoyed themselves – for a short time at least. In his final chapter, Cohen writes of ‘a good enough legacy’ and conveys the hope that future socio-economic changes in East London may not be solely to the benefit of in-comers, gentrifiers, and big business. A fascinating section identifies a range of features that local community groups would like to see developed on the Olympic site: a mega adventure playground for young children, an urban farm, an East London heritage and Olympic studies centre, a ‘green triangle’ to be colonised by nature, and an eco-business park.

Phil Cohen’s masterly book is anchored in an enormous body of literature that ranges from architecture, history and sociology to economics, planning and poetry. It embraces a wide range of methodologies, including many interviews with local residents and with workers who created the infrastructure and buildings of the Olympic site. It is enriched theoretically by its author’s long experience of and very broad take on ‘cultural studies’. Some three dozen, full-colour illustrations from local photographers and artists are included, and three visual essays are posted on Cohen’s website to supplement the images in his book. Appearing in the spring of 2013, both author and publisher worked with remarkable speed to produce this impressive – and well-priced – book that deserves to reach and be appreciated by a very wide readership.



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