The Olympic Stadium fiasco

West Ham will be moving into a bizarre folly.

Back in 2008 Lord Coe, chairman of London's bid to win the Olympic Games said, "we are not in the business of building football grounds". Now three years, the public-sector organisation established to develop the park after the 2012 Games, has chosen a bid led by a football club West Ham to occupy and run the Olympic Stadium. Rather than demount the 80,000 seats to a 25,000 seat stadium for athletics only, as Lord Coe had suggested the London Olympic team would do to the International Committee, the stadium will be remodelled fo a stadium of 60,000 seats, that contains a permanent running track and a football pitch. This will cost £95m including £35m of public money plus a £40m loan from Newham Council.

What Lord Coe should have said is that he is not in the business of building good football grounds. Built in a cramped site on a bend in the River Lea, the stadium has minimal facilities. A simple bowl with seating around a field of play, it will contain no food outlets, no boxes and very limited hospitality. During the Games these will be provided in separate temporary structures on approach -- a situation that could not be countenanced for league football. It doesn't have a roof, and perhaps most importantly it has got an athletics track and an athletics track that must remain. It was designed to be an athletics stadium for the sport at its singularly most popular moment, the Olympics, and its far less well-supported quotidian level.

Couldn't the Olympic Delivery Agency have created a stadium that uses movable stands, something like the Stade de France in Paris? Yes it could, indeed when Spurs and West Ham were consulted on the stadium in 2006, this idea was mooted. But the body chose not to because of this idea that in the East End of London there would be a permanent home for athletics right at its heart. To understand why this was promised, one has to remember that the International Olympic Committee is a remote bureaucracy which uses the bidding for the quadrennial games as a means of asking the wider world to explain its very existance.

Lord Coe did this very successfully. By taking 30 children from the East End of London to Singapore as part of his permitted number of delegates in July 2005, and by reminiscing about how he an Olympian was inspired by watching the 1968 Olympic Games on television, Coe created an intoxicating image of the Games as a powerful tool for moral improvement and education to a body that was once run by amateurs but now had an annual operating cost in 2006 of $83m and a staff in 2008 of 400. The Games was awarded to London because they reminded the Olympics of its own narrative.

Once the 80,000 -seater stadium was built, though, this story fell apart. Who would the cost of demounting the stadium fall on? Who would pay for the maintenance of the stadium once it had been demounted? The existing home of UK athletics, Crystal Palace, had become an expensive burden on the London Development Agency. Wouldn't this new facility be another waste? Meanwhile football clubs eyed the stadium greedily. Even Spurs who had already been given planning permission for a new ground 5 miles away were enticed. So difficult were the discussions with the local authorities around the issue of planning gain proving that demolishing large parts of the Olympic stadum and redeveloping Crystal Palace for athletics without any public subsidy would still have been preferrable to them rather than pay for improvements to their home borough.

In design terms this will leave the stadium looking like a bizarre folly - a building whose structure and appearance - as if it was built from a massive Meccano kit - evolved from its temporary usage and change of programme. This in itself was a bastardisation of the exciting progressive work of practices like Archigram in the 1960s which posited an architecture of adaptability; of super-structures into which building could be plugged into, in order to fulfil an expansive, dynamic social vision and not as is the case with the Stadium in Stratford to reconcile the strange inconsistencies in the appeal of athletics; a sport which the OPLC itself referred to as "elite".

That empty symbolism though is nothing compared to the atheltics track that has to be on display permanently at the stadium in Stratford. The International Olympic Committee, a body whose dialogue with the world is undertaken entirely through symbolism, will be happy when a circle of polyurethane-coated rubber surrounds West Ham's first game in the ground. West Ham fans will be left to curse it until the day their team finally move out of the ground or the club goes back on its promise to retain the track. Until then, they can console themselves that Sebastian Coe surely did enough to salve his conscience and secure his election as president of the International Assocation of Athletics Federation.

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Quoting psychoanalysts – and other innovative ways of coming up with lines of poetry

Three new collections of poetry – Stranger, Baby, Jackself, and Cain  test the limits of the lyric and of writing the self in extremis.

Stranger, Baby, by Emily Berry
Faber & Faber, 61pp, £10.99

Jackself, by Jacob Polley
Picador, 80pp, £9.99

Cain, by Luke Kennard
Penned in the Margins, 100pp, £9.99

Here are three new collections by poets who in various ways are testing the limits of the lyric and writing the self in extremis. The poems in Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby, concern grieving the death of one’s mother. One of the many risks that Berry runs is to be mistaken for a straightforwardly autobiographical poet. These poems frequently feel close to unmediated candour and, throughout, we seem to be in the presence of a single voice (albeit one on the brink of emotional fragmentation) and a single personality.

In fact, they are constructed of many voices and they collage quotations from a number of psychoanalysts, which may account for the way they introduce psychic tumult by striking an unnervingly matter-of-fact tone: “You must imagine it like this . . .” or “This is the body’s way of handling emotion . . .” They are at once more intelligently crafted and more saturated with feeling than most poems, refracting the loss again and again, suspicious and vigilant:

I wrote: The sea! The sea! as if that might be a solution

Didn’t we always suspect the pain of intelligent people was truly the most painful?

