Saturday, 5 October 2013

An Olympian effort

I’m not sure what the ethics are of reviewing a book that you’ve contributed to, but what the hell – I’m going to anyway. Besides, my contribution to From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea amounts to two pages out of 200, so I reckon I can still be reasonably objective.

FTSOOTTBOTL (as no one is calling it) is the first book from the team behind the late lamented Smoke: A London Peculiar, a lovingly produced magazine that was effectively a fanzine for London. It stopped publishing a couple of years ago, but lives on as a website, and this is the first of what will hopefully be a series of books.

The subject, in case you hadn’t guessed, is last year’s Olympics, as seen through the Smoke prism; that is, tangentially, quirkily, occasionally movingly, but usually with a certain wry humour. Contributions include short stories, autobiographical snippets, reportage, poetry, cartoons, photography and unclassifiable snippets of silliness. (Special plaudits for the footnotes, by the way, which are simultaneously useful and splendidly daft.) None lasts more than a few pages.

This isn’t a book about the Games, as such: it’s a compendium of Londoners’ reactions to hosting the event, starting with the award of the Olympics in 2005 and ending in late 2012. The Games themselves don’t feature a great deal, so if you want to read about running and swimming and stuff, this isn’t the book for you.

Certain themes recur. The early section of the book is heavy with a bittersweet nostalgia for the area of East London that had to be razed in order to create the Olympic Park, however rough and down-at-heel it may have been. Co-editor Matt Haynes lives in Greenwich, so there’s a lot of material (possibly a tad too much) about the disruption caused by staging the equestrian events in this genteel village, and the outrage felt by the locals at the prospect of horses churning up the grass in their park. Later, there are various musings on the cultural collisions between Londoners and the influx of foreign athletes and spectators. If there is an overall theme, it is that of habitually cynical Londoners learning to relax and enjoy the spectacle.

Matt and his fellow editor, Jude Rogers, wrote a sizable proportion of the pieces, which does occasionally make it feel like a vanity project. Then again, they were probably short of suitable contributions – which might explain why they included mine, an autobiographical sketch with only the most tangential connection to the Olympics. No matter; I’m glad they did, and honoured to be part of such an unusual, and enjoyable, anthology.

To find out how to get hold of a copy, click here. You won’t regret it.

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