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.

Advertisements

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.

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).