The sea – that timeless and inescapable symbol of the unconscious, the memory, the mother – is a near-constant presence in the book, as in “Picnic”:

Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person

I tried to do that

All that year I visited a man in a room

I polished my feelings

The striking metaphor for analysis, and Berry’s unusual angle of approach, are impressive, but the subtle sense of alienation that pervades Stranger, Baby has even more to do with her use of that slightly awkward “a person” instead of the more expected “someone”. Of course, what Berry mistrusts above all is the polishing of feelings: if grief is to be written with honesty, it must be written as the ragged, ugly trial that it is. “Drunken Bellarmine” ends with the warning:

. . . DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,

fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.

I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,

raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

Stranger, Baby is a daring, hard-won collection of poems.

I vividly remember the first time I read R F Langley’s “Man Jack”, and it still seems to me one of the most remarkable poetic creations of recent decades. Inspired by the OED’s enormous list of entries for “jack”, the poem shakes loose a new, timeless character and lets him range across English folklore and song. It begins:

So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.

And he must come along, and he must stay

close, be quick and right, your little cousin

Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on

edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn

face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the

folded leaf, the important straw. What for.

“Man Jack” is also a technical tour de force, resolving syllabics and traditional prosody into a seamless music. It would be cruel but not entirely inaccurate to say that Jacob Polley’s latest collection, the T S Eliot Prize-winning Jackself, spends 80 pages trying to do what Langley accomplished in 90 lines. Here is Jackself’s playmate Jeremy Wren:

tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren,

crouched in the corner, spitting no blood,

robust in bladder and bowel, your toes

untouched by fire or flood,

no cold wind blows

there’s hair on your feet and mint

in your groin and tonight

is milk, tomorrow cream

and the day after that

a herd that lows

from your very own

meadowland of light

The rhythms are borrowed, but at least Polley’s imagery can be relied on to transport the reader to his spooky version of northern England, where Jack Frost stalks the suburbs “wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top/winter suit”. The trouble is that it’s only a matter of time before a Literary Influence barges in and spoils it for everyone. Even if you don’t know “Man Jack”, the shades of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walter de la Mare and Marianne Moore intrude; and it is dismaying that in Polley’s fourth book Ted Hughes still acts as if he owns the place. At one point Jackself and Jeremy Wren go night-fishing in “the kidney-coloured pool/all the streams of England run into”. This reworks Hughes’s signature poem “Pike”, in which the poet night-fishes a pond “as deep as England”.

The most telling moments come when Polley confronts the question of precursors. In “The Lofts”, the timid Jackself stands among “the skeletons of past Selves” such as “Edwardself, Billself/Wulfself” but runs away scared before he can claim “the silence that was yours/by birth”. In “Snow Dad”, the more proactive Jeremy Wren makes a larger-than-life replica of his father so that he can “run clean through him/and leave a me-hole”. Sadly, we are yet to see Polley’s me-hole. His skills are beyond doubt, but his ambitions feel derivative and his last collection, 2012’s The Havocs, attempted and achieved far more than Jackself.

In Luke Kennard’s Cain the trope of the alter ego gets a more contemporary treatment: the only thing here “resplendent in the twilight” is a supermarket logo when the poet wants to buy booze. The poems tell the story of a character, “Luke Kennard”, preyed upon by the mysterious Cain, “Tutelary spirit of the fugitive and/heavenly advocate for fan fiction”. Part guru and part tormentor, Cain cajoles the poet into a series of damning self-assessments: “Self-Portrait at Primary School” begins “I was so obliging I let the weirdest, smelliest kid pick on me/because I thought it might make him feel better” and ends “And even at the time it struck me: maybe I was the dangerous one”. To some extent this is ground that Kennard has covered before, but Cain is an altogether darker creation, written from the doldrums between youth and middle-age (the stretch that people who don’t hate themselves call their “prime”).

The second section of the collection consists of 31 anagrams of Genesis 4:9-12, in which the Lord curses Cain for the murder of Abel. This generates such phrases as “Huff on that cheroot, doorman! How’s the deathshroud, honeydew? From here on all will be [Static.]”. Many of the anagrams would be almost entirely resistant to sense, but surrounding them, like exegesis bordering a sacred text, are prose glosses explaining how the Cain anagrams are in fact the product of a surreal sitcom. Written from the perspective of a rabid fan of the show, the glosses regale us with trivia, interviews with the cast and crew, and fan theories on the meaning of each anagram/episode.

The result is hilariously reflexive about the self-imposed challenges Kennard has taken up, as the anagrams howl through the language like a prisoner through the bars of his cell. It feels strange to describe a book of poems as gripping, but Cain is so profoundly funny and so profoundly sad, so inconsolably intelligent and so brilliantly vulnerable, that “gripping” is the word. 

Paul Batchelor is the director of the creative writing programme at Durham University. His poetry collection “The Sinking Road” is published by Bloodaxe

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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