Monday, December 19, 2005

Letter from London 19th December 2005

As published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

I was at a Sports Journalists’ lunch in London last week when Sebastian Coe made a brief appearance before moving on to a meeting at the House of Commons. He was received by all of us in the packed room with enthusiastic applause which I know was genuine, because there are few more cynical gatherings than the hard nosed hacks that make up the British sporting press. If they put their hands together it is not because they feel obliged to or are being polite. They do it because they mean it! Coe’s achievement in securing the 2012 Olympic Games for the city of London was without any question London’s big moment of the year, and Coe, although born in London, is really a Yorkshireman! And without being over emotional about this, that really is symbolic of why London’s bid eventually prevailed. London is not a parochial regional city but genuinely international. To be a “Londoner” is to be a citizen of the world, and for hundreds of years the city has welcomed and nurtured people from everywhere - even Yorkshire!

In the Olympic bid Coe and his team pitched that London would be an Olympics for the youth of the world, and he had with him a group of children from the London area to symbolise this. This was not contrived, some artificial “rainbow city” confection designed just to win the Games. It was genuinely (albeit cunningly) real and it showed what those of us who live in the city know, that if London is not your first home (as it is mine) it is, or can be, everyone’s second home. And it is this multi-cultural element that really does make us different. The football ground that I most frequently visit is “White Hart Lane”, the home of Tottenham Hotspur. It is not the easiest of grounds to get to and I usually get the tube to “Seven Sisters” and walk – that takes about half an hour and involves passing Jamaican fruit sellers, Halal butchers, Jewish bagel makers, Thai cafes, Cypriot grocers and many many more. If Tottenham is home to peoples from all around the world it is no more so than most of the London districts. That this multi cultural city works without too many problems and that it remains a magnet for travellers and for those (especially the young) looking to improve their life is part of its history and part of its present.
Sebastian Coe’s pitch to the IOC was, of course, designed to emphasise what it good about the city. And to the sceptics the London bid team said (as Ralph McTell wrote in his song “The Streets of London”) “Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London, I’ll show you something to make you change your mind”. And that something is not the Beefeaters in the Tower, the grand buildings or the parks and the boulevards. It is the people.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Letter from London 4th December 2005

As published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

Whether the English are unique in their reserve I cannot be absolutely certain (maybe there is a tribe deep in the South American rain forests similarly aloof) but we do tend to hide away. Our new neighbours have been in their house for three months now, but contact has been restricted (so far) to the odd embarrassed wave. “They seem very nice”, says my wife, an opinion based, presumably, on the fact that they haven’t encroached across the line between our houses nor played loud rock music late into the night. They may be crypto-fascists or planning a revolution, but if they keep themselves to themselves that’s alright.

We are close now to the time of the year when the English are traditionally obliged to actually have some contact with their “friends”. We send, on average, a hundred Christmas cards per household - it’s a chore but it does allow us the illusion that we are “in touch”. “Have you seen David recently?” I said to an old colleague I met by chance. “We exchange Christmas Cards” he said - which presumably meant that there was prima facie evidence that David was still alive. The Christmas Card list is a curious thing. On it, of course, are remote family members and the (for most of us) small number of people that we do regard as close friends. But then there are also the random names who have maintained their card priveledges because they always send us a card as well, and it would be impolite to stop. When we lived abroad the increased postage involved meant that this latter group dwindled to a hard core, but since we have been back in London it has crept up again and some people have mysteriously reappeared. Who the hell are “Jim and Sophie” I asked when looking at this year’s list “Tuscany ‘92, big blonde girl” the wife replied – “Ah that Sophie” I agreed, “yes we should keep in touch with her alright!”

I think that it was when home computers became common that the “Christmas letter” really caught on. These “round robin” epistles are frequently stuck into the Christmas Card envelope and generally itemise, in tedious detail, the events of the last year. The longest I received was eighteen A4 pages using quite a small font, not as you might expect from Tony Blair or David Beckham, but from a retired schoolteacher and keen rambler in Tunbridge Wells. The page and a half in great detail about the repair to his central heating boiler left little to the imagination.

The Christmas letter is, of course, for the benefit of the writer not the recipient. The content is usually less then modest, especially where children are concerned. “Sarah’s second year at Oxford has gone well and she is well on route for a “First”. Where does she get the brains from?” The self-deprecation is usually ironic in such letters. But whilst Christmas letters are almost always awful, they are perhaps better than no contact at all. Maybe we should push one through our new neighbours’ door (or, better still, copies of our last five years letters so that they can really get to know us!).