Culturally speaking, Londoners are a funny lot.
If something terrible happens here (say terrorists blow up the subway or Germans blitz the East End) one is meant to be silent about it. Stiff upper lip, keep calm and all that. If, on the other hand, one ends up late for work because the Central Line was unexpectedly delayed, one is entitled to gripe all day before knocking off early to get drunk at the pub and marvel at the sheer bloody madness of the world.
This beloved national sport, colloquially known as “whinging,” has never been more apparent than in the weeks leading up to the London 2012 Olympics. Unlike the cheerier, perhaps less skeptical, citizens of Sydney or Atlanta, Londoners are not quick to fall in line beating the drum when told that the event “has given voice to the positive values of humanity,” as Lord Sebastian Coe, the Chairman of the London 2012 Organizing Committee has said. The games’ “Inspire a generation” slogan turns out to be about as comforting as a wet blanket when you find yourself, as thousands of Londoners have recently, living through a double-dip recession during the rainiest summer on record, crawling along the highway while IOC officials sail past in designated Olympic traffic lanes, like Kremlin-bound cronies in Soviet Russia.
The problem, in part, is that many Londoners feel they have little to gain, and much to be annoyed about, when it comes to the Olympics. Unlike Barcelona or Vancouver when they bid for the games, London is already an undisputed world capital of culture and finance, a place visited by millions of tourists each year. Eight million people live and work here, yet only a tiny sliver managed to score reasonably priced spectator tickets. To add insult to injury, late release “prestige” tickets were put on sale last month for prices ranging between £295 to £1,800 – causing a storm of fury by fans.
Draconian sponsorship rules have resulted in a police crackdown on independent shopkeepers hoping to get into the spirit of the event. A deli owner in East London was ordered to take down the five Olympic bagels he’d arranged as a symbol of the games. A quintet of sausage rings of the same design was similarly disappeared. The government released a list of words that can be forcibly banned, such as “games,” “two thousand and twelve” and “2012” when used in advertising in conjunction with words from another list including “gold,” “silver,” “bronze,” “London,” “medals,” “sponsor” and “summer.”
But what if organizers decide to enforce the ruling that spectators must not “broadcast or publish video and/or sound recordings, including on social networking websites and the Internet”? Will all of Twitter and Facebook, indeed the entire Internet, be banned for the duration of the London 2012 Summer Games? Wait, did I break the law just by writing that?
In what is already a city plagued with transport woes, the Olympics have exacerbated things to the breaking point. After months of being warned by Transport for London posters to “plan alternate routes,” “consider staying home,” or “walking may be quicker!” regular Tube riders are feeling even crankier than usual. It’s hardly surprising many commuters look like they’re about to blow a gasket when the plummy voice of Boris Johnson greets them over the intercom at every single stop with, “Hi folks! This is the Mayor here. This is the greatest moment in the life of London for 50 years! We’re welcoming more than a million people a day to our city and there is going to be huge pressure on the transport network. Don’t get caught out!”
“Thanks for nothing, Boris!” one businessman near me shouted to collective hoots on a sardine-packed, un-airconditioned District Line car the other day. It was the most collective Olympics-related cheering I’ve heard in this town.
Part of the issue here is the peculiar nature of the media. The British press are a notoriously loud and angry bunch. The Daily Mail has run a more or less non-stop campaign of criticism with such cheery Olympics headlines as “This Humiliating Shambles” and “It’s a Nightmare!”
Last weekend, the Times columnist Jeremy Clarkson topped them all with a column bemoaning the moaning itself. First he heartily pooh-poohed “London’s forthcoming running and jumping competition,” in which “we shall be able to find out whether a Kenyan man we’ve never heard of can jump further into a sandpit than an American man we’ve also never heard of,” before hypocritically lashing out at the “mongers of misery who think the Games will be a rain-splattered orgy of mud ... and empty stadiums.” If only there was a division Best Freestyle Rant, the curmudgeon Clarkson would surely win gold.
But wait. Now that the jet stream has shifted and puddles have dried, there are glimmers of hope that Londoners may be having a change of heart. The advance buzz on Danny Boyle’s opening ceremonies show continues to be very good, even after 60,000 spectators attended the dress rehearsal earlier this week (they were asked not to tweet the details and apparently complied). Border workers called off their threatened strike at the eleventh hour, and house-bound Westminster civil servants are rumoured to be making excuses to come into work on the day the women’s volleyball tournament takes place in the park behind their office.
Best of all, Mitt Romney’s in town and is putting his foot in it all over the place – a charm offensive one paper declared “devoid of charm and mildly offensive.” If there’s one thing that cheers up the Brits, it’s being able to get one off on Americans. Given that it’s unlikely to happen on the podium, London should enjoy its moment in the sun.