London’s Last Olympic Night
Last night: My partner heads off to the athletics at the Olympics (the biggest shock; realising that there were lots of events taking place simultaneously in the same stadium) while I make for the National to see ‘London Road’ (the verbatim play about residents who claimed back their street after it had become infamous as the home of a murderer).
Meeting up with my good friend Maggie Armitage, decked out of course like a Christmas tree, we realise that the South Bank – the stretch of the Thames between Tower Bridge and Big Ben – has become a focal point for Olympic celebrations. All of the bridges are illuminated in Olympic colours, with laser projections of athletes on them. The great brutalist theatre complex is hosting outdoor concerts and plays, floodlit in fierce reds and pinks. Even many of the double-decker buses crossing Waterloo Bridge have neon strips running down them, so that the whole scene looks like the ending of ‘2001’ or the movie ‘Into The Void’.
On the South Bank every available space is hosting something, from a terrifying-looking reproduction of a Festival of Britain ride, built vastly larger than the original, to pop-up bars, cafes, beaches, funfairs, performance areas – and even the skateboard park has suddenly attained the air of an Olympic stadium.
But best of all are the people – a cacophony of global buskers, tourists, athletes, people draped in their flags lining the bridges, just hanging out. It’s not warm – the width of the river increases the cool night winds – but nobody is in any hurry to move on. Attempts to convey the wider scene in pictures proves impossible, of course, but that doesn’t stop people from attempting to capture something on their phones.
The Thames looks like it’s being used for once, with a great many brightly lit small boats ploughing up and down. Mercifully, the private company that tried to gouge everyone for using its ‘water chariots’ was publicly shamed and was forced to slash the ticket prices for its empty boats. Elsewhere there has been very little sign of anyone taking advantage of the influx of visitors.
On the tube home, a Brazilian samba session breaks out and soon the entire train has joined in, responding to the infectious beat. Everyone, it seems, is singing something. One delight has been the ease with which we’ve been able to get around the city; even the athletes have been taking the tube rather than getting into the Olympic cars. One of the reasons why London is no longer a place with a dominant car culture is that it’s more fun to use buses, trains and tubes. I hope the Javelin, which gets passengers from the centre to the Olympic park in just seven minutes, becomes a permanent fixture.
Even the most vociferously vocal anti-Olympians have admitted that as a social project it has been an amazing success; the sole dissident remains the increasingly angry and lost Morrissey, bleating incoherently about the Nazism of sport. As midnight is passed and the final day begins, everyone is hoping that all this colourful energy and sense of community is retained as part of the future city.