Olympic Torch Relay

I’m prone to cynicism. I understand why lots of people are moaning about the London Olympics which are due to start this week. Brits love a good moan. Of course it is colossally expensive and of course this is galling at a time of austerity. Of course the restrictions placed by the organising committee (LOCOG) on use of related words and logos are heavy-handed and illiberal. Of course G4S has made itself look immensely foolish by its inability to secure sufficient numbers of security personnel. For sure the sponsors have too much prominence and are all global mega-corporations. And yes, Wenlock and Mandeville are supremely sinister-looking mascots.

But, despite all this, I think it is going to be a great spectacle and something that people will remember fondly for years to come, long after they have forgotten about the negatives. The first thing that got roundly criticised was the Torch Relay bringing the Olympic flame on an 8000 mile journey round the UK. Some denounced it for its supposed Nazi origins as it was first conducted ahead of the 1936 Berlin Games, although that didn’t seem to have worried many people at the 1948 London Games even though the horrors perpetrated by Nazi Germany were fresh and had been experienced by all at the time.

I was unconvinced by the value of the Torch Relay until a few weeks ago when we went as a family to watch it pass through Headingley on a fortunately sunny Sunday afternoon. The crowd was massive and cheerful. There was a real sense of excitement about seeing the torch – even though, as it turned out, with so many people watching it was all but impossible to see as it rapidly swept past. Normally the area is one which has the typical Guardian-liberal antagonism towards jingoism – few of the adults round our way were at all interested in the Jubilee – so seeing the streets filled with Union flags and innocent excitement at the spectacle was refreshing after a diet of often jaded anti-establishmentism.

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I was lucky enough to get to see the Torch Relay again a couple of weeks later as it made its way through Slough and passed right in front of my office (see, I may be a cynic but not a pessimist if I can put a positive spin on spending 3 days a week in Slough).

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As you can see, I got an excellent view this time round. Also, that the torch bearer (one of the non-celebrity local ones, a guy called Bob Dennis) was wearing contraband trainers rather than those from the official footwear partners of the Olympics. It looked like he was enjoying it as one of the best days of his life and one that he’ll not forget.

The visit last night of the torch to East Enders’ Albert Square had been long anticipated and caught the mood of the relay well. The partial live broadcast got the feel of the event. It was one of those relatively rare occasions when a soap opera reflects something real about the society it is set in. The episode also gave the impression of the mad events of an anxiety dream in following the normally hapless Billy Mitchell’s travails in getting back in time to do his stint as a torch bearer while also worrying about his errant grand-daughter Lola and the impending birth of her daughter (which took place in the inauspicious environment of McClunky’s Chicken Restaurant while he enjoyed the only limelight of his life). Which is probably how things felt to LOCOG when the G4S security problems came out! 

Ironically, I’m going to miss most of the Games themselves, but I’m not going to make the arrogant mistake of assuming that nobody cares about them and nobody is going to enjoy them. They’re going to be great and those who will carp are ultimately going to be the insignificant ones. Let them be grouches or take the 100/1 odds on Boris Johnson setting fire to his hair with the torch at the opening ceremony.

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Who is he? Who IS HE? Where did you find him?

I love East Enders. I’ve watched it pretty much from the start. Its characters have at times almost been real people – I remember being picked up from school in my teens and having my mum go on about Arthur having been stupid and realising part way through the conversation that she was talking about Arthur Fowler rather than someone we actually knew.

So, I’ve been horrified by the recent, random and bizarre introduction of Derek Branning to the series. He has appeared from nowhere with no support from earlier plotlines over the years to come and dominate the show. He is killing it.

Of course, it is part of the nature of soap operas to bring in new characters and to use sometimes desperate measures to change the direction of the show if it is going into a dead end – from the mundane regular use of catastrophic explosions (Emmerdale), tram-related carnage (Coronation Street), and arson, often for insurance scams (East Enders) to the extreme of Dallas writing off a whole series as a dream.

However, the rise from nowhere of Derek Branning takes this artifice to another level. How did Carol, Jack and Max manage to have a major gangland figure in their family without anyone knowing? When Max agonises over his relationship with his father, Jim, after his stroke, remembering him as a terrible bully in his childhood, who mentions Derek? When Max is being buried alive by Tanya and she’s going off with Jack, why isn’t Derek riding in to preserve his family (was he in prison – if so, how come he hasn’t come and done Tanya in first off on release?). How on earth did Jack get into the Police with such a rogue in his family? Why isn’t Derek hunting down Jack’s ex wife for doing him wrong? Why is anyone giving him the time of day?

The problem is that Derek has no nuance even as a vehicle for bringing in extra gangland grit. The Mitchells have been developed well as a family over the years. There is real complexity about Phil Mitchell and his relationships with his children, partners and alcohol. Much earlier on, Grant Mitchell’s response to his experiences as a soldier in the Falklands provided a balance to his violence and mental state in civilian life. Archie Mitchell was built up into being a monster gradually so that it was believable that people had ambiguous relationships with him. Andy, the last big non-Mitchell gangland boss to be introduced, was also more than a caricature in his relationship with Kat.

Within the Branning family, there are internal conflicts in the lives of Jack, Max and Carol which are believable and real. They all hope to be principled in a way but are ultimately slaves to their passions. Derek has none of this depth and the meagre attempts to fill in his motivations aren’t even believed by the other characters (eg Carol’s incredulity at Derek harbouring a grudge against David Wicks for having spoilt his teenage relationship with the only girl he loved – the writers will probably heap on the cliché now and make him gay).

He’s a pointless, unappealing, random character with no credible link to the family he has installed himself as the head of. The sooner the writers come up with the inevitable set-piece violent death that they must surely be planning for him, the better.

Unpalatable Truths about Us

Hacking voicemails and paying police officers to get stories for the newspapers. Plagiarising other writers’ interviews to polish your own articles. The sad and unpalatable truth is that most people simply don’t care that much about any of this.

Of course they ought to care, just as I ought to do more exercise and eat more vegetables. It doesn’t change the fact that they don’t.

The reality is that even though there have been some momentous changes like News Corp dropping its bid for BSkyB, the closure of the News of the World, the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, the bipartisan political support for criminal and civil investigation and inquiry into the methods of the media, the suspension of Johann Hari and investigation by the Orwell Prize committee and so on, most of these will have been of minimal note to the vast majority of the population. Even on twitter, a self-selecting minority of the more engaged part of the online population the retirement of Pam St Clements from her role as Pat Butcher in East Enders had a higher profile than hackgate at its height.

In part this might be down to a continuation of the “well they would do wouldn’t they” approach to the wider world. When the bid for BSkyB first made the news I remember being mildly surprised that News Corp didn’t already own a majority stake in BSkyB – it had been portrayed by most of the rest of the media as being controlled by Rupert Murdoch for years. From the slight experience I’ve had in being interviewed for comments by the press it wasn’t that big a surprise to hear that Johann Hari hadn’t in fact elicited nice, fully formed quotes from his interviewees (a small confession here, as one of the editors of my Sixth Form College magazine I published a largely fictional interview with a fellow student who worked on the theatre lighting and effects – someone else had gone to interview him but hadn’t really managed to get much out of him so I just made it up, ironically the same guy has now become something of a big name in lighting and effects so I missed out there). It was more of a surprise to find so much evidence of actually cribbing large chunks from other writers and interviewers just because it seems pretty unnecessary.

That tabloid journalists do pretty much anything to get a story and are as amoral in their methods as they are moralistic in their published tone was probably the biggest non-story of them all. Even though, of course, things like hacking into Milly Dowler’s voicemail and that of victims of 7/7 or 9/11 managed to lower a bar that most would have thought to be already unlimboable. That said, Will Self has (as ever) an interesting take on how ordinary people are now considered fair game for being mistreated in the same way as celebrities: http://bit.ly/nmhIrY

Bent coppers have been a staple of British life for years. They can be banal, as the ones involved in the allegations around the investigation of hacking claims. Or they can be strangely sympathetic, like Gene Hunt in Life on Mars (in my opinion rather less interesting when rather less corrupt in Ashes to Ashes). But they’re a tiny minority of the actual Police forces of the country, most of whom do unpleasant work at antisocial hours in a professional and decent manner. The chance that slipping a couple of hundred quid to the officer who stopped you for a breathalyzer test might work rather than get you arrested for attempting to bribe the officer is so small that you don’t hear of anyone even trying it.

Politicians doing anything they can to maintain their power and prestige or to feather their own nests? After the MPs’ expenses scandal and everything that was already known about how close MPs and party leaders have been to media moguls, it just isn’t news. Sarah Brown organising Rebekah Brooks’ 40th birthday party is not more outrageous now than it was a week ago, just as her husband giving his first Sun interview to the man who had apparently so upset him and his wife over breaking the story of his son’s cystic fibrosis wasn’t. They’re not news – indeed the only new thing is how weird it is that they think they deserve sympathy now for something they were way more forgiving of than most people would have been, or that even a jaded populace would think it right that a serving Prime Minister didn’t dare to take on the might of the press.

So, hard to swallow though it may be, these developments are a big deal that most people will just shrug and say, “Big Deal!” to. Ironically, the people who do care about this stuff are most likely to be amongst the perpetrators or to know or care about them. The public might shrug a bit but the politicians, journalists and other establishment figures want to feel good about themselves and what they do. Enough will feel shame because of the judgement of their peers and their unavoidable blindness to what ordinary people think – unavoidable because they don’t want to sound condescending or cynical (cardinal sins in public life except for those with the flair to carry it off, like, say, Brian Sewell). So, they’ll clean up their act, a bit, make a lot of noise over it and ultimately things will quieten down with a feeling that things have been sorted out, until the next time.