When Cardiff is like a Film Noire

THE TRAVELODGE that I stayed in was wonderful. Or it would have been if I’d been on a Stag weekend (that’s Bachelor Party to North American readers). It was not the right choice for a business trip.

Cardiff is great city. Friendly people, good shopping, great nightlife, beautiful surrounding countryside. A good place to hang out. I know all this because I have been there before. And for that I am grateful, because otherwise I would have a very dim view of the city indeed. A dim view based on limited factors it’s true, but when travelling to a new place sometimes all it can take is a friendly smile or a snide remark to shape your view of a place. Even with an open mind, a catalogue of these things can turn you into a falling domino-line of judgement, seeking the swiftest escape possible from a place. Frankly, if the quickest way to leave Cardiff had been, through some weird timewarp, to paradrop over Normandy in 1944, I’d have given it some serious consideration.

Red leaves, reminiscent of the red scales of the welsh dragon… a tenuous link? You bet it is. I have no photos of my 24 hours in Cardiff, because a) I didn’t have my camera with me and b) I wanted to forget it. So instead, you have these calming pictures of autumn taken in Oxleas Wood, Welling, London, yesterday. As my blood pressure was rising in Cardiff, this was the happy place I went to in my mind.

So. The Travelodge. I arrived in Cardiff at about 8.45pm. I was initially misdirected by a taxi driver (“you don’t need a taxi, it’s that building right in front of you.” No it wasn’t. But you can’t go back to the taxi rank once you’ve been given directions, never mind how wrong they were. You’ve just got to forge ahead regardless. Otherwise you’re not just a clueless tourist but stupid too. I’m pretty sure that’s the law). It was raining.

I tramped through the centre of Cardiff to my hotel. I passed takeaways and pubs, clubs and bars. Sure, there were loads of other shops, but it was nearly 9pm and they were all closed, their shopfronts dark. Through the drizzle, it seemed like the only thing in Cardiff was booze. As I passed girls in six inch heels and six inch skirts, I felt like an extra in a government sponsored binge-drinking awareness advert.

Autumn leaves are highlighted by a shaft of October sun, slanting down exactly like sunshine doesn’t in Cardiff.

I arrived at the hotel, which was situated “in the heart of Cardiff,” i.e. on the busy main street packed with pubs and clubs, Queen Street. It was raining. I was wet.

How convenient, I thought, this would be if I were in a drinking mood. Not only is Cardiff’s vibrant nightlife literally on my doorstep, but the reception also doubles up as a bar. There were beer taps right there on the reception. Food was served 24 hours a day in a little room next to the reception (“it’s not just a restaurant, it’s like a takeaway place at the end of the night – all in the comfort of your hotel”). There were clear signs about how to behave, in several different languages (“WE WILL NOT TOLERATE ANY ABUSE OF OUR RECEPTION STAFF”). And when I’d checked in and arrived in my small, sparse but functional room, I was naturally overjoyed to discover that there was a bottle opener screwed onto the desk, so that I could enjoy some pre-loading in the comfort of my own room before heading on my fictional night out. And from the sounds of things I wouldn’t have to move far to experience the noise and atmosphere of a pub. In fact, I could enjoy these things sitting on my bed: the shouting was distinct and music spilled in from the window, ready to fill any uncomfortable silences.

I quickly changed and headed out into the rain again. The bright neon lights of a noodle bar dragged me through the darkness, its warm glow promising respite from the constant drizzle. I wasn’t eating alone in Wagamama’s, I was Deckard out of Blade Runner, moodily fuelling myself up before running down some simulants. I read my Murakami book (Kafka on the Shore, in case you were wondering), stared at my fellow diners and devoured a plate of yaki udon.

Then I headed back to the Travelodge. Since I had last ventured onto the dark streets of Cardiff, the heels had seemed to get higher, the skirts shorter, the walking more unsteady. Time for bed, I thought, to dream of electric sheep.

