Academic and writer Phil Cohen has been taking the pulse of east London and its Essex hinterland for a long time now, so the 2012 Olympics provided him with the perfect observation deck for a new series of thoughts as to the likely shape and future of the territory in the years to come. Complex though some of his formulations are, he is always worth attending to, and in his latest collection of essays, On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics (2013), he gathers together what is in many ways an East London version of Humphrey Jennings’ great work, Pandaemonium, which was the inspiration behind the Olympic opening ceremony created by Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce. A mixture of ethnography, documentary, oral history, cultural theory and sporting politics, Cohen ranges widely across the disciplines to try to understand what lies ahead for 21st century London east of the Lea.
Cohen is not unsympathetic to the ideals of sporting achievement, nor to the ‘imagined community’ of great occasions and spectacular events. On the whole, though, he suspects east London will continue to sort out its own identity as it has always done – by accretion, conflict, accommodation, all anchored by a strong sense of territorial history and resilient built form.
The ubiquitous Thames Gateway is another story, and this Cohen nails on the head. The ‘Thames Gateway for Sustainable Communities’, as it is officially termed, continues to resist serious analysis either as a place or an idea, let alone public interest or credibility. It is a vision bereft, of any sense of history, landscape, or political economy, and currently seems to be dying slowly, with only the idea of an estuary airport still keeping it on life-support.
Fortunately the area is alive with local initiatives in the interstices. The Essex Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Thames Chase Community Forest, are amongst the largest networks in a plethora of land-focused projects, including community gardens and food-growing projects and dozens of other arts and ecology groups responding to the unique landscape in sensitive, incremental ways. They are slowly succeeding in stitching together the connective tissue of ‘redundant’ land between the by-passes, train-lines, housing estates, industrial areas in the Essex peninsula. In doing so they are in the process forging a new ecological aesthetic, about which we will shortly publish our account, The New English Landscape (due October 2013).
For many years, we have been influenced by the writer and ecologist Bob Gilbert who has an excellent essay in another book by Lawrence & Wishart London 2012: How was it for us? (2013), as well as his own book The Green London Way (2012). Consult the genius of the place, it is always said, to which we would add, and always ask Bob Gilbert too.
Where the sociologist Phil Cohen sees visible improvement in the environment of the Olympic site and the possibilities of a better quality of environment for those living in and around it, former park manager Gilbert sees misguided environmental desecration. He is particularly sceptical about the proliferation of wildflower meadows – currently flavour of the month in landscape circles – which though prettier than the scrubland it usually replaces, is less ecologically true to the indigenous setting.
There is no one great truth on these matters, but it is good to see that a small left-field publisher like Lawrence & Wishart has been quick off the mark in putting together these collections of essays which open up a number of fields for discussion, in ways which the quangos, public-private partnerships and corporations daily suppress in an endless proliferation of mission statements, visions, and fantastical computer-generated graphics. A proliferation of small initiatives are better than one big one seems to be the lesson of recent years.