2012 and all that

So, it’s the end of the year. It’s been a bit of a funny one, in many ways. We started with a drought, and ended it the wettest year on record. On a personal note, it’s the year I was elected Deputy Mayor of Evesham, and I’ve enjoyed every part of it. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming year even more. But it hasn’t all been good: the weather caused massive disruption to several of our festival events with the wind meaning no balloons at the balloon festival and the rain resulting in too much river for the river festival. A combination of last winter’s ice and the summer’s rain led to lumps of masonry falling off the Bell Tower. Flood water has been back onto the roads and back into premises on the aptly-named Waterside, although we’ve been fortunate that we didn’t come anywhere near the devastating floods of five years ago.

Long to reign over us

Nationally, it’s been a historic year. A British monarch celebrated 60 years on the throne for only the second time in history, and the Olympics returned to Britain for only the third time. We’ve had a lot to celebrate, although coverage of the Queen’s diamond jubilee was some of the most shockingly inept broadcasting I’ve ever seen from the BBC. Not that the BBC was entirely alone in that respect; the inanity of celebrity comperes at the jubilee concert in The Mall was rivalled only by some performers who don’t know the difference between a birthday and a jubilee. Not that it matters, really, the monarchy has probably never been as popular among the general public.

A potential Romneyshambles

Although we would never have admitted it at the time, a lot of us privately might have agreed with Mitt Romney’s comments about London not being quite ready for the Olympics. Media stories about the army having to be roped in to cover for G4S’s inability to recruit and train staff, and negative publicity about some of the more stupid branding rules associated with the event, weren’t exactly the best build-up. Add to that the fact that the great British public loves a good moan, and everything was in place for a gold medal performance in self-flagellation. Or possibly a silver medal, because someone else would undoubtedly have beaten us better than we could beat ourselves.

It didn’t happen that way, of course. I had an inkling of how big it was going to be when the Olympic flame made its way through Evesham. I have honestly never seen the town centre so full. As I made my own way to the High Street, it seemed as if the entire population of the town was heading the same way. Every last vantage point was taken, with the crowds several layers deep.

Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises

I wasn’t in Evesham when the Olympics actually started. Instead, I watched the opening ceremony in a log cabin in Scotland, at the end of a family holiday. Again, it could so easily have gone wrong. Olympic opening ceremonies of the past have varied from the turgid to the bombastic, and everyone knew we didn’t have the budget to compete with Beijing. But Danny Boyle’s bizarre combination of Shakespeare, JK Rowling, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a flock of live sheep, Mr Bean, NHS patients bouncing on their beds, Dizzy Rascal, the Queen and Tim Berners-Leee – all soundtracked by those guys who wrote the song which goes “lager lager lager lager lager lager” – was an audacious triumph.

The games themselves weren’t half bad, either. No, that kind of British understatement just won’t do. They were absolutely, stokingly, stupendously brilliant. Even the BBC managed to redeem themselves from their jubilee disaster by getting their coverage spot on. Some might argue that this is due to the unique way in which the BBC is funded, but I put it down to the fact that sport is one of the few areas of programming that is still run by people who know what they’re talking about. However you look at it, though, even the BBC would have struggled to make the games look good if the competitors hadn’t produced the goods. But produce they did. The best performance by a British Olympic squad (please, no “team GB”) for over a century, and even when it wasn’t the Brits winning it was our favourite global superstars. And I did what I have been telling myself I would do, ever since I first saw the Olympics on TV, and went to see them on home turf. Not at the stadium (missed out on the ballot for that), but at the triathlon in Hyde Park. It was a great day out, topped off by a British victory.

There were other sporting achievements, too, of course. Bradley Wiggins became the first British winner of the Tour de France, and Chelsea became the sixth English winners of the European Cup – itself a record for any one country. Incidentally, Bayern Munich have now lost in the final to three different English teams. We’ll gloss over the record of the England team in the European Championships.