But as I sat in my room and listened to the music which had started up in the club next door, along with the serenading of “Surfin’ in the USA” which I was receiving from a Karaoke who-knows-where, I began to think that sleep may prove a little elusive…

…calming autumn colours in the sunlight. My Happy Place. There’s no stress here in the woods, no anger, only sunshine. No anger. No anger…

…so I went and complained. There was nothing they could do about the noise. Did they have any earplugs? A cursory glance in a box full of electronics gear ascertained that they didn’t have any. Not headphones, earplugs. Oh. No, they didn’t have any of those either. But wait! They did have some cotton wool. They bought it for the hoover, apparently (I never got to the bottom of why). But I was welcome to two cotton wool balls. Being British, I naturally thanked them for their time, apologised for troubling them and then retreated to my room.

THE COTTON wool balls didn’t work. The thing that they couldn’t stop was the way that the room shook with the bass from the club. That would have taken a lot more cotton wool, more even that they’d bought for the hoover. I was in a quandry. The thing is, the reception staff were actually really nice, helpful, and polite. But they couldn’t help me. This wasn’t their fault, I was just in the wrong hotel. What did I expect for £34 per night? Little men in bowler hats opening the door for me? I’d already complained once. The British thing would just be to put up with it, not to cause a fuss. The room shuddered in time with the beat. Rain splashed down the windows. What would Deckard do, I wondered?

So I did the most un-British of things. I packed my bags, told the reception staff that I was leaving and headed out into the night. What would Deckard do? He’d clearly book another hotel on Laterooms.com. And as I walked through the rain for the fourth time that night, I passed a group of about ten students standing around a busker, singing Champagne Supernova at the top of their voices:

Wake up the dawn and ask her why
A dreamer dreams she never dies
Wipe that tear away now from your eye
Slowly walking down the hall
Faster than a cannon ball
Where were you when we were getting high?

Amidst the darkness and the wet of dystopian Cardiff, the singing brought a smile to my lips, and I was happy that someone was having fun. I just wished that they’d do it a bit quieter. So I resolved to do that most British of things, and to write a strongly worded letter.

It’s a funny thing the way strange and beautiful life is found even amidst damp, darkness and decay.

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.

Bring Me Sunshine: Morecambe & Lancaster

I FREQUENTLY travel Up North on a weekend, visiting friends on one side of the pennines or another. It’s nice to get out of London, it’s refreshing to have conversations with strangers, and it makes me smile to see people queue for the bus, rather than launch themselves on – perhaps leaving a fingernail embedded in one of the unfortunates not quick or able enough to climb aboard (Up North aggression is instead left until 2am on a Sunday morning outside Wetherspoons, inside Chicken Cottage, or whilst waiting for a taxi. As we all know, these moments of violence are principally caused by inadequate queueing systems).

So I was looking forward to the journey, and the opportunity to blog about this historic yet often-passed-by-city. Nothing could dampen my spirits.

God measures His love for a place in raindrops rather than sunbeams, right?

On average London receives 52mm of rain in August; Lancaster receives 128mm. So obviously I was happy that I would be getting an Authentic Travel Experience for my first non-Olympics related post. I wasn’t disappointed.

That’s real Northern rain, right there. None of this southern sunshine guff.

Virgin Trains announced last week that they were unsuccessful in their bid to renew their 15 year contract running the West Coast mainline. Strangely, I found myself feeling a little sad at this fact. So many hours of my life have been spent stuck in the middle of nowhere on their red seats. Also, they were the first train company to give us those toilets with the slowly revolving doors that someone inevitably forgets to lock: you push the button to open the door, and then must watch in horror and embarrassment as someone enthroned upon the toilet is slowly revealed. Your eyes meet, fleetingly, for a moment, and you know that you’ve just shared something that should never be shared. You jab ineffectually at the door close button, but the moment lasts forever and the door keeps on opening. Then, eventually, mercifully, it slowly revolves closed, and you’re left alone, with just the sound of the train, and perhaps a stifled laugh. And the worst bit? You have to find another toilet – because you can’t stay there, waiting outside for the other person to finish. You must never meet them again. Goodbye, Virgin Trains.

Fortunately, the residents of Lancaster are used to wiling away the hours indoors whilst the rain falls outside.

There really are rules to this game.

It rained all night, but Saturday dawned… grey. Not a great prospect when we were intending a BBQ for the evening. There was little time to muse on the weather, though, as we were soon hightailing to Morecambe, just north of Lancaster. Our shopping list: leather chaps, chains, a native american costume, a bow and arrow, a handlebar moustache. (The closure of the Lancaster fancy dress shop is bitterly regretted by the city’s inhabitants, but is good for Morecambe as on Saturday it boosted its tourism by approximately 300%. It would have been more, but we couldn’t all fit in the car).

Morecambe Bay. Tragically British.

Bring Me Sunshine…

Still, I thought, the advantage to being a rundown seaside resort is that there will always be space on the beach, and low demand keeps down the price of deckchair hire.

Reservations not required.

I was tempted…

Not to mention the price of lunch.

Things really are cheaper Up North.

My time in Morecambe was brief – so instead, I leave you with this video put together by the hard working and well meaning Friends of Morecambe Winter Garden, about their efforts to restore the Victorian Theatre to its former glory. It’s possible that it wasn’t meant to be funny… but it is authentically Northern, in every way. Find it here.

We drew a blank on the leather chaps and the chains, so that was one member of YMCA that wouldn’t be making an appearance that evening at the fancy dress party. To complete the remaining costumes, I was despatched into the centre of Lancaster with one goal: to purchase a bow and arrow.

Lancaster is a strange mix of old victorian architecture, budget shopping and hip studentville. It’s a small city – you could walk from one end to the other in an hour – but it’s got some great buildings and it even feels kinda hippy in places.

This is probably what Lancaster would look like if you were on LSD.

People of Lancaster: I think that you’re better than this. A brief covert survey of customers attending this bakery and a well known high street rival, positioned across the street, told me otherwise, however. Poundbakery: 4 . G****s: 2.

Until recently (last year in fact), the castle was a prison. Its use was discontinued due to the escape of notorious convict R. Punzel, via unconventional means.

We set our sights on Lancaster’s three pound shops as likely venues in which to find a bow and arrow.

There really is no good reason for me to use this photograph except to use the line: in poundland, things were a bit on the…

Exhausted from our experience in three different poundlands, distressed that we had found no bow and arrow, we retired to the Storey Institute for lunch and some covert intelligence gathering.

The Storey Institute. A wonderful building that is home to the Lancaster LitFest and various creative businesses. Also, coincidentally, where our wedding reception will be held. Last week the company which owns the venue went into liquidation, and the council has withdrawn funding for the building. Our intelligence gathering was compromised by Beckie loudly talking in front of the bar staff about how we were going to get married there. She was not very forthcoming with intelligence, beyond “we might not be here in a month.” Great. Do you know how many hours of my life I spent going around wedding venues? Do you? I travelled the country to find this place…. Then Beckie gently peeled my fingers off of the bar maid’s collar and made me put her down. Afterwards, I sat in a darkened room to calm down.

Do you know how difficult it is to find a venue to fit a literature themed wedding? DO YOU?!

This dress is made entirely of books. Apparently “it’s a fire hazard” to get married in it, so Beckie tells me. Consequently I’m not allowed to wear it.

We’re getting married in the strange, green nipple shaped thing on the horizon.

Sitting in the Storey Institute cafe, I stared into the dregs of my Americano. “Perhaps someone will save the place?” I wondered aloud. “But if they don’t… what if…” Fortunately, at that moment, we were saved from a close encounter with reality by the interruption of friends who had also chosen to eat lunch at the cafe. Friendly banter staved off The Conversation. The sun came out. And we did gain important intelligence, after all: Lancaster has a FOURTH pound shop. Yes, Pound Fever was going to be our saviour. With an optimistic bounce in our step, we set off to find a bow and arrow.

Sunshine really does make everything better.

It cost three quid, not £1, but we forgave Pound Fever because it was sunny, and because we were desperate.

The BBQ was a success. There’s probably a beautiful metaphor here about the delicate nature of spider webs, their transient beauty and our wedding venue. Unfortunately, moments later the bin which this web was attached to was moved, and the spider despatched as a potential hazard to party goers.

And we still don’t know whether we’ll have a venue for our wedding reception. But if my journey to Lancaster reminded me of anything, it was that it’s always the people that make a place. And surely the same must be true of a wedding, right? (street party…?)

The sailor is Lenny, the birthday boy of multiple Village People costumes fame. I didn’t see him use that bow and arrow all bloody night…

A strange love: Or, how we learned to stop moaning and love the Olympics – Part 2

I bloody love the Olympics.

FIRST THINGS first. The Olympics may be over, but I’m a convert, ok? Let’s just get that out in the open. Ok, maybe I wasn’t as sceptical as I initially claimed to be. But I don’t just mean that I’ve stopped moaning and I think that it’s bearable. I LOVED the Olympics. Seriously. And Coca-Cola. I love that too. Especially when I get to buy it with my Visa card.

Love it.

It’s been a week of firsts. I have never, ever watched as much sport as I have over the past seven days. Not just over the week, but in one sitting. I’ve watched hours and hours without moving. On the telly. Live, on a pitch. On a giant screen. In the sun. In the rain. I’ve watched sport. This may not seem like a big deal to many people, but it is to me. I’m not a football fan. I don’t really understand rugby, even though I pretend that I do. Cricket is a complete mystery to me. Tennis I like, but I always thought that it’d be better if you could just skip to the match point. When Wimbledon’s on I pretend to watch it whilst really reading a book. But last night something strange happened. One minute I was watching Mo Farah running in the men’s final 5000m, then my memory goes a bit hazy, then the first thing I know I’m on my feet, jumping up and down and shouting like a lunatic. “Come on Mo! Come on Mo! Yes! YESSS! YESSSSSS! Mo FAAAAAAAAARRRRAAAAAAAH!”

I honestly have no idea what I’m cheering about here. And is that a sweatband that I’m wearing? What’s happened to me?

If you could see inside me last night, this is probably what you would have seen. This kid was actually over the moon that I took a picture of his poster. Less so when I stole it off him.

There are lots of reasons why I’ve come to love the Olympics and properly enjoyed watching sports for perhaps the first time in my life. Most obviously, I think that it’s that I’ve been forced to watch sports. As I’ve previously mentioned, London 2012 is a Once In A Lifetime Experience, and watching is compulsory. I never used to like olives, until I realised that they could make even the most excruciating dinner party a little more bearable. So I ate them until I liked them. Now I can’t stop eating them. So perhaps liking sport is like liking olives.

Using a bent wooden stick to hit a giant fluorescent ball around a bright blue pitch bordered with garish pink. That’s hockey. I’ve learnt a lot about sport this week.

Sometimes the people on the pitch put the fluorescent ball into things called “goals.” This rule only applies to teams whose country code is not GB. It’s a rule I’m familiar with from having watched England play football on a few occasions.

I tried to get into football at university, having never watched it as a kid and finding myself in a house of five football fans. On Saturdays, there was nowhere in the house where I couldn’t either see/hear/feel through the floor a) football on telly, b)  football on Five Live radio or c) football being played on the Playstation. It didn’t work out. Frankly, I found it a little intimidating when people were able to tell me how many goals a certain person had scored this year, or how many times a team that they didn’t even follow had or hadn’t won something. It felt like I was constantly trying to play catch up, like I had to absorb sixty years of sporting history before I could even hope to understand a Premiership match. Also, I didn’t really identify with the footballers, or the machismo that seemed to go with them. Neither did it help that I couldn’t play football myself. I tried playing a bit of five-a-side a few years ago, but people kept shouting at me. Apparently I’m f$%£ing sh$£%. I know this, because a lot of people told me so. Usually from the other side of the pitch. Or the sidelines. Or sometimes just whispered in my ear. Needless to say, it didn’t do much for my self esteem.

