WHAT THE CRITICS SAID : REVIEWS OF ‘ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACK’

‘From its delirious counter-factual opening, through a cavalcade of arguing and asserting voices, a necessary, intelligent, and balanced response to a moment of local and national hallucination is achieved. If the book works, the Olympic madness can serve a useful purpose: in making us look harder at ourselves and the place where we have chosen to live.   Iain Sinclair

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Phil Cohen’s cantankerous, meticulous, jam-packed investigation of the coming of the 2012 Olympic Games to East London, On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics (Lawrence & Wishart),took me by surprise. It is the kind of guide to presentday  Spectacle I had been waiting for. Back in the 1960s, Cohen was the most brilliant of the early English readers of French Freud and the structuralists. I remember pages of his impatient handwriting peppered with Lacanian algorithms aiming to reconcile, or at least analogize, the structures of unconscious repression with differential class language use, and hence (this was the ambition) with the epoch’s emergent youth subcultures .Already at that point Cohen was deeply involved with the East End. He was fascinated and horrified by the psychic landscape thrown up as London’s classic working-class neighborhoods—the tight worlds of Hackney, Stratford East, and Bethnal Green—fell apart. He thought they might turn out to be the terrain of a new class struggle. On the Wrong Side of the Track? is at one level a continuation of that old inquiry. Partly it is a study of last year’s implantation of the Spectacle of Sport in (of all places) this wrecked and polluted proletarian non-site. The book, unsurprisingly, is no friend of Olympic puffery: Its two-chapter analysis of movie director Danny Boyle’s opening ceremonies is unsparing. But partly Cohen’s volume is a call—directed very much at people like me, who left town in a hurry as the Olympic torch fumed closer—for an end to dismissive generalizations about Spectacle, and the start of real “ethnographical” work trying to understand what the arrival and departure of such quasi-events do to a social fabric, and how Spectacle is perceived and resisted in practice by those whose world it invades. As the Brazil World Cup approaches (through clouds of tear gas), Cohen’s book is required reading.   T.J.Clark Art Forum

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Academic and writer Phil Cohen has been taking the pulse of east London and its Essex hinterland for a long time now, so the 2012 Olympics provided him with the perfect observation deck for a new series of thoughts as to the likely shape and future of the territory in the years to come.  Complex though some of his formulations are, he is always worth attending to, and in his latest collection of essays, On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics (2013), he gathers together what is in many ways an East London version of Humphrey Jennings’ great work, Pandaemonium, which was the inspiration behind the Olympic opening ceremony created by Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce.  A mixture of ethnography, documentary, oral history, cultural theory and sporting politics, Cohen ranges widely across the disciplines to try to understand what lies ahead for 21st century London east of the Lea.  Ken Worpole

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‘Written since the Games ended Phil Cohen’s On The Wrong Side of the Track? locates legacy claims firmly in the social and geographical context of East London. This was where the regeneration was supposed to take place, acting as a leveller between the city’s tourist and retail mecca, the West End, and the depressed East End. Beautifully written, with an uncanny eye for cultural detail Phil’s book is a powerful response to the overblown myths and broken promises of the Olympian legacy agenda’. Mark Perryman

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Phil Cohen’s masterly book is anchored in an enormous body of literature that ranges from architecture, history and sociology to economics, planning and poetry. It embraces a wide range of methodologies, including many interviews with local residents and with workers who created the infrastructure and buildings of the Olympic site. It is enriched theoretically by its author’s long experience of and very broad take on ‘cultural studies’. Some three dozen, full-colour illustrations from local photographers and artists are included, and three visual essays are posted on Cohen’s website to supplement the images in his book. Appearing in the spring of 2013, both author and publisher worked with remarkable speed to produce this impressive – and well-priced – book that deserves to reach and be appreciated by a very wide readership. Hugh Clout  Cercles

