diamond geezer

 Saturday, July 21, 2012

After 9 weeks touring the country, the Olympic Flame finally arrived in London yesterday evening. It sped from Guildford to Tower Bridge in a Sea King helicopter, then a Royal Marine abseiled down into the Tower of London where the flame was to spend the night. It looked great on the television. It wasn't quite such a thriller in real life.

Tower Bridge had been bathed in rare evening sunshine until a few minutes before eight o'clock, at which point the sun disappeared behind a thick bank of cloud and stayed there. A crowd had gathered on the bridge, all desperately hoping that the bascules wouldn't be raised during the forthcoming action forcing them to leave. The space in front of the Tower was mostly empty apart from a number of the great and good, and some TV crews and a white marquee. Which left the banks of the Thames outside City Hall as the best vantage point, with plenty of room for viewing, but unexpectedly no great crowds. In some places people were stood two deep, but I arrived with only a few minutes to spare and easily found standing room on the edge of the embankment.

The helicopter arrived at 20:12, from a non-Guildford direction, and buzzed past the front of Tower Bridge in a sort of impressive way. We watched as it dipped down to hover near to Traitor's Gate, then a rope descended and we prepared to go "ooh!" Except the helicopter was rather low, and the rope wasn't that long, and then several humanoid creatures dropped down not very far to the ground. Not the Flame, then, merely the advance party. Helicopter 1 quickly flew off, and the crowd soon spotted helicopter 2 flying up the Thames close behind. Would it fly through the gap in Tower Bridge... we held our breath. But no, obviously not, because there are five giant Olympic rings dangling down from the upper walkway so health and safety would never approve.

The Sea King hovered above the foreshore by the Tower of London, creating an almighty downdraught. Before long another rope appeared, this time at a decent height, so we assumed this was the arrival moment. Sure enough a tiny black figure appeared and slowly descended, holding out their arm in that special abseil-y way. Apparently this was Royal Marine Martin Williams carrying the Olympic Flame, although without binoculars it was impossible to distinguish anything from the other side of the river and he might as well have been the Milk Tray man come to deliver a box of chocolates.

Within thirty seconds or so Martin was down on the ground, landing not in the Tower of London but on the cobbles immediately outside. There was a kerfuffle by the waterside, which I now know was Dame Kelly Holmes getting her torch lit from the light in the lamp brought down from above. And then the matchstick figures outside the Tower ran off and ran inside, immediately out of view, for the Olympic Flame's official welcome to London.

It took the crowd on the Southwark side some time to realise the public show was over, and that bugger all else was going to happen. The rest of the evening would involve a private function inside the Tower (attended by Seb and Boris and the Mayor of Tower Hamlets), and all we could do was head home. The abseiling would look fantastic on the news because it was filmed from exactly the right place with Tower Bridge and its rings in the background. But it turns out there's not much point coming to see a made-for-TV spectacle unless you're a VIP or a TV cameraman.
Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, said: "It's fantastic that Tower Hamlets' residents will be the first in the capital to celebrate the arrival of the torch in London. It gives everybody in the borough the chance to get involved in the excitement surrounding London 2012. And it's a great opportunity for us to highlight the unique character of Tower Hamlets – showcasing the borough to the world." [16th February 2011]
Back in February 2011, the borough of Tower Hamlets was promised a handful of shiny baubles in the aftermath of the great East End marathon cancellation debacle. We may have lost an Olympic running race through our streets, but in return "LOCOG confirmed plans to work with Tower Hamlets to develop a special event to mark the London arrival of the Olympic Torch Relay." This brief abseil into the Tower of London, and the subsequent private party inside the walls, was that special event. From all the reporting and publicity I've seen, everyone praised the arrival of the torch into London, and the appropriateness of dropping in first at the Tower, but the borough of Tower Hamlets failed to raise any public profile whatsoever.

I'm sure we'll see a big splash in the council-funded Tower Hamlets weekly freesheet, banging the drum for Mayor Lutfur's magnificent reception as the Olympic Flame arrived in London in our glorious borough. But in terms of whipping up wider publicity when the Torch came to town, it seems we threw away our marathon for a flash-in-the-pan event where the host borough was entirely irrelevant.

Torch Relay: Saturday 21st July
07:21 Greenwich
10:20 Newham
13:50 Tower Hamlets
15:54 Hackney
18:28 Waltham Forest

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