But at the Olympics, it’s not just about football. It’s about loads of sports. No one knows the rules, and some of them are just bonkers, like handball:

It’s hard not to love handball.

And they tell you how to behave whilst watching the sport, thus minimising the chances of me embarrassing myself by cheering and/or clapping at the wrong point:

One of many not-so-subliminal messages that they feed you whilst watching sport at the Olympics. If there’s ever a dull moment, then they play the opening to “We Will Rock You.” En masse, like some pavlovian mass-cult suicide at the appearance of a comet, the entire audience starts clapping in time and Having Fun.

But maybe it’s also being in London, going to the Olympic Park. Maybe it’s because everyone’s involved – both in spectating and participating. There are hurdlers who went to Eton, sailors in their fifties and boxers from Hull. And a man who came to the UK when he was 8 from a city called Mogadishu and wasn’t that good at school but who is one of the greatest British Olympians. Plus there’s no one telling me that I’m f$£^ing s$%£!, which is nice.

Everyone loves the Olympics. Except maybe Mastercard.

Enforcing fun. “No high five, no entry.”

Ok, maybe it is a little inspiring. But some people got a little carried away.

Oh, and having cold, tasty coca-cola to drink probably also helped me to enjoy it. Because coca-cola is fun. Oh, and sporty too. Coke is fun and sporty. Don’t forget it.

You could be having this much fun in a swimming cap if only you were drinking coca-cola right now.

BUT LET me tell you a little about the Olympic Park.

It’s funny how something so new can already be so iconic.

It’s big. And there was definitely a party atmosphere, and it wasn’t just because of the Coca-Cola people. This week’s Economist noted that “the long trudge from Stratford station to the Olympic Park is lined with grinning volunteers, many shouting cheery messages reminding people that this is a once-in-a-lifetime-event… It sounds cheesy, particularly for Britain. Yet it works.” It’s a measure of how successful this policy is that I hadn’t even noticed that it was a long walk from the tube. Evidently the Olympics has taken the edge off my cynicism. The volunteers are an important part of the experience, however.

This woman is singing a sea shanty. I’m not even joking.

There were lifeguards with megaphones, just in case you forgot to be happy.

But it wasn’t just the volunteers. It was the people actually at the Olympics. Everyone was friendly. People talked. This is not the London I know and love! I spoke to some people to find out why they were being so friendly. It turned out that they weren’t from London. Suddenly it all made sense! My faith in London was restored, however, when on the 108 bus home from Stratford a man refused to get off the bus when the bus driver told him to, and we all had to wait until the police arrived. Thank you, London, Thank you (and thanks to you, man on the 108 bus who made children cry and an entire bus of people wait around for half an hour). For the Olympics, though, I tolerated the smiles and generosity of the tourists and my fellow sports enthusiasts.

Who are these people? I have no idea, but they gave us our flags because they bought too many flags from poundland, and I love them for it (“too many flags.” I know, right? As if it would ever be possible.)

A touching moment of cross-nation unity, or a cynical exercise in hedging your bets?

Unfortunately I left my national dress at home.

These guys didn’t though. My biggest disappointment of the games was not finding someone in a Beefeater costume.

And if you weren’t watching sport live, drinking Coca-Cola, or eating in the world’s largest McDonald’s then there were plenty of other things to do as well.

There was some telly to watch. And I didn’t even want to fast forward to the match point.

Like all good sporting events, there were cheerleaders. Apparently wearing half a garden on their heads.

Those crazy coca cola people take a break from both fun and sun.

All of the sponsors of the event had big installations where you could have a look around and get free stuff. Most of them had huge queues all of the time. But it turns out if you choose not to watch the Men’s 100m Final then anywhere that isn’t the stadium or near a big screen is fairly deserted.

Outside the stadium at the time of the 100m final. It sounded pretty noisy in there.

So it was that we ended up in the Coca Cola Beat Box, a crazy hall of mirrors where everything is fun fun fun.

