Saturday, 28 July 2012

Let the Games begin: The 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony

I sometimes struggle to be proud to be British.  Oddly, tonight was not such a time.  Danny Boyle - an occasionally controversial British film director and producer - has just made our small island nation seem like rather an awesome place.  And our capital, London, my home city, made rather a glorious stage for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games.  After several hours of build-up - well frankly, several years - and numerous pre-recorded montage spots of British Olympic hopefuls and live presenters blithering over each other, we were off!  Following numerous tantalising shots of the greenery-wrapped main stadium (and a cheeky spot of my blogging pal, Muriel, Tweeting frantically from Stratford) the opening ceremony cranked into action...

Whilst the Red Arrows zoomed overhead, the warm-up singers were ushered off the fake rural landscape that filled the brand-new stadium.  Ladies in bonnets milled around, there were some surprised looking sheep, a gaggle of geese, and a lone shire horse pulling a plough.  Large fluffy white clouds were moved around the stadium, controlled by people many feet below on the ground; gripping their strings like dog-walkers being dragged round a park by an out-of-control bloodhound.  And then the waiting was over, and the spectacular show began in earnest.

To the strains of children warbling 'Jerusalem', on strides Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, orchestrating some sort of pillaging of England's green and pleasant lands, by a load of dirty chaps who appear out of the middle of a mechanical tree.  Men in stove-pipe hats appear to be doing some sort of dance to the beat of 1,000 drummers.  The lush stage is stripped, like a tour set at the end of a gig, by roadies surprisingly dressed in period costume.  Huge chimneys rise up out of the ground as the rural idyll becomes Stoke-on-Trent. Ooh, and here come some suffragettes! Yay.  (And some more stove-pipe hats...not being worn by the suffragettes I should clarify.)

And now a field of poppies, and stationary, silent soliders remembering fallen comrades; the stove-pipe hats are doffed.  After the whirl of activity of the first section, there is a moment's stillness. A pause.  And then industry marches on as the ever-growing towers reach further skywards.  Confusingly there are now a whole load of men dressed up like The Beatles, and a nod the first West Indian immigrants to land in the UK.  After that random interlude we're back to the Industrial Revolution, as sparks fly from rivers of molten ore, running into a ring in the middle of the stadium.  A group of Chelsea Pensioners stride proudly through the industrial chaos, as Kenneth Branagh-Brunel looks proudly on.  Four other molten rings fly in from above to join the newly-'forged' one in the centre of the stage.  Up it rises to join its fellows in the sky over the stadium.  Five gold rings.  Music soars and crashes; drums and whistling and strings. It is a total cacophony but glorious.  
Photo: Sky News
And now a wee breather for another pre-recorded sequence while the stage in the stadium is reset. We have James Bond.  In Buckingham Palace.  With corgis. Obviously. OH MY GOD IT'S THE ACTUAL QUEEN. Wow.  The entire nation has just had its mind well and truly blown.  Back in the stadium the un-recorded Queen takes her place overlooking proceedings as servicemen and women walk in the Union Flag.  And I sort of want to cry.  Our national flag is raised high above the stadium, before a country watching with open mouths.  We all had preconceived notions of what this opening ceremony would be like but it wasn't this.  This is seriously impressive.  

Mike Oldfield and patients and staff of GOSH open the second section of the ceremony.  Erm, ok.  It's an odd choice - the music from the Exorcist and sick kids but moving swiftly along...there are dancing doctors and nurses, pajama-clad children bouncing on beds, swing music.  Spelling out 'NHS' in lights is another questionable move, but anyway...Ooh, light-up duvets!  JK Rowling reads us some Peter Pan.  Spooky black hooded creatures with green eyes (oddly reminding me of the perpetrators of last year's riots), and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's child-catcher's van rumbles by, as the stuff of nightmares abounds.  Beds fly, monsters appear high above the stadium; Cruella de Ville, Voldemort, and some weird dancing horses.  The formerly friendly nurses get a little Nurse Ratchett.  But it's ok, here are lots of Mary Poppinses, to shoo away the horrid ghouls, and put the little children back to bed.

Oh god, Simon Rattle's conducting 'Chariots of Fire'! Now I'm going to lose it...oh no wait, Mr Bean is going to ruin any emotional potential.  Phew.  As you were.  There's a crackly radio montage; the Archers, the weather forecast, some news, some Sugababes (who in Britain hasn't been in the Sugababes by this point in time?!).  On comes a house and some people with mobile phones, doing some dancing.  Weird luminous worms twirl beneath a montage of television clips, and then we're whirling through 40 years of musical history.  Hundreds of dancers conga around the stadium, as the aural years roll by.  Eric Clapton, The Who, The Beatles (again!), some reggae, A MAN WITH A JET PACK! MULTIPLE MEN WITH JETPACKS AND GLITTER. Queen. THE TARDIS NOISE!  Bouncing punks on springs, New Order, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Soul II Soul, and we've reached the 90s...the Happy Mondays, Eurythmics, Prodigy, punks bouncing about again.  A little Underworld now as a nod to Danny Boyle's best known ouevre, Trainspotting.  A little clip of 4 Weddings & A Funeral, then a cringey kissing montage.  Dizzee Rascal (and many mentions of him being from East London, you know, where the Olympics is), and we're up to date.  A snatch of Muse (Oh god, please don't play that crap official Olympic song they've done).  And to the strains of Emeli Sande's Heaven the house on stage lifts up to reveal inventor of the internet, TIM BERNERS-LEE!  FFS.  If Danny Boyle brought back Elvis right now the crowd would go wild.

Oh, hang on, we're going back to last time we hosted the Olympics, 1948. We did the Games on a serious budget back then apparently.  There's some torch recap action going on...David Beckham's on a boat, with a hot young bird who's holding the torch. They both play football, they share a knowing smile (I'd be worried if I was Posh).  Who will it be who lights the torch?!  God bless her, but if it's the Duchess of Cambridge I'm going to be a weeny bit disappointed...maybe this is the moment for the ressurection of Elvis. Wait, he's not British...erm, the Queen mum?! John Lennon...

Another more peaceful section of the ceremony now follows.  A huge yellow sun, some creepy-looking dancers, a stray child.  Expressive dance to the sound of a heartbeat.  Eurgh, Boyle, you're loosing me.  Oh hell, 'Abide with Me'.  Where are the tissues?  Wow, but sung by Emeli Sande - love her.  She gets peace and quiet to sing beautifully, totally unaccompanied.  The stadium calms down once again.  The small stray child gets a hug and the dancers stand still.

And here, at last, come the athletes...to the strains of the Chemical Brothers.  Now, who's wearing the crappest outfits?  (The poor Queen looks a bit sleepy, bless her.)  It all gets a bit Eurovision at this stage in the proceedings... L'Albanie! Dix points!  Oh dear, and now there's an awful lot of countries to get through...204 nations.  Brazil's trousers are hilarious. Or horribly offensively bright.  (I'm in two minds.)  The presenters stumble over the pronunciation of the capital of Burkina Faso.  Trevor Nelson says he loves this part of the ceremony...although he also says he loves it 'every year' so he may be mistaking it for something else.  Eurovision probably.  10.40pm and we've made it to countries beginning with 'C'.  The Czech Republic athletes are wearing some shiny blue wellies that make them look like they're off on a field trip.  I'm done with the countries by Denmark. You get the picture.  And many, many hours later, at midnight, here comes Team GB, looking a little bit like they're dressed as members of a huge, chavvy street-dance crew BUT THAT'S NOT THE POINT!  There are many fireworks and a serious light display, and for some reason, the Arctic Monkeys, who don't sing 100% in tune.  But sod them, because there are people riding bicycles with light-up wings!  And they are way better than a somewhat incompetent cover of 'Come Together'.  Particularly when one of them flies up into the sky, in a confusing ET homage, that's not very British but is extremely ace.  Sebastian Coe makes an unexciting, unimaginative speech, but the Olympics belongs to Danny Boyle now.  A knighthood is probably in the works.  

There is the official raising of the Olympic flag, carried by some outstandingly amazing people (all of whom could've given a more interesting and coherent speech than Lord Coe).  The lighting of the torch is done by up-and-coming athletic talent in a nice twist away from a single celebrity.  The torch sculpture assembles itself, lifting the flame high up into the centre of the stadium into a bouquet of copper flowers.  There are more fireworks, that I watch on a muted television so I can hear their boom across London, out of the stadium and in through my open window.  And then, because we're British and there's an open-air, public entertainment situation, Paul McCartney is wheeled on to sing 'Hey Jude'.  And we're all done; the Games are officially open.  It's been a long evening but I'm hugely proud right now (and only a little bit tired).  London, you're shining.  Britain, you are great.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Camden's new nightlife: the launch of Camden Lock Night Market

'So are you 'the Accidental Londoner'?'  Here was a greeting I'd never met before in real-life.  I'd been addressed as such via email or a comments box before, but never by an honest-to-God, actual human being.  It was rather surreal to admit that yes, I was, and that my online persona was the real invitee to the event I attended last week.  But such is the peculiarity of blogging, and also the joy.  My charming companion for the evening was fellow blogger, Cool on Demand, and, as our London blog alter-egos, we had been invited to witness the launch of a new event in Camden that seemed perfect for the warm July night.

I won't lie, even though I live within a fifteen minute walk of Camden, I usually avoid the area.  Camden, and the Lock Market area in particular, typically crawls with emo teenagers, all sweepy black fringes and restrictively-tight jeans, and older, more tattooed rockers in platforms and leather.  Once upon a time I too trawled Camden Lock Market for questionable clothing as I ate noodles out of a styrofoam container beside the canal.  (I should hastily add that I wasn't a goth; just a sartorially-challenged teenager let loose for a day or two in London...)  But the bustling crowds these days put me off.  I'm too old for doing battle with hundreds of pierced teenagers when I go shopping.

To tempt the older, more mainstream Londoner back to the area however, Camden Lock has launched a new weekly event; the Camden Lock Night Market.  Each Thursday, for the next six weeks at least, the bars and stalls that fill the Lock Market beside the canal will remain open late (well, until about 10pm) into the evening.  You can shop, catch a little live music, drink and eat from an impressively multi-cultural array of food choices, from Scottish to Peruvian, and Spanish to Turkish.  Munching on some seriously tasty Turkish fried beef wraps, Janet and I watched a great folky live set by Ryan O'Reilly (and his grandly named 'band' that looked rather like a mate with a guitar to me).  Over on the other side of the lock reggae tunes were being spun for those who preferred more of a boogie.  Making the most of the warm night - summer appears to finally be here! - drinkers lined the midnight blue canal that reflected back the lights of the bars and cafes normally firmly shut up by this 'late' hour.
Camden Lock Market by night has a very different atmosphere to its youth-rammed, day-time ambiance.  It becomes a place for meeting people for a few post-work drinks, or for those early first dates when having lots of things to stimulate conversation is a key requirement of an evening's activity.  It's a place for the summer, as long as it lasts.  (One wonders how the outdoor eateries and open-air shopping will fare in the dark, chilly winter; not well, sadly I suspect).  By night this little patch of North London is more civilised, more grown-up, less frantically charged with teenage hormones, but  the odd cobbled corner in which a pervading smell of weed lingers can still be found by those in search of the more traditional Camden experience.  Illuminated by twinkling lights and experienced with a margarita in hand, I rather like the lock by night.  Long may the new Night Market last...and here's hoping the rain stays away.                

Monday, 23 July 2012

Less than a week to go: The Olympic countdown

Ok, I can no longer ignore what's going on all around me in this city, much though the girl who's worried about how much slower her daily commute is about to get wishes that I could. Whilst the LED screen around the top of the BT Tower has been counting down the days until London's Olympic Games since the numbers were in the hundreds, with less than a week to go it all seems to have got more real suddenly. On Friday 27th July London will formally open the 2012 Olympic Games, with a show featuring an industrial mill, peasant-costumed actors and apparently 70 live sheep. (This can only go well.)  The action will already have kicked off in earnest a couple of days before however, and so the city is already witnessing an influx of tourists, sports fans and international athletes, who seem to have an amusing habit of getting lost on tour buses between Heathrow airport and the Olympic site out in East London.
There seem to be two different Olympic opinions shared by Londoners right now. The first is that the Olympics is going to be great, exciting, an opportunity to showcase our city at its brightest and best, a boon to tourism and the wider economy now and for years to come. The second is that the Olympics is a horrifying waste of money, and is about to bugger up the lives of millions of Londoners who are just desperately trying to continue their daily routines, only now they have an influx of a few hundred thousand lost tourists accompanying them on their regular Tube ride to work. Even the New York Times has picked up on the latter of these attitudes, recently publishing an article on the world-class bitching and whingeing of disgruntled Londoners. And another similar article published in the NYT back in March described our new Olympic host city as 'like a cranky father compelled to host a party for his teenage daughter — awkward, uncomfortable and simmering with barely concealed fury at the ghastly, noisy interlopers who insist on having a good time'.  Well may the American press smugly gloat and comment...were it not for us taking the financial bullet of hospitality, the 2012 Olympics might have been held in New York City.

But London won the bid and so here we are.  Three days to go.  And having solidly clung to the pessimism of an anticipated gridlocked city and a colossal expenditure for very little reward, I will admit that as the Games draw nearer I am feeling a little excited.  Maybe not excited actually, but I am enjoying the feeling of being in the midst of the action.  Working for a company that has been involved in turning a scrubby patch of Stratford into a shiny new Olympic Park, somehow, while I was busy groaning about it all, I have got caught up in the vastness of this project - something that I am unlikely to witness taking shape ever again.  So for now I am feeling expectant and hoping that my earlier fears will be unrealised.  Even the sunshine has finally put in an appearance as London appears before the world.  But will either the sunshine or my good mood dissipate over the next few weeks?  Watch this space... 

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Accidental Express Tour of Copenhagen

Last week I spent a day in Copenhagen.  Or at least I think I did.  One of the oddities of business travel is that you are often sent to exciting, new foreign places but that, tantalisingly, you're demanded home again before you have seen anything more than the inside of an office that looks surprisingly like the one you're normally stuck in back home.
So this is the best (well, only) photo of Copenhagen I have.  The departure lounge at Copenhagen Airport.  (Confusingly this is also Arrivals; the Danes are so organised they can manage both in- and out-flows of frazzled travellers in one space.)  Not that Copenhagen Airport is such a terrible place; as airports go it's a pretty nice one.  It's clean, shiny, glossy; the sort of place that you wouldn't entirely hate to spend a six-hour lay-over.  But I whizzed through the place on Tuesday night, desperate to make the most (or at least see a little) of the city while I had a couple of hours to do so.

But the city had other ideas however.  What the city wanted to share with me was its public transport system, engineering works and all.  So I saw a fair bit of the city's outskirts, with their wide streets, shuttered shops with apartment buildings up above, and remarkably few people.  There seemed to be more people about in the centre of town, but by half past nine at night the city was not exactly buzzing.  My trip had coincided with the start of the Danish summer holidays.  As the lights of the Tivoli Gardens amusement park twinkled away, the streets beneath its rollercoasters and towers were surprisingly empty.  Cyclists glided along the roads, many not bothering with helmets, such seemed to be the great respect that motorised vehicles showed these man-powered fellow road-users; it seemed quite the opposite situation to the daily battles in which cyclists and car or bus-drivers engage in London.  After two more buses (only one of which was going in completely the wrong direction) there was a wonderfully eccentric hotel (and a somewhat annoyed and awakened manager, but that's a story for another day).  Sadly however, there was no dinner out at a Danish restaurant.  By 10.30pm the city was officially tucked up at home in bed.  Which was probably just as well for a girl with important client meetings in the morning, even if she was ravenously hungry.

Even with an early start the next day I saw no more of the city.  The office in which I was to spend the day was a mere five minute walk from the hotel where I stayed.  I saw a small pedestrianised street, the back of a restaurant, a school and rather a lot of benches.  And then I passed the rest of my time in Copenhagen in a meeting room.  Ok, it had a rather Danish look - everything was covered in wood panelling - but, honestly, it could have been a meeting room just about anywhere on the planet.  By 5pm I was back at the nicest airport in Europe, having spent barely 24 hours in a new country.  So what's Copenhagen like?  I'd suggest you get yourself a travel guide.  All I can tell you is that the locals like their bikes.  And the airport's quite nice.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

On the run

'But you once said you hated people who went running!' was the surprised response from the Accidental Chum to whom I mentioned I'd started running.  And he's right.  When I first moved to London and had the time and disposable income to be a committed Bikram yoga bunny I used to scorn my fellow citizens who chose instead to get their work out by pounding the pavements, jogging and running through the city.  They looked so serious, so miserable, as if they were not getting any pleasure out of their exercise at all.  But now I have joined their serried, wicking-material-clad ranks, I understand those are not faces of unhappiness, but focus.

When I first started running last summer, I surprised myself how quickly I developed the very same focus I had seen on the faces of the seasoned runners I had once scoffed at.  Firstly I had to learn to run properly though.  How hard could it be, I had wondered.  Surely it was just one foot in front of the other at a reasonably quick pace?  Yet that approach had not worked well for me when I'd attempted running in the past.  I could manage only about 20 minutes without feeling as if I were about to expire.  And that rather put me off doing it again any time soon.  'You know you're still supposed to be able to breathe when you run, right?' counseled a wise proper runner with whom I shared my running struggles.  'Just start really slowly, and make sure you can still breathe.'  And so I did.  I reset my bad running habits and re-learnt how to run.
On an early morning run the city is all mine.  The deserted streets are my athletics track, built hundreds of years ago by someone, for me to run on this morning.  I do magnanimously condescend to share them with the dog walkers, the early morning newspaper people, the delivery drivers, and the local tramps with such a dedication to their alcoholism that they are busily tucking into the Special Brew as I jog past their benches before 9 in the morning. 'No no no!  No running, no marathons today!' screeched one such fellow as I ran towards him on a morning not so long ago.  I dodge push-carts, skateboards and dog leashes, slaloming through North London.  Occasional clouds of fat, black flies rise up around my ankles, like tiny, unsavoury insect cheer-leaders, as my feet slap the pavement, disturbing them from the rubbish-filled bin bags they swarm around.  Each stride, each step, each footfall stamps my presence onto the city.  I was here; see the imprint of my trainers.

