Travels in 2012 (Part 2 of 4): A Plastic Union Jack in Devon

Object 2: A Plastic Union Jack**Ok pedants, let's get this out of the way: I know that it's technically only the Union Jack when it's flown on a ship (otherwise it's just the "Union Flag") but everyone calls it the Union Jack, so I'm going to call it that that too. The only time this fact ever emerges is either in pub quizzes or at particularly slow parties where conversation is sparse ("actually, did you know..." If you're at a party and someone begins a sentence with this phrase, it's probably best to cut your losses). Wikipedia totally backs me up on this point: "The Union Flag, commonly known as the Union Jack, is the flag of the United Kingdom." And Wikipedia's, like, always right. Right?

Object 2: A Plastic Union Jack*
*Ok pedants, let’s get this out of the way: I know that it’s technically only the Union Jack when it’s flown on a ship (otherwise it’s just the “Union Flag”) but everyone calls it the Union Jack, so I’m going to call it that that too. The only time this fact ever emerges is either in pub quizzes or at particularly slow parties where conversation is sparse (“actually, did you know…” If you’re at a party and someone begins a sentence with this phrase, it’s probably best to cut your losses). Wikipedia totally backs me up on this point: “The Union Flag, commonly known as the Union Jack, is the flag of the United Kingdom.” And Wikipedia’s, like, always right. Right?

YES, 2012 was a special year for the Union Jack, its big outing. Sure there had been that Royal Wedding thing back in 2011, but that was really just practice for the Main Event. The Diamond Jubilee. Oh yes and the Olympics, that was happening too. Man there was going to be so much flag waving! And all the the little Union Jacks, all in a line, flapping along as bunting. It made an old Jack smile just to think of it. All over the UK, the Union Jack snapped back and forth in the wind. Well actually, it mostly hung in a damp kind of way, twitching limply in the drizzle. But in its mind, it was flying straight and true.

They grow up so quickly...

They grow up so quickly…

THE BEGINNING of June 2012 was special for those of us living in the UK, because we all got an extra bank holiday in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. This was combined with a bank holiday that usually happened at the end of May but had been moved to June to make a Super Mega Weekend of four days. As is traditional for bank holidays, it rained throughout. London was the epicentre of it all, culminating in a Royal Regatta down the Thames with all the Royal Family in attendance. What a treat.

Naturally my partner, Beckie, and I decided to leave London, to escape the Jubilee madness. After consulting transport information, road atlases, the stars and a palm reader, we decided that the most auspicious time to leave this city of 8.2 million people would be the Friday evening before the beginning of the four day weekend. What could possibly go wrong?

The advantage of this plan, I discovered, was that it mitigated the risk of the car breaking down. How? Because when you’re stationary, it doesn’t matter whether your engine works or not. The car didn’t break down, but if it had, we could have pushed it all the way to Devon and we’d still have got there at the same time. We finally arrived SEVEN AND A HALF HOURS LATER.

Rather than staying in a hotel, we were house sitting. Which is to say, we have friends who live in Devon who were on holiday during the Jubilee weekend, and we invited ourselves to stay at their house. When we arrived we were met with a note apologising because they hadn’t had time to clean the oven for our arrival. We have never cleaned our oven. In my entire life, I think that I have only ever cleaned an oven once, and then under duress.

Rather than staying in a hotel, we were house sitting. Which is to say, we have friends who live in Devon who were on holiday during the Jubilee weekend, and we invited ourselves to stay at their house. When we arrived we were met with a note apologising because they hadn't had time to clean the oven for our arrival. I have never cleaned our oven. This picture of a nearby structure of ambiguous history and utility - such as are found scattered across the south west of England - was actually taken the year before, when we'd last stayed with them. Then it was sunny. During the jubilee weekend it rained perpetually. Whenever I walked in the house and saw my muddy footprints, all I could think of was the dirty oven. Don't clean your oven when I come to stay? Don't expect me to wipe my feet. No sir.