I remember arriving at the Coca Cola Beat Box. I remember that the staff were A Lot Of Fun. Then it all goes a bit blurry.

The good people of Coca Cola showed us how we could be Having Fun All The Time, if only we drank more Coca Cola. Here Beckie has her moment of Realisation.

This is our initiation into the Coca Cola Fraternity. Obviously I can’t tell you what’s happening here, because you’re not at Level 3 Coca Cola Consumption.

And this is the pay off. It’s like the Olympics, only in a bottle.

So. That was the Olympics. Sport, people being friendly and some fairly slick organisation – from event organisers and advertisers alike.

As I write this I am watching the Closing Ceremony of the Olympics. Part of me is happy that now I won’t be obliged to watch sport All Of The Time. It’ll be nice to have my evenings back. But a larger part of me thinks that London might just be a little bit better if there were pink shirted volunteers with giant foam fingers on every street more of the time.

Seb Coe’s final words at the London 2012 Olympic Ceremony: “Britain, when the time came, we did it right.”

A strange love: or how we learned to stop moaning and love the Olympics – Part 1

THE DATE – Tuesday, Olympics Day 4 (on Britain’s new calendar, which will evermore count from the start of London 2012. Get with it, world – GMT is over). The place: Olympic epicentre +1, Greenwich. Returning to work from leave is always a massive downer. Having to think about my travel arrangements the night before disrupted my customary state of denial, making it all the worse. But Boris Johnson’s disembodied voice had been telling me for weeks that I needed to “get ahead of the Games” – at stations, on buses, on trains, in my sleep. So I duly checked.

Changed timetable. Only two direct services the whole morning from the station near my house. A hazy memory of a headline from my free local community newspaper surfaced. Yes, the Westcombe Park News had been up in arms with this change to this status quo. Yes, I had blithely dismissed their rampant nimbyism. But now this was affecting ME. Maybe they were right to be angry? No, I thought, that way lies madness. But my train is going to be chocka tomorrow. Great.

Olympics Day 4 dawned. I duly headed to the station, strategically positioning myself on the platform where I knew the train doors would stop, standing well away from anyone with pushchairs, small children, or anyone who might be pregnant and/or injured (it’s more difficult to push them out of the way without attracting disapproving glances from fellow commuters – This Is London). The train arrived. Everybody got on, no one was sardined.

A commuter train, sometime last week. Remember to turn off your flash and the shutter noise on your phone when taking pictures of strangers on deathly silent commuter trains at 7.30am. People will give you funny looks otherwise.

Careful manoeuvring even resulted in me getting a seat after a couple of stops. I had a good book (The Hunger Games, in case you were wondering – compulsive reading that also has something to say about  the role of big sporting events in society, in an oblique kind of way). I was looking forward to clocking up a few chapters as we sat in a queue of other trains outside London Bridge station. But no. My journey was swift and untroubled. Quicker, even, than normal.

Arriving in London I found myself wishing for a few more precious moments with my book. Where was this guilt-free travel time I’d be promised (“The Olympics made me late for work”)?

Waterloo station had been transformed. The past few months it’s been a building site. But now? Where before there were workmen and cement mixers, now there are Volunteers and coffee shops.

Sickeningly helpful. Don’t stand on the right, though, or you’ll make them angry.

I swear that this wasn’t here two weeks ago. Is it a cruel joke, just popping up to make all the Olympics visitors think that Londoners spend their days sipping lattes in hip coffee shops? In protest, I bitterly resolved never to drink here.

Reaching work at an entirely reasonable time, I compared notes with my colleagues. “I couldn’t believe it,” said one, “there were no problems at all on my line. It’s been fine, for two days running now.” “Yeah, me too,” I agreed. “Shocker isn’t it?” We both paused for a moment, before my colleague added: “The athletics start next week. It’ll probably be awful then.” I nodded in agreement.

My journey home was a different story. All trains were delayed coming out of Waterloo East and London Bridge. There were no direct trains. I missed my connection. “I knew it would be like this,” I told myself as I lost all track of time standing on the platform and reading my thoroughly engrossing book.

