The gypsies who lost their homes to make way for the Olympics

The construction of the athletes' village broke up a community that had been on the site legally since 1972.

As athletes settle in to the Olympic Village in East London, a “home away from home” for officials and competitors, some may wonder who lived there before them. The complex now is studded with luxury flats for the 17,000 Olympic athletes and the 4,500 Paralympians who will follow them. With karaoke facilities, an on-site gym with more than 50 treadmills and a 5,000-seat dining room, the architecture has a watery theme “accentuating the closeness of the River Lea”.

The site’s previous inhabitants also prized the proximity of the Lea, as well as the meadows where they used to graze horses, the cycle track where the kids played and the hill where the older residents sat watching the horizon. More than 15 families of Gypsies had lived here legally – on land no one else wanted – since 1972, paying rent to the council and for all their utilities.

“Clays Lane weren’t much to look at,” says Esther Smith, 31, a mother of four whose extended family had lived on the site for over three decades. “But it was home. There was a strong sense of community. You had room to think.” Her cousin Lisa Smith, 36, nods. “It wasn’t like living in London. It felt very safe.”

For the Clays Lane families, the journey since London won the Olympic bid on July 6th 2005, has been one long nightmare. “The first thing we knew about it was a big notice stuck on the gate,” says Tracie Giles, a mother from Clays Lane who became a campaigner for the families evicted by the Olympics. “It was a compulsory purchase order from the London Development Agency.”

Alternative sites proposed by Newham Council horrified the residents. “They wanted to put us on Jenkins Lane, a terrible place underneath the A406 by a sewage gully and facing Burger King,” Tracie remembers. “Another one was directly under the flight path for City Airport.” For a while, the families were poised to move to Chobham Farm, next to Westfield Shopping Centre. But after months of consultation, the offer was withdrawn.

“Meanwhile, Clays Lane was getting worse,” Tracie says. “Demolition was going on all around. We were fenced in, choking with dust, surrounded by massive machinery. There was nowhere safe for the kids to play.

Backed by the London Gypsy and Traveller Unit, Tracie and the other families fought the closure of Clays Lane with a legal challenge in the high court and a judicial review. “I really thought we’d win,” Tracie says. “But we didn’t. They said we were moving to Parkway Crescent.” In July 2007, five months after the building work had begun, families were given a month’s notice to move. “We packed up all our belongings,” Tracie says. “The council cut off the street lighting and stopped the postman coming. But still we didn’t move.” Their leaving date was postponed 11 times. “The new site wasn’t ready. We were prisoners on a building site.”

The families finally moved in mid-October 2007. “I remember waking up the last morning,” Tracie says. I just felt this huge sense of loss, looking at all the empty pitches.” The new site was next to the athlete’s entrance to the Olympic complex, surrounded by busy roads. Each family had a pitch with space to put a caravan and a ‘shed’ – a prefabricated block with a bathroom and kitchen.

“The water comes in the windows when it rains, the rain was coming in the front door,” Esther Smith says. “The boiler went, I had a water leak that went on for months. Plug sockets were held on by an elastic band. Baths aren’t sealed properly. There’s no privacy. The tube runs underneath – it’s so loud!”

Tracie’s sister Lisa shakes her head. “We’ve been four and a half years now living on Europe’s biggest building site. I’m 36, and I feel 100. I’m out of breath. Two minutes after you’ve cleaned it’s dusty again. Kids round here have developed asthma. The stress has been unbelievable. Just for two weeks of sport.

“I was happy about London getting the Olympics, but we haven’t been treated right as a community. They wouldn’t have done it to any other people. No-one’s even offered us a free ticket.”

Once the Olympics and Paralympics end, Parkway Crescent will be prime land for legacy development. “We’ve never been given a permanent licence, they’ve just kept renewing a temporary one for four and a half years,” Tracie says. “Will we get moved somewhere even worse?”

Newham Council declined to comment on the families’ future at the site or their experiences since being forced to move from Clays Lane. Elsewhere, speaking about the Athletes' Village, British Olympic medallist Colin Jackson called it “the heart and soul of everything… a place that you feel comfortable, where you feel there’s a sense of belonging.” Five years after London won the bid for the Olympic Games, the Clays Lane Gypsies can still only dream of such a place.

 

The athletes' village at the Olympic Park in East London. Photograph: Getty Images

Ros Wynne-Jones writes about poverty in the UK and abroad for the Daily Mirror and The Independent.

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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain