Sunday, January 22, 2012

Welcome to the five-ring circus

I'm in shock. Really. According to my Letts 2012 Diary - in which I have dutifully filled in all the Personal Details, updated the birthdays and anniversaries, and made careful note of religious holidays around the world - we are already more than two-thirds of the way through January.

This bombshell means we're closer to February, and with February a short month, we're almost into March and therefore getting ready for Easter. Which is in April. Based on this logic, then, it has taken me almost a third of the way through the year to commit fingertips to keyboard for the first What Would David Bowie Do? outing of 2012.

Here in France, however, it is still technically "the New Year": my indigenous colleagues continue to plant kisses on each other as if the clock got stuck at a minute past midnight on New Year's Day, and this will, apparently, continue until the very end of the month. Actually, there is a strong likelihood that it will continue long into February as the kissing becomes part of the national coping mechanism for France getting downgraded to AA+. I'm still not entirely sure what that means, but I suspect it means everyone here now can claim to be part of an exotic blood group.

As if France wasn't suffering enough, passengers on the Eurostar rail service between Paris and London are currently being invited to visit the buffet carriage where they can purchase badges commemorating the fact Eurostar is an "official partner" of the 2012 Olympic. The games, if you're not aware, will be taking place in London. Paris had offered its services but were turned down on the grounds that, with the streets paved with dog poo, the marathon might prove too risky for the athletes' welfare.

To compound the insensitivity, at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel on the French side, Eurostar trains pass under a large sign reminding, mainly, the driver and a few illegal immigrants wandering along the track that, in the famous declaration of Jacques Rogge, "The IOC has the honour of announcing the Games of the 30th Olympiad in 2012 will be in...[pauses for dramatic effect] - London."

I am, of course, proud for my home city, but you have to feel a little sorry for the French having it rubbed in like this. It reminds me of the late, great Bill Hicks, who observed in a typically acerbic routine: "If The Second Coming ever does happen will Jesus want to be confronted by people wearing crucifixes? It would be a bit like going up to Jackie Onassis with a rifle pendant". Perhaps the only way to worsen the insensitivity is by screening Henry V with French subtitles on giant screens in Paris shortly before the opening ceremony, while offering out 'How was Agincourt for you?' T-shirts.

France may, however, have the last laugh after all: not wishing to put a complete downer on the Games already, my advice to anyone hoping to watch the event is, I'm afraid, do so from the comfort of your own home.

It will be an unmitigated disaster. Should you be mad enough to consider flying to London, and have been booked on a flight by a sadistic travel agent who thinks Heathrow Airport would make the ideal gateway to your Olympic experience, you will face a nightmare.

Your plane - one of only 36 takeoffs and landings to be allowed each hour in order to reduce Heathrow air traffic by 20% in order to handle the 500,000 visitors expected in London for the games (yep, I couldn't work out that logic either) - will have spent the final hour of its journey (and fuel supply) circling over the Kent or Hertfordshire countryside, waiting for air traffic control to let your pilot land on the airport's single active landing runway.

Once you have landed you will probably wait until the first medals are being presented before your luggage arrives. This is because the second thing Heathrow fails miserably at - after allowing passenger airplanes to take off and land - is repatriating passengers and their luggage with anything approaching recognition that the regular passenger, once landed, might wish to subsequently go somewhere.

Heathrow is at pains to point out that it is backing Britain, or something like that. In a glossy 28-page brochure, Normand Boivin, the airport's Chief Operating Officer, says that "80 per cent of all Games visitors are expected to pass through Heathrow – including athletes, officials, Marketing Partners [note the capital letters...] and media, as well as spectators – the airport will be their first experience of London and the UK before the Games."

Oh dear. This is the very same airport which, in December 2010, had to cancel 4000 flights because it was underprepared for snow and couldn't cope with the backlogs or the volume of grounded passengers. Now, I know that even with the climate being as mad as it is, snow is highly unlikely in July, but the fact that the self-styled Gateway To Britain was unprepared for weather which shouldn't exactly be a shock in December doesn't bode well for the influx of half a million people in the space of a few weeks.

But let's imagine that all goes well, and the sixth and temporary terminal they are planning to build (I'm assuming this will be nothing more than a group of Portakabins), does manage to process all the athletes, managers, sponsors, corporate types, regular punters and their luggage (which will also include a total of 800 firearms belonging to 530 atheltes of both the Olympics and Paralympics), the next challenge will be traveling across London.

Heathrow Airport, for the uninitiated, was built to the west side of London. Britain, it should be pointed out, experiences a prevailing south-westerly wind, which means that Heathrow-bound aircraft usually land into the wind, requiring them to fly across a city of eight million people before touching down. Always something to think about when you're wondering about the rules of physics and the laws of average.

Getting from Heathrow in the west to Stratford, where the main Olympic events will take place, in the east is normally a voyage of endurance that would have made Captain Scott turn back.

This is because you have a limited number of transport choices: a taxi, which will cost you more than the Greek national debt; the Piccadilly Line of the London Underground, which will cost you more than the Greek national debt as well as your blood pressure; or the Heathrow Express, which which will cost you more than the Greek national debt, will only take you to Paddington, and then you will need to choose either a taxi or the London Underground to complete your journey

And then there's the hotels. I rarely have reason to stay in London hotels but when I have done so, I've found them to be appallingly bad - overpriced, poorly serviced and staffed by people who give the distinct impression that you are interrupting their day by asking for things.

Sure, there are staggeringly luxurious hotels in London, but the hotels you and I would stay in (i.e. those which aren't predominantly populated by semi-resident Russian mobsters and Middle Eastern arms dealers) mostly fail to understand the concept of service, 21st Century communications technology, or that a minibar should comprise of more than just a kettle, powdered milk and a solitary shortbread biscuit. Compared with the consistently high standards of comfort and service you get in Germany or even basic chain hotels in America, the British hotel experience is lousy.

Don't expect any improvement just for the Olympics. What you can expect is the loss of your children's inheritance: apparently, hotel prices in London will rocket by 400% during the games. This phenomena is commonplace in Las Vegas during major events like CES, the annual consumer electronics show. Several years ago, for the duration of CES I stayed at the sumptuous Bellagio Hotel (you know, the one with the amazing fountains which George Clooney knocked off in Ocean's 11). For the first two nights of CES, I was charged $318 a night, by the third night it had fallen to $240 and by the fourth and fifth nights I was paying just $130. Same hotel, same room, same me. And they said the Mafia was no longer operating in Las Vegas...

Once you're in London, you're going to have to get about. Taxi drivers I've spoken to all seem to be of the opinion that it would be better for them to go on holiday en masse during the Olympics than trying to get through traffic - even with fare-paying passengers on board. The consensus is that it simply won't be worth the hassle. So don't expect to find any taxis.

The Underground won't be any better: London's Tube trains are year-round sweat-boxes of a severity beaten only by the punishment received by Alec Guinness in The Bridge On The River Kwai. Coupled with chronic overcrowding, the inevitable strike by Bob Crow and his cronies, and your journey from inn keeper's hearth to trackside at the Olympic Stadium will be nothing short of torturous ardor.

Basically you'd be best off at home with your feet up watching several hundred honed athletes doing all the hard work. They've spent the last four years training so you won't have to lift anything more than another cold one. Yes, I'm sure it would be nice to be in the fabulous new stadium, juggling your eyes to watch the 4x400mm relay simultaneously with the high jump, the javelin and a mustachioed North Korean woman heaving a lead weight across the infield.

With everyone, surely, now owning a sharp-as-a-button High Definition TV, there really will only be one way to watch the 30th Olympiad and close-ups of sinews being stretched to their limits, Usain Bolt completing another unfeasible world record, or the somewhat preposterous notion that beach volleyball played in the middle of east London is authentic. It won't be, but it'll be a lot more entertaining than getting to the stadium.

1 comment:

  1. Much awaiting Olympic Games....
    Approximately 170 days left now...
    Can't wait to see David Bowie's performance. Wait till July, 27th 2012, and see what he will do?
    It will definitely be a great fun.