As I write, the BBC News Channel is buzzing with live coverage of the Olympic Torch Relay as it has at last entered central London heading down Regent Street beneath the flags of all nations on its way to Buckingham Palace. I was right there barely 2 hours ago as they were delivering the barricades under clear blue skies and scorching heat. The flame that was lit months ago in Olympia, southern Greece is at last nearing its final destination.
I was at a meeting with clients on Oxford Street and had I waited just an hour after my meeting I would have been part of the quite amazing scenes currently playing out on the TV. It would have been my second encounter with the Torch in as many days.
Yesterday, I took a day off work…to watch a man carry a glorified golden candle through my home town of Harrow on the north-western edge of this great city. Had I waited until the flame got to Regent Street to attempt to see it, I guess I would not have seen much being a mere 5ft 5inches tall. Yesterday on my home soil, I got within striking distance of the flame with an unfettered view. As I came away from the short experience my first reaction…and that of many people around me I could hear…was that I was involved now. I’m part of the greatest show on Earth. I have lived in Harrow nearly all my life. I cannot remember ever seeing so many fellow inhabitants flock to the route of the Torch as it passed through from all races, creeds and colours – seriously I have not. I was completely dumbfounded by how many people turned out on a Wednesday morning to take those photos that have all now winged their way to who knows how many destinations via email and social media. I was so proud at the same time. I’m not a fan of where I live precisely because the UK’s foolish embrace of multiculturalism is, for me, directly responsible for the breakdown of a cohesive society. Yet, yesterday I was very moved to see so many turn out from all across the borough to celebrate a common cause and wave our national flag.
I guess we in London have watched the Torch Relay at a bemused distance since it arrived in our south-westerly most county of Cornwall from Greece and started its mammoth journey nearly 70 days ago. During that time, 8,000 Torch Bearers will have carried the flame to within an hour’s reach of 95% of the people of these isles. It’s estimated at this point of writing that over 12 million have turned out to see it. This from a haughty island people struggling through an ailing economy with in-built British reserve.
I was in the Northern Irish capital Belfast a couple of months back just a couple of days before the Torch Relay was to arrive there. Belfast City hall was decked in giant Olympic rings and there was a giant TV in its grounds following live the progress of the relay. There was no sense then that the locals were remotely bothered by an event focussed on London across the Irish Sea many miles away. Yet when the people of Wales handed the Torch over to this island of Ireland thousands turned out to greet the relay in both Belfast and the Irish capital Dublin days after I was there. I watched the arrival of the Torch in Belfast on the news in bemusement at why people who lived so far from where the action will be would bother to turn out in such great numbers to see the flame.
This has been a recurring theme in all the reports I have seen of the relay all the way through. The people of Cornwall first set the pace. Small towns and communities at the periphery of the UK turned out in force to greet the relay, something that was to be repeated in towns, villages and cities across the length and breadth of Great Britain ever after. Now the embrace of the Cornish people has magnified like ripples on water to the crescendo that is playing out on my TV screen with unprecedented scenes in London right now. The last time I saw our streets filled like this was for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales…only now for a much happier reason.
There is something in the air in London tonight. Something I can’t explain. It’s all the more baffling that London of all cities should feel this way. You see as far as we are concerned half the world already lives here. 300+ languages are spoken in London and just this month we were told that Europe’s largest city has now topped 8.1 million inhabitants. I travel the Tube (Subway) each day and listen to the recorded messages warning us locals that a million more people are expected to use our already crowded transport system every day. If anyone is going to be nonplussed by the Olympics and the global eye on our city it will we who live in it. Yet here we are with the flame heading into the heart of the metropolis and these unprecedented scenes on our streets no doubt attracting many tourists but also vastly more locals.
When I walked down Oxford Street to catch the Tube home before the melee currently being beamed around the world, I heard so many languages, saw people wearing t-shirts representing dozens of nations I realised that the world is here in greater numbers now and from tomorrow night it will be focussing its gaze on our nation and its capital city.
I must admit that I have been in dread of what concoction we would spill out at the Opening Ceremony the greatest televised show on the planet by sheer audience numbers. If you remember back to the stunning show Beijing put on in 2008, we always knew we had a mountain to climb whatever we did. My fears are greatly relieved now that I have heard from 4 friends who have witnessed one of the two dress rehearsals of the gig who have all reported more than positively on what they saw yet are still sworn to secrecy and can’t say or share their photos. I came home tonight having experienced a very palpable buzz taking place in our city this evening. In this most cosmopolitan of cities and a seat of global influence….even here there is a growing sense among the people who live here that something big and special is taking place we’ve not really allowed ourselves to engage with until now, at least the majority of us.
As I’m writing, the flame has just arrived at Buckingham Palace. Wills, Kate and Harry are out there to greet. I was thinking about how to wrap up this post and I remembered a comment a friend posted on my Facebook wall recently perplexed at why so many people in our once sane country were flocking to see a flame on a piece of metal. I thought about this but really I already knew the answer because I have heard it expressed from so many people all through the Torch Relay. When just ordinary folk from across the country have been interviewed and asked ‘why did you’…volunteer…nominate…turn up to see the Torch the most common answer I’ve heard has been “I just wanted to be a part of history”. That’s the reason I’m engaged too. I’m a History Graduate. The history I studied was all from records and museums and dried up dead stuff. But if I learnt anything from that experience it was to try to recognise history while it is present and before it becomes the past. You cannot become a part of something when it is past, only when it is present. London is the first city to host the Games 3 times and that amid fierce competition in the modern age where there are mega cities that dwarf our own 8.1 million. I can’t see another city matching this. London beat New York, Moscow, Madrid and arch-rival Paris to win these Games. No mean feat.
I am excited about the Opening of the Games tomorrow night, I freely admit. I haven’t been until only just these last few days and thanks to our sour, depressive, navel-gazing and sensationalist media I might never have been. I work in media, but I’m glad and a little proud to say that I don’t think we have joined the ‘dissing’ herd.
I think we all know that once the Olympic euphoria has melted away, we are all going to wake up with a big hang-over. The anticipation of the Opening is at present injecting an anaesthetic into our media coverage of global events. Syria is now in all-out civil war. The Eurozone crisis takes steeper spirals into chaos, our own economy is plunging, wars in South Sudan, sectarian violence threatening to rip Nigeria apart, strengthening Chinese global ambitions….on and on.
My prayer (first) and hope (second) is for peace and safety over our city, our guests and all who live in it. May these Games pass by leaving us some inspiration and not despair. In the great scheme of things are the Games important? No, not at all. Do they mean something? By the reactions of the people of the UK so far…evidently yes. Whatever we feel about them, they are here and we have no power to change that.
In the olden days during the WW2 and after, Brits used to pep each other up to get on with things with the line ‘best foot forward’. I’ve never been quite sure what that meant but I get the gist.
Best foot forward, guys….