To see ourselves as others see us…

Following a shaky and inauspicious start, the Olympic Torch is on its way round the world (or \’Journey of Harmony\’, to use official Olyspeak). On 6 April, the Torch will arrive in London. What sort of city will it find? According to the official torch relay website, quite an alarming one.

London, the website tells us, was founded by Roman Celts, but then burnt to the ground by Boudicca in the Seventh Century, the first of a veritable catalogue of calamities. The capital grew to become “an important commercial and social centre” in the Seventeenth Century, “however all was not well”. The Great Plague devastated the population and “London simmered under the smell of death” until cleansed by the Great Fire (which also destroyed four fifths of the city).

Pausing for breath, London had a chance to rebuild itself, but despite the best efforts of John Nash the city quickly became overcrowded by people and sewage. Jospeh Bazalgette’s sewage system rescued London from cholera, only for the city’s skyline to be “re-arranged” by the bombing raids of the Blitz. Post-war re-construction seemed for a moment to put the city back on an even keel, before the London Fog descended to kill thousands, “adequately being nicknamed the ‘Foggy City’.” Welcome to London.

There are a number of ways of reading this narrative, which seems to have been assembled from a combination of visits to the London Dungeon, the grimmer sections of 1066 and All That, and perhaps some briefing from the French tourist authorities. One can simply enjoy someone else’s perspective: the website also gives some culinary information – toad-in-the-hole is “not as strange as it seems”, and afternoon tea has declined “as life has taken on a faster pace”.

More seriously, one might see, within this tale of woe, sewage, pestilence and fog, a veiled rebuke from China: “Do not criticise our degraded environment, our polluted rivers, the smog that hangs heavy over Hong Kong. You too have been here, and not that long ago either.”

Another reading is perhaps more optimistic. The website doesn’t need to talk up London in the way that it does the beauty of Almaty. “Everybody knows” that London is a mess, with a legacy of poxy people, chaotic architecture and noxious air. But it is still London, a serious city. Who\’d visit for their health? In the guise of a warning, this gruesome pen portrait pays London a sly compliment.

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