Nothing can stop them?

It\’s good to see that Saint Etienne have offered to write a song for London 2012. SE are the quintessential London band, and What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? their unsentimentally-filmed elegy for the Lower Lea Valley\’s vanishing grimescape is well worth watching.

But, based on the evidence to date, their bid to craft a 2012 anthem is doomed to disappointment. From Barcelona to Beijing, understatement has rarely been an Olympic theme. London\’s bid was buoyed along by mannered M-People caterwhauling, and our contribution to the closing ceremony at Beijing was a faintly embarassing attempt to distill the essence of \’Cool Britannia\’ (remember that?), while ticking appropriate boxes. Red double-decker bus, as seen in establising shots in every film from Goldfinger to 28 Days Later? Check. Old white man from once-important rock band? Check. Inoffensive young black woman from talent show to counterbalance said rock dinosaur? Check. Global brand/footballer type person? Check.

I hope I\’m wrong, and there may still be a lot of suprises before the 2012 opening ceremony, but I am afraid that Saint Etienne\’s music, while not always my cup of tea (too winsomely Heavenly Records, if you know what I mean), is too subtle, too particular, too crafty and crafted, to fit into the bizarre, homogenised world of Olympic culture and bombast.

Civilisation under attack!

Under a great headline (\’Pranks cannot resist the brilliance of Olympic sacred fire\’), the People\’s Daily has this to say about the Olympic torch farrago (my italics):

Many netizens issued a warning. The few Tibet independence elements have a wishful thinking. The Olympic torch does not belong to China alone, but belong all the more to the world. Tibet independence elements now stand in the opposite to the peace-loving people across the world, and their evil deeds are sure to be subjected to denunciations by people worldwide.

The Olympic sacred fire is a vital, important symbol of human values with respect to the modern Olympic Games. Every torch relay represents a spread of human civilization. It is precisely because of this sense that people worldwide have all along regarded the Olympic torch relay as a lofty, sacred ceremony….So any deeds to interfere with and sabotage the Olympic sacred fire constitutes not only a blaspheme of the Olympic spirit but a grave challenge to the human civilization.

And I thought it was just a crappy outsize cigarette lighter, and an excuse for a bit of traditional western argy-bargy….

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.

Sacred flame of guff

The slightly shaky start to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Torch Relay yesterday also marked the beginning of an important competition: the quest for the most sonorous and meaningless Olympic slogan.

\’Light the passion, share the dream\’ is a worthy first contender. Its words are entirely interchangeable, with each other and with pretty well any other Olympic word: Light the dream, share the gold, Dream the passion, share the light, Dream the gold, share the goal, Share the athlete, dream the goal, etc, etc, etc.

While on the torch-relay, it\’s good to read this breathless account of the feelings of the \’high priestess\’ (an actor called Maria Nafpliotou).

More to follow. Much, much more.