Goodbye To All That: After the Olympics and the Paralympics

It’s called the O2 again.

TRY NOT to look for too much meaning in it all, those of us watching the Paralympics Closing Ceremony in the UK were told by the Channel Four commentators. That’s what the  director of the Closing Ceremony had reportedly been telling people. Try not to look for too much meaning in it all.

It’s got to be tough, coming fourth amongst all the ceremonies. I mean, the central London cityscape has been done to death. It’s in London, Big Ben’s there. We get it. There’s some music that Britain has made, and a bunch of other stuff (no real mention of Empire though, I noticed, or our imperial past – no Rudyard Kipling riding an elephant behind a group of redcoats massacring the natives, the survivors herded to a concentration camp from the country that invented them).

Instead the Paralympics Closing Ceremony seemed to focus on a vision of what London might look like after the apocalypse, if it had been turned into a giant Mad Max film set:

After over a month of Olympic and Paralympics, meaning had been spun out of the Games by countless column inches and broadcast hours – sporting, cultural, economic, historic. It had all been pored over. In London, even if you weren’t watching any of the events, it would be hard not to have seen the headlines and impossible not to have been in at least one conversation about Mo Farah.

Even the Westcombe News (“Free to 3800 homes, and in libraries & some shops”) my local community newspaper and the home of rampant nimbyism, picked up the prevailing wind and realised that to come out openly against the Games would have resulted in their offices (if they had any) being stormed and the editorial staff (volunteers) being lynched in Greenwich Park. Still, as headlines go about the greatest sporting event that this nation has ever seen, “Was it worth it?” is hardly the unambiguous headline of unwavering support one might have expected.

The WN hedges its bets by first quoting random people saying how amazing the Games had been (including one from Sandra Barnes “writing from Philadelphia in the US” – you ran out of people in the area to say positive things and you had to go across the Atlantic to find someone else?). It then moves on to talk about the impact on local businesses (bad), the stationing of Rapier surface to air missiles near Greenwich Park (unforgivable, but “at least locals did not have them placed on their roofs”) and then transport: “the surges of passenger numbers on the tube and the railways were better managed than predicted [i.e. we thought we’d all be plunged back into the dark ages]: but many drivers, defeated by traffic jams, simply gave up any attempt to get to where they needed to be [i.e. I couldn’t drive to Sainsbury’s because of the one way system, so I gave up and came home]. They end with the standard disclaimer which now by law must be added when criticising any aspect of the Olympics: “Overall, most people agree that the games were a spectacular success.” This is journalistic gold.

This is my photo and I was there. We’d been to the Olympic Park, of course, but hadn’t got tickets for the Stadium and utterly failed to get any tickets for the Paralympics. So receiving a phonecall from friends offering us two unwanted tickets to see athletics in the Stadium on a Saturday morning is in the same category as seeing people you know on the tube: impossible until it happens to you.

This is Richard Whitehead coming off the blocks in the men’s 200m final, just before he won gold for GB. Beckie, my partner, screamed herself hoarse during the race. I was slightly distracted because after taking this photo my memory card filled up, I couldn’t take any more photos, and I panicked. How will people know that I was here? I thought to myself. I can’t just see it with my own eyes! I hurriedly tried to delete photos. As it turns out, this takes longer than it takes Richard Whitehead to run 200m. Consequently, I actually missed him crossing the finish line. But I understand that it was very impressive.

This is how I know it was impressive. From the crowd’s reaction. That’s the wonderful thing about being in a crowd of 80,000 people. You really don’t need to do any thinking for yourself.

This kid was all about the flags, less about the sport. It would be wonderful if his name was Jack.

Some were more interested in the running than others.

