|Bonnie, from the Washington DC area|
Funny thing is that people can get awfully paranoid about strangers stopping them in the middle of the mall. Probably happened enough times before. Initially, they probably all thought I was after money, or trying to sell them The Big Issue, or worse, about to rob them blind of their Olympic tickets like the famed historical highwaymen of Angle-land. But once I told them what I was all about and that I wanted to take a picture of them for my blog, there was such a softening. Almost a thrill to feel the sensation of fame running at the fingertips. Bonnie here was keen, though her husband, not dressed nearly as patriotically, didn’t seem to want to be snapped at all. I suspect he thought I was stalking his wife, a suspicion that I shared with my son afterwards, perhaps wrongly, because it put me in the position of explaining rather too loudly what ‘stalking’ meant to a five year old within earshot of many equally suspicious looking Olympic fans who looked like they might have social services on speed dial.
|Steve, from California|
|Virginians Abroad (Read that carefully, will ya?)|
This family taught me another one of those lessons about approaching the public, a heartwarming one this time. The teenage son in the foreground had been exchanging words in a tone of mild irritation more than matched by his mother. They seemed to be arguing about how to get where they were going, but I was desperate to get a couple more snaps of Americans so I decided to disturb them. At first the young lad had no interest in being in the shot, but I cajoled him and he looks somewhat reluctant, but a poised reluctant, as though he’s turned it into a modelling pose. The mother was only too happy, as you can see, to smile for the camera, as was the cute little girl. As I walked away I could hear, just within earshot, milder tones of concordance between mother and son and a general harmony between the three. Being approached by someone asking you to pretend you’re happy can have that effect. Pretend for long enough and some of it spills over into reality. You forget the bagatelle that you were annoyed with and move on. Quite a lovely, uncomplicated moment.
|Fellow Expatriate Americans|
|Taken from The Planktonic Players blog.|
It certainly seemed to be this tendency for the crowds gathered outside the green in front of William The Conqueror’s original White Tower, many of whom spoke with pronounced North Atlantic twangs. I’ve never had many brushes with personages of high public profile. I met Michael Stipe when I was 15; stalked him half a block down South Street in Philly just to interrupt him while he was ordering coffee to tell him that I was going to see him in Veteran’s Stadium and that he really inspired me. Swoon.
Al Roker doesn’t have the same sort of appeal, but then neither does approaching celebrities any more. English and Irish people tend to be a bit superior to the phenomena, but then I do too and I wonder if it’s just because I can see the silliness in it. I suspect most Americans do, but that there’s something about a TV crew that brings out delirium in people. I tend to think it’s programmes like The Today Show that cement our great picket-fenced village and make us feel like we’re all having coffee together with Al and the gang, which you can see the magic in. It’s almost Rockwellian.
Here’s the link to the interview they filmed with a Yeoman Warder that day. It did manage to make me slightly homesick, in a scoffing superior, I kind-of-wish I was in America sort of way.
We are going to try to get to see the Opening Ceremony on the big screen tonight in Victoria Park, which is a ticketed event, a fact which raises great ire in my soul. I get more and more apprehensive about big events that, with increasing frequency, fence off public spaces. I’d like to think it doesn’t just stem from the fact that I don’t have a ticket, but tickets, really? To go to Victoria Park and watch something on a big screen? I’m sure there will be plenty of Heineken and McDonald’s tents, and as of this morning, with no more tickets being issued, it is possible to get in, but not guaranteed, another reason to check out the apparently much more open looking Haggerston Park events, or find something else spectacular to do with your weekend.
Should you be in East London — and if you are over for the big you know whats then you will be — There is a fantastic little place that you could check out at 51 Chatsworth Road, just up from Homerton High Street, called Creperie du Monde. I’ve reviewed here for the Hackney Hive. Well worth checking out.
However it is that you choose to spend your time, do make it magnificent.
|Photo taken by Paula Hughes|
1) Avoid talking out loud. There’s not enough space in the whole of England.
2) Sew a Canadian flag into your backpack.
Only kidding. We never pretend to be Canadian anymore.
And in point of fact, since 2008, our likeability capital has increased significantly enough so that we don’t really have anything to fear in public anymore. I’ve been overseas long enough to remember the dark days when Dubya’s simian visage was the face of America to the world and we were seen internationally as a rampaging, war-mongering cowboy. Gone are the days when sympathizers and descendants of Churchill would secret us away under floorboards so that we could say the pledge of allegiance in dark corners. No longer do we find ourselves hiding in abandoned junkyards patriotically playing baseball and furtively eating Crackerjacks. Thankfully, since a cool, worldly dude became president, the foreign exchange rate in popularity and positive reactions is quite favourable.
Having said all that, we may be fans of Downton and Doctor Who, but we are not yet a nation of world travellers and try as McDonald’s, Coke and Westfield Shopping Centre might to make the Olympic village into USA lite, there are probably still some Olympians, their families and other visitors who still might want to travel out into Londontown. It is in this intrepid exploratory spirit that I offer a few tips and pointers to help you get through the next couple weeks.
Beware of Sarcasm
You make friends with some Brits. You get along rather well with them. Splendidly. Famously, in fact. So much so that they invite you out for a night on ‘the razz’ and you’re not quite sure what that means but it could involve neon and fetishes or it could just be a few drinks and a few laughs. You meet your new mates and as you are about to step on the tube to head to the West End for your first stop on what promises to be a night of frolics and fun, you check with Gemma/Nigel to make sure your dress or shirt looks fab or sexy or ‘all right’ (in the case of Nigel) and your new Anglo-Saxon friend turns to you and says, ‘yeah’ and walks onto the waiting tube train. It could be a short, clipped yeah, or it could be a nano-syllable too long, but it’s a noncommital yeah, a clearly ambiguous affirmation, the kind of ‘yeah’ delivered with a half-smile enough to convince you that you’ve got lipstick on your teeth or a major cliffhanger, but I couldn’t be bothered to tell you. Just strike out all night and then wonder why at the end of it all; this noncommital ‘yeah’ is not delivered with exaggerated Chandler Bing emphasis. No one’s said to you, I’m sooo not liking that top or you should sooo go back to the hotel and change right now. It’s much more subtle and something so tiny that it leaves doubts in your head so niggling that they grow and grow until Oxford Circus when you are either ready to claw your friend’s face or give the guy a good bite of a knuckle sandwich and set him straight.
Before you do, slow down. Cool your jets, tiger. Remember that you are in the United Kingdom. Sarcasm and Irony are the official languages of state. You don’t get off the plane at Charles DeGaulle without so much as a ‘Parlez-vouz Anglais?’ and you shouldn’t walk around merry old England of Madame George and roses without expecting the most deadpan sarcasm you’ve never heard. Chances are, your friend just wants to get on the tube quickly because he or she fears that if it begins moving it will not stop and will mercilessly rip part of his or her body as it passes into the next tunnel and chances are you look fabulous, but you will find yourself in a plethora of situations in which you have to be a bit more acutely aware of context than you might otherwise be on the other side of the pond.
Hearts, Minds and The Danger of Assumptions
Try to avoid remarking to locals about how much good the Olympics is doing for the area, for London and for Britain in general. It’s a bit of a sore point. The Brits do love to complain, bless ’em, but this time you might forgive them for it. The official drink of the Olympics is produced by an American corporation; the official caterers to the Olympics are an American fast food chain and corporation; the official chocolate of the Olympics is
British owned by American multinational, Kraft; the official beer of the Olympics is Dutch. It appears to the British public as though either the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), have gone out of their way to intentionally and perversely ignore British business interests. British businesses are finding their deliveries of stock are getting later and later, their customers are drained by Westfield and one local bookshop owner has stated that she has made more from the Anti-Olympics publishing boom than the games themselves. These events are not benefiting the British or local economy and British business owners will not thank you for it.
However, if you do want to win over the hearts and minds of the indigenous peoples of this island, there is something you can do. Hop the train to Hackney Wick, Homerton or Hackney Central (there isn’t anything in Stratford unless you are from New Jersey and you like that gritty, industrial, Mad Max sort of thing, which I can say being from New Jersey and must clarify as ‘humour’). Get off and walk down the street. Having trawled through the archives of my blog first, you will already know as you are walking that there is an array of fine eateries and coffee shops that will serve you a nicer soft drink than Coke (Victorian Lemonade or Elderflower Cordial?) a superior coffee and finer lunch than you will find in McDonald’s (Apricot chilli jam and cream cheese on toast or crepe filled with goat’s cheese and walnuts?) and a finer pint of British beer at a local pub than Heineken will serve any day (East London Brewery is particularly nice, found on tap at The Clapton Hart). You don’t have to go to Hackney just because I live here and I like it, but be careful to avoid assumptions about the coziness of familiar brands.
Londoners Stand on The Right
When I first moved here, I was amazed by the fact that Londoners use escalators for the purpose for which they are built: to increase the speed of your ambulatory movement downwards or upwards, which is brilliant. I get the impression in recent years that people think the same does not apply to escalators in shopping centres, but it does. And I would have thought that with a nation of health-obsessed gym members like us, we’d take full advantage of a free public stairmaster, but I tried to start the trend in America of continuing to walk on an escalator without stopping or letting yourself laze like a human mannequin on display, but for whatever reason it never took. I kept getting the dirtiest stares when trying to pass others up mid-conversation. Like good drivers though, Londoners walk on the left and allow a slow lane for tourists, but use the slow lane and stand on the right and do not be surprised if you are trampled for not doing so.
Remember, London is Still Keeping Calm and Carrying On
School’s out. It’s true. There are no teachers attending work or students attending school. But bankers still carry briefcases dutifully into the City of London. Nurses still don their scrubs when they get into London Bridge or The Royal Free. And estate agents (someone has to do it) still do up their Eton Knots and don their pinstripes in the hopes that the economy will pick up. But Londoners like to get to work efficiently and they like for you not to obstruct the progress of their city as it forges on in daily toil.
So if you have not mastered the ticket machines at tube stations, step aside and ask an attendant. Don’t try and be a hero. Do not try and figure it out at rush hour with the trader behind you seething because he is already 33 seconds late and on his second machiatto. If you do play at these heroics, do not be surprised when you turn round, triumphantly pleased with yourself at having figured out how to purchase a zone 1 single only to find a hulking green monster who’s just ripped genuine Armani and is now ready, with the rest of the commuters, to rip into you.
I would say this applied during peak times, but in the next few weeks, peak times are twenty four hours a day. So, be mindful of others around you.
Get Off The Beaten Path For Once
There are some obvious things you are looking forward to doing on your London bucket list: seeing men in large funny hats swap shift, paying too much for a black cab, gawking at strangers from atop a double decker bus, that sort of thing. Think for a second though. This city wasn’t planned out like most American cities, grid-like and structured, it evolved and sprawled and reached out and stayed where it was or kept moving or got bombed out of existence only to rise like the phoenix all new and mansion-block like.
London is a savage beauty. I love it for its raw, gruff, bracing multicultural sense of ‘live and let live’. One thinks of the line from Yeats: ‘A terrible beauty… Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.’ That unapologetic, Londonness is also its charm. Bit like New York that way. Don’t expect saccharine. Expect frowning and friendly.
