Friday, 31 August 2012

The Olympics from Half a Mile Away

The joys of the Olympic experience, Newham style

Go Home and Switch on BBC1
I’m no longer a resident of Newham, but I role-played at being one on Sunday night when I was lucky enough to watch the Olympics Closing ceremony from the ‘executive’ vantage point of a crap bit of road near the Bow flyover where a few people were squinting into the distance at the fireworks going off over the stadium. Why did I watch it from there? Well, strangely enough, because there wasn’t really anywhere else to watch it. Sure, there was a park nearby where if you turned up early you could watch it on a screen. Sure, there were several more places around the city where you could watch it on a screen. But if you were right there in Newham without a ticket and not famous at the close of the Olympics, the one thing they didn’t want you to do was watch the closing of the Olympics. Not even on a screen.
            ‘You will not be able to see the end of the Olympics on this screen,’ the steward in the redcoat boomed out to crowds, beneath the shadow of the giant M&S logo on the shopping mall. ‘Anyone wanting to watch the end of the Olympics has to go elsewhere.’
            Evidently the screen had better things to show the residents of Stratford the ceremonies taking place in the gigantic spaceship of a stadium just beyond the Yo! Sushi. Right now the screen was serving the viewing needs of the local community by depicting a spinning Powerade bottle.
‘Hydrating the Athletes!’ it boasted. 
Despite the fact that pretty much all you could do at the gates to the Olympic Park at Stratford was turn up in order to be told to go home again, a surprisingly large number of people had turned up in order to be told to go home again. Primary-coloured crowds swished around beneath the weird fifty foot steel tree sculptures, crashing against the human barriers. Servicemen in yellow coats chatted and cadged fags. An Islamic march, chaperoned by police, was protesting the evils of modern society. Beside them a Christian group, banging on drums, was protesting the evils of modern society. Everybody else seemed to be too busy getting on with enjoying the evils of modern society to listen.
‘Gillette!’ it beamed on the side of a nearby towerblock. ‘Nothing beats a great start.’
A millenarian feel was in the air: people were massing, shouting, protesting, chanting, advertising. I spotted a bunch of guys walking around with the words Is Life Just a Game? emblazoned on their yellow T-Shirts. I went over there expecting a Playstation promotion. It turned out to a Muslim community group from Tower Hamlets attempting to convert me to the Qu’ran.
‘Check out the website,’ he said.
‘Yeah, I’ll... Thanks.’
‘There’s a lot more information on the website.’
More and more people were massing at the gate. ‘Please go home,’ one of the stewards - a young Asian guy, east London to judge from his accent - boomed through his loudspeaker. ‘If you want to watch the closing ceremony, go home and switch on BBC1.’
He intoned the words wearily as if he thought his soul might actually collapse if he had to repeat it one more time. I felt a pang of sympathy for the wage-slave, as well as his colleagues forming a wobbly human wall behind him. They were actually a surprisingly slack bunch themselves: big bouncer-like Poles in security jackets, gum-chewing young women, crew-cuts in shades examining mobiles. Behind them a platoon of bored cops behind them standing around arms folded, checking texts, yawning into fists.
The guys attempting to convert people to the Qu’ran were now taking cameraphone snaps of each other.
‘What does God mean to you?’ someone kept saying. ‘What does he mean to you?’
‘Good people of Stratford,’ another steward was saying through the megaphone, trying to keep the boredom out of their voice, ‘it will be in your interests to disperse. You can watch the ceremony live on your TV.’ The loudspeakers of the religious converts were beginning to sound a lot like the loudspeakers of the security staff.
A couple of white uniformed soldiers were now posing for a picture with the Muslim community group. One of the guys held up a copy of the Qu’ran to make sure it made it into the photo.
I wandered into Stratford itself, the formerly run-down corner of Newham which, since the games came, had magically transformed itself into a run-down corner of Newham with a big stadium beside it. I’d heard a lot about the regeneration legacy – most of which seemed to involve building a huge motorway bordered by Tetris cubes with incredibly expensive flats inside them – and evidently it was paying off: even at 10pm the local Poundland was doing a roaring trade, and the Burger King, McDonald’s and kebab shops were packed to bursting. I tried to get into a park to watch the ceremony on the big TV screen, but was told it was already full of people trying to watch the ceremony on the big TV screen. Wandering down the street I gazed up at the glazed cliff wall of one of the new Tetris apartment blocks, the flats still furnitureless, empty. Giant TO LET signs glue pasted on to the side.
‘Thank you for visiting Newham London,’ a sign beamed. ‘A place where people choose to live, work and stay.’         
In the distance, floodlit orange and purple smoke drifted out through the laserlights. I took that to mean the ceremony had probably finished.
As I cut back towards the gates people were flooding out, the crowds swirled, and the stewards with the megaphones were looking relieved they no longer had to tell anyone to go home and watch it on BBC1. I had to admit there was something jubilant about the scene: drunks staggering around, stewards exchanging phone numbers, religious crazies proclaiming the end of society. I watched the LOCOG redcoats laughing and joking together. They looked more like a staff get-together at Carphone Warehouse than a security force. Say what you like about Group Four, it was sort of nice to know the people employed to keep you out of the biggest public project in recent British history were as unimportant as you.
As I headed towards the station I passed the Christian group banging on drums, still protesting the evils of modern society beneath the glow of the giant M&S logo. A couple of them had evidently got a bit tired and were sharing a fag. I noticed one of them take a swig of Diet Pepsi before picking up her Christ is Redeemed sign and joining in with the singing...
... Then I entered the seething tube terminus where a big mural showed happy, sporty people of all colours peacefully co-existing beside an advertisement for Lloyds TSB.