Nothing but flowers

As I walked along the river bank past the bright flower beds, it was the pale green bridge that provoked a dizzy rush of rememberance, more flashback than madeleine.  The bridge had been there in 2006, when we passed by on an Easter weekend walk up the Lee Navigation.  Just past the \’Big Breakfast House\’ at Old Ford Lock, opposite blank-sided factories, a tributary ran down to a small green bridge, overgrown and inaccessible, on which someone had scrawled \’Fuck Seb Coe\’, in futile protest against the approaching Olympic juggernaut. 

Seeing the bridge again, now cleansed of its off-message graffiti, made me remember how much had changed.  Around this solitary remnant of the pre-Olympic Startford Marsh, hoardings had been erected and replaced by fences, now patrolled by soldiers on cycles.  The waterways beneath it had been cleaned of their colonies of invasive crabs and knotweed.  The roads that had woven between bus garages, factories, print works, fridge mountains, car breakers yards and evangelical churches had been uprooted, and the land levelled, creating a moonscape occupied by giant yellow construction vehicles, their manufacturers\’ logos obscured to satisfy the strictures of Olympic sponsors.  On this boundless and bare terrain, sites had been pegged out, their labels (Handball Arena, Stadium) looking like an optimistic child\’s fantasy of a construction site.

But the fantasy had quickly become real: earth had been cleaned and moved, piles were sunk, and slowly the uncanny structures of the Olympic Park venues had emerged from the mud.  Now, days before the opening ceremony, I had the chance to walk again across the site, without hard hat or steel-toecapped boots, past venues familiar from countless bus tours.  What is amazing, and delightful, is the verdant landscape.  

Between the hard angular shapes of the venues, and the wide walkways and concourses, great banks of flowers have erupted: Ox-eye Daisy, Purple Loostrife, Ragged Robin, Cornflower, Corn Marigold, Star of The Veldt, Pot Marigold, Tickseed, Red-hot Pokers, to name a few identified on the website of Nigel Dunnett, consultant horticulturalist.

The flowers and lush green lawns – well-watered in our rainy season –  soften the hard spaces of the Park, creating a genuinely beautiful landscape.  It\’s idyllic, but slightly ersatz, in stark contrast to the gritty pictures of Stratford that the Daily Mail delights in publishing.

The title of this blog post refers to a Talking Heads\’ song, a satire on arcadian nostalgia, which I couldn\’t get out of my head as I wandered round:

\”There was a factory; now there are mountains and rivers…there was a shopping mall; now it\’s all covered with flowers…once there were parking lots, now it\’s a peaceful oasis; this was a Pizza Hut, now it\’s all covered with daises.\”

Nostalgia for the grubby Lower Lea Valley of six years ago is tempting, but would be foolish.  The area was dirty, inaccessible and polluted, even though it hid secret jewels of natural beauty between car breakers, fridge mountains and other post-industrial drek.  What has replaced it is extraordinary, alien even. Perhaps that is what makes for an uneasy feeling; this lurching contrast with the world \’outside\’.

After the Games, and the remodelling and construction work that follows, London Legacy Development Corporation (who I work for) hopes that the Olympic Park will be a jewel in east London, and a force for change in one of the poorest areas of London.  But perhaps the traffic needs to be two-way, so that east London can also return to the Park, stretching to embrace it like tendrils of ivy, and blending the everyday and the extraordinary.

What\’s in a name?

It\’s very rare these days for a story to appear and disappear, without leaving a digital trail somewhere on the internet.

Last Thursday (14 June 2007), London\’s three evening papers picked up the same story: that the International Olympic Committee Co-ordination Commission (the group of IOC members sent over to check on London\’s progress in preparing for the 2012 Games) had said that they were uncomfortable with the Olympic Delivery Authority\’s name.

Why? Because the bulk of the ODA\’s £9bn budget is now to be spent on cleaning up land and putting infrastructure into East London\’s Lea Valley, rather than on erecting Olympic venues. The panjandrums of the IOC are nothing of not assiduous in defending the value of their brand, and they were reported to be unhappy with the association of the \’O-word\’ with such extensive public spending (and some of the unavoidable but unpleasant side-effects of development, like displacement of businesses and residents).

The story had a ring of truth, however odd it might seem at first glance. The IOC is very keen to emphasise that the Olympic Games are self-funding (from ticketing, sponsorship and merchandising revenues). Their view is that, if a city has to build new facilities to accommodate the Games, then that is their business, and a demonstration of the catalytic effect that the whole circus can have on nations that host it.

But you can\’t have it both ways. It is a truth insufficiently acknowledged that \’regeneration\’ is not the one way street that its shiny name implies. Regeneration displaces, and regeneration costs. The Olympics have made the Government do what they would never have done otherwise: make the heavy investment needed to turn round one of the poorest areas in the UK. The IOC should be proud to be associated with this investment, and should take its share of the knocks too.

The story had vanished by Thursday night. Perhaps it was untrue. Or perhaps it was seen as too damaging to the brand…