Caught a glimpse of the Olympic Torch as it passed by earlier today – only by dint of some minor civil disobedience. When did people start simply ignoring policemen?
The Torch rests tonight on Tooting Common – which is just at the end of our road. Nothing simpler then, than to wander down and pay our respects. Except for one thing – the functionaries of the local council, who have decreed that a swathe of this common land – not theirs, ours – should be screened off to prevent anyone without a ticket seeing anything. What? Why? The entire population of Tooting would fit very comfortably on the Common without it becoming particularly crowded. There’s no need for this. No need at all – the area could be securely cordoned without rendering it invisible. No need, that is, except for the functionaries to make themselves seem busy and important.
No need at all – except for the functionaries to reward themselves with an extra little perk and privilege. The tickets were free – they haven’t paid for them – but they only told themselves when and where they could be found. Not advertised to the rest of us at all. They could be picked up at various local libraries – but not during the regular day when an ordinary resident might come across them – no, no, no – just for one single hour on one single evening a week ago, while we were all having our supper. By the time the word got out, the functionaries (allowing themselves four each) had scooped them all up for themselves and their cronies. Here’s the smug announcement on the website: “Only ticket holders will be admitted. There are no more tickets available”. Quite contemptible.
The last time the Olympic Games came to London was 1948 – the year Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four – he knew a thing or two about bureaucrats and their privileges – shame it’s all come to pass. I’ll leave that thought there.
The Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime experience they say, although not always and not quite. I was born in London just days before the 1948 Games – the Austerity Olympics, the Shoestring Games, the Make-Do-And-Mend Games, the Ration-Book Olympics, they were called, put on zero cost to the taxpayer, the entire budget well under a million pounds (nowhere near that actually), nothing freshly built, athletes housed in barracks and schools,
London still peppered with bombsites and debris. But a London bright and shining with post-war optimism – the National Health Service was launched the same month – a London that still made things. Here’s the official souvenir book.
What a different world it was – bright and breezy advertisements for proper products. These were the Aertex Years – healthy and wholesome family life. Proper light-bulbs which did what they were meant to do, our usage of electricity sustainably limited by the natural order of things – the meter running out, a fuse going, or a random blackout. Proper toothpaste with peroxide in it. Proper cigarettes “specially made” to prevent sore throats. Proper manly things like catarrh pastilles in case they didn’t.
In 1948 the Olympic torch arrived at Dover only the night before the Games began – 50,000 turned out to greet it (without having to acquire tickets) – a proper relay of proper runners reached Maidstone by midnight, hastening it the 140 miles to Wembley by teatime the next day. Carried into the stadium by “a Cambridge Blue” – we were still a reticent people with a proper and dignified disregard of ‘celebrity’.
A proper opening ceremony – boy-scouts as stewards – national anthem – parade of nations – Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting the massed bands of the Brigade of Guards – the King – fanfare of trumpets – pigeons of peace – twenty-one gun salute – arrival of torch – lighting the flame – the Olympic Hymn (words from Kipling) as the flag is raised – Hallelujah Chorus – Olympic Oath delivered by “an athlete” – Recessional – National Anthem. Cost virtually nothing – and what the hell else do you need?
OK – it didn’t go entirely without a hitch. Sir Malcolm had to be contacted by field-telephone to be told he’d missed his cue. It was a scorching hot day and the brass instruments were half-melted out of tune – “a bit like taking a jellyfish for a walk”, remarked Sir Malcolm. And maybe a few of the pigeons didn’t make it. But, by and large, no-one really noticed or cared (watch the video). This was London rising proudly and inexorably from the rubble of the London Can Take It years.
The star of the Games was the remarkable Francina “Fanny” Elsje Blankers-Koen – “the flying housewife” – thirty-year-old mother of two, winner of four gold medals, and absolute heroine to an entire generation who had lost the best years of the physical prime to the war. My mother, who saw her run, could never speak of her without a tear in her eye. The very same Fanny Blankers-Koen whom the numpties at Transport for London missed off the first version of their souvenir Olympic Legends Tube Map – as well as doing their best to deter everyone from enjoying the Games.
Listen TfL – if London can cope with 80,000 going to Twickenham, 60,000 going to the Emirates, and 40,000 going to Stamford Bridge – all on the same day – as well as everything else that might happen on a regular Saturday – then 80,000 going to Stratford during the school holidays when no-one much is around and there’s not much else on shouldn’t be an issue. It shouldn’t require dire warnings and emergency planning. Simply running enough trains should handle it. Can you manage that? If any of your senior management ever actually travelled on the tube, you probably could.
And another thing – despite Wembley Stadium holding 20,000 more people than its modern counterpart, there weren’t any privileged Olympic Lanes for functionaries in 1948. This was also the London of the anarchic Passport to Pimlico (released the following year) – we still knew perfectly well what the proper attitude was towards bureaucrats, apparatchiks and jacks-in-office.
But don’t get me wrong. London can still take it – quick chorus of Noel Coward’s “London Pride” (Video Links to the right) – here’s to the best Olympics yet.