Friday, July 27, 2012

lighting the fire

This morning, listening to Radio 4, I was reminded of the second big event of the Olympics. This morning, at precisely twelve minutes past eight, all church bells in the country would be rung and everyone was asked to join in, be it with bicycle bells, neighbors' door bells or car horns.

The ringing of the bells had been the idea of Martin Creed, a Scottish artist who first rose to fame with the Turner Prize-winning (and, in my opinion, -discrediting) installation The lights going on and off, in which he periodically filled an empty room with light or, in other words, turned the lights on and off automatically. Since then, he has built a career and reputation on turning things on and off, for example by having runners sprint down the length of Tate Britain's Duveen Galleries in intervals. If you wonder what the point is, you should listen to Creed describe it. The inarticulateness of the artists is in perfect harmony with the vacuousness of his works. He has nothing to say and doesn't know how to say it. On the other hand, he knows how to turn things on and off, a skill perfectly suited to the ringing of bells, and his involvement promised a majestic sonic experience, London awash in music.

The first big event of the Olympics was supposed to be majestic and uplifting as well. Boris Johnson, the clown-mayor of London, saw in it "the contagion of joy". When the Olympic flame passed in front of my flat yesterday, families and resident business owners, shoppers and visitors, lined the street in anticipation, yearning for that vibe. A solitary chain of Olympic pennants in primary colors and pink fluttered above as the excitement built below. What happened then be best described as the kid sister of the Tour de France: copious security with flashing lights, a paucity of floats advertising sponsors and a runner that passed by in a flash. Instead of magic, I saw self-importance pushed to ridiculous levels. The only positive aspect was the thorough cleaning of the street before the torch relay. All the detritus of poverty had been swept away by an army of temporary council workers.

Tonight, the flame will reach the Olympic stadium and, culminating a quaint and bucolic opening ceremony, the cauldron will be lit. Tomorrow, the games will properly begin. But even though we're constantly being badgered into patriotism and enthusiasm, doubtful voices remain. The most recent bad news is the heat – never mind that rain would have really screwed with the show. Pollution levels have rising so much in London that athletes are not expected to be able to perform at their peak. I could feel the pain as I weaved across the Gloucester Road crossing, cutting through the hot exhaust of buses that should run on hydrogen and cars that shouldn't be in the city at all. The heat has now subsided and the next days are forecast to be properly English, cooler and wet. May the rain wash the dirt from the air.

Beside the weather (which one can't control anyway), the biggest headache of the organizers was transport. How would a system that runs at capacity most of the time cope with a million extra journeys? Early signs indicate that the worries were misplaced. Far from being afflicted with the contagion of joy, many people, residents and city breakers alike, have chosen to stay away from London during the Olympics. Colleagues of mine who commute to work have reported eerily quite trains. Hotels are far from fully booked. The bug has yet to catch on.

This morning, I was doing my best to catch the bug. I wanted to feel the bells around me. But it was still too early. Had I left home when the anchor reminded the nation of what was to come, I would have been locked away in the white noise of the lab when Big Ben set off three minutes of clatter. So I slowed my breakfast down to a crawl. Bread was buttered assiduously and jam spread most meticulously, with millimeter accuracy until I left at five to eight. Somewhere between Earl's Court and the Olympic lane at Cromwell Road, the minute hand hit the twelve, but I couldn't tell. There was no sound. I had my ears open and was receptive to even the faintest toll. But there was nothing. In the middle of London, the Olympics were going entirely unnoticed.

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