Blog: London 2012, you’re alright.

Guest post by Nadia Ramoul 

I wanted to hate the Olympics.

I spent the past year self righteously bemoaning the folly of a huge sporting event and a hefty bill at a time of great financial uncertainty and a gung-ho approach to drastic cuts in public services.

I laughed heartily at the (still hideous) pink branding and the bizarre mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, with their eerily staring Cyclops eyes and permanent expressions of rage that seem to bore into my very soul.

My friends and I would visit the new Westfield and observe from the big ugly bridge, that the rest of Stratford was cleverly and obviously hidden by giant steel ‘tree’ with gleaming leaves that obscure the tired old shopping centre lest it offend the eyes of affluent Olympic visitors. We scoffed and rolled our eyes at Mayor Boris’ recorded ramblings advising us to change our routes to work and spent many an hour complaining about the crowds and ridiculously draconian sponsorship rules.

Now though, I feel like a bit of a dick for all my supposedly knowing laughter and bile. I confess: I’m bloody well loving the Olympics. That’s right. Please, go easy on me… don’t aim for the face… it’s honestly pretty good.

Have you been to Stratford recently? While a lot of it hasn’t had the super special Olympic regeneration promised – Maryland is still a manky hole of suspicious fried chicken and sticky pavement – the atmosphere is thoroughly different. People are actually speaking to each other and there is palpable excitement in the air. No, seriously.  Friends who saw the torch travel through report a real sense of community spirit and anticipation, and around the park hearing such a variety of languages is pretty impressive.

The park itself is equally incredible, dwarfing the Westfield over the road, with beautiful landscaped gardens and oddly picturesque views of the stadiums. Rather than the bun fight of angry tourists and chaotic cues that I expected, large swathes of it are clear and open, with picnic benches for folk to eat their lunch and friendly guys wandering around with backpacks of beer, giving directions. There is a celebratory atmosphere regardless of the hefty army guys pottering around and the swollen clouds constantly threatening rain.

I’ll never forget the Opening Ceremony or where I was where I saw it (drunk as a lord  shovelling salt and pepper squid in my mouth if you must know) and the genuine excitement at just how surreal and visceral it was. I wanted to hate it, honestly, but I couldn’t. ‘Think of the money!’ I thought, ‘the straining transport system!’ To no avail. My friends and I glanced around, choked out some quiet praise of Danny Boyle and admitted defeat.

While the mascots still fill my insides with a certain amount of dread, it has faded somewhat. Their presence around Spitalfields is pretty funny, their colourful design complimenting the street art of Brick Lane rather than directly contradicting it. Hell, a cuddly one hewn in glittery gold is staring at me now from my bookcase making me feel slightly uneasy.

Yes, the 2012 Olympics is a giant vulgar corporate clusterfuck of unpleasantness, there is no denying. But never have I seen so many really happy people in one place. The world’s largest McDonald’s looms large, a wooden monolith with odours that sting the nostrils from quite a distance while other food options and souvenirs are grossly overpriced – I should be seething with rage, but no, not entirely. The people here are having a great time. If a 30 minute queue for a lukewarm Filet o’ Fish and a few hours watching your country lose at a sport you’ve never heard of makes you happy then great. It made me pretty happy too.

Arts & Culture: Cycling Crazy

Cyclists taking part in the Tour De Dalston

In the past year I have started cycling in London and I honestly love it. When I tell people I cycle it normally provokes one of these two reactions “You must be nuts” or “I love the idea of cycling but aren’t you scared?” The truth is I am scared as I sheepishly cycle around the backstreets of Hackney, midst what I can only describe as a sea of hostility from motorists and pedestrians.

As Nick Curtis writing for the Evening Standard recently pointed out the greatest trick the motoring lobby ever pulled was convincing pedestrians that cyclists are the problem. The truth is not a single pedestrian has been killed by a cyclist in London in the past 10 years, yet Curtis found himself receiving a £30 fine for cycling on the pavement at Chelsea Embankment.

A participant in last week's Naked Cycle Ride in London to raise awareness for safer cycling

Despite our Mayor Boris Johnson shouting from the rooftops about how much he enjoys cycling, a host of anti cycling policies are being implemented across London. Last week it was announced that cyclists will face a £200 penalty if caught riding in the “Games lanes”. In case you are wondering these are new lanes to be laid down reserved for speeding Olympic VIPs across the capital.

And cyclists continue to be fined for jumping red lights in a bid to avoid injury. This flies in the face of other cycle-friendly cities such as Stockholm, where they are testing a scheme where cyclists are able to jump red lights.

Cycling has a myriad of benefits not only for your personal health, it is also is an amazing way to cut down on your personal carbon footprint. It is an incredibly important issue considering London’s alarmingly high levels of air pollution (the worst in the UK) and among the worst in Europe. London’s polluted atmosphere is thought to be responsible for over 4,300 premature deaths per year.

Since starting cycling I have felt fitter and happier and met some wonderful people. Cycling fosters a community spirit. I have found that other cyclists have been incredibly helpful to me as a newbie, helping me to fix a puncture, change a chain and generally not injure myself. Maybe it is that as a community, London cyclists know they are involved in a risky business, with pedestrians, buses and taxi drivers all viewing us with suspicion.

Despite the suspicion and risk I would urge everyone to dust off their old bikes and give it ago. The wind flowing through your hair and the ability to dash around exploring new places for free and knowing you’re helping the environment is an amazing thing.

Cycling is definitely thriving. Take the Tour De Dalston; an event organised by Juilet Chard of Climate Rush, which took place last week as part of the Two Degrees festival of ‘Art and Activism – Climate and Cuts’. I turned up only knowing one person but by the end of our ride across Hackney I had made lots of new wonderful cycling friends and learnt that I do have a creative bone in my body.

This sense of community and caring for other cyclists is lovely. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if drivers had similar respect for one another?

We must urge Boris to fulfil his motto displayed on the GLA website: “I believe that the cyclised city is the civilised city”.

Here is a video of what can happen when cyclists are treated as invaders on the road:

Youtube – Cycling: Bike Lanes