When recently interviewing the writer and filmmaker, John Rogers, the setting of our meeting place in Stratford played heavily upon my mind. Such was the contrast between so many of the buildings and spaces within the area that many ideas came about just from a quick meander around its many new developments. Because of this we agreed to reconvene at the place a few weeks later with John promising to show me some of the stranger aspects and battlegrounds of an area defined most vividly by the 2012 Olympic developments. We met at the place where we last conversed at Timber Lodge Cafe, which lies adjacent to the River Lea and the most stark of the Olympic housing developments, the East Village. Yet, before we had even met, the area was providing a sterile vision of futuristic hubris within the very means with which I chose to get there.
Instead of getting the regular train to Stratford Station, I had chosen to get there by the train to Stratford International Airport which goes straight to the heart of the Westfield shopping centre. The journey was surreal, akin to the opening train journey in Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Alphaville (1965); it felt more like a strangely interstellar journey, travelling between distant planets rather than parts of London. The Stratford International station is equally as alarming, as if arriving in a Soviet era science-fiction complex, with its empty, undefined spaces sketched out by competing melodies of steel and concrete. Resisting the urge to dive into the Westfield nightmare straightaway, I made my way out of the station and along to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to meet John. He mentioned that he had wanted to revisit some of the spaces around but had no real fixed plan other than to head to the “old” Stratford through a pathway of the new redevelopments. We walked off into the very heart of the complex, beginning with the developer offices at the Chobham Manor segment.
John pointed out the oddity of the retaining of this name in the complex. The rest of the street names are new, often in tawdry reference to the various themes of the Olympics. Yet Chobham Manor remains, referencing the Chobham Farm Container Depot in which the workers famously went on strike in support of the “Pentonville Five”; shop stewards who, during Edward Heath’s term in government, were arrested for refusing a court order attempting to stop them from picketing the yards. Usually – and most controversially with the recent developments at Orgreave in the attempt to remove the name -such charged markers are rarely safe for long in such developments. Chobham, however, quietly rebels on. We wandered further into the estate, finding a “mobile garden city”; some attempt at a twee envisioning of allotment space. As John pointed out, many such spaces all over London are usually built on at some point, whilst, simultaneously, new and smaller spaces are developed with the companies then using them as evidence of their good will towards community spirit. The irony is palpable, documented often in Iain Sinclair’s work.
Walking back upon ourselves down “Victory Parade” we came to a spot which John especially wanted to revisit. Parallel to “Fortunes Walk” is a green space with seats and a play area. John related the guided tour he was given around the area when it first opened and how this was a particular place of pride for the developers. At the time, they had made the most of the view all of the way out from this slight incline, the view being over to Hackney and the general city. Apart from the fact that the trees had already blocked most of the view, John pointed out that many rival and new developments earmarked for various points around Hackney Wick and further would almost definitely block this view. It became a common theme during the walk; where developers of differing firms had small neighbouring plots all around the area but were clearly in very little communication with each other. Already, several flats had began to be overlooked by the high-rise developments growing out of Westfield like fungal growths. At any rate, this attempt at a green space looked more akin to the world found in the television series, The Teletubbies; mowed to perfection, no edge, no reality of the wildness that it undoubtedly replaced. Even the accoutrements of the children’s play area were distinctly devoid of any warmth. One such object, an equivalent of a merry-go-round, looked more like some sort of radar disc sprouting out of a secret surveillance bunker.
Another green space followed, perhaps, as John suggested, created as some outflow for water from the area. The pond, known rather optimistically as Portland Lake, seemed slightly more overgrown and genuine though it was again marred, this time by the odd feature of the developers literally putting a 3D version of the block’s name in the water. I looked up and noticed how tropical and Super-Cannes the place felt. The building here was called Mara House, and seemed aptly named. Mara, being a demon from Buddhist theology, is said to be a tempter with both a hand in death and rebirth. More enjoyably, the Mara is a villain from Doctor Who, a pan-dimensional dream-snake that achieves corporeality by invading the nightmares of those weaker minded. Both iterations seem to comment on the design of this space; a rebirth that achieved corporeality from a nightmare vision of empty, albeit bland, architecture and commerce.