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Of the many books, reports and articles that have been and will be written about the 2012 Olympics, it is unlikely that any author will match Phil Cohen’s passion for and knowledge of East London.. the strength of the book lies is in Cohen’s determination to hear the voices of people going to school, working in and living around the Olympic Park and to listen attentively to their suspicions, fears and aspirations without shoe-horning them into a simple narrative of disenfranchisement and despondency.  European Journal of Communication  Studies

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Cohen is most impressive in analyzing the spectacle of the Olympics/ Paralympics, and in particular in decoding Danny Boyle’s  ‘Isle of Wonders’ opening ceremony. He describes the gulf between the classical Olympic ideals and the commercialism of modern sport; the irony that the rise and veneration of elite athletes has been accompanied by a decline of popular sporting participation; and, very importantly, he recognizes that sport has become a proxy for politics, a ‘simulacrum of the plebiscitary forms of direct democracy’ dissimulating active participation in the public realm. George Morgan  Space and Society

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Cohen’s   flair for  social observation, coupled with extensive personal insight derived from longstanding  involvement in the area  have allowed him to produce a   memorable book that places issues of        Olympism and legacy in  a truly rounded  perspective.The book is a major contribution that may be profitably read  by anyone interested in where     the Olympic project is ultimately headed. John Gold  Sport and History

A brilliant analysis of London 2012, a benchmark for future sport event and legacy studies

Scholarly books dealing with the Olympics and other sports mega-events, especially those dealing with specific Olympic Games or tournaments, tend to have a common format. The author(s) often adopt a pro- or anti-Games position (there is seldom any middle ground), explore the financing and levels of disruption/development (depending on the degree of pro- or anti-orientation) associated with the Games and their staging, reflect on the ‘legacy’ of the Games, consider the various forms of mediated engagements and may make some effort to evaluate the politics (usually institutional) of the events. There are, of course, from time to time variations to this rule, such as Jules Boykoff’s discussions of anti-Olympic activism, but for the most part the format is fairly similar and driven by the conventions of social scientific writing and an emerging orthodoxy in the form of argument.

The first thing to note about Phil Cohen’s excellent On the Wrong Side of the Track? is that he does not adopt this form of argument and neither does he adopt the rigidities of a pro- and anti-Games position. The book is structured as a dialogue between two narratives: in the first we have the stories London (including the East End) tells itself (and the world) about the East End, while in the second we have a more fluid arrangement of the stories the planning for, development of venues for and two weeks of the 2012 Olympics told about the East End/London/England/UK and the talking back from the East End to the dominant London narrative. The evidence Cohen draws on for these multiple, interweaving and overlapping narratives is extensive – ethnographic work over several years in East London communities, close engagement with the Olympic Park workforce, analyses of the various opening and closing ceremonies as well as cultural work (visual and other arts, literary texts and other ways we make manifest our imagined communities). At the heart of this analysis, however, is narrative – the stories told by and about London and its component parts. The focus in this case is the various ways various narratives of London, including those of its Olympics, imagine, construct, present and explain the city’s east as a wild, disruptive, disorganising, stable, deep-rooted, community network oriented component in a city where these narratives incorporate and run across stories told by Power (the dominant ideals of west and central London).

These dialogues between narratives allow Cohen to step beyond the pro- and anti-Olympic dichotomy to develop what he calls a Para-Olympic perspective, while acknowledging the difficulty of the prefix as meaning beyond or outside as well as subordinate and irregular or dysfunctional. By working through these etymological tensions Cohen presents Para-Olympic approaches as a form of ‘third-space’, as fully and properly dialectical, not dealing with either/or but with dialogue, struggle and contradiction (in the philosophical-but-not-quite-Hegelian sense). He therefore argues that in Olympic studies this Para-Olympic approach demands that the conventional analyses, the pro- and anti-, the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ legacies, the panoptic of “forensic social science” (p21) must be put aside to consider the relations between and within the experience as a means to get a hold of what is actually going on. This dialectical approach therefore makes this book far more fluid and engaged with the subtleties of the Games as experienced and as narrative than are many of the more common and increasingly conventional Olympic (and other mega-event) analyses.