Guns and posers

Royalty and sport provided the highlights, and the weather the main lowlights. Over in the US, yet another mass killing gave NRA spokesman Wayne LaPieree the opportunity to claim gold medal for sheer, utter stupidity. But 2012 will also be noted for an unprecedented musical achievement. Never before has a Korean artist so much as troubled the UK charts, let alone approached the top of them. But a song poking fun at the aspirations of a posh Seoul suburb became not only the most viewed video ever on Youtube, but also the soundtrack to a thousand parodies and a million embarrassing dad-dance moves. Oppan Gangnam seutayil.

The Olympics – a brief summary for the non-sporty types

Don’t really care about sport? Secretly relieved that the Olympics are all over? But still want to appear knowledgeable to your friends? Here’s a brief summary of what happened…

Overall, we won lots of gold medals. More than Russia, who beat us last time and, rather more importantly, a lot more than Australia. OK, so China and the USA did better than us, but they do have a lot more people to choose from.

The British winners were a mixed bag. One guy named Mo won two gold medals, while four guys named Andy, Pete, Tom and Alex won one gold between them. One girl named Jess competed in seven events to get one gold. That seven-event medal was for the heptathlon; all the “athlon”s are multi-sport events. We also won gold in the men’s triathlon (that’s “tri” meaning “three”), but didn’t win the decathlon (“deca” = 10) or pentathlon (“penta” = 5, as in pentangle), although we did get a silver. In case you’re wondering, there are no other athlons in the summer Olympics. The winter version has a biathlon, but there’s no quadrathlon, hexathlon, octathlon or nonathlon.

Our first gold medal was won by women reversing. Our last gold medal was won by a big bloke punching someone. It’s nice to know that stereotypes can be partly overcome.

In between that, the chap with sideburns who won the French cycling race won a gold medal as well. In other bicycle races, we won gold medals in Keirin and Omnium as well as other things. Track cycling has funny names for events to disguise the fact that it’s basically all just going round and round a wooden oval lots of times. Although, as a nation, we do seem to be very good at it. It must be all that practice going through red lights.

You may recall that in the Wimbldeon final, the plucky Brit lost, as usual. But they gave him another go at the Olympics and he won it this time.

We also won golds in horse dancing, messing about in boats, clay pigeon shooting, women fighting and kicking your opponent in the head. All very British.

As far as competitors from other nations are concerned, the only ones you really need to care about are Michael Phelps, who swims very quickly and has lots of medals for it, and Usain Bolt, who – appropriately, for his name – runs very fast indeed. The Chinese did well in lots of tricky, technical sports like jumping into a pool and arty gymnastic stuff (although they were disqualified from the women’s badminton for, bizarrely, not trying hard enough to win) and the Americans did well in events where you simply have to be fast, such as running and swimming. The Russians, possibly a bit stereotypically, did well in events that require strength, like weightlifting and lobbing a heavy stone as far as possible. Australia did very well at coming second; they were the only nation to go home with more than twice as many silver medals as gold.

Aside the from the sport, the other big winners at the Olympics were Danny Boyle, who is widely tipped for a knighthood following the highly acclaimed opening ceremony that featured Shakespeare, JK Rowling, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a flock of live sheep and those guys who wrote the song that goes “lager lager lager lager lager lager”; Boris Johnson, who managed to turn getting stuck on a zip wire into a PR triumph; and Eric Idle, who rescued an otherwise rather mediocre closing ceremony by falling out of a cannon. Non-sporting losers include David Cameron, who tried really, really hard to get some of Boris’s cool and failed every time; Kim Gavin, who dealt with the impossible task of living up to Boyle’s opener by seemingly scripting the closing ceremony while under the influence of mind-altering drugs; and the Spice Girls, who managed to be outshone by a display of synchronised taxi driving.

