Sunday, 27 September 2009

Behind Gate 14, Beyond 2012

Welcome to Hackney Wick, a largely forgotten nook of London that doesn’t really do visitors or tourists. Not even on a bright, blue-sky Saturday afternoon in September. Just cyclists, joggers and one or two, like me, tentatively walking, writes Paul Coleman. Likewise, I don’t find a white post on White Post Lane but a mash of scrap metal merchants, car spares dealers, anonymous warehouses and at one end, a set of big blue gates. ‘Olympic Park. Gate 14’, says a placard on the gates that block access to the Lee Navigation and to the 500-acre construction site for the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Drawn by a glimpse of water and towpath, I skulk through a brick archway next to the big blue gates. The top of a fire escape offers a good spot to watch teams of rowers in sculls skimming southward over the bottle green surface of the Lee Navigation. A jogger in a white T-shirt, pounding the far towpath, runs past a ferocious creature with craggy teeth, undulating pink lips and angry eyes focused on a yellow clothes peg stuck on its nose.  It’s not a Lee Navigation Monster but a garish, nightmarish slab of graffiti covering half the wall of an abandoned four-storey building. The green and steel grey carcass of the International Broadcast Centre rises in the mid-distance beyond in the Olympic Park.

Firing off a few more photos, I hear the sound of footsteps and so discretely stash the camera out of sight. Two men sidle down a small opening to the right of the gates, crossing over the Lee. Curious, I follow. They head off to the right, down towards the towpath but my interest is diverted straight ahead by a gleaming, hi-tech and menacing structure, incongruous in the midst of this fraying neglect and fester.  It’s a 2012 Olympic Park security outpost with stark black turnstiles, identity card swipe machines and some weird looking boxes. It looks like Darth Vader’s front door.

Two young security guards, wearing yellow hi-visibility jackets and white safety helmets, curtail my approach towards the checkpoint. The young man offers me directions back along the towpath and then onto the Greenway. “You can get a better view of the Olympic Stadium from up there,” he advises. “Thanks for your help,” I reply, looking over his shoulder. The security point looks similar to the checkpoint used outside the Houses of Parliament. Signs inform Olympic Park construction workers and site visitors that from October entry will only be possible after they’ve had their fingerprints scanned by biometric technology. “People with disabilities, with injured hands, will have their faces scanned instead,” the guard says.

Surprisingly, he leads me right to the gate, lifts the lid on one of those strange black boxes and shows me the cashpoint-type keypad where identity card pin numbers must be entered. Beneath the keypad sits the hand and finger pad where thousands of construction workers – and Olympic bigwigs like Seb Coe and John Armitt – will have to splay their palm and fingers so that the biometric technology can verify they rightfully own the identity card. “Security is very tight,” the guard adds, deliberately shutting the box before I could snap a photo. “We’ve even got Gurkhas doing security around the Park.” Sunday newspapers have claimed the Gurkhas on 24/7 patrols around the entire 2012 site perimeter are being paid only £7.45 an hour, leading to charges that Olympic security subcontractors are exploiting these heroes from the wars in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Turns out, the guard is a local lad, from Limehouse, working to support his father, brothers and sisters. He’s happy to break the monotony of his 12-hour shift with some conversation. “Not many local people like me are interested in working here,” he says. “I tell my mates about vacancies but they’re too lazy. They don’t want to work – happy to live on benefits, off the taxpayer. That ain’t me. I’ve got more self-respect.” That’s interesting, as last weekend I heard the Olympic Delivery Authority’s chairman John Armitt say that 20 per cent of those working on site are local people. Seems like this young guard owes his career start to the 2012 Games. But just how far will the Games and its legacy dismantle local worklessness in east London?

A few minutes later, on a lonely stretch of towpath right next to the Olympic Park, I meet some of the local youths who, people like Armitt and Coe confidently chime, will benefit from the Games and its pontificated legacy. I’d seen these three lads earlier on the towpath. They’d cycled past me as I was taking a photograph of an imposing housing development that dominates Fish Island, (see photo) the bend in the river where the Lee Navigation joins the Hertford Union Canal.  When they cycled past me again, I was blissfully distracted by the flitting sky blue abdomen of a magnificent male Emperor Dragonfly. Sadly, the lads weren’t interested in my photos, Emperors or their job prospects in light of the Games. They were solely intent on jacking my camera and my rucksack and introducing me directly to the dark green and weed-ridden water. Towpaths are places where opportunistic muggers flourish - even those right next to £9.3 billion Olympic construction sites surrounded by security guards and CCTV cameras.

