I’M NOT HAVING IT.
Those of us who live in London have long had an ambivalent relationship with the 30th Olympiad, now under way in our home city. Sure we basked in the reflected glory when we won the competition to host it. Where better? we thought. We‘ll obviously put on a better show than Paris or New York. Which other city has such world credentials, such links with all the nations, cultures and languages of the world? What other city could show the world so many faces at once: modern metropolis; cradle of two thousand years of history; the enduring values of Englishness, mixed with the strength and creativity that comes from being home to dozens of nationalities and cultures. Let’s face it, if a typical south London school can have a hundred home languages, hosting two hundred teams of athletes should be a breeze.
But the shine was quickly taken off our status as Host City. The very next day after we got it in fact; when four young Yorkshire men stepped onto London tube trains and buses and blew themselves up to show that there was more to Britain’s complex heritage than Asian music with Jamaican dub beats, chicken tikka with chips and 24-hour bagel shops in Brick Lane.
In the seven years since that dark day in 2005 there has been a lot to test our patience: the swelling cost of the Games; their rampant over-commercialisation; the growing sense that our city is being taken over by a super-rich invading army that has ruined the parks, reserved large parts of the road network for its limousines, and put armed police on our streets in a way we’ve never seen before.
And so there has been a tendency among Londoners to dismiss the Olympics. Through this long early summer of almost constant rain some people have moaned about the cost and inequitable distribution of ticketing. Some have sneered at the odd spectacle of a succession of celebrities criss-crossing the country carrying flaming torches along with a cavalcade of corporate sponsors handing out rubbish to children. As the advance warnings of potential travel disruption have ramped up, some people have identified a subliminal message in all this for Londoners: pay for the Games, shut up and keep out of the way. Accordingly, some Londoners have been heard pledging to get out of the city as soon as possible, and give the whole thing a big fat swerveroo.
It is even possible that those close to me may observe that many of the complaints above might have been heard coming from me. But no more. The sun has now come out, it’s time to cast off the comfortable cloak of cynicism and count our blessings. To focus on what is good about the Games in London.
No more moaning and carping. I won’t have it. So here are my reasons to be cheerful.
The 7 July bombers set the tone, and the preparations for the Games have been dominated by security anxieties. Some might assume that the deployment of armed police, thousands of soldiers fresh from Afghanistan, and a naval cruiser looming over Greenwich in the Thames, could suggest that we are somehow less safe. I say look on the bright side. There are now ground to air missiles on the hill not far from my house. Think how much more secure that makes me feel.
Or, to be more accurate, the fact that many of us will not be able to work as much as usual during the Olympics period. It hasn’t been much publicised, but there seems to be a target in central London for many organisations to have no more than half the usual number of staff in the office. Obviously, many people can work perfectly productively from home (with or without the Olympics coverage on their television). But the Olympics fortnight appears to offer the prospect of repeated summer ’snow days’ – when no one begrudges us staying away from work, and there’s so much fun going on that no one really cares what work is getting done. All of which will help no end when we need to explain the next set of disappointing economic figures, or when bosses ask themselves whether they could get by with only half their staff on a more permanent basis.
London – indeed the whole of Britain – has a much neglected heritage of fine boozers. Here’s one of them.
(Olympics visitors note – it’s not far from the beach volleyball arena, if you need refreshment after watching those sweaty competitors in bikinis.)
True, we in Britain have a sometimes troubled relationship with alcohol. But I’ve never been to another country that has anything quite like the kind of pub that we still do so well here: cosy and snug in our (frequent) rainy and cold spells; cool and shady on our rare hot days; increasingly serving good quality and good value food, with a growing tendency to serve good English real ales.
They say that two pubs a day close in England right now. So get in quick, Olympic tourists. And if enough of you do, maybe some will stay open a bit longer. There’s no losers here.
4. That Unique London Atmosphere
One of the nicest things about living in London (once you’ve discounted the pollution, the traffic, the noise, the ugly neighbours and boorish residents, the expense, and so on), is the way every corner presents something of interest. For someone like me who has an interest in history, the full benefit of the London experience comes from walking the city’s streets, taking turnings you haven’t taken before. That’s how you find the plaque that tells you Lawrence of Arabia lived in a street near Westminster Abbey, or that Samuel Smiles (author of the book ‘Self Help’, which is probably due a reprint in these days of new austerity) lived in a house not far from the place where Kitty O’Shea conducted the affair with Irish Nationalist Charles Parnell, which caused his ruin and probably changed forever the history of Ireland (and Britain).
So, just think how good it is that the impact of the Olympics on London’s transport means most of us will get to walk a lot more as the buses, trains and roads are overwhelmed with tourists, athletes and hanegrs-on. And when we do we are likely to stumble upon new delights like the various statues of mascots Wenlock and Mandeville, which are currently dotted around the streets.
5. Better Use of Wasted Space
Visitors are often surprised by how much of London is made up of green space, partly caused by the city’s gradual growth and absorption of a chain of villages, and the happy result of the Queen’s ancestors’ appetite over the centuries for reserving vast swathes of countryside near their palaces for hunting. These old hunting grounds are now parks. I live near the best of them; Greenwich Park, a gem of hilly green space, straddling the Meridian Line between east and west hemispheres, containing the old Royal Observatory. It’s a fantastic place. But let’s be honest, most summers it’s wasted; full of nothing more important than local people having picnics, playing football and frisbee, taking their kids on the pedal boats.
Now, however, the park has been closed to the public for up to a year, and largely covered over so that rich people’s horses can dance on it. Here, incidentally, is an amusing clip about the dancing horse of US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, which I believe will be among those creatures putting Greenwich Park to a much better use than we local taxpayers ever did. Click here.
All right, I confess. Maybe a little touch of cynicism did creep back in there. But now that I have seen the Olympics Opening Ceremony I am over all that.
Never can there have been such a gloriously bonkers few hours to lift the curtain on such a high-profile event. The Industrial Revolution set to music, Suffragettes and dancing nurses, the Queen parachuting from a helicopter with James Bond, Mr Bean mucking up ‘Chariots of Fire’. I have no idea how it came across to the rest of the world. But for us Londoners it was simultaneously funny, moving, puzzling and a stunning assertion of the modern potential of Britain (especially London).
The message for me was: ‘this is us – we’re the product of all that cliched history but we’re a lot more too. We can do all this: yes, we’re the warm beer and old maids bicycling across the common, but we’re also the snotty iconoclasts of punk and reggae and football fans with painted faces.’
Sure, the parade of athletes with their flags took most of the night, but even that had its delights. A personal favourite was the Czechs, who appeared to be the only team that fully joined in with the mad spirit of the ceremony. One end of the stadium contained a replica of Glastonbury Tor. The Czechs marched in as if they were going to the Glastonbury Festival, kitted out in striking electric blue wellies.
I think this was the moment I decided to put aside my cynicism for good and go with it. As local boy Samuel Smiles once said: ‘Life will always be to a large extent what we ourselves make it.’
At the climax of the ceremony I could hear the fireworks from my house. Luckily, they didn’t set off any of the ground to air missiles.