Monday, 6 August 2012

This blog is not about the Olympics

Pauline Pearce (, the Hackney Heroine, has been reflecting in the press about the aftermath of the riots of last summer. She has been reflecting that not a lot has changed, that the death of Mark Duggan was perhaps no different from other deaths that have happened in the past, and in spite of the wave of tough justice that followed the rioters around, very little has changed in Hackney.

The Olympics may have arrived, but in a ringed-fenced park, with the entrance manned by soldiers (a neighbour of mine is convinced that this was the plan all along, only made acceptable to the public by engineering the failure of G4S to create the perception of crisis. I don’t agree with him, but still, it’s food for thought), a world away from the communities that surround them. The main entrance to the stadium is via the Westfield shopping centre, which is surely a commercial enterprise aimed at a different demographic than those that currently live in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

There are two ways of looking at the Olympics: some may argue that the price for being awarded the Games is the regeneration of East London, while others will maintain that the price for regenerating the East End is to host the Olympics. One has to wonder what could have been achieved for the communities that actually live there with the £9.3 billion that we have spent on the Games.

You can argue about the impact of legacy (which seems to mean getting people to play sport) and the sprucing up of the area, but can we really sit here and argue that those people who shop at the more shabby Stratford Shopping centre have seen their lives changed by all the Olympic fandango? Will they have better houses, better community facilities, or will we see the area ‘improved’ by an influx of wealthier professionals from elsewhere in London?

Pauline makes the point that not a lot has changed where she lives, and that she has been frustrated in her efforts to create a community hub, where people can gather, chat, help each other out. She wants to get the elderly there, where they can help out, soak up the feeling of belonging again, tell stories and share their experience.

And this is the interesting bit of the whole discussion that followed the riots. There was lots of hand-wringing, and talk about the disaffected, unemployed and under-educated young men and women of modern society. And yet, even though this discussion created the sense that these people were products of the society that they lived in, we still handed down to them some harsh sentences for the temporary suspension of their moral agency, in a fevered atmosphere. Can we argue that we would  have acted differently if we had found ourselves living their lives at that time?

We explained the misdemeanours of the rioters on the absence of hope and opportunity from the life choices, and then gave them no leniency in the way that we judged them. I came out of the whole period distracted from the fact that something had sparked all of this off, and focused instead on what punishment the rioters should receive.

There has been no satisfactory societal outcome from the riot: we have not rediscovered our sense of community, and we have not addressed the issues that lie at the heart of the whole episode.

And yet there is room for hope: the last 10 days or so of the Olympics have reignited a sense of national pride, that I have not experienced before. It is almost as if the reality of having invested a huge amount in hosting these Games, and then seeing all go rather well, both from an organisational and sporting point of view, has reminded us that it is OK to think big and go for it, and that, perhaps cringingly, we are in this together. We have been reminded that it feels good to see your neighbour do well.

I think what that means in contemporary Britain is captured well by what Mo Farah said, when asked whether he would have preferred to have won gold for his native Somalia.

He replied:

‘Look mate, this is my country.
This is where I grew up, this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I'm proud. I'm very proud.’ ( ).

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