The BBC had a very good Olympics, so good in fact that the Director General told them to stop it and revert to type. In the US, NBC managed a monumental cock-up of the whole thing. The Australian networks pretended that gold medals don’t matter when you’ve got soap operas. And, despite the fact that ambush marketing was outlawed by some of the most pointlessly draconian legislation ever passed in the UK, bookmakers Paddy Power stuck two fingers up to the rules in a delightfully cheeky set of adverts. All in all, a very good two and a bit weeks. And, just to stop being funny for a moment, this picture shows why the Olympics matter, even if you absolutely hate sport:

Danny Boyle’s Olympic Programme Notes – full text

I’ve noticed that I’m getting hits on this blog for my short extract from Danny Boyle’s programme notes for the Olympic opening ceremony. Since there appears to be a demand for it, this is the full text:

‘Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises’

The Tempest, Wiliam Shakespeare

At some point in their histories, most nations experience a revolution that changes everything about them.
The United Kingdom had a revolution that changed whole of human existence.

In 1709 Abraham Darby smelted iron in a blast furnace, using coke. And so began the Industrial Revolution. Out of Abraham’s Shropshire furnace flowed molten metal. Out of his genius flowed the mills, looms, engines, weapons, railways, ships, cities, conflicts and prosperity that built the world we live in.

In November 1990 another Briton sparked another revolution – equally far-reaching – a revolution we’re still experiencing. The digital revolution was sparked by Tim Berners-Lee’s amazing gift to the world – the World Wide Web. This, he said, is for everyone.

We welcome you to an Olympic Opening Ceremony for everyone.
A ceremony that celebrates the creativity, eccentricity, daring and openness of the British genius by harnessing the genius, creativity, eccentricity, daring and openness of modern London.

You’ll hear the words at our great poets – Shakespeare, Blake and Milton. You’ll hear the glorious noise at our unrivalled pop culture. You’ll see characters from our great children’s literature – Peter Pan and Captain Hook, Mary Poppins, Voldemort, Cruella de Ville. You’ll see ordinary families and extraordinary athletes. Dancing nurses, singing children and amazing special effects.

But we hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring nation that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream at universal communication. A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone.

As taken from this scan of the original

Olympics, industry and the NHS

I wake up this morning to Twitter and Facebook still going off on one about Danny Boyle’s tribute to the NHS in last night’s Olympic opening ceremony. There have been a lot of comments about how it seemed to support a left-wing agenda. But it didn’t. Really, it didn’t.

Yes, Aidan Burley is a twat. But no more so than those who attempted to hijack the imagery of the opening ceremony in support of an anti-reform agenda. There’s an absolutely important point in the narrative, possible missed by those watching (especially by the inane BBC commentators), but directly alluded to in Danny Boyle’s programme notes, that the industrial revolution is something to be celebrated for what it gave us, and the NHS is one of those things.

The “progressive” elements of society that were part of last night’s show, including the NHS and the suffragettes, were not a counter-reaction to the industrial revolution. Rather, they were a direct consequence of it. It was industry that spread democracy and wealth and made progress possible.

Without the money from industry to finance it, the NHS could never have existed. Universal suffrage would not have happened without the social changes wrought by industry. If you want to defend the NHS, then you also have to defend the things which enable it – a free, entrepreneurial society that encourages the creation of wealth.

That was a point woven into the fabric of the Olympic opening ceremony. It’s in the words of the famous song which introduced it. Jerusalem doesn’t just happen. It has to be built. I agree with Danny Boyle when he writes of

The idea of Jerusalem – the better world, that A belief that we can build the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry and the caring nation that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone.

And there’s nothing left-wing about that.

Olympic linking lunacy

In another of my occasional series of articles about organisations who mistakenly think they can control how you link to them on the web, there’s a great example on the London 2012 website. Here’s the relevant paragraph:

Links to the Site. You may create your own link to the Site, provided that your link is in a text-only format. You may not use any link to the Site as a method of creating an unauthorised association between an organisation, business, goods or services and London 2012, and agree that no such link shall portray us or any other official London 2012 organisations (or our or their activities, products or services) in a false, misleading, derogatory or otherwise objectionable manner. The use of our logo or any other Olympic or London 2012 Mark(s) as a link to the Site is not permitted.

What that means is that the link I’ve already created is OK, provided I don’t use this article to point out how stupid these rules are. Oops. But, even if I wasn’t being derogatory about them, these restrictions create some ludicrous situations. Here are some examples:

A website about the Olympics – OK, because it’s a text link that doesn’t use the official Marks.

London 2012 – Not OK, because it uses one of the official Marks.

London 2012 – OK, because it’s not a link, and my use of the official Marks is permitted under the exception for journalism and editorial content.

A bunch of plonkers – not OK, because it’s derogatory.

OK, because I’m using the image in an editorial context and it isn’t a link.

Not OK, because I’m using the image as a link.

Not OK, because it’s an image link even though it isn’t one of the official Marks.

I haven’t broken the rule about not using a link to imply some kind of association or endorsement, because – unlike every other restriction – that is actually enforceable by law. But to try and stop people making links in the non-permitted forms that I’ve done in this article is daft. It’s unenforceable, and all it does is demonstrate ignorance.

If it was just ignorance, though, it wouldn’t be such a big thing. Lots of websites have unenforceable clauses like this in their terms and conditions, usually because they’ve simply copied and pasted them from elsewhere on the web or they were written by people who don’t really understand the Internet and can’t afford to pay someone who does. But when LOCOG does it, it looks like just another example of the control freakery at the heart of the London Olympics.

Quite apart from the fact that we’ve actually got laws telling us when we can and can’t use ordinary, English words such as “games” and well-known names such as “London”, it’s led to situations where local traders have been shut out of Olympic Flame events because the official sponsors don’t want them there and a ban on food vendors other than McDonalds selling chips. That one was partially retracted for staff catering in the face of mass complaints, but it still applies to spectators.

I like sport. I like the Olympics, and I’m massively proud that they’re being held in my country this year. And I’m pleased that the organisers have managed to get things like the stadium and other venues ready on time and on budget, unlike many other Olympic hosts. But the willingness of LOCOG to let commercial interests take precedence over the convenience and needs of athletes, staff, volunteers and spectators leaves an uneasy taste in my mouth.

Anyway, I’ll be doing my own little bit to protest against the rampant commercialism and Olympian authoritarianism. While the games are on, I won’t use my Visa card, I won’t eat at McDonalds and I won’t drink Coca Cola or Heineken. Instead, I’ll watch the TV coverage with a glass of real English beer in my hand and eat food from English providers. And when I need to spend money with plastic, I’ll use my Mastercard. Oh, and I’m happily ignoring nonsense like a ban on derogatory links to a bunch of control freaks who are giving the London Olympics a bad name.

Olympic Flame

The Olympic flame came to Evesham today. I was there to watch it, along with other members of the town council and assorted dignitaries, from our position in the VIP viewing area. Although, actually, we didn’t really use the viewing area at all – like everyone else, we just pushed out into the road as the flame came past. Dignity goes out of the window when you’re watching history being made, especially if there’s a good chance to get some photos.

I like the Olympics. I really do. I like sport in general, and the quadrennial Olympiad is one of the things I genuinely look forward to. I’m immensely proud that the 2012 games are being held here in the UK, in the same year as the Queen’s diamond jubilee. And seeing the flame relay come through my adopted home town of Evesham has been one of the highlights of the year so far.

So I feel a bit churlish having a moan. Unfortunately, it’s a moan that needs to be, well, moaned. I’ve blogged before about the extent to which commercial interests have cast a shadow over the London Olympics (and parodied it, as well), and the torch relay isn’t immune either.

As well as the flame itself, and all the supporting vehicles, the torch convoy includes three sponsor vehicles: Samsung, Coca-Cola and Lloyds TSB (and always in that precise order, apparently). I don’t particularly object to them simply being there (although their presence has led to stupid results elsewhere), but one incident really did rankle.

