LONDON 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
This 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
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
Unemployment in Newham, one of the poorest boroughs, is
nearly 45 percent - 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.
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
"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
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
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 2007-9.
"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
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
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)