Film: What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? East London Before The Olympics.

Categorised as ART., FILM.

Long before the reknowned Olympic Stadium was even a twinkle on the landscape’s eye, before the area was momentarily the centre of the world’s gaze and only mere weeks before the success of London’s bid to hold the 2012 Olympic Games. 2005, Lea Valley was nothing but a deserted wasteland of London’s derilict industry, poor housing and a victim of decades of neglect and social immobility. Understanding that this unique (to London at least) environment would be irreversibly changed in just a matter of a few short years the Barbican comissioned film-maker Paul Kelly and Saint Etienne to create a documentary of the area with a live soundtrack. 

The real key to understanding this documentary is to understand that the Olympic area, back in 2005, was a properly derelict area, there were no hipsters roaming about the streets on fixed gear bikes in a playful celebration of its industrial past. It was at its lowest ebb, flats were beginning to be built on the Hackney Wick side, which was the first sign that the area would once again become re-habitable in a couple of years, its gentrification to the picture you see today has been that rapid. Bob Stanley (Saint Etienne) recalls his impressions of the area:

“It was eerily beautiful and romantic in its dereliction. Families of swans nesting in the rusting hulks of dumped cars; somewhere in an empty dock were the remains of the Euston Arch; half-finished flyovers led nowhere. We found Dominion Tiles, a vast warehouse loaded with stock that dated back to the sixties, not because it was vintage and collectable but simply because it had been sat there for forty years and no one had bought it. The only housing estate in the lower Lea Valley was the seventies-built, clammy-red brick Clays Lane estate, down a service road and completely isolated from the rest of the area – it had its own shuttle bus to take residents to Stratford, and the nearest shops and tube station. In the whole Olympic site there were only two privately owned houses. Everywhere, there were pylons.”

Whilst there may have been a great deal of scepticism at the time about the claims the Olympic committee made as to the regeneration of the area, the legacy and even the Games themselves there was still, at the time at least, a sense that this would be good for the area; a huge drive in municipal housing, the scale of which was unseen for decades, new transport links, creation of wealth and opportunity in an area that, recalls Stanley, “looked more like wartime Sarajevo than peacetime London”. Watching this documentary you are treated to a sense of that need, that sense of isolation that permeates through the winding, forgotten roadways.

Yet little of that social promise has been realised, residents of what would become the Olympic site were moved on, removed from their geographic home, rather than invited to engage in its future. “Listening to the excitable voices of local residents we interviewed for Mervyn Day, proud that the Olympics would be on their doorstep in seven years time, I feel a little uncomfortable Looking back at this documentary now.” After the euphoria of the games it’s impossible not to see the parallels that this film now presents, that wasteland once lingered for years in a state of neglect and limbo, retreating from technological peak to ruin, scarcely sustaining a population. Will the same fate will befall the Olympic park? Will we look back in decades to come and see a similar picture of England’s decline from international infamy, this time because of short-sighted “dream projects”?

‘…Mervyn Day’ is limited to 1500 copies. It comes as a double disc set which includes a DVD of the film plus a CD of the OST by Saint Etienne. It also comes with a 16 page booklet with stills from the film and an essay about it’s making by Bob Stanley.

Order here: 

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