Luckily for me, lads, you're not very subtle as you scope me as your intended victim. Yes, you’ve picked an isolated stretch; just far enough away from all that Olympic Park hi-tech security and manpower. Three against one are also good odds from your point of view but signalling your intent within earshot and with too much eye contact isn’t very clever. ‘You grab him and I’ll grab his bag,’ I hear one of you say as you all ride past me.

You also foolishly gave me valuable minutes to jog off the towpath up onto the Greenway, the embankment enclosing the Northern Outfall Sewage system that runs through the Games site.  The security guard at Gate 14 is right. There’s a good view of the Olympic Stadium from this point on the Greenway. Forgive me though, I'm not admiring the view. I stop and face the three bandit musketeers.

Guys, you cycle right past me – not daring to come too close. I could say you are intimidated by my smouldering rage and physical presence. But such a vain tale of my heroism would be false. In truth, I suspect it's the bulky Gurkha security guard standing behind me in his yellow hi-visibility jacket that puts you off.

Later, breathing easier, I’m standing on the platform at Pudding Mill Lane station waiting for a Docklands Light Railway train to speed me to the City. I look at the Olympic Stadium and stare at a freight train trundling more building materials to the vast site.  One thought troubles me. An Olympics legacy company is about to start fathoming out objectives and strategies. Will this body ensure the benefits of the 2012 London Games flow across the Lee and down White Post Lane into the lives of Hackney Wick folk whether they currently work or laze, toil or rob? It’s a £9.3 billion question - and right now the view across the tracks looks better than the view from the river.

Words and photos: Copyright of Paul Coleman, London 2009.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Thin Man of 2012

Before I begin blabbing about my Open House trip to the Olympic Park this afternoon, let me say I think I must be a bit odd. You see, perhaps I ought to have been struck most of all by the vast 500-acre site that the London 2012 Games occupies. Or maybe, the inverted Pringle-shaped roof of the Aquatics Centre (see photo). Possibly, I should've been hit for six by our tour guide's favourite fact - that contractors excavating the bowl for the Olympic Stadium dug out enough mud to fill the Royal Albert Hall nine times. Strangely, it seems to me though, what lodged most of all in my mind was the physique of John Armitt, the chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority. 

In a sort of modern tipi inside a sports hall opposite Leyton Orient football club, Armitt stood up and spent ten minutes or so effortlessly answering questions from visitors to the Olympic Park. But it wasn't anything that he said that struck me, interesting, charming and frank though some of it proved. No, rather it was that Armitt is just so thin. I mean, as thin as a rake. Lean as a bean.

Armitt wore a light blue shirt and fawn Chinos that hung from his slender frame. I began to wonder if John is - on the quiet - training heavily to be a competing athlete in Britain's Olympic Team. Maybe, a middle distance runner like Sebastian Coe, Armitt's main London 2012 compadre. Imagine the TV commentators in 2012 gasping, 'Unbelievable! he takes the final bell leaving the chasing pack way behind. Armitt's not only delivered the Olympic Games, he's gonna bag the 800 metres gold medal as well!'

Sincerely, I trust Armitt's condition is due to an admirable regimen of healthy food and exercise and hope it's not down to any illness. I often used to think Armitt cut a reassuring and quietly confident figure when he was chief executive of Network Rail. I used to admire him field awkward rail industry questions and subdue stinging criticisms during press conferences. Of course, he was tall then - with the severe stare of some upright grammar school headmaster - but only today did I notice he's a lean beanpole too.

The severity of that stare seems to have softened too. Maybe Armitt's more relaxed manner is because the ODA job is a dream job for someone with his civil engineering and rail industry experience. Maybe, he's just happy to be out of the the rail industry's daily grind, gripe and snipe. More likely, it's because Open House was an event for the general public, not one for rabidly cynical media types. When I sneakily asked him to explain to the group of visitors exactly why Eurostars would not be stopping at Stratford International Station during the Games, Armitt looked me squarely in the eye - none too severely either - and simply explained replicating customs and immigration at Stratford would be impractical.

As for the Olympic Park tour itself, it was part of the fantastic Open House weekend where London buildings and institutions allow ordinary Joes and Joannas to glimpse behind normally closed doors.

The ODA say 4,000 folks have booked to ride around the Olympic Park in a fleet of coaches over the course of this weekend. Of course, security and safety meant we couldn't get out and wander around taking photos but the 35-minute coach trip allowed visitors to gain a clear impression of the vast size of the construction undertaking - and understand where much of the Games' £9.3 billion budget is going.

Editorial and Photos: Copyright Paul Coleman 2009

Paul Coleman is a freelance journalist and writer who investigates transport, regeneration and manufacturing issues. Paul also explores and writes about London's history and culture.