Borrow, build, abandon

A haunting new photography exhibition captures an Olympic legacy abandoned.

Jamie McGregor Smith has a thing for empty spaces.  In the past, the British photographer has taken his camera to derelict environs as diverse as Detroit’s auto factories, Laybourne Grange’s abandoned lunatic asylum and Stoke-on-Trent’s forsaken pottery industry. He documents the decaying, the crumbling, the once useful  - now forgotten.

Recently, it is the un-peopled post-Olympic structures of the 2004 Athens Games that have attracted his attention. In a new project titled Borrow, Build, Abandon – now on display in London – he turns his gaze on the city’s failed exercise in legacy planning; a site that now sits almost entirely disused, accruing disrepair - a home for rogue vegetation, graffiti, even drying laundry. As journalist Helena Smith wrote after a visit last May, “Athens's Olympic park, once billed as one of the most complete European athletics complexes, is no testimony to past glories. Instead, it is indicative of misplaced extravagance, desolation and despair.”

McGregor Smith’s documentary series explores this legacy of destitution: “Eight years after the games came to a close,” he writes. “Only three of the 22 Olympic stadiums, built at a cost of $15 Billion, are currently in public use, the remaining requiring an annual £100 million in upkeep costs.”

Lessons on Olympic legacy, highlighted by the Barcelona and Sydney games, were shadowed in Greece’s case by pressures of completion and a delayed three-year construction timeline. Caused by political intervention and government elections, this rush for completion allowed little thought for post game usage and trebled its construction budget.

In  of our own moment of post-Olympic splendour, it’s no surprise that a photographer of Smith’s disposition was drawn to Athens. The product of political floundering, budget cuts and a lack of foresight, the buildings are a government’s failing embodied, and an example of what McGregor Smith calls industrial entropy – “the forces that effect the transition and the decay of matter and energy in a broader sense, evolving economic trends and industrial stability – a change that is natural and unavoidable.”

He further elaborates:

In the years of sovereign debt crisis, these white elephants of peer pressured national pride, much like the factory shells in defunct industrial cities, are testament to humans continued failure to comprehend inevitable entropic social change. We need to consider the possibility that all human construction in the future could have the technology of functional adaptation.

The work hopes to achieve an appreciation of aesthetic architectural qualities, in cohesion with their contextual relationship to the societies they were constructed for and by. In the cases of abandonment the effect of their power, achievement and status on human landscape, equally exaggerates their failure, in the context of their functional disestablishment.

With Boris Johnson at the helm of the London Legacy Development Corporation, permanent tenants secured for seven of the eight Olympic venues and a promise “to promote and deliver physical, social, economic and environmental regeneration in the Olympic Park and surrounding area”, legacy planning is undoubtedly an issue that London 2012 has enthusiastically addressed.

And yet these portraits – stark, unyielding, silent - are a curious reminder of an evolution that is often beyond our control. We can build it, but can we master it? We’ll wait and see.

Borrow, Build, Abandon: Athenian Adventures in Concrete Steel is Jamie McGregor Smith's first solo show; now on at the Print House Gallery, 18 Ashwin Street, London E8 until 3 October.

 

(All photographs courtesy of Jamie McGregor Smith)

An olympic stadium in Athens sits empty. (PHOTO: Jamie McGregor Smith)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue