“Are you absolutely sure the best way to do this isn’t watching it at home on a 46″ screen?” said spouse, as we evaluated our options to watching the opening ceremony on the train into London.
“Yes I am.” I said, unusually firmly. And I meant it. I have been unusually rubbish during the greatest summer to have been alive in London. We dipped out of the flotilla early with a mild dose of hypothermia, we didn’t watch the Jubilee concert down the Mall as we should, I haven’t really done justice by the Torch, but the one thing I have always said I was going to do was watch the Olympic Games opening in a park. I felt strongly that, like a football match, it would just be better if you’re in a crowd. The options were manifold: Olympic Park (tickets in excess of £1000, so out of the scope of this blog, Victoria Park, East London, free but a bit tricky to get to, Hyde Park, ticketed and where everyone is going to go. I decided to go Greenwich naval college, which is free, has a festival all around it, and would be streaming the BBC coverage on a big screen.
“How are we going to get home Helen?” asked spouse.
“On the DLR, it’ll be good.”
“When does it finish?”
I read from the website, “Festival finishes at 11:50.”
“We’ll get stranded.” Spouse works for Transport for London, so has an informed view, but sometimes he doesn’t get into the spirit of these things.
I eyed him bad-temperedly, muttering that this was not the spirit that built the empire, before turning back to my copy of Time Out, and pointing to the Camden Beach.
“Is it outside?”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, the beach they have constructed from thousands of tonnes of sand is outside.”
He opened his iPad out to show the weather report. It demonstrated showers. “Are we quite sure?” he repeated, pointing again to his iPad.
“Yes Chris. We are going.”
There was a pause as spouse and I eyed each other coolly. The train drew in, we alighted, and union flag clad revellers ebbed and flowed around us on the station concourse.
I pursed. We made our way to Waterloo Bridge, bickering slightly all the way. He looked at both sides of the bridge critically. “Which side will the flame be coming from?” he asked.
“Hampton Court: basically they are rowing the Thames Path. I don’t know what side of the bridge that’s on.”
He smiled at me. “Well, Mrs Spatial Awareness, I think that’s the Westminster side of the Bridge. WESTminster you see. Clue’s in the title.” I gave him a loving scowl, and settled in to a central position on the bridge. And eventually the Gloriana sculled at speed below us, complete with mini-flotilla. We waved, and snapped and ran over Waterloo bridge to watch her complete her journey, disrupting the traffic as only an Olympic event can. The traffic didn’t even seem to mind that much.
Spouse had to go to work then, and I trawled twitter until, blow me, I found the perfect Olympic Opening Ceremony viewing solution. Inside? Check. Free? Check. Basically handy for the tube? Check. I texted spouse: we were going to the home of South Africa, Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. The gig is that over the Olympics, many of the competing nations have taken up residence in various places across the City. The Brazilians have taken over Somerset House and turned it into Casa Brasil, the Business Design Centre is now Czech House, and Queen Elizabeth Hall now contains a little bit of South Africa. It was as close to watching it at home as I could get whilst being surrounded by people in central London.
I sat there with spouse from the BBC pre-opening warmup (of which there was a very great deal), through the simply astonishing song and dance show from various South African artists, and then through the opening ceremony itself.
Much has been written about the Opening Ceremony: that the pride of the nation was entirely on Danny Boyle’s shoulders, that other nations wouldn’t get the defence of the NHS, and the Americans didn’t know who Tim Berners-Lee was (apparently the NBC host told them google him, which gave the rest of us a snicker).
There was surprise at some of the choices of British icons. The Pankhursts and Jarrow marchers were represented when Turing, Bolan and Dr Who were not. For me the key point was that rather than stage something bland that would speak to every nation and say nothing we made the braver decision to stage something that spoke to ourselves that crackled with wit and enthusiasm, and was utterly, utterly British. Crucially, we had a laugh, and thank God for it. If Britons have a defining characteristic it is that we have a sense of humour, and my goodness we showed it that night.
When the Queen came on the screen, complete with corgis (real queen corgis, not stunt corgis) every jaw in the Queen Elizabeth Hall dropped, and then there was riotous applause.
When Mr Bean performed Chariots of Fire (which lets face it, is a bit dull), we howled with laughter. And when Beckham went all Bond in a speed boat we all joined in his smile, wishing we could be having quite as much fun as he was.
It all got a bit more strained as we watched the 204 competing nations trog through the stadium: it mattered not how amusing it was that Boyle had made Fiji walk to the BeeGees, when you hear the commentating team remark that Cambodia has the world’s longest alphabet with 74 characters, you know you really are in trouble. On the upside my tweet “Can we give them any faster music to march to? What’s wrong with the theme to Benny Hill” got more retweets than anything else I’ve ever tweeted. On the downside, I nearly gnawed my left leg off to relieve the boredom. Most of us hung on to see who had got the honour of lighting the torch, and most of us loved the elegant solution that Danny Boyle of simply handing the flame to the next generation of sporting heroes. Diehard Dr Who fans liked the fact that the answer to the question: “How will the Olympic flame be lit?” was hidden in plain sight, just like a good episode of Who. Proper geeks like the fact the cauldron looks like Sauron’s eye.
As spouse and I spilled out into the still of the night, he turned to me and said, “I have a very peculiar sensation sweetie, one I’ve never had before… I think I might be proud to be British.” I nodded sagely, feeling much the same. As we walked towards Embankment tube at 1:30 at night, we were shocked to find our branch of the District line still running. “Tell you what spouse,” I replied, more shocked still, “London might actually be a better place to be with the Olympics than without it.”
And shaking our heads in surprise at all the revelations, we went home, hand in hand.
Details of the Ekhaya (South Africa’s home from home during the Olympics) can be downloaded from here: http://ticketing.southbankcentre.co.uk/find/hayward-gallery-and-visual-arts/folk-world/tickets/ekhaya-south-africas-home-away-from-home-1000284