This piece was written in October 2011, when it was becoming increasingly clear that a cable car really was being built across the Thames from North Greenwich (home of the O2 Arena, famed for its pop concerts) to Canning Town (home of the Excel exhibition centre, famed for its arms fairs). More specifically, it was written two days after Defence Secretary Liam Fox had been forced to resign over his odd – even for a Tory MP – relationship with lobbyist Adam Werritty. The Olympics was on the horizon too, of course. And, just for the record, current hourly usage of the cable car (Jan 2016) is mostly in double figures.
So, this cable car. You know, the one they’re building to connect the end of one of the service roads behind the Excel Centre to somewhere within reasonable walking distance of the Dome – that one. It’s been in the press again lately because the escalating costs – by which I mean the constantly rising prices, not how much you’ll be charged for using the escalators (providing sponsors can be found, no one will have to pay to go on the escalators) – have led people to start questioning the general value-for-money-ness and raison d’être-ness of the whole project, given that:
(a) Excel is on the Docklands Light Railway, North Greenwich is on the Jubilee Line, and Canning Town is on both and has escalators connecting the two (free escalators, I again emphasise; nobody, absolutely nobody, is – at this stage – suggesting we’re going to be charged for using the escalators); it’s a five-minute journey.
(b) there’s very little overlap between those who love Dolly Parton and those who love cluster bombs, as the following Venn diagram demonstrates.
Sorry, is it just me, or does that look a bit like… no, OK, it’s just me. Though I might give it a different title later.
Where was I?
Ah, yes. My point was going to be that, in the ongoing debate, the question I really want to ask is a much more basic one than “What’s it for?” or “Is it worth it?”. What I want to say is: “Sorry, they’re building a fucking CABLE CAR in GREENWICH – a cable car???” Which admittedly isn’t, syntactically speaking, a question, but I challenge any of you to say it without your intonation rising at the end like you’re a sixteen-year-old Australian who’s just sat on her mother’s much-fingered figurine of Jason Donovan in his pomp.
Because this really isn’t just another misguided pitch by the Norfolk Mountain Railway Company, or the people behind the Inverness Solar-Powered Ski Lift, these are genuine plans for a genuine cable car. Like the one that rises to the top of Table Mountain, a kilometre above Cape Town’s blistered streets. Or the Caracas Aerial Tramway, swooping through the wooded ranges that ring Venezuela’s capital city. Or the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway in Takayama, which dandles those with a head for heights over the third-tallest peak in Japan.
Just like those. Only in Newham.
So… it’s an idiotic idea, yes? The accidental by-product of some all-too-literal blue-sky-burbling by bumbling Boris?
Heck. I’m not so sure. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fellow to carry any sort of torch for our esteemed mayor – I wouldn’t know what he’d been doing with it, for one thing. And a cable car is, on the face of it, just as big a misuse of public funds as the impending Borismaster. TfL claims that it will connect local communities by carrying up to 2,500 people an hour across the river in each direction, something that would otherwise take 30 buses an hour to achieve, but… this seems highly specious, given there aren’t any local communities and no one, as far as I’m aware, ever suggested laying on 30 buses an hour as an alternative, any more than they suggested laying on 400 elephants with 4-man howdahs, even though they could probably also do the job if they didn’t get spooked by the Blackwall Tunnel; it’s a cable car or nothing.
But… that’s the thing… it’s a cable car! And wouldn’t that be just bloody fantastic?
Bear with me for a moment while I digress.
As a Leyton Orient supporter, I have very little interest in top quality sporting activity being pursued by talented and skilful athletes in peak physical condition. BUT: I went to school in E10, and every Friday morning at nine-thirty we’d be sent off to play football, rugby or hockey on some dismal, damp and desolate fen beside the old Temple Mills marshalling yards, just across the river from Hackney Marshes; and the idea that those neighbouring tracts of scrub and marsh beside the Lea – those grim barbed-wire belts of burnt-out cars and angry dogs through which, let’s be frank, no resident of Stratford or Leyton ever gambolled, despite what Iain Sinclair and the internet placard wavers and petitioners now say – will, for two weeks next summer, be the focus of the world’s sporting gaze, is just really really EXCITING.
And anyone who says it isn’t has no imagination. And is also being, perhaps, a little bit selfish, a little bit dog-in-the-manger, because I suspect that rather more people are going to get genuine enjoyment out of the Olympics – and, yes, out of visiting Westfield, catching the revamped North London Line to the newly landscaped park, and maybe even renting a poorly plumbed one-bed flat in the Athletes’ Village once the putters of shots and lifters of weights and testers of drugs have moved on – than ever dug an allotment on Waterden Road, assembled something provocative in a Hackney Wick squat, or plodded moodily up the Bow Back Rivers with a half-read copy of Lights Out For The Territory in their rucksack, shooting moody monochromes of pylons and sneering that they’re not interested in sport.
Yes, of course all that money could be spent on other, more necessary things, but… necessity isn’t everything. And, yes, of course a cable car across the Thames is a ludicrous use of the transport budget, but… won’t it also be absolutely glorious? It is, after all – as I think I said earlier – a fucking cable car!!!
Though I’d still like someone at TfL to confirm that all cabins will have some sort of built-in buoyancy tank for when they fall off the wires, and perhaps a box of flares and a map of the Belgian coastline.
A guarantee that we won’t have to pay to use the escalators would also be nice.