There are so many hidden nooks and corners that if you allow a day or two just to get lost, the dividends are amazing. When they ask you if you saw poet’s corner, you can say, ‘No, but I walked around the Catholic Church in central London used by the KGB as a dead-letter box during the Cold War and wrote the opening chapter to my first spy thriller.’ When they ask if you stood in front of Big Ben and took a picture of yourself smiling, which is something no one in London ever seems to do, you can say, ‘Yeah, but I found walking around a recreated 17th Century Huguenot house, with a narrative that ascends with you through five floors, way more enthralling.’ Again, it doesn’t have to be The Brompton Oratory or The Denis Severs House, but find some corner of this city that few others have bothered with and find some memory to cherish and take back with you. You’re traveling over a thousand miles, some of you for the first time, perhaps some for the last. Make sure you do something that will stay with you, not something you could have done if you stayed at home.
A couple good places to look for the unusual and out of the way in London are:
Enjoy your stay.
I have to admit, I like the concept of the Olympics. I like the idea of the whole world being united in a sporting contest that goes back to antiquity and encourages a striving for excellence in physical abilities as well as sportsmanship. I like the idea of sport, unmotivated by lots of corporate sponsorship and greed as it seems football is here in England (and Baseball was in the 1990s, when I stopped following my team, The Mets, because I lost faith in players during the strike). And in some weird, perverse, London way, I feel a sense of pride that we got the games. But being an adoptive Londoner, I think I’ve also acquired a kind of second-nature scepticism about waves of positivity sweeping over a place like a juggernaut leaving nothing but vitamin C and sunshine in its wake. It smacks of the worst of blind American optimism and as Springsteen said, blind faith in your leaders, or anything, will get you killed.
Mowing down the Marshes
Roll up, roll up, Olympic festival fans, it’s Walthamstock
‘Last year the council secretly signed a contract to lease the land to the firm, hoping that a share of the profits from the deal would help pay the estimated £1.5million bill for its ‘Big 6′ series of events to celebrate the Olympics.’
A cynical person might think Waltham Forest was milking the games for all it was worth.
Branded like Cattle
We grew up with names like Flo Jo, Greg Luganis, Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson ringing with heroic clarity in our heads. And even in this short but famous list, only the reputations of of Joyner and Luganis remain intact. Lewis is still dogged today with the cloud of controversy caused by his testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and still being allowed to compete. Canadian Johnson famously tested positive and was stripped of his gold medal the same year. Such was the pressure of the freshly minted money-fed sponsorship-driven games that a slew of Athletes are alleged to have taken steroids and got away with it. Is it pure coincidence that this unethical practice became popular in the wake of the games going corporate? This was an atmosphere that was capable of corrupting even Canadian athletes. Canadians, I say. Canadians! When you’ve got to the point where can wreck the moral compass of the good founders of The Peaceable Kingdom up north, all hope is very nearly lost.
In efforts to protect trademark rights, you are not allowed to consume anything made by anyone outside of those producers who are official Olympic sponsors. Bog standard confidence trick: advertise freemarket and freechoice, get the punters inside, eliminate the choice and jack up the price, thus annihilating any image the games ever projected of being a competition of pure, uncorrupted athletic prowess for the sake of athletic prowess.
The death of Angolan refugee Jimmy Mubenga whilst in the custody of G4S guards on a flight from Heathrow to Angola
Hiring confessed murderers as security guards
Carrying out the government’s deportation policy while sustaining 773 complaints of those that were within their custody
Failing to fulfill the contract to keep The Olympics safe in 2012
Hiring a director with really bad hair. I’m no one to talk, but if you had as much money as a CEO with a company like this, wouldn’t you try to look like you were older than 14?
When you wade through cliches, slogans and soundbites like ‘take the stage’, ‘London prepares’ and ‘Take the respect’, what do you have left at the centre of all the smoke and mirrors? We seem to have a London that has taken performance-enhancing security firms, regulations and cash injectiosn in order to improve its performance as a city this summer. It would probably be wise for us as Londoners to bear in mind that the Olympics committee chose London, in all its brash and savage beauty, not some sanitized, tarted up, Americanised caricature of itself.
This post has also been informed by the following two articles: