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 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 appearedand 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.
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.