You’ll be lucky.

So the next day I decided to experiment by taking a bus to the nearest tube station (which happens to be North Greenwich, where – surprise surprise – the North Greenwich arena is: AKA the millenium dome, AKA the O2) and travel in using the Jubilee Line.

What the year 2000 gave us.

New cable cars over the river from North Greenwich to the ExCel Centre. Because how else would you get across the Thames?

Needless to say, my journey was remarkable only for its swiftness. This efficiency was starting to shake my travel convictions. And then, on the way home, I got on the tube at Westminster, the home of tourists taking pictures and standing in my way. And I started to get a funny feeling.

Nothing is above Olympic branding.

A giant wooden structure made up of the flags of all the countries competing in the Olympics had been set up in Parliament Square. It’s actually quite cool. I found myself standing side by side with tourists, taking pictures of it.

At least one tourist from South Korea has this exact same shot. I know, because a) I queued behind him for the position to take the shot and b) apparently the Olympics means that everyone is now required by law to identify their nationality with their flag somewhere about their person AT ALL TIMES.

Obviously the disadvantage of wooden flags is that they don’t ripple in the wind, which, as a seasoned flag photographer, I take as a bit of a blow. But you can’t have everything.

As I stood alongside others taking the exact same picture as me, I began to think – maybe the Olympics being here is cooler than I thought? I mean, I always knew it was going to be exciting it being in London – but maybe it’s even worth my train back from work getting disrupted?

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience.” Most overused phrase when the Olympics is in town. Often used in conjunction with either a) a minor travel inconvenience that probably has no real bearing on your life or b) something that you didn’t want to do anyway which the Olympics now gives you an excuse for not doing. For example, not wanting to work past 4.30 in the afternoon. “I’ve got tickets for the [insert sport here that you’ve never watched in your life]. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, so I’m leaving work early.”

Olympics Day 6 dawned and with it came a strange sense of exuberance. The Olympics was in town! I decided to push my investigative travel journalism even further and this time cycle into central London.

Licence to ignore all red lights, terrify pedestrians and have righteous anger about all other road users. Also the most dangerous thing you’ll ever do in London.

Yes, there were crazy diversions around Greenwich. Yes, I risked my life several times by passing into an Olympic lane (watch out: there are snipers on the buildings). But I wasn’t just cycling – I was doing my bit for the Olympics by keeping public transport free for others; others who were making a much more important journey, to the Olympic Park. I was cycling for the Olympics! It’s bit like I was Bradley Wiggins.

This is our Olympic mascot. No one knows why.

They even painted the Olympic colours in the sky.

And throughout Olympic Day 6, I had a wonderful warm sense inside me – because I knew that at home I had the equivalent of a Willy Wonka golden ticket, and I was actually excited about the prospect:

The population of the UK divides nearly in two: those with tickets, and those who applied for tickets and didn’t get any. One half of the population is even more cynical than the other.

At work that day, my colleague and I kept checking the text updates on the BBC website about how Team GB were performing. As the results were coming in, we were getting more and more excited, until in the afternoon he wandered over the my desk. “We’ve got two golds!” He announced, “shooting and cycling!” “Fantastic,” I said, “that’s great news. So where are we in the medals table? We must be pretty high now.” “Yes, we’re in sixth place.” “Sixth? That’s great. We were in twentieth place only yesterday.” His face darkened. “What? What’s wrong?” I asked. He shook his head. “France are still above us.” “Ah,” I said, glumly.

NEXT TIME: My Olympic fever reaches new heights as I visit the Olympic Park.

Living with the Olympics: Days 1 – 3

WE ARRIVED into London Heathrow on Friday, returning from Berlin (more about that later). I was fully expecting to queue for a long time, whilst tracksuited athletes whisked through. In fact, I queued longer to enter Berlin (a city which is surely the last word in efficient transport). The Immigration Officer even smiled when I wished him a Happy Olympics. Didn’t say anything, just smiled. Presumably he was too overcome with joy to get the words out.