This nearby structure of ambiguous history and utility I actually photographed the year before, when we’d last stayed with our friends in Devon. Then it was sunny. During the Jubilee weekend it rained perpetually. Whenever I walked in the house and saw my muddy footprints, all I could think of was the dirty oven. Don’t clean your oven when I come to stay? Don’t expect me to wipe my feet. No sir.

IF WE thought that in leaving London, we were leaving the Jubilee celebrations behind, we were wrong. Devon is a place of winding, single track roads, hemmed by ten foot hedges. We’d round a blind corner (which is every corner on every road in Devon) to discover that we’d entered a small village or hamlet – every single one bedecked in bunting and Union Jacks. For those non-Brits reading this, please understand how odd it is for us (or how odd it was before 2012 anyway) to have flags anywhere. We’re not like North America, where everyone has a flagpole in their garden. Once, when I was on business in the US, I mentioned to one of my US colleagues that I”d heard that some people in the US wanted a constitutional amendment to prevent flag burning. He nodded vehemently, and proudly showed me a picture of the flag that he has hanging outside the front of his house. “It just makes me mad when I see flags that are all raggedy,” he told me, “when people just aren’t caring for them. I think, have you no pride?” He was driving at the time, and stared moodily at the road, no doubt picturing all the injustices that flags were suffering around the world, before adding: “If I saw someone right now setting light to a flag by the side of the highway, I’d stop this car, get out and punch them.”

In Britain, we have a different relationship with our flag.

Plastic Union Jacks are excellent at keeping you dry when it's raining. In fact, this particular bum-saver was actually one of many distributed in the Olympic park during the 2012 Olympics. We never even had it in Devon. So how can it be the object of my post for Devon, you ask? Well, it was raining in Devon, there were lots of flags and, more importantly, the Jubilee weekend and the Olympics have come to be the same thing in the popular consciousness, eliding the gap in time between the two events. See my helpful chart below, which explains this phenomenon.

Plastic Union Jacks are excellent at keeping you dry when it’s raining. In fact, this particular bum-saver was actually one of many distributed in the Olympic park during the 2012 Olympics. We never even had one in Devon. So how can it be the object of my post for Devon, you ask? Well, it was raining in Devon, there were lots of flags and, more importantly, the Jubilee weekend and the Olympics have come to be the same thing in the popular consciousness, eliding the gap in time between the two events. See my helpful chart below, which explains this phenomenon.

JubilympicsAnyway, thanks to the Jubilympics, Union Jacks are cool again. And there was no escaping them in Devon. Or the rain.

BUT ON our final day, the sun came out, we went to a Jubilee Party and I almost felt patriotic. We were in the tiny village of East Prawle, on the coast. We lunched in the tiny  pub, the Pigs Nose; it was the kind of place with boat hooks, nets and smuggling paraphernalia on the wall, exclusively cider on tap, and where everyone talked like a pirate. It was exactly what I love Devon for. And, yes, everyone was very understanding when the barman announced over the PA that a car with my registration number was parked on the village green and was preventing the village’s Jubilee party from being set up. Very understanding.

Dear People of the Pigs Nose: coming from London, I'm not used to green space. That's why I mistook your village green for a car park.

Dear People of the Pigs Nose: coming from London, I’m not used to green space. That’s why I mistook your village green for a car park.

We ate some pie, drank some cider, and went for a walk along the coast.

Sailing Coasting

And when we came back, we joined the East Prawle Jubilee party. There was a folk band, there was sun, there were Union Jacks. Yes the ground was a bit wet and yes some idiot had left tire marks all over the village green, but for a few wonderful hours, I was happy to wave a flag, cheer on kids in swing boats and dance with strangers. I’m not sure how much it had to do with Queen and country, but it had everything to do with community.

Ok, so some people took the whole flag thing a bit too far.

Ok, so some people took the whole flag thing a bit too far.

Exactly where my car was parked only three hours earlier.

Exactly where my car was parked only three hours earlier.

I'll be honest, I don't think that this chap really is the captain of a ship.

I’ll be honest, I don’t think that this chap really is the captain of a ship.

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.