A letter from IOC-occupied London

It was the best of times

Yesterday evening, I finally watched the Olympic opening ceremony, about a day later than everyone else did. At the risk of tarnishing my reputation for unmitigated cynicism, it was actually excellent.

I’ve been really cynical about the Olympics, and I still am. I doubt most of the claims of economic benefit from all the money being spent on it—and what money! You could run the entire nation of Rwanda, all eleven million of them, for a year and a half on what’s being spent on this two-month amateur sporting contest. I also wonder why it’s necessary to give such wide-ranging and unique legal favour to an organisation with a history of corruption. I think you probably can run a track-and-field meet without restrictions on freedom of movement, speech, and assembly, or exclusive traffic lanes for the nomenklatura.

Nonetheless, I can’t pretend it’s not happening. The transport disruption has made that obvious enough. I did think about leaving London for the period, but, despite not being tied here by work, here I still am.

So I thought I should see what everyone else was talking about. By watching the opening ceremony online, I was able to choose a version without the commentary, which I’ve heard was rather annoying and vacuous. (Like most commentary, then, really.)

I thought it was excellent. It was slightly eccentric, and spectacular in a very different way from the slightly creepy massed ranks of Beijing’s ceremony. Better still, it seems to have annoyed exactly the right kind of person.

If you’re the kind of person who lost his last job after being photographed at a Nazi-themed party, I suppose you might see all those non-Aryans and decry it in outrage as ‘leftie multi-cultural crap’. The Daily Mail saw politically-correct reds under the hospital bed (FreezePage), and resorted to outright racism:

This was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up.

You couldn’t really ask for a better recommendation that the opprobrium of bigots. To me, it just looked like London: the people that I see every day, who come—yes!—in more than one colour; the music (often rather too loud and much too bassy!) that comes from cars driving past. It was inclusive, and, at a time when politicians rely ever more on petty xenophobia to distract the populace from the causes of domestic misery, that’s important.

The NHS spot seems to have particularly upset not just the Daily Mail, but a certain type of American (the kind that sees universal healthcare as evil Socialism) too. I’m rather glad that I didn’t have to decide whether I could afford to go to hospital after being concussed. I’m glad that I could choose to leave my job without having to worry about whether I’d be covered by health insurance. I know the NHS isn’t perfect, and I know people who’ve had bad experiences, but I also know that getting seriously ill or being shot at the cinema doesn’t lead to destitution, and that is something to be proud of. As this government, like its predecessor, appears to be confusing improving the NHS with selling off the profitable parts to their donors (just wait for the current crop of ministers to pop up on the boards of those companies in a few years’ time!), it’s timely to be reminded of the enormous good that comes from universal healthcare.

It even managed to sneak in the first ever lesbian kiss on Saudi television.

I’ve never really bought into this whole thing of being proud of your country. I even went so far as to answer ‘human’ to the question of ‘what is your national identity’ on the last census. I mean, the whole notion of your country is ridiculously arbitrary, based on where you were born, or who your parents were—the exact opposite of the meritocratic ideal, in fact. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have an attachment to the places I choose to live, or the people with whom I share them, or the cultures that exist there—and I do mean cultures in the plural. I do. But those ties are ones of choice, not of passport.

I thought Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony did a great job of describing and celebrating a city and a country in which I would like to imagine that I live.

It was the worst of times

And I say ‘would like to imagine’, because whilst the world was watching a cyclist open the ceremony and winged cyclists swoop around the stadium, hundreds of police were arresting 182 cyclists for the crime of, well, cycling.

I’ve never participated in Critical Mass (although I did once happen to cross Waterloo bridge at the same time). I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it: on one side, it does seem unnecessarily antagonistic towards other road users.

On the other side, though, it raises an interesting philosophical point: if there are too many cars on the road, we accept the congestion as inevitable. If there are too many bicycles, it’s ‘blocking traffic’. The question that Critical Mass poses is: are cyclists not just traffic too? Even if not, the disruption to motorised traffic is ephemeral: the swarm blocks a junction, then passes through, delaying other traffic by no more than a few minutes. Realistically, it’s not a big hold-up to drivers, but I know that the very act of driving, and of having the capacity for speed, inculcates the need to exercise that capacity. Rare is the driver who, presented with a laggardly cyclist, does not transform into Mr Toad.

Critical Mass takes place on the last Friday of every month, so there was nothing special about the day. That some people would ride in the Zil lanes was inevitable, but the penalty for doing so is a fine, not imprisonment. In legal terms, it’s a customary procession. It’s not a protest. If the police had just let them ride around, they’d have ridden around for a bit, then dispersed.

But no. The authorities had to Make A Point. What is the point? That ordinary civil liberties are suspended so some people can run around a track?

I hope we get our city back after the occupying forces leave.

Comments

  1. Andrew Savory

    Wrote at 2012-07-29 21:00 UTC using Firefox 14.0.1 on Mac OS X:

    “What is the point? That ordinary civil liberties are suspended so some people can run around a track?

    I hope we get our city back after the occupying forces leave.”

    The point is that this is no longer our city (hasn’t been for a while); the government are happy to sell off everything from national monuments (tower bridge) to daily infrastructure (roads, and almost every single lamppost that’s now hung with a commercial) in the name of raising funds.

    The point is also that civil liberties are now a myth, to be quashed by whoever has the biggest bank balance or the nastiest lawyers. Keep your Pepsis and Nikes away from the games. Stay off the roads. Don’t dare to express an opinion, especially with a group of like-minded people. Bow down to the all-to-visible instruments of the law, augmented by the army because it’s more effective than men in hi-vis G4S jackets.

    Yes, the Games are great. Yes, sporting achievement mixes with a great day out for families. Somehow those principles struggle through. No, civil liberties won’t be restored any time soon.

    But at least we’re better off than those other folks, right?