During the Paralympics, there was a sense in London that the Olympics had been normalised. It was heralded as the biggest, most disruptive event since WW2 to hit the city, and yet everything had kept going. It felt like the city had absorbed the Games and moved on. There were still the pink shirted people at stations (not the same ever-cheerful volunteer Games Makers as at the Olympic venues, but dour, humourless people employed by the train companies just for the duration of the Games), still telling people to keep to the left. But, every morning, as the commuter crowd surged off my train and herded itself down the corridor to the barriers and the station exit, the calls of “guys, keep to the left,” fell on deaf ears. These were the same business-suited people who’d been walking on the right since before the Olympics, and would be doing it long after the pink shirts had disappeared. At North Greenwich station, the people handing out walking maps of the area (“why not walk? public transport is going to be very busy”) looked bored next to their human-sized piles of maps (I now have ten walking maps of Greenwich and Woolwich, all identical. I felt sorry for them every time I passed). And on the day after the Paralympics finished there was a ‘Victory Parade’ in Central London, and the Red Arrows flew past my sixth floor office window, spewing out patriotic clouds of red, white and blue. I was on the phone at the time, and I didn’t even mention it to the person on the other end.

It’s just a building site now.

The Westcombe News will be happy.

Yes, London had reasserted itself. That brief, wonderful time when you could talk to strangers and they wouldn’t blank you was drawing to a close. It’s like when the snow melts every winter and people wake up to the fact that those people they’ve been joking with about slipping and sliding are actually just people-in-the-way.

And with the closing of the Paralympics, the weather turned. After one last gasp of summer, the leaves began to fall from the trees, and conkers were trodden underfoot by the boots of the workmen dismantling the equestrian stadium in Greenwich Park.

Don’t be fooled by that sunshine. It’s autumn. Only downhill from here…

Sweet Chestnuts. In a few weeks’ time, when they’re at their best, Greenwich Park will be full of people sweeping these up into carrier bags. Don’t worry, though, you’ll see them again – when you pay £5 for a bag of them roasted, at a Christmas market.

So where is the meaning in all of this? Was it all, like the director of the Paralympic closing ceremony would have us believe, all spectacle to be consumed – like a bag of roast chestnuts bought at a Christmas market, a rare treat that we forget about until the next time? I will refrain from answering that question directly, and instead offer you what I’ll take away from the Games:

Omar Hassan of Djibouti. He was lapped twice by all the other competitors in the men’s T46 1500m race, and finished in 11m 23s – nearly seven minutes slower than his nearest competitor. At the end, he was the only man left running – or doing any kind of sport – in the Olympic arena, as 80,000 people got to their feet and cheered him on. At times it felt like he’d pack it all in (he was suffering from a foot injury, as it turns out), but he was there to the bitter end. “I thought of stopping,” he said afterwards. “But I kept going because I wanted to finish.” By far and away my best experience of either the Olympics or the Paralympics: a man who came last and registered one of the worst times in any major international championship, ever.

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Grave Intentions: Or, How I Didn’t Meet the Pope in Twickenham

I WAS the kid who always wanted to put his lucky dip back and choose something else until he got something that he liked. So perhaps experimental travel isn’t for me. It’s a method of travel that invites you to experience a place you know in a new way, or a place you don’t know in a different way. It means setting yourself strict preconditions to a journey, and sticking to them. The idea is that these arbitrary – and quite frequently bonkers – rules force you to see it in a different light. Some examples include “Backpacking at Home” – being a backpacker in a cheap hostel in your own city – or “Monopoly Travel” – find a Monopoly board for your chosen city and use it to navigate your way around the city, using dice to dictate your position on the board and, hence, in the city. I read about all this last week in the excellent  Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. But you can read about all of the ideas in the book, from the author, here.

Anyway, I had a Saturday to myself, solo, and I was at a loose end. So I decided to give it a go. The first method that I decided on was A-Z travel – find the first place in the index of the A-Z of where you live and then walk from there to the last place in the index. I’m not sure when you last looked in the index of the London A-Z, but let me refresh your memory: A is for Aaron Hill, E5, Beckton – just next to Beckton Sewage Treatment works and London City Airport. And, coincidentally, a mere 12.1 miles from Zoffany Street, N19, in Holloway. Yeah, maybe not.

