“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.
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.
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 …
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.