This exploration of multiple economies is further extended through analyses of mediatised economies along a number of tropes.

A significant strength of the book is Cohen’s attention to the work of the Olympics (other readers will find other vital foci; the voices of East Enders and the priority given to their narratives is one many are likely to celebrate). The emphasis on work-as-labour in this dialectical approach allows Cohen to consider the contradictions between the labour of venue construction and the labour of the athletes who will perform in those venues, as well as the tensions between and mimetic characteristics of the ideals of masculinity associated with the physical labour of construction and the masculinities associated with physicality of sports performance. This dialectical approach also opens up exciting approaches to the economics of the Olympics (and by implication other sporting mega-events) through discussions of the relative characteristics of the market economy of the games and their moral economy leading to a suggestion that there is an Olympic compact between three forms of economic cultures – one of endowment, a hospitality culture and an enterprise culture. This exploration of multiple economies is further extended through analyses of mediatised economies along a number of tropes. This is a rich, nuanced and complex but not complicated analysis that bears multiple revisits.

Cohen suggests that for those interested specifically in the London games rather than the larger questions of multiple narratives of London can avoid (as in not bother to read) the first three chapters exploring London’s narratives of the East End. He is, of course, right, these chapters can be avoided but at the expense of a fuller understanding of his analyses of the moral and cultural economies of the Games and of the dialogue between narratives involved in his discussion of both sets of opening and closing ceremonies; passing over the first three chapters is likely to result in a reading of the Games’ narratives in national terms rather than the much more localised reading of the spaces and places lived in by people before, during and after the Games.

In addition to the book, there is extensive material available on-line including picture galleries and documents in support of the analysis and discussion; the book is well illustrated with high production standards (which may well have added a bit to the cost, but it is well worth it).

This excellent exploration of what Ken Worpole (in the blurb) has called “the cargo cult known as the 2012 Olympics” challenges other analysts to break away from the forensic empiricism of conventional social science and adopt a more dialectical approach to consider the lived experiences of the Games. There is, of course, still a place for close empiricist analyses, especially in the economic and related discussions, but without attention to Cohen’s narrative oriented, Para-Olympic framework our understandings of not only the Olympics but other sporting mega-events as well will remain deficient. We can only hope to see similar analyses of this year’s Sochi shenanigans and recent and forthcoming extravaganzas in Rio and elsewhere in Brazil.

Malcolm MacLean University of Gloucestershire Journal of International Journal of Sport,Culture and  Leisure

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The enduring puzzle I have since starting this book is the title – why track rather than tracks? It goes without saying that the reference is not simply to the sprinting and other tracks that made up the Olympic Games but – presumably – to the very visible railway tracks that run through Stratford in East London. The bridge which straddles the railway line at Stratford station marks a dividing line between the ‘new’ and ‘old’ East London. To the west is the new Westfield shopping centre with its aspirational stores and the site of the 2012 Olympic games where the athletes’ village is now being converted into similarly aspirational homes for those desperate to buy into London’s red hot housing market. To the east is the ‘old’ 1970s shopping centre with its pound shops and very different ethnic, class and generational demographic of what has always been one of the poorest three local authority areas in the United Kingdom. I have a feeling though that the track refers not only to more forms of track – notably a musical one but also to the idea of a single track mind. Nobody could accuse the author of having one of them given the manner in which he unpicks the multidimensionality of what has largely been promoted as a single track story of regeneration.