So next was travel to K2. All you have to do is open a map of a place at random, and then travel to grid square K2 on the map. So I opened the A-Z of London. I got an industrial estate in Thamesmead. I closed the A-Z.

But I don’t want to go there… can I pick again?

Instead, I decided to make up my own experimental travel. I decided to visit the grave of a dead poet. It’s not a usual tourist destination and it will force me to go somewhere new. Thus, I decided, the criteria of experimental travel (such as they are) would be met.

A quick check of poetsgraves.co.uk (you mean you don’t have it bookmarked?  Now’s your chance…) and I had my target: the resting place of Alexander Pope, Twickenham. Pope, writing in the early 1700s, was a great satirist: he wrote about hypocrisy, greed and high society. He was a contemporary and friend of Jonathan Swift (of Gulliver’s Travels fame). He was also ostracised as a Catholic, stunted from ill health as a child (he had a hunchback and grew to be only 4ft 6in) and wrote bitter, angry, funny poetry. In short, there’s a lot to like about Pope. So why not visit his grave?

I packed for my journey: London 2012 water canteen (surgeons have tried to separate it from me, but no success so far), camera, and a copy of James Boswell’s London Journal, 1762 – 1763. Boswell’s not quite a contemporary of Pope’s, but he was the best guide to eighteenth century London that I had. His map wasn’t much use, though.

Obviously I am massively pretentious for taking the Boswell. I only took it to look good, I thought it would be boring. I opened it randomly when I was on the train into London, and started reading. This is what I read: “I was really unhappy for want of women. I thought it hard to be in such a place without them. I picked up a girl in the Strand; went into a court with intention to enjoy her in armour. But she had none. I toyed with her. She wondered at my size, and said if I ever took a girl’s maidenhead, I would make her squeak.” I closed the book. Great, just great. I’d packed the eighteenth century equivalent to Shades of Grey. Now how am I meant to look down derisively at people reading it on the tube? I suppose that I won’t have to look over their shoulders anymore to read it, though.

I made a detour on my way to Twickenham, to Marylebone High Street. I walked past an hour long queue for Madame Tussauds. Who would queue for an hour to go an see some wax models? I shook my head, walked past and checked that I was on time for my trip to a graveyard on the other side of London.

Marylebone High Street was an attempt to acclimatise myself to West London ways. It’s like making a gradual ascent of a mountain so you don’t get altitude sickness. Remember, I live in South East London. It’s the cultural equivalent of sea level (sorry South East London, but you know it’s true. And anyway, who wants to live on top of a mountain, right?).

I ate lunch here. I had thought that bringing Boswell’s journal made me pretentious, but sitting here, with my crab spinach wrap in hand, I felt strangely welcome. Also the disposable cutlery wasn’t made of plastic, nor wood. It was made of reconstituted potato starch. That’s right, cutlery made of POTATO STARCH. It’s bleeding edge organico-eco-green living. I also saw a woman doing her weekly grocery shop at this place. I mean, it was about £5 for a carrot. Who buys their carrots at a place like this? I suddenly felt very out of place in Marylebone. I looked for an Argos instead. That would restore my smug pretentiousness. Strangely, there isn’t an Argos on Marylebone High Street. I did manage to steal a potato starch knife, though. Take that, West London!

Actually, my real reason for the Marylebone stop was to visit Daunt books, a fantastic travel book shop. I had a book token burning a hole in my pocket.

Like Narnia.

Happily having just spent twice as much as I would I have paid on Amazon, I left the bookstore with a smart new book on travel photography. Next stop: Pope’s grave.

‘Pathetic fallacy’ refers to when a poet ascribes human feelings to the inanimate, such as “uncaring rain fell from the sky, and I began to regret my choice of experimental travel. ‘Can I choose again? I silently asked the raindrops as they snaked down the window. But they just kept on falling.”

