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.


5 Things Olympic Opening Ceremonies Always Have …

Now we know how the 2012 opening ceremony is going to start, what’s going to come next? Having watched one or two of these before, there seems to be a pattern going on. So what are 5 things every opening opening ceremony always features?

1. A child

Forget all the problems of the past, the host nation is always much more innocent-seeming when figured as a child. There’s always one there hanging the narrative together: remember the little girl on the beach in Sydney 2000? The “Child of Light” in Salt Lake City 2002? The little boy in the paper boat in Athens 2004? Even the little girl who needed a body double in Beijing?

2. History

An Olympic opening ceremony is always an opportunity to tell a story about the host nation’s rise to fame. But history fans watch out: it tends to be a very selective story. Witness the version of Greek history presented in Athens 2004 – most of the time spent on the ancients, then quick as flash we’re up to date!

3. Multiculturalism

Olympic host nations are always very inclusive societies – rich, varied but ultimately united in their passion to stage the games. Even if history would tell another story, which is probably the reason they think up this ruse in the first place. Examples? What about the Australian Aborigines being met by the aforementioned child in Sydney or the Native American tribes in Salt Lake City?

4. Technology

Opening ceremonies are a big advertisement for the host nation being a major player in the global economy. Remember the suspended spinning cube in Athens? Of course, Beijing was all about technology. And if you can fit in the discipline of a mass choreographed display you have the added advantage of touting your national workforce for jobs in a passing global franchise.

5. Parade of nations

Of course this is what it’s all about. Here we can see who are the biggest and best, and who is small but plucky. The rest of the games are pretty much redundant after this bit. But it brings a tear to the eye …




So we have the first look at the opening scene of the opening ceremony. Cows and pigs, a cricket pitch, a selection of music events and some rain clouds – all set in a field of green. That’s Britain, for you! Such is the vision of the artistic director, Danny Boyle.

“He’s Irish, isn’t he?” was Grumpy’s initial reservation.

“You’re thinking of Roddy Doyle” I said. “It’s Danny Boyle, they’re different”.

Grumpy swiftly moved on, “What did he do?”

“Shallow Grave. Slumdog Millionaire” I ventured.

“Oh” said Grumpy. “Do you think he’s being ironic?”

Boyle maintains that there will be humour, yes. The British always have to have humour. The shame is, no-one else gets it. The London sequence in the closing ceremony was funny (no – it was!) but only if you saw it from the perspective of someone who thinks naff things are good. This is not a characteristic we Brits share with the rest of the world. If you saw it from their perspective, then you’d cry.

This is one of the things that troubles me about the extravaganza that will be Britain’s version of the opening ceremony is less than two months’ time. The self-deprecating humour that we seem to not to be able to shake off must surely be a legacy of knowing that we are a little too blessed with the world’s resources for it to be quite nice. We had to brush off the spoils of the empire with a shrug, “It’s just us Brits, nothing to worry about!”

That only makes sense, however, if we needed to pretend that we weren’t so unfairly privileged as all that. But the world has changed. We are in an age of austerity. We are once again a very small island, with only a few memories of past glory to hang on to and attract the tourists. Poking fun at ourselves risks making us look stupid. But maybe it will be fine. LOL!