Riyadh: Sunday 12th August, 2012:
When I first came to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to work, I could not have known this, but the timing has proved, nearly three years on, to have been serendipitous beyond my wildest imagining. Obliged to renew my Visa on a six monthly basis, during which time I must reside in London, it ensures that in the first week of each February and each August, I make the trip to London.
There are obvious disadvantages to these dates. February, in Britain can be a driech month, with muddy winter not quite finished and the freshness and renewal of spring still a longed for dream, the country can seem a sorry place, tired and depressed.
August too has disadvantages. For, during August falls the traditional British “Silly Season” when nothing quite seems to work. The Schools are on holiday and much of the country has decamped at any one time for their annual holidays.
When I worked in Britain, this used to be a source of frustration. Things which normally were done as a matter of routine could languish in in-trays awaiting sign off or be neglected to the point where they became critical. People who expected things of you would start to get annoyed as you were obliged to explain away yet another delay due to someone else being on holiday.
It is traditionally a sorry time to read a newspaper or engage the broadcast media too. Politicians, senior business executives, opinion formers, foreign despots, perhaps even criminals, all holiday in August. Moreover, the Sports journalists, whose importance to both forms of media increases with every year, find pickings limited. The football season has yet to commence in earnest, and they are obliged to fill the empty pages with titbits and rumour.
News stories that would not normally make it out of the newspaperman’s imagination find themselves absurdly placed near the front page under banner headlines.
Yet the last two Augusts have been different.
For, by coincidence, my visa requirements ensured that I happened to be in London during the Riots of August 2011 and the middle of the Olympic Games in 2012. As a result, I have seen the Nations capital in two very different moods.
Walking around the capital last week, I was reminded of how long Britain had been working towards this moment. For while it is largely forgotten now, London’s successful award of the Games in 2006, was only a milestone on a journey which began back in the 1990’s in two altogether different British cities.
Birmingham unsuccessfully bid for the 1992 games before Manchester bid unsuccessfully on two occasions to hold these games, beaten by Atlanta and Sydney, despite impressive bids. In the aftermath of the second, unsuccessful Manchester bid, the organiser, whose name I now forget, was interviewed and asked the reasons for the failure. He lamented that for many of the people who were to vote on the host city, the opportunity to bring their spouse to a great world city, replete with its inevitable distractions, seemed destined always to trump Manchester’s many undoubted attributes.
Focus would now move towards a London bid, with lessons learned from Manchester’s failed efforts framing an initial set of proposals which would culminate in the successful staging of the games more than a decade later.
But before this happened, the man who had dreamt of the Manchester Olympics was able to outline something which seemed at the time to have been a self-evident truth. London, he said, was a great world city, but a city like Manchester would have given the games a special, local feel. The whole city would have stopped for those three weeks, while London, he argued, would be able to ignore the games and go about its daily business, if it chose to do so.
I recall his point coming back to me last year when, walking through Kensington Gardens, with my Partner, I was struck by the peace and eternal relaxed tranquillity this place possessed. It was only a couple of miles from the London Riots, the worlds news-media were leading with the images of burning buildings and looting, on every outlet open to me in the hotel room. From Moscow, to Beijing, to Washington DC, people were condemning the violence and wondering at the implications to the Olympics, just a year away.
The story would concentrate minds for some time to come. It would gradually drop down the packing order, from the 24 hour networks to the nightly news reports, and finally to the analytical Late-Night News studios where earnest opinion formers debate the lasting implications.
Yet, last year, even at its height, as I strolled past the Albert Memorial, hand in hand with the woman I love, it was possible to inhabit a London so completely removed from the riots that they might have been happening in Los Angeles or on Mars. London is indeed, that sort of city. A series of villages, each concerned primarily with itself.
That evening, as I sat in a beer garden close to Lancaster Gate I recall a couple talking at the bench next to me. She was crying self-possessed, plump tears while he drank heavily and quickly. He was, it became apparent, flying away on business that night, and his partner was bereft at the prospect or their imminent separation. Not for her, anguished condemnation of the London Riots. On the contrary, life for her was at that moment real and tragic and intimate. The riots were not even a distraction.