I am therefore still scratching my head about what exactly is the book’s subject – and that is intended as a compliment rather than a criticism. Self-evidently, this is not simply a book about those on their way up and those on their way down to which a crude spatiality can be attached – though that is largely the case. Phil Cohen has long practised a synthetic approach to social analysis combining a number of genres in his writing; his earlier work on youth culture (my favourite being Knuckle Sandwich) brought together cultural studies, youth studies and sociology into a critical ethnography against what was rapidly becoming the emerging orthodoxy of the new deviancy approach to criminology. For the last quarter of a century Cohen’s research has been on East London; the Olympics were clearly too good a gift horse to look in the mouth and he has been able to use it as a peg on which to hang a stimulatingly original analysis of how ‘rolled out neo liberalism’ has taken hold of an area that symbolized old-style capitalist urban development. The story is one in which capital gets its way at the expense of people in the transformation of a part of London that has continued to house more poor people than any other part of this rapidly gentrifying city. The irony, which comes out in Cohen’s story, is of course that many of those who pay the cost of this go along with it and not simply because they learned to sing the Olympic song. The book weaves together mainstream social science with cultural analysis into an account of the transformation of East London from monoethnic working class quarter of London to what it has become today. What this is remains – to me at least – unclear: certainly not mono ethnic, probably no longer working class but still poor. East London – as ever – remains living proof of the victory of cultural geography over any easy physical or social definitions of this north eastern segment of London. If cultural geography did not exist, it would have to have been invented to encompass what we understand by East London and  Cohen is well qualified to move this analysis into the 21st century.

What we have is a book of two parts in which the decision in 2005 to stage the 2012 Olympic Games in East London is the watershed dividing a ‘before’ and ‘after’.  Broadly the book is concerned with the ‘during’  which is taken up by the seven years it took to plan, construct and deliver the Olympics. The Olympics are therefore no more than a device to describe what would almost certainly have happened anyway in a rather more humdrum and less dramatic fashion. Even in 2005 the planning permission to build the Westfield shopping centre at Stratford was the most detailed ever presented to a London borough at a time when a series of other infrastructure and development projects had already been assaulting what was London’s last ungentrified quarter. In the first part of the book, Cohen charts this story of how East London has been changing  since the 1970s with the collapse of manufacturing and the riverside industries that sustained it from the end of the nineteenth century through much of the twentieth. His account focuses on issues of work, class and ethnicity and how a white working class saw itself being usurped from what it had come to believe was its rightful place in the city. At the same time, Cohen shows how new ethnicities (get it?) were emerging across the territory. In the second part of the book, the focus changes to illuminating how this changing landscape became part of an official narrative – some might call it policy – of regeneration which made a virtue of the inevitable. It has all perhaps come together in the rhetoric surrounding the emerging E20 – London’s newest postcode.

This is, of course, not a panglossian celebration of what has happened to East London but neither is it a strident book. Cohen brings his own mix of sociology, cultural studies, geography and psychoanalysis and a juxtaposition of methods to bear on what has happened to a part of the city that has a long history of being ‘done unto’. His characters are for the most part the victims many of whom have nevertheless at the same time found their own accommodations with change. Often this involves an element of grudging consent even by those most affected for the worst. There is little sense that the outcome will be better but there is also a realization that things cannot go on as they were and that, on the whole, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Even the white supremacist kids with whom Cohen undertakes extensive ethnographies seem to recognize that the present and future are different from what their dads said it was and they had better get on with it. Charles Rutheiser in Imagineering Atlanta used the Olympics to understand how the Atlanta Games accentuated the inequalities inherent in the city and stopped his account before the opening ceremony, so too Cohen’s book is about East London and not the 2012 games. Both Rutheiser and Cohen have used their studies to show how the games were embedded in and reinforced the enduring fault lines in the ‘host’ cities which criss-cross class and ethnicity. Cohen also shows how London behaves like an A list celebrity who believes it has to indulge in the Olympic game if it is to survive as a city in which the success of the few comes at the expense of the many. If there is a ‘take home’ message from the book it is in the closing line which quotes from Samuel Becket ‘ Try. Fail. No matter. Try again. Fail better’ (p363). Tim Butler King’s College London   Environment and Planning D