According to a family legend, I first went to Upton Park as a babe in my granddad’s arms. I certainly remember going to West Ham when I was about 5 and from 8 or 9 until my mid-teens, I was a loyal supporter. When my granddad moved to Essex I joined him watching Colchester United and not long after, started playing rugby, which distracted me for the next 20 years, but I’ve never lost my emotional attachment to West Ham. I made a failed attempt to indoctrinate my daughter into following them and although I’ve become very disillusioned with professional football, I’ve carried on going to games at Upton Park, more for reasons of cultural identity and nostalgia than because I’m particularly interested in who wins.
The announcement that West Ham are moving to the Olympic Stadium marks the latest stage in the social and geographic transformation of football, east London and the city as a whole. When I watched West Ham in the mid 1970s, virtually every member of the team came from the local area and most played for the club for years. The crowd was overwhelmingly male, white and working class. We queued for hours before the game, paid 50 pence to get in (sometimes the men on the turnstiles would let two in for the price of one), stood on grotty terraces in a ground that, like the smell in the urinals, had barely changed in a generation and the Salvation Army band played ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’. Today the West Ham team mostly comprises journeymen players and only one local. I don’t think the social demographic of the crowd has changed that much, but there are definitely more women and non-white faces and judging by the imprecise science of accents and clothing, middle class fans, the latter a clear reflection of the average admission price of 50 pounds. We arrive for the game carrying swipe card tickets ten minutes before kick-off, visit the sweet-smelling toilets and go to our seats just in time for the hyper-ventilating announcer to play a recording of ‘Bubbles’ at the wrong tempo (which is then repeated, gratuitously, at half time). Over the years, most of the stadium has been post-modernised, including a vulgar facade. corporate hospitality boxes where the uber-New Labour Mayor of Newham can be found shmoozing and a hotel where, bizarrely, I once attended a funeral. Not all of these changes are bad. The pervasive, if mostly symbolic, sense of tribal violence has virtually gone and while the racism sometimes feels more disguised than eradicated, Bengali and Pakistani East Enders can go about there Green Street business without threats or abuse – and some of them come to the game.
In many ways, the West Ham of my childhood is long gone, but moving to the cordon sanitaire of the Olympic Park represents a decisive shift. The motif of ‘community’ is far too hackneyed (no pun intended) to be applied to a football team, but that wont stop the West Ham owners (who both, incidentally but significantly, have a business background in pornography) from claiming that they are preserving the tradition of the club. The club, like others, has moved before and it could be argued that it will still be in its homeland, but I think this is to misunderstand the spatial quality of the Olympic stadium and the reasons for moving to it. Like most other UK football grounds, Upton Park is part of the fabric of a working class neighbourhood, surrounded by housing, pubs, shops and schools. The enduring poverty in the areas around mega-rich Premiership football clubs like West Ham gives the lie to the nonsense of ‘sports-led regeneration’, but the artificial, soulless, controlled surroundings of the Olympic park has a similar lack of identity or distinctive character as an airport. West Ham’s owners hope this anodyne environment and improved transport links will attract a wider layer of more affluent ‘customers’ from further afield. Beyond this, the multi-millionaire owners are exploiting the government’s difficulty in producing a ‘legacy’ in an ill-planned, mis-designed stadium by becoming tenants with a massive tax payer subsidy, including a £40 million loan from Newham Council, one of the poorest in the country. Presumably the current ground will be sold to private property developers to build homes that few local people will be able to afford. At a time when poor people are having their living standards attacked in the name of controlling public spending, it’s grotesque.
If West Ham manage to fill the stadium, the club will almost certainly be sold for a huge private profit, but this scenario depends on the inconvenient truth of them winning games of football, something they don’t have a reliable record of doing. The words of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ perfectly capture the sporting and social history of West Ham and may yet describe the move from east London to east Nowhere.
‘They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky
Then like my dreams
They fade and die’