As the prospect of the 2012 Olympic Games stops being a rosy blur and turns into something sharp, hard and immediate, scarcely a week goes by without some eye-catching announcement from the labyrinthine bureaucracy that surrounds and nurtures it. Last week’s treat was the unveiling of the names of the five “neighbourhoods” to be constructed on the site of the Olympic Park once the bandwagon has rolled on. Ignoring such suggestions as “Plastic Fantastic” and “Redgravia”, the judging panel (composed of representatives from various East End councils) has come up with a selection of aquatic and semi-sylvan names: Chobham Manor, East Wick, Marshgate Wharf, Sweetwater and Pudding Mill. Andrew Altman, chief executive of the Olympic Park Legacy
Company, declared himself delighted. “The public has given a new piece of London its identity, where communities will grow alongside the spectacular venues and open spaces.”
I can’t be the only student of east London’s transmogrification over the past 30 years to suspect that this has the makings of a calamitous hostage to fortune, on the principle that a thoroughfare fondly christened “Rosebud Lane” by a municipal highways and byways department is practically guaranteed to turn into a urine-soaked drug baron’s rat-run in the space of a month. Justin Cartwright’s London novel Look At It This Way carries an amusing account of the Docklands property boom of the late 1980s, in which the street-maps of E16 are suddenly crowded with “Heron’s Beats” and “Thameside Terraces”: jerry-built boxes, for the most part, from whose attic windows Cartwright’s characters strain to catch the most vestigial hint of the river.
Lurking beneath the unveiling, too, is an echo of the creeping Metroland gentrification that in the 1980s led people to claim that they lived in “St Reatham” or “Bahzay”(Battersea). Still, even if, a dozen years hence, the inhabitants of the New East End find themselves living in a cratered ash-tip from which all traces of Olympic largesse have receded, there will be some consolation in putting “Chobham Manor” on their writing paper.
Still with the Olympics, several commentators have noted the series of petty discriminations of which the administration of the Games seems to consist. This was most obvious in the ticket allocation process, and its insistence on internet access, and here it is again in the arrangements for the carrying of the Olympic Torch.
Not long back, I logged on to the LloydsTSB website with the aim of nominating my mother as a torch-bearer. I assumed that, as a former winner of the Norfolk Ladies’ 100 Yards, back in 1951, she would at least be in with a chance. The first question, inevitably, was: what is the nominee’s email address? Well, the nominee doesn’t own a computer. The second instruction was to send – by email, naturally – a photograph.
Having access to the internet, I can (just about) deal with these prescriptions, but what about those – quite a large percentage of the population, according to the statistics – who can’t, and will consequently have to solicit help from friends or public libraries? If LloydsTSB, which stands to do very well out of its sponsorship of the Games, had the public’s best interests at heart instead of its own convenience it would employ a couple of hundred clerical staff, install them in an office in EC2 and allow them to process applications by hand.
It was difficult to know whether to be amused or merely alarmed by the news that German priests can now be rated for their performance at church services, on youth and senior citizens’ projects, their “credibility”and how “up to date” they are. Apparently, 8,000 of them have signed up with something called the Hirtenbarometer or “shepherd’s barometer”, the first online platform of its kind. The amusement lies in the thought of Monsignor Fassbinder only rating a seven in the vestment category after his biretta was found to be slightly askew. The alarm, alternatively, stems from the sight of yet another manifestation of that relentless 21st-century urge to assume that every human activity needs to be marked out of 10 by the people participating in it and that even something as nebulous and complicated as spiritual belief is only an advanced form of Strictly Come Dancing.
Then there is the question (always skated over by well-meaning authority figures told to come up with “feedback”) of whether those asked to come up with a verdict actually possess the requisite nous to arrive at any kind of meaningful judgement. There was a memorable exchange along these lines between Tennyson and the legendary Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, after the Poet Laureate had read some of his verse aloud at a college garden party. “If I were you, Tennyson, I wouldn’t publish that poem,” Jowett is supposed to have counselled. “If it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us before dinner was terrible,” Tennyson is supposed to have shot back.
Stan Barstow, who died last week aged 83, was one of the last of the band of English working-class novelists who made their reputations in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Barstow’s special subject, in such novels as the wonderful A Kind of Loving (inset left), was what he called the “lace-curtain working class” – the “respectable poor” who, as the friend invoked in his autobiography explains, are acquainted with “poverty, but not squalor”.
A scan through recent British |social history sometimes suggests that sociologists have been insufficiently attentive to that part of the working-class demographic which looks down its nose at the next-door neighbours and, rather than regarding their locales as a hub of communal endeavour, are itching to relocate to the middle-class suburb three streets away. Marked down as thoroughly homogeneous by critics of the day, “working-class fiction” of the Barstow/Sillitoe/Waterhouse kind turns out to have half-a-dozen finely graded varieties. All this might make Barstow sound like a peddler of dramatised sociology. But, like Alan Sillitoe, he was a genuine literary artist, and there are few enough of those, whether in the sensation-hungry 1950s or the less promising decades beyond. Barstow’s other distinguishing mark was that he stayed true to his Northern roots. His trend-surfing modern equivalent would doubtless be off to London at the drop of a hat.