diamond geezer

 Sunday, June 27, 2004

Flaming June

The Olympic flame came to London yesterday for the first time since 1948. It rained, but that didn't extinguish the fire or dampen the watching public's enthusiasm. The Torch Relay organising committee had thoroughly enjoyed themselves putting together the programme for the day, including sections carrying the torch by taxi, riverboat, London bus, rowing eight and on horseback. But the main body of the journey was made up of 140 runners each running 400m, some famous, some worthy and some both. I decided to go and watch the torch arriving in my home borough of Tower Hamlets, just to see how my council tax was being spent, and then caught up with the flame again a few more times along the route.

Around 2pm I was part of a small crowd gathered on the slipway at the very foot of the Isle of Dogs. Teams of mercenaries from the two companies sponsoring the Torch Relay busied themselves amongst the spectators handing out numerous small flags for us to wave. A young lady from Samsung tried to thrust a blue flag into my hand, then seemed very hurt when I didn't want to be part of her evil marketing strategy. I turned down a pair of her giant blue inflatable icepops as well. The flame was late, although it was clear from the twirling acrobats hanging from the rigging of the Cutty Sark over the river that it had at least reached Greenwich. Fireworks heralded the launch of a fire-bearing riverboat whose captain showed off by spinning round several times in the middle of the Thames before heading straight towards us.

A grinning Kriss Akabusi disembarked from the boat and ran up the slipway holding the torch aloft, cheering almost as much as we were. And then he was gone, round the corner into Island Gardens where Tower Hamlets had 15 minutes of community entertainment laid on. Five lycra-clad girls performed gymnastics suspended from five coloured hoops, accompanied by ethnic drumming. It may have been symbolically blatant but at least it was cheap. Rather more of my council tax went up in smoke in the ensuing firework display, before various council dignitaries queued up for a lengthy photo opportunity with the flame. This eventually passed to one of the non-famous runners who set off through the crowds towards Docklands, preceded by police motorbikes, a bus full of torchbearers and more sponsored flag distributors.

I reached Canary Wharf in time to see the flame run past in the capable hands of top oarsman Matthew Pinsent. He set fire to a fountain in Cabot Square while a choir dressed in plastic raincoats sang Amazing Grace. Possibly too symbolic that one. Alas I was too slow getting to the Mile End Road to see the flame pass at its closest to the possible site of the Olympic Games in 2012, and to my house. I hope it doesn't rain like this in eight years time.

Never mind, my next chosen vantage point was City Hall where surely our Ken would put on a good show. I could see the flame crossing Tower Bridge, although I was rather too far away to see it was Gandalf carrying it. At City Hall I was prevented from entering the courtyard by a jobsworth security guard who demanded that I keep behind a line of bunting, despite the fact that half of London seemed to be standing on the other side. He was probably trying to keep me out of the path of the 93-year-old Sikh marathon runner who soon swept by. Thousands of Olympic-coloured balloons were released into the sky and the elderly athlete ran straight back down to the main road. The visit of the flame was all over and done in under a minute. Sorry, not impressed.

My final viewing attempt was along Oxford Street, a location where I seem to have spent far too much of my Saturday. I took up position behind the railings outside the exit from the tube station, surrounded by an ever increasing crowd of shoppers and eager families. The sponsored flag-givers were out in force again, as was the rain. We all got very wet waiting for the helicopters overhead to edge nearer, and for the snail's pace queue of ordinary buses to finally end. At last the proper torch-bearing London bus came along, but alas there was no sign of a flame on the open upper deck. Some spectators mumbled and cursed and prepared to slink away disheartened. But no, the torch was still on foot at this point, and there hidden directly behind a number 25 bendy bus came a smiling Roger Black. He stopped right beside me, as you can see, before dashing off to the other side of Oxford Circus where the flame finally ascended to its rightful place on the top deck of a red London icon.

Enough of fire-chasing. I was home in time to see the BBC pretending to show live what I'd just seen for real at Oxford Circus an hour earlier. And in time to see possibly the blandest pop concert ever to limp onto our TV screens, live from the Mall. Great idea, miserably executed. A handful of musical greats allowed to sing no more than two songs each and a bunch of pop wannabes lip-synching their latest hits to an audience too far away to even care. All that media hype for a televised concert lasting just 90 minutes, only half of which featured music, not even half of which was any good. I'm mighty glad I turned down the ticket that was offered to me, even if those present saw rather more acts than appeared on air. But, despite the weather, I'm more than glad I caught the Olympic flame passing through town. And I hope I'll see it again, just up the road, in 2012. In blazing sunshine.

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