Sports Day.

Two tube journeys later, we were home in Greenwich. I counted fifteen Olympics volunteers on our journey. They’re everywhere in London – encouraged to wear their uniforms as much as possible.

Here to Help.

Notice London 2012 Games

As if you wouldn’t

Like 22 million others across the UK, we watched the opening ceremony that same evening. Yes I’d seen the volunteers. Yes I’d seen the erection of a vast stadium in Greenwich park. Yes I knew it was all happening here. But it still felt like I was watching a show millions of miles away, happening somewhere in TV land. Until the fireworks started. Stratford is across the river from us, maybe 5 or 6 miles away. We couldn’t see the fireworks, but we could hear them. And we could feel their reverberations coming through the floor. There goes the neighbourhood, I thought.

Welcome to the Games.

Greenwich is where the equestrian events are.

But it was the Beach Volleyball that won me over. I was watching it whilst chopping onions to make a bolognese sauce. Suddenly I found myself whooping and fist pumping the air as team GB staged a comeback to beat the Canadians. I know nothing  about beach volleyball but it’s being played at Horseguard’s Parade and I Iove it. What other sports have been kept from me my whole life? Perhaps I will discover a passion for archery? There were tears in my eyes when Dampney and Mullin scored the winning point (it was the onions).

So, today we went out onto the heath which sits on our doorstep, side by side with Greenwich park.

As I say, equestrian events. On the Heath.

But the Heath is mainly for queueing. The real events are in the park.

The sun was shining, for once it wasn’t raining and even the people queueing looked happy (and, let’s be honest, this is the real British Olympic Sport – queueing. We’d sweep the board in it). Police were everywhere, which was comforting. There were surface to air missiles. The addition of a radar site was comforting, I thought – at least they’ll know what to shoot at. And there was generally a bit of a carnival atmosphere.

Britain’s guaranteed gold: queueing.

This man thought he’d won a medal in the queueing.

We even saw Charles and Camilla drive by, accompanied by four police motorcycle outriders.. Unfortunately I was too slow with the camera, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

If you’ve ever been to London before, you’ll know that all the pedestrian crossings have big words painted on the road saying <—– LOOK LEFT or LOOK RIGHT —–> This is so all the foreign tourists don’t get run over because they look the wrong way crossing the road. But this is the Olympics and the world is watching so we don’t want any tourists getting run over. So now there are lollypop ladies (and men) to help you cross the road.

This does make it difficult to taunt tourists from the other side of the road. They’re less likely to get run over when they run after you. Instead I’ll have to settle for tutting at them when they stand on the WRONG SIDE OF THE ESCALATOR (a heinous crime in London – the left is for walking up or down the escalator, the right is for non-Londoners).

The police were out to enforce the rules, though.

Point and Shoot.

There’s a funfair and a big screen showing the Olympics at the end of the heath next to Blackheath village. Over the weekend people were sitting out with picnics, watching sports  and making the most of the sunshine.

All in all it’s very sedate and civilised – or at least it is in Greenwich. Families, orderly queues, plenty of flags. What’s not to like about having the Olympics in town?

Flags on the heath. All very civilsed. Actually there were flags everywhere, which is a problem for me, as I can’t help myself taking pictures of them (“but look at it ripple in the wind! I need a picture of that!”). At least it was windy. If it’s not I’ve been known to insist that we wait until a gust of wind unfurls the entire flag. I get the impression that this can be a little tiresome for anyone travelling with me (“It’ll be dark soon, we have to go now.”)

See what I mean?

So, satisfied with the Olympics being on our doorstep, we headed home. Then I saw this, and it hit me:

Even the post is disrupted by the Olympics.

Getting to work tomorrow is going to be a bugger.

Olympic route (n). 1. A route specifically for members of the Olympic family (athletes, coaches, etc). 2. The contorted route to work via zone 6, 2 and 4 that you take in order to avoid the Olympic crowds (everyone else).