Fast forward 12 months. I was confident that the games themselves would have no direct impact on my time in London. Sure, there would be nothing else on TV. Sure there would be nothing else discussed by the residents of that great city. But in terms of getting from A to B, London would cope well.
And in one way I was right. For a city which held two marathons, and countless other races, each requiring streets to be closed and people to be funnelled and redirected and inconvenienced, the impact, to be fair, was minimal.
And yet, when push came to shove, the comments of the organiser of the Manchester bid, all those years ago, proved to be triumphantly wrong.
For London really did stop for these games; really did climb into the Olympic bath and wallow. You could not have been in London and ignored the Games. Wherever you looked, the bright purple and pink Games flags fluttered, the bright uniforms of the marshals catching tube trains or stopping off at supermarkets on the way home were everywhere. Bunting, much of it likely to have been left over from the Jubilee celebrations earlier in the summer, continued to fly in windows and between street lamps and, of course, everyone was talking about it.
Moreover, people appeared to be brought together by the games. Another lovely, evening walk with my love, this time along the south bank of the Thames. The streets were thronged as they always are. People spilled out of restaurants and bars to enjoy the evening sun, couples canoodled, or passed by, oblivious to or gladdened by the affections of others. It was London in the summer, in every summer. It was glorious and romantic and completely unaffected by sport. Except it was also possible to pass exhibitions given by various Arab countries and another by the Swiss, using their participation in the games to showcase their nations with parties and entertainment, a separate Olympic fringe festival, adding colour and vitality to this humid London evening.
Then, as we passed HMS Belfast, and posed for photos with Tower Bridge (replete with Olympic regalia of its own) in the back ground, an enormous roar rose from behind the sloping globe of the London Assembly Building. There, on a large patch of land, where David Blane once pulled some publicity stunt or other, a huge crowd were delighting in athletics; greeting each throw of the Javelin or each clearing of the high-jump bar with a great cheer, as though they themselves were there, intimately involved, part of the games themselves.
The cheers themselves were not the roar of a football crowd. It had an altogether different tone, higher in pitch, as though a cheer had been mingled with a ‘Rebel Yell,’ and wholly devoid of the critical characteristic of the football cheer, relief.
On the contrary, this was a fun cheer, not dominated by one gender over another. And crucially, beautifully, it was happy. Each achievement, each athletic exertion was appreciated and enjoyed for what it was.
I was; am; sceptical of the so-called Olympic spirit. But if it existed here it was, along the banks of the river, between a bridge symbolising faded Imperial Glories, an old Battleship, and the offices of Bureaucratic governance. Unlikely, perhaps, but real enough, and precious.
Young, athletic looking types, dressed in the crested tracksuits of Canada or Brazil or South Korea stopped taking tourist photos and gazed across at the large screen. A group of drunken Russians, made a macho play of being disinterested. Nationalism of an altogether more manly sort, still guided their responses. But nowhere else on in this dreamy dusk, could I see an unhappy face.
The end of the Games will not be immediate. The Paralympians now have their turn in the sun and, while the games are, I believe, smaller, Londoners and Britons generally will be no less in love with hosting them. The bug has been caught, scepticism suspended, enjoyment is being had.
And as the Games finally do come to an end, Olympians and Paralympians return to their lives and Londoners and Britons return to the problems of their country and of the world, the news media will seek to dwell for a while on the implications of the year the Olympics came to London.
Just as with last year’s riots, the 24 hour wrap around coverage will move somewhere else, and the story slowly be relegated to the nightly news and then the current affairs magazines broadcast at bedtime. Finally, at some point in the Autumn, with nights closing in and Christmas presents to pay for, people will slowly begin to move on, turn their attentions to the forthcoming events of 2013.
On several occasions during the last week, different people said something to me which I found surprising; “This has allowed us to be patriotic.” But patriotism takes more than one form. Mere pride in your nation’s ability to win gold medals, compete with the best and stage a global event, is not only harmless but probably beneficial. Moreover, if it helps to reaffirm London and the United Kingdom as a country with the infrastructure and modernity to welcome the worlds business and political leaders, it will have a truly lasting legacy.
But while patriotism might fill you up, it is not a nourishing meal in itself. The positivity unleashed by the Olympics will only be sustained if Britain now builds from the games a positive, frame for driving our country to succeed in the far more important race between global economies.