Free wheeling

Well, we were somewhere around there …

“They’re in Putney High Street!” Confused, we turned our heads skywards towards the source of the update, and located two Irish girls with a bird’s nest view from their third floor window. Much tittering and excitement rippled through the throng. We had been parked by the roadside for approximately one and a half hours with the aim of catching 5 seconds of cycling action, as the men’s road race sped past us on the Fulham side of Putney Bridge. Who would have thought this would be so much fun?


Fighting an opening ceremony hangover, we had dragged ourselves out to witness the race go past Putney station at 10.15 that morning. Grumpy had bravely elected to stay home and clear up the detritus from the previous night, and really, we weren’t sure what to expect of the cycle race. We did know that you didn’t need a ticket. When we arrived, it was three people deep by the barricades, so we didn’t get to see much as they sped past. Nevertheless, seduced by the carnival atmosphere and the sunshine, we couldn’t see why we wouldn’t just wait around until they came back in 5 hours’ time, and so, coffee in hand, we wandered down to the Bishops Park to check out the big screen.

No cars – well, one seems to have got through. Call a volunteer!

The peace of Putney, devoid of traffic because of the road closures, was a delight. Everybody was talking about the opening ceremony. The stadium looked brilliant, they said. They were excited about their Paralympics tickets so that they were going to get to witness it first hand. They loved Danny Boyle’s production. “Was David Beckham sitting in that boat the whole time?, we overheard a passerby query. “People don’t seem to understand how TV works”, was my companion’s acerbic response.

Bishops Park

I had predicted the likely content of the ceremony – Boyle had each of the 5 things: a child (like, loads); history (that was Brunel, as the New York Times finally realised, not a character from Dickens); multiculturalism (mucho); technology (we love our social media); and the parade of nations (well, you have to). But he did it in a way that, for me, subverted the whole thing. Maybe the world’s media didn’t quite get it, and maybe that’s what it is usually for – selling the nation to global industries or as a tourist destination – but this opening ceremony was for us Brits at home. It had more light and dark than any opening ceremony I have ever seen. It did not shy away from the big issues (save our NHS!), untypically communicating a civic nationalism (based on membership of the British state and its finer institutions) as well as a pretty inclusive version of the cultural kind (passing familiarity with the history of British pop songs). It made it possible to feel proud of Britain in a way that many of us struggle with, what with all that imperialism and stuff. Actually, that seemed to be the bit they left out …

Mustard, iPad – anything else with your burger, madam?

Back to Putney, and I admit to being scathing about my companion’s addiction to dual screening – her insistence on bringing her iPad with her, complete with 3G.  Actually, though, it made our day. We could keep up with the race wherever we went, like having it propped up on our table as we ate lunch, prompting our waiter to bemoan his having to work that day. “And I live right near Richmond Park, too” – the next destination for the cyclists after leaving Putney.

So, we bought a couple of beers and found a good spot by the side of the road, and sat down to wait, squinting to see the race on our mobile screen. By the time the advance guard of Police motorbikes zoomed through, the crowd had whipped itself up into a frenzy, cheering anything that happened on the road in front of them. I used to wonder about those people lining the roads waiting for the Tour de France to pass. Why are they doing that, I used to ask myself. Now I know. It doesn’t matter if it lasts a few seconds – it is compelling to feel part of the action. At one point, whilst I was pondering the challenge of the race for the homecoming champions from the Tour, I genuinely found myself feeling sick with anticipation.

So, they didn’t make the medals. Walking back to the tube, we passed by two guys who were saying to each other “Never mind, the women will do it tomorrow”. And they did.


Torch song

The flame is lit!

To the peals of church bells, the assembled crush of disorganised bodies parted a little to allow our Colliers Wood torch bearer, Susan, to light her own Olympic flame. In the event, a grey tracksuited helper was necessary to conjoin the two torches to ignite the fire, and Susan held it aloft with such an expression of joy, that it would have been difficult to remain unmoved. After posing for the media, amid many cheers, chants of “Su-san, Su-san!” and one photograph-hunter’s insistent call of “Lady in grey, can you move out the way so we can get a picture?”, Susan headed off, leaving an untidy, but jolly, sprawl of Colliers Wood residents in her wake.