The Samsung truck

The sponsor trucks come first in the convoy, and the lead truck (sponsored by Samsung) features what’s best described as a warm-up man who, with the aid of a DJ, attempts to whip the crowd up into a sponsored fervour: “Come on Evesham, make some noise”; well, actually, we’d been making plenty of noise before you even turned up, we’ve gone quiet for a bit now because you’re just the sideshow and we want the real thing (by which we don’t mean the second truck, sponsored by Coca Cola). But then, as the truck passed the Avonbank Brass Band (who had been doing an excellent job of entertaining the crowd and, well, making some noise) the MC looked down from the top and said “That’s great guys, thanks for coming, we really appreciate it”. And I wanted to be able to say to him, “You arrogant, patronising twat”.

This is our town, we don’t need some low-grade entertainer paid for by a South Korean electronics company to thank us for being there. On the contrary, you should thank us for letting you come along. We’re here to see the flame itself, not the hangers-on. You want to use the opportunity for a bit of marketing? That’s fine, that’s what you pay your sponsorship money for. But don’t try and pretend that it’s your gig, because it most certainly isn’t.

It wasn’t a huge incident, and by the time the flame itself came past I think most people had forgotten the sponsors anyway. But the fact that it was allowed to happen at all does leave me a little uneasy. I don’t object to sponsorship, and I don’t object to sponsors getting their money’s worth of publicity on the back of it. But it does seem to me that, in their desire to keep the sponsors happy and maximise the revenue they generate, LOCOG have allowed some boundaries to be crossed that should not have been crossed.

It’s probably too late to address that for the remainder of the torch relay, and it’s certainly too late to change anything that’s already settled in the contracts. But where LOCOG still has discretion on what it will allow, it should think carefully about how to exercise that discretion. The sponsors, too, should be careful how far they push it. It would be a real shame if one of the greatest sporting events on earth was spoiled by thoughtless commercialism.

Back to the flame in Evesham, though, you can watch it come through the town on the BBC torch relay website – select the morning recording, and Evesham starts at 11:29 in. You can see the rest of my photos either on Facebook or Google+. As you can see from the footage, the town centre was absolutely packed – on my way there myself earlier in the morning it seemed as if the whole population were all walking in the same direction. I don’t think I have ever seen anything similar, anywhere – probably the nearest is a football crowd on their way in or out of the stadium, but even then you know that they’re only a small proportion of the population. Today, there was barely anyone in town who wasn’t there. That’s what makes the Olympics worth celebrating, and that’s what I’m glad to be a part of.

Olympic Visa Boycott

If you want to go to the London Olympics in 2012, you won’t be able to buy tickets using any credit or debit card other than Visa. While you’re there, you won’t be able to use any other card to pay for food, souvenirs, etc.

The reason for this is that Visa is one of the main Olympic sponsors, and has done a deal to exclude other card handlers from anything related to the Olympics.

In my opinion, this is unfair, unreasonable and entirely unjustifiable. It has also been condemned by Which? Magazine as well as many other media and sporting bodies.

There’s nothing wrong with commercial sponsorship of sporting events whereby the sponsor gets exposure of their brand in return for the organiser getting money. But sponsors should not be able to dictate what the fans can and cannot do. Whether it’s the credit card you use, the clothes you wear or the food you eat, the sponsors have no moral right to override your choice.

I’ve never tried to create a Facebook campaign before, but this seems to be to be a subject that’s ripe for one. So I’ve created a page for the campaign, and this blog post is effectively its launch. What I’m asking people to sign up to is a simple pledge:

During the period of the London Olympics, 27 July – 12 Aug 2012, we will not use our Visa cards. For those two weeks, all our spending will be carried out by other means. Mastercard, Amex, good old fashioned cash – it really doesn’t matter. It may be a bit inconvenient, in some cases it may even cost us more, but we’re going to do it

I have no idea how popular this will be. It might go viral and take off. It might bomb. Even if the campaign gets a lot of attention, I have no idea at all how effective it’s likely to be in affecting Visa. But the worst that can happen is that it has no effect at all. My immediate target is to get the campaign passing around the Twitterati and getting noticed by the media. After that, we’ll see where it goes.