Twickenham is as far away west by train from Waterloo as Greenwich, my home, is east: 20 minutes. It seemed like an age travelling in the wrong direction. I arrived to overcast skies, but at least the rain had stopped. I expected Twickenham to be full of posh gastropubs, with yummy-mummys pushing their bugaboo strollers down the street and men wearing driving gloves at the wheel of their sports cars. In fact, I was ejected from the station onto a main road. Everything was the colour of the sky: grey. And then I saw this:

I took this picture in August. AUGUST! This really depresses me. Our lives really are no more than endless steps along the Christmas hamsterwheel. It just keeps coming round again and again,  sooner each time.

I passed a few kebab shops, some chain pubs, a bit of graffiti. A Waitrose. That’s all that West London is, I realised: it’s just like south east London, but with a Waitrose. It started to drizzle.

Actually, then I found the nice part of Twickenham, next to the Thames. In South East London, the Thames is big enough to sail an aircraft carrier down. I’ve seen cruise ships moored off Greenwich. In Twickenham, the Thames is a pleasant river to stroll along, possibly stopping at a pub for some Eel Pie and a real ale, before taking out the rowboat for a bit of a paddle.

The Church! The Church where Pope is buried! I’d found it. But more importantly, I’d also found somewhere to shelter from the rain. Not that it was open, of course. I sheltered under the trees.

The cemetery was small, but old. I walked amongst and, frequently, over the graves. This is not a cemetery where people still get buried.

One of the more discernable headstones from 1799.

This cemetery is calling out for a Time Team episode. Where is Tony Robinson when you need him?

I really can’t think of anything funny to write about this headstone. Tragedy spans centuries.

I’d done a few orbits of the churchyard, checking headstones and taking pictures. Many were faded beyond readability, others were made unreadable by the glossy sheen of rainwater that covered everything.

Was one of these Pope? I had no idea.

Is that the sky reflected in the rainwater, or my own growing sense of futility?

A cracking, rumbling peal of thunder that shook the sky roused me from my headstone enquiries. I stood, alone, in the cemetery. And did I feel perhaps a little bit odd, a little tragic, that I had chosen to spend my saturday coming to this place on the other side of London? Maybe a little, but that moment when the thunder rolled around the cemetery was delicious in its atmosphere – what better, what more appropriate place, could I be during a thunderstorm, I thought to myself. I felt like a character in a novel. And then it started to rain. I mean, properly rain.

As I sheltered under the eaves of the church, I realised that actually, yes, I could think of several better places to be during a thunderstorm. Sod this, I thought, and pulled out my phone to let the internet tell me where in the graveyard Pope was buried. A swift google search later gave me the answer: inside the church. Pope isn’t even in the cemetery, he’s in the sodding church which was LOCKED!

My shoes filled with water. My jeans gained several pounds in weight and the denim began to stick to my legs. My coat wasn’t waterproof. My umbrella was inadequate. I stood under the eaves of the church taking pictures of the rain, until it was too wet to do even that. So instead I just stood and cursed the world.

After a while, the rain slackened off. There was still clearly water falling from the sky, but it was more like water from a hosepipe, not a pressure hose. As I stepped from under the eaves of the church, I saw a group of about five people across the street from the cemetery, sheltering under a doorway. They had quite clearly been watching me as I took photos of the place. They probably thought that I wanted to steal the lead from the roof. It was time to flee from this site of my failure. But then, just as I was leaving the graveyard, I saw it, high up on one wall of the church:

It’s not his grave, but it’s the grave of his servant and nurse. And he put it there himself. I count this as a victory.

My mood lifted immediately. None of it had been in vain! I’d found, sort of, what I came to see – evidence that Pope had been here. I gave a cheery wave to the people still sheltering in a doorway on the other side of the road, and squelched my way back to the station. I felt pretty good. I’d set myself some arbitrary rules, I’d been to a part of London I’d never been before, I’d had an experimental travel experience. My reward to myself? I went and bought my dinner at Waitrose.