Susan sets off

It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting. Thankfully, the weather gods had relented from the summer-long smiting by rain and graciously let us have some sunshine for the event. This obviously lifted the mood, but that, of course, did nothing for any sense of decorum. First some corporate buses arrived, carrying torch bearers and quite a few torches, causing some confusion amongst the crowd. Susan descended from the bus, to be immediately mobbed by onlookers. Grumpy, who had taken his camera, muttered “Trust Colliers Wood to be the most chaotic”. Some people thought that was it, and wondered why she wasn’t running anywhere, while others explained she was waiting for the handover. When it came, the crowd went crazy obscuring pretty much everyone’s view so we all held our phones aloft hoping that a decent photo might arbitrarily result. Grumpy and I were being accompanied by a visiting Political Activist, who had decided, much to our relief, not to intervene in the event, but who did make us think about this contemporary random approach to photography by wondering, “When did everyone become paparazzi?” We had a little walk around afterwards, and partook of a beer in the evocative surroundings of Merton Abbey Mills, listening to some not half bad  drum ‘n’ bass rhythms from a contemporary fusion jazz band. As one bystander observed, “Well, it has got us all out, hasn’t it?”

All dressed up

Mcdonalds advertisement hoarding at St Pancras station

Dressed up by Mcdonalds at St Pancras Station

It was four years ago now, but I have a fuzzy memory of sitting in a glass-walled cube of a room at Richmond College listening to representatives from the South London Boroughs discuss what they had learnt from the Beijing Olympics. I was standing in for someone but I learnt a lot. I can’t swear to it, but I have a feeling that they were talking about the way the Chinese “dressed” the city. Everywhere you went you knew you were reminded of the Games.

An international flag on the South Bank Centre's wonderful urban garden - that wasn't there before!

An international flag on the South Bank Centre’s wonderful urban garden – that wasn’t there before!

This might have been where olympification came from – I knew it would happen.  I knew that sooner or later everything would be olympified. Well, now it is. This is the summer when the  Union Jack has officially been rehabilitated – no longer the emblem of domination, a not-so-subtle warning that a member of the extreme right wing is in residence, it is now a signifier of UK (non-political) party time. And such a snazzy design.

Union Jacks (I don’t think we even call it that any more – but I like it, it makes me feel nautical) have been up since the Jubilee. Now they are joined by the most tasteful Olympic bunting. Last year we had the world’s longest stretch of bunting adorning the South Bank for the Festival of Britain’s 60th Anniversary. This year we have bunting everywhere.

A week or so ago, I took the bus to Kingston and passed by bunting at New Malden – not on the usual London tourist map, unless you like Korean food. Actually, they seemed to be having a Korean food festival. Good news for the Korean team camped at Brunel University, and, of course, their fans.

Arriving at Kingston, I was amazed at how well the 2012 theme fitted in with the ancient market square.

Olympics in Kingston

Further south on holiday, I found bunting draped around the historic cinque port of Rye on the Kent/Sussex border. If you can blend in there, where they boast of pubs being rebuilt in the 1400s, I think you can say you’ve done  a good job.

Bunting in Rye

In this remote spot, we didn’t find any bunting, but we did come across a BT Olympics advertisement.

Just in case you thought you got away from the Olympics

This picturesque view of Britain in the run up to the Olympics is somewhat tempered by all the news of G4S’s calamitous handling of the security contract for the Olympics. Now, instead of providing valuable employment to hundreds of people, the armed forces will be frisking people as they enter the Olympic Park.

This may give London not so much a cute bunting feel, as that of a military dictatorship. At a time of such high unemployment, it seems such a shame to me for those people looking forward to working at the Olympics that they miss out on the opportunity. The squaddies already have a job. They could probably do with a break. This seems like such a pattern these days, those that have work have to do so much more they are at breaking point. Those that have not get blamed for being unemployed. I would be very cross if I was one of the people G4S recruited then didn’t communicate with, with reports of people “not turning up for work”. Can we learn from this that we need to treat employees properly? I wonder.

Advertising Olympics

It really has started. Everywhere I go I am faced with commercial messages with an Olympics theme. Ascending the escalator at Waterloo station, I was greeted with massive images of British athletes bearing down on me. Switching on the TV, every advert seems to have an Olympic message. I was brought up short on Sunday morning by a hoarding displaying the British Airways message “Don’t fly”. For a moment there I thought I was being commanded by the government to stay home to support Team GB. But of course they don’t do that anymore. These days “tongue-in-cheek” propagandist sentiments are in the purvey of the advertising campaign manager. What a strange world we live in.

I cannot decide whether my resentment at being told what to do is magnified or decreased by the knowledge that BA doesn’t really care as long as we maximise their profits for the longest duration.

Don’t fly now because we’re going to get  enough passengers.

And if you could just extend the Olympics magic for us long after the games with your postponed holiday plans, that would be fantastic.

Go Team GB!