East End spit 'n' polish

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 February, 2005, 12:00am

Please Drive By My Village Carefully, read the graffiti by 'existencillist' Banksy, across the disused Haggerston railway bridge in east London. Such 'Brandalism', as the subversive secret artist calls it, refers not to residential fears for road safety, but to the crop of shootings in the ongoing local drug war. One Friday, the Ode de Banksy was there, traversing the Regent's Canal. By Monday, it was gone - the bridge with it.

The same has happened to the Lee Street bridge 200 metres north, itself emblazoned with 'Free the Krays' - a reference to the infamous East End gangsters. London's East End is changing quickly, its more central quarters settled by musical and media types, its old shops now bars and bruschetta bakeries. The few Victorian terraced homes left by the Luftwaffe and 1960s planners' dreams have long been gentrified.

Now, it is the turn of the roads and railways - and their bridges - to get facelifts, part of the effort to bring the 2012 Olympics to deprived Stratford and the Lower Lea Valley.

Last week, politicians and mandarins wined and dined members from the visiting International Olympic Committee, anxious to ensure east London got the nod ahead of rival - and Olympic favourite - Paris. The IOC visit was a slap on the back for Londoners, but it also provided ample ammunition for the papers to poke fun at the French, London's best-loved sport.

While London is one-third green and open space, the pundits carped, gris Paris has but the Bois de Boulogne and a few gravelled squares with chainsmoking men in silly hats playing boules. With its interconnected villages, London has limitless character, unlike the uniform town planning of Bonaparte and Haussman.

Plus, there are all the iconic sporting venues: with archery billed for Lord's (you would think they would stage it in Bow), Hyde Park for the triathlon, Alexandra Palace for fencing, and beach volleyball outside Buckingham Palace - where fans might glean the queen's autograph.

Believe it or not, London is drier in summer than Paris, though it is a tad cooler, which athletes prefer. Finally, and perhaps more poignantly, London's pavements are not littered with the faeces of small dogs, and neither can you detect even the faintest whiff of urine.

What London does lack is good transport, the weakest link in the bid. Its railways are decrepit, tardy and overcrowded. Still, after decades of chit-chat, the much-needed East London tube extension line is finally being built, its old bridges razed, the sacred graffiti removed.

Rather fortunately, it all happened just before the IOC members arrived. Perhaps they should visit more often.