Briefly escaping the complex, we walked its border, enjoying the still colourful bit of scrubland that lay between the East Village and the Westfield development. It probably wouldn’t last long. Our conversation shifted between the filmmaking of Adam Curtis, the nature of developing city spaces and who gets to use them overall. In our daydream we had wondered back into the village via Mirabelle Gardens with its fake standing stone and more green space. This part seemed to be more in use than the previous space and wasn’t too unpleasant to wander around. Finding a small side-avenue for pedestrians, we came across the “Champions Walk” which follows along the railway line. At first, it appeared to split the development and regeneration, leaving the estate on the other side of Penny Brookes Street alone. But almost instantly this image was quashed by a huge development already well under way on the opposite side, coupled later on with a further development over the bridge. John mentioned the dispersion of traveller communities that such developments had already entailed, suggesting that such a practice would continue as the development spreads. We crossed the bridge and over into what looked to be an older part of Stratford with social housing developments from the 1980s or later.
For the first time in a while, there was the site of a brick wall on Angel Lane. It even had its original sign still hanging; why were such sights so refreshing? They were obviously more dilapidated, more in need of funding, but they also felt more human. Perhaps, as an outsider, this is a bias that is created by not living here, but a balance must surely be both possible and desirable? Angel Lane turned quickly back into the more typical new development language as it morphed into metal and snaked its way back towards Westfield and Stratford Station. I noticed a sticker promoting the Leave Campaign, perhaps the very first evidence of any support for the campaign that I’d seen since being in London. Were these two things linked? I wasn’t too sure and neither was John. We finally found ourselves at Stratford Station and decided to head into the secondary shopping centre which, according to John, has attempted to be hidden by a strange collection of fish sculptures; such is the working-class nature of the space, it is undoubtedly a discomfort to the Westfield development and their highly priced comparatives.
We enjoyed a pasty whilst wandering through the labyrinths of pound shops and phone-case dealers; it felt more like a typical market than most of the markets that I’d so far visited since being in London. Snaking our way back round, John took me back to the station through a route which deliberately contrasted the schizophrenia of Stratford today. The streets around the older shopping centre were streets I recognised, not unlike those of Liverpool or Birkenhead that I was more used to. He left me at Stratford Station to head away, leaving me to make the final journey over the bridge and back into Westfield itself.
A few things struck me once inside what is the biggest development I can recall being in of its kind. The first was the image I took from the bridge, reminding of the lyrics to Hawkwind’s Ballardian song, Motorway City (1980):
Paper on the pavement, cars crawling in the road
Emotions of the city, you ease your heavy load
Motorway City, well it ain’t the same
Lighting up the night sky, with an orange flame
The orange flame of the Olympic torch and spirit had long since extinguished, replaced purely by a sodium-lit commerce blocking out the stars with its light pollution. The second was of a strange bit of design in the very centre itself. Though containing large sections of open air walkways, Westfield has a no smoking policy, as do many such spaces. But there is a smoking section, marked in the most unusual way of a 2001-like obelisk, sitting in wait near John Lewis. There’s no real explanation of this structure – Architecture? Public art? Practical joke? – and, as I watched a handful of people heading towards it to light up, it appeared to highlight a general theme of the whole place; that there was a draw to Westfield akin to the zombies in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) who find equal solace in a shopping mall. None of us knew why we were really there, we just found that draw, the monolith forcing us into a stasis rather than an evolution as in Kubrick’s film. I found my way back into the spaceport, ready to head back to a more recognisable London and away from Planet Stratford, the words of Peter in Romero’s film ringing heavy in my ears as the interstellar train entered the station with a hyper-drive rush:
They’re after the place. They don’t know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here. (1978)