Weekday lunchtimes, Regents Park resembles an open air gym, its paths and grassy fields covered in office workers in search of a little mid-day endorphin hit.  At the beginning of the year, in chilly January, the Park experiences a distinct upswing in popularity thanks to thousands of new year resolutions.  But by March or April the numbers flatten out, and you get to recognise fellow runners, running the same patterns around the paths, at the same time of day, regardless of sunshine or rain.  And here in the park, pounding a familiar route, anticipating each bend and bridge up ahead, being able to hear my ipod over my now pretty well under control breathing, I stopped fixating on the fact that I was running.  I just ran.  And my brain thought about other things, rather than simply screaming 'OhmygodIcan'tbreatheI'vegottostop' over and over again inside my head.  And then I realised I could run for more than twenty minutes without collapsing on a nearby bench.  No longer did I have to grudgingly drag myself out of the house to go for a run, in the name of attaining something vaguely resembling basic fitness.  I learnt how to run, and I learnt how to love it.

Monday, 2 July 2012

The city has seen it all before

I sat throughout the evening with a smile I had to occasionally remind my face to hold and my hands balled by my sides.  I laughed at jokes and excited plans.  I felt genuine delight for them, but wished the thought at the back of my head wasn't there.  Maybe it too was enjoying the decent champagne and stylish surroundings; it wanted to come out and play.  As the evening drew to a close, everyone headed off in different directions, and I began my walk home, plugging my iPod into my ears and locating a suitably gloomy playlist to match my mood.

Tears start to well by the time I reach the first bus stop, one makes it as far as my cheek.  I keep walking, passing another bus stop, and another.  I'm sporting panda eyes now, looking distinctly Alice Cooper-esque, feeling very sorry for myself.  The worst things I think about myself crawl out from where I keep them hidden, under the everyday and the functional thoughts.  I am a mess, undesirable, broken, lost.  But the late night streets of Camden are not buying my self-pity, and they refuse to indulge me.  The streets and the people on them fling life right back at me.  

A patient, wiry dog waiting for his scruffy, hungry-looking owner outside a kebab shop looks hopefully in my direction; 'Have anything for me?'.  Inside his owner asks a similar question of the apron-ed staff, sawing greasy slices off a sweaty mass of heaven-knows-what meat.  They shake their heads at him and shoo him out.  The solitary smokers outside each pub sport eyes that look as rough as my own now must; tired black rings, some wobbly with tears, above pink spots on their cheeks from emotion or the cold.  Stumbling drunks slur words of greeting at passers-by, eliciting no response, just avoidance.  Exhausted office workers, finally on their way home, slump over their carrier bags of shopping on the hard plastic bus stop seating.  A helicopter hovers two streets over, training its searchlight on some unmentionable crime.  Nearer home a woman waits in a shuttered doorway, a large grubby duvet slung over her shoulder, and not another visible thing in her possession.  A convoy of ambulances and then police cars tear along the busy road.  

I plod on home, hobbled by my restrictive skirt and shoes that are a fraction too loose, my watery eyes blurring the things that I see.  And London sees me right back.  And the city says 'Yeah.  And? You think you're the first person here to feel like this?  Get over yourself.  I've seen thousands of people feel like you, and they've felt what you're feeling a thousand times more painfully.  You are nothing special, little girl.  And neither are your troubles.'  And suddenly, strangely, I feel less alone, less desperate, less uniquely incomplete.  Living in London can be isolating and scary.  But sometime in the oddest, lowest moments the place can comfort its residents in thoroughly unexpected ways.  That night the grottier, more uncomfortable, darker side of the city was my consolation, my reminder of the snapshot nature of a feeling.  Out on the streets one anonymously slots into a continuum of urban emotion.  Each one of us is contributing in our own small way to the mood of the city.  There are those who bring happiness and there are those who bring sadness; most of us creating a variety of different emotional outputs from day to day.  But that's ok.  The city has seen it all before.      
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