Paradise squandered



In 2012, just four years before the Brexit vote, London hosted Danny Boyle’s gloriously optimistic and multinational Olympics opening ceremony. In 2017, its pageantry and symbolism may as well have been beamed to England from Mars.

The Olympic Bell, the largest harmonically-tuned bell in the world, is so loud it put Paul McCartney off during the ceremony, as he sang the opening line of ‘Hey Jude’. Two metres high and weighing 22.91 tonnes, it has verse from Caliban’s speech in ‘The Tempest’ inscribed inside it: ‘Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises’, which featured in Boyle’s spectacular opening show read by Kenneth Branagh.

The Olympic Bell was cast in bell bronze at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 16 miles from the Olympic site, at 32-34 Whitechapel Road, Whitechapel, E1 1DY. A Grade II listed historic building, the factory was in the Guinness Book of Records as Britain’s oldest manufacturing company, in continuous production for 450 years, 250 of those years at the East End site. Danny Boyle said in 2012 that the bell was commissioned to symbolise the rebirth of East London, making it much like the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park itself, which covers parts of Leyton, Hackney Wicke, Hackney Marshes, Bow, and Stratford. Four years later, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was gone, the building sold off.

While the oldest factory in the UK is no more, the conspicuous remaining legacy of the 2012 Olympics is the ArcelorMittal ‘Orbit’ Tower. Designed by artist Sir Anish Kapoor and deputy chair of Arup engineering Cecil Balmond, Orbit is a 178 meter-tall red metal helter-skelter, with two observation platforms on top which provided exclusive views of the Olympics venue in 2012, and which now – since the site’s mostly demolished – gives uninterrupted views of the West Ham football stadium, Homerton Hospital, and on a clear day you can see most of Bromley.

Sometimes referred to as the ‘Hubble Bubble’ (because it looks like a shisha pipe) or ‘Boris’s Johnson’, after the Mayor and later Foreign Secretary and leading Brexiter who commissioned the artwork, it resembles a giant, praipic red robot penis which has somehow come to life on the outskirts of London, but – like the antagonistic kaiju monster at the end of any ‘Godzilla’ or ‘Gamera’ flick which isn’t adapted to its new environment – has been seen off by locals, and is in its death throes, spewing complicated chords of architectural jism hither and yon over the Essex countryside.

It was scheduled to cost £19.1 million, with £16 million coming from the richest man in the UK, steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, and £3 million from the public purse via the London Development Agency. Orbit was “the perfect answer to the question of how sport and art come together” according to the project’s Advisory panel member and director of the Tate gallery, Nicholas Serota, speaking in 2012. Boris Johnson predicted the public would make back the £3 million in no time through a dining area at the top of the tower, and deemed his wizard wheeze a “corporate money-making venture”. In October 2015, the London Assembly was told Orbit was losing £520,000 a year. The previous year, it was announced that in order to rake back some of this cash the tower would become the world’s longest and tallest slide. By 2016, England and Wales – but not London, Northern Ireland and Scotland – narrowly voted for Brexit, after Johnson’s shock eleventh hour conversion to the ‘Leave’ camp. There’s also, if you want, an additional option to abseil off Boris’s folly for £85 (£100 if you want to film it with a GoPro camera strapped to your head as you fall). You couldn’t make it up if you tried.

In his 1946 essay ‘Why I Write‘ George Orwell said of England:

“England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted message, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.”

On the cusp of a ‘no deal’ Brexit – with England about to crash out of the European Union, its major trading partnership, taking Scotland and Northern Ireland and its own capital city unwillingly with it – what are we to make of some of the quainter development plans for London such as the loss of the Cinema Museum, which was once the Lambeth Workhouse?

‘Development’ is used here is a euphemism for the way in which, over several decades, property ownership in London and the South East of England more generally has morphed from being a kind of talisman for social status, to becoming a financial derivative, traded, warehoused and speculated upon by the world’s 0.0001%. A common feature of most of the celebrities and super-wealthy named in the leaked ‘Paradise Papers’ is that as well as off shoring their wealth for tax purposes, often in British-controlled havens in the Caribbean and elsewhere, they also own bricks and mortar in London.

For an edition of ‘Music for Films’ recently broadcast on Resonance FM we interviewed the broadcaster and musician Neil Brand, who’s a long-term supporter of the Cinema Museum. While he performs live piano accompaniment for silent films and has done at the Museum for many years, he compares its plight less to charming old films of yesteryear than to something grittier like ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ where you’re not sure everyone’s going to survive the big fight at the end.

“The hard-nosed future for this space is we’re going to lose it […] anybody who’s interested in cinema, anyone who loves it – particularly anybody who’s interested in the kind of craft of cinema – should be one hundred percent behind this space. It’s not about the old films. It’s not about the past. It is about the future.”

The image of Chaplin the little tramp, David versus the Goliath of the big evil property developer, is the obvious picture that springs to mind to visualize the plight of the Cinema Museum but it’s also wide of the mark. Both the Museum and South London and Maudsley NHS Trust are caught in a system, “a family with the wrong members in control”, which mindlessly sacrifices precious and irreplaceable cultural heirlooms. This is because the last dregs of profit must be wrung out of the London property bubble before it pops on Brexit day in 2019, if not before, because reasons.

A story of his months spent in the Lambeth Workhouse as a child which Charles Chaplin told many times once he made it in Hollywood was of waiting in line at Christmas with the other boys for a shiny red apple, only to be yanked out of the queue because of some unspecified naughtiness. This injustice lived with him for his entire life. Chaplin was the one boy who escaped the evil system of the Lambeth workhouse to enjoy international fame and make a vast fortune, but many tens of thousands of other children went on to lead lives which were hard and cruel.

The building has a depressing history which should not be forgotten. A present-day use as cinema and museum to Chaplin’s genius is both appropriate, and an imaginative and thoughtful re-use of the space, in a diverse part of London.

South London and Maudsley NHS Trust meet in March to consider the future of the Cinema Museum. A good offer has been made which will save the Museum while allowing for social housing to be built on adjacent land. I urge SLaM to accept this offer, and I urge you to go to the Cinema Museum website now to sign their petition.

Turning the old Lambeth workhouse into flats would be obscene. It would mean London losing part of its memory and ability to re-imagine itself in the future.

It would not only be an insult to Chaplin’s memory but, more importantly, it would be an insult to the memory of all the working class kids and the working class poor of South London who, like Chaplin, were abused by a heartless system, with the wrong people in charge.