Features

London Olympics echoes to Dickensian footsteps

May 29, 2012

The Grapes pub on the Thames in east London, not far from the Olympic Park. — Reuters picThe Grapes pub on the Thames in east London, not far from the Olympic Park. — Reuters picLONDON, May 29 — Not far from the Olympic Park, a pub called The Grapes leans over the River Thames like “a faint-hearted diver who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all”.

It is hardly the image of sporting prowess but the place, conjured by Charles Dickens, underpins important historical context for the 2012 Games and a reality that endures.

The characters who visited this tavern “of dropsical appearance” in the 1860s novel “Our Mutual Friend”, lived in the parts of London where 2012 will be staged, and included archetypes like the people in “The adventures of Oliver Twist” — young innocents and scoundrels living rough lives.

A few streets from the pub, beneath the docklands railway, Dickens scholar Tony Williams shows a reporter a trim terrace of whitewashed houses.

Limehouse, the part of the London docklands where Dickens used to visit his godfather, who had a home there. — Picture courtesy of thelondondocklands.comLimehouse, the part of the London docklands where Dickens used to visit his godfather, who had a home there. — Picture courtesy of thelondondocklands.comThis part of London — Limehouse — was where Dickens’ godfather, who made rigging for ships, had a home. When Charles came to visit he called in on a nearby lead mill that employed mainly women — poisoning some — a children’s hospital, and various households.

Such places today are within sight of the pyramid-topped tower of London’s financial powerhouse Canary Wharf, and attract valuations comparable to the financial district of Manhattan.

That puts them out of reach of most people, especially residents of the boroughs that are hosting the Games. Here, up to one in two children live in poverty, according to local council data.

Unemployment in Newham, one of the poorest boroughs, is nearly 45 per cent — the highest rate in the country. Life expectancy is about two years below the UK average; Newham has Britain’s highest rate of tuberculosis diagnoses.

London is full of memories of Victorian England, an era of dramatic extremes of wealth and poverty. A short walk through east London in the company of Dickens brings to mind a world whose poverty and squalor the author exposed more than 150 years ago; poverty which has only partially been redressed.

Hallsville cesspools

In Dickens’ time, east London was foul. The Metropolitan Building Act of 1844 had pushed toxic industries like leather tanning, varnish-making and gas works to the east.

There was also a big problem with sewage. Olympics spectators who walk a route known as the Greenway to get to the Park will stride over the solution to that. The path is part of a network that was finally constructed after the stench became intolerable in parliament.

At Canning Town, a couple of train stops south of Olympic Park, the area’s potential collides with a Dickensian past. It is still the poorest part of Newham.

In 1857 the slum featured in “Household Words”, a weekly journal that Dickens edited and published. Part of the low-lying area was known as Hallsville.

“It is a district ... most safely to be explored on stilts,” the journal says. A clergyman “once lost his shoes in the mud while visiting Hallsville, and did not know that they were gone till some time afterwards; so thickly were his feet encased in knobs of mud”.

On a drier day, the main characteristic of the place was its cesspools, undrained and pestilential, in the backyards of cheap terraced houses.

“In one of the backyards, three ghostly little children lying on the ground, hung with their faces over it, breathing the poison of the bubbles as it rose, and fishing about with their hands in the filth for something — perhaps for something nice to eat.”

Dickens was a radical, Williams says.

“The greatest thing he hated to see was people being indifferent or just ignorant about where there was a need to be met — and particularly where that affected children.”

When Dickens was a child, education of any kind was only for the privileged: he spent several years roaming the streets, and had to work in a boot-polish factory when his father was jailed for debts.

Cockroach and carpet

Emerge from Canning Town station today and the whiff is more likely one of tar from a passing truck carrying material to a building site. As you head for Hallsville, a newly built apartment block rises opposite a disused transport depot marked for regeneration.

But housing remains a problem. In 2009 almost one in five households in Newham was overcrowded — having at least one room less than needed. Around half were below the standard known as decent, and many are privately owned and rented out for more than they are worth.

“Something nice to eat” can still be hard to come by, especially fresh fruit and vegetables. Shops selling only frozen or dried goods survive better in poor areas, and in Newham, the lowest-paid earned less than anywhere else in London in 2007-09.

“We talk about a ‘food desert’ in some areas,” said Rachel Laurence, who works with a child poverty network for the charity Save the Children.

Hallsville Primary School still exists. On a rainy April morning, a teacher leads a class past green fields out through spiky metal gates, on their way to a swimming lesson.

“Wowee what a fannetastic school,” reads a review on Google maps. The school was rated “outstanding” by the British schools inspector in 2008.

Inside, one of the first sights are more than 30 trophies and plaques for sports, and large brightly coloured models of London landmarks. A bicycle wheel stuck with knobs like those used on cupboard doors represents the millennium wheel in Westminster.

The plaque commemorating a cheerleading prize says “Be the best you can be”.

Keri Edge, who has been head teacher for 12 years, says just over half of the 450 or so pupils are eligible for free school meals — a measure of poverty.

Problems they contend with are broken homes, overcrowding, a lack of routine, broken sleep patterns, poor diet, and a lack of human contact because relatives spend too much time on smart phones or tech toys.

Edge finds it charming that Dickens knew about her school. But she wants to emphasise how modern children can be deprived whether or not they are poor, particularly if they are left “with just a Wii for company”.

The classrooms hum with calm activity. In the nursery, a boy and a girl measure minutes with sand timers. In the corridors, the pupils move from class to class in silent crocodiles. “Lovely manners,” the teachers say. The 10-year-olds are working on a story. One has written of “a melodious sombre composition so sweet it would turn a devil into an angel”.

Around the corner, just outside the school fence, is a burned-out car. — Reuters

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