It was 7:25, and I was pottering around the house, when Emily suddenly sat upright in bed. “Ah. Well, I guess we’re not going to see the torch.”
We’d both forgotten. The two of us had talked about it for weeks – debating the pros and cons, the logistics of getting everyone out of the house in time to get to the nearest point on the procession route, whether we should just watch it on TV. In the end it was decided we’d look at the weather on the morning. And then the morning arrived and it had gone clean out of my head, and hers.
I will spare you details of the madcap dash around the bungalow, getting everyone hastily in and out of showers and bundled into the Renault, and the laborious (and ultimately unsuccessful) hunt for eyewear (at quarter to eight I was flitting from room to room, scrabbling about like Velma in Scooby Doo, shouting “My glasses, my glasses! I can’t find my glasses!”). Miraculously, less than half an hour later everyone was in the car and heading out of town to Wallingford, which was the nearest stop on the route. Wallingford was, in my childhood, something of a family joke, being a town we visited once by accident when my parents’ Escort broke down on a planned excursion elsewhere, and being somewhere that in 1987 didn’t seem to offer very much. It wasn’t until years later when I’d moved out that I realised quite how charming it is, full of quaint shops and riverside walks and hidden passages, even though the one-way system is a nightmare to negotiate when you’re driving.
Emily passed out cereal bars and Capri Suns. Thomas sat reading a book. Daniel asked if it would be long until we saw Jamie and the Magic Torch, and we had to explain. Joshua was fairly excited about the whole thing, but I think this has less to do with the upcoming Olympics and more to do with the episode of Doctor Who that features David Tennant triumphantly ascending the steps of the podium to light the flame and thus release thousands of harmless microscopic aliens into the atmosphere. This scene, particularly Huw Edwards’ legendary monologue, is something I promised myself – and my other half – that I wouldn’t talk about at all today, because I think she’s heartily sick of it, and I can’t say I blame her for that: in our house it has become something of a meme.
The overflow car park was relatively full but there was still plenty of time to get a space and walk to the square. The crowds were about four or five deep, but Joshua found a spot at the front and Emily joined him a few minutes later. Thomas perched on my shoulders, eyes darting around. He seemed more interested in the no entry signs posted on the corners than in anything that was going on, but I was just grateful the assembled mob hadn’t put him off. We’ve sort of taken it for granted that the boys have picked up on the specifics over the past few weeks, but a quick interrogation this morning revealed that he knew nothing about what was actually happening, so I explained that the Olympics was just like school sports day, only bigger and with lots of countries taking part. We’d been waiting a few minutes when the police motorcade trundled round the corner, followed by assorted coaches and vans, and then a six-foot tall athletic-looking chap whom I didn’t recognise.
I am informed that his name is Dale Kamarata, and it must be said that he has absolutely fantastic hair. This chap, meanwhile, is none other than Raymond Blanc.
Apparently, the torch was picked up yesterday by Roger Bannister, the second of two celebrities I’ve heard about this week who I thought have been dead for years. After its stint in Wallingford and Crowmarsh, Sir Steve Redgrave was going to take it down the Thames, with only one oar, so he can hold the torch with his free hand. Laura – who sits diagonally opposite – suggested that “He’s Steve Redgrave. He can do that sort of thing”, although part of me does wonder whether he approached the Oxford rowing team for advice.
We went back to the car. Forty minutes later we’d moved twenty feet. To say there was a lot of traffic trying to leave would be an understatement. It was like the video for ‘Everybody Hurts’. The cars would shunt forward across churning turf, sputter, then come to a stop as drivers leaned out of windows and surveyed the distant stewards shepherding traffic through the entrance. I was anxious because I had a meeting, so to pass the time, Emily put on the radio, and we listened to the idiots on BBC Oxford talking to people at the side of the road:
Anchor: So, what’s your name?
Anchor: And why are you here today?
Child [pauses, not sure whether or not this is a trick question]: Um, to see the Olympic torch?
Anchor: Is that exciting?
Child: Um, yep.
Anchor: Why is that exciting?
Child: Um, because it’s a once in a lifetime thing and we won’t get to, you know, see it again.
Anchor: But shouldn’t you be in school, young lady?
Child: Well, yeah, but I expect I’ll go in afterwards.
Anchor: Now, Mum, let’s have a chat with you. How excited are you to be here?
Mother: Yeah, you know, really excited. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, isn’t it?
Anchor: So you thought it was important to be here?
Mother: Yeah, you know, especially for them. You know, they won’t get to, you know, see it again…
And so on. Twenty times. Over the space of half an hour. By the end I was thumping the dashboard with my ear. I realised how much I hate local radio, especially BBC local radio. It was a display of mind-numbing vacuity rivalled in inanity only by the crowd reactions during the Royal Wedding last year – in which nervous anchors would ask people what they were having for lunch, only to be told it was Walkers crisps, which necessitated the hasty addition of “Other potato-based snack products are available”. At times, it even plumbed the depths of Fearne Cotton’s crowd interviews during Live8, in which she would routinely open conversations with unsuspecting audience members by asking “So, Jeff, are you here for the music or are you here to make poverty history?”. At least it wasn’t as bad as the time she got everyone to do a Mexican wave at a tsunami benefit concert.
It was mundane interview after mundane interview followed by upbeat jingles and news coverage that told us nothing useful (“The Olympic torch is…um, still going through Oxfordshire”), and it was something of a relief when they switched to an item about the logistics of organising the procession. At least it was, until we heard Sebastian Coe talking about his goal to maximise torch viewing: “We’d originally aimed for ninety-five per cent of the UK population within an hour’s travelling,” he said, “but we’ve managed to get it down to ninety-five per cent within ten miles of the route”. Emily looked at me, and I looked at her, and then we looked at the traffic, and we both shouted “THAT’S NOT NECESSARILY BETTER!”.
Still, I’m glad we went. My brother is apathetic about the whole thing – musing that this morning’s rain might be a sign of things to come during the actual games. “Imagine that,” he said. “Two weeks of solid rain and no contingency plan.” (I informed him that in the event of wet weather the Olympic Committee would be moving the games to the nearby church hall, where they’d spread the buffet on trestle tables, while David Cameron organised some indoor races.) I have never enjoyed sport, but a lot of people do, and I can’t begrudge them that. I wish I could say that the torch is a symbol of unified solidarity and a country coming together, but so many people seem to be opposed to the idea of us spending so much public money on the games that I can’t see that happening.
But for all that, I think it means something to our children. I’m second-guessing, but I got the feeling they’d latched on to the sense of spectacle. “And the thing is,” I said to the boys, as we finally turned out of the car park and grass gave way to gravel and then concrete, “it’s not about running a race. That torch – or variations of it – has travelled all around the country. And it’s something that everyone can see if they want to. So, you know, in a way, it’s not really a torch. It’s more than a torch, it’s a beacon. It’s a beacon of hope…and fortitude, and courage…it’s a beacon of love…”