I am not much of a nationalist. Earlier in the month I had been holidaying in Eastern Europe, completely unaware of the Jubilee, and when I returned to Edinburgh to find all of the newspapers in Tesco leading with photographs of huge crowds waving Union Jacks, for a brief moment I assumed that the Queen had died. I concede that it was not disagreeable to read the headlines and discover that she was still with us, but whether the Queen was alive or dead, you would have to be rather simple to concern yourself with such details.
Are all of these people simple? There is still half an hour until the Olympic torch is scheduled to pass the current Tychy HQ at Holy Corner, Edinburgh. A thick scum of people has collected below my window, lapping against provisional metal barricades, evincing what the media would describe as a “party atmosphere.” In truth, there is only the appearance of a party atmosphere. Although this crowd is liberally sprinkled with flags and balloons, they look tense and listless. Some of them have spent over two hours pointlessly standing here and they will have to spend another half an hour in the same spot. Unlike the crowd below, I am following the live footage of the torch’s journey as it is streamed on my laptop, and it is still in a coach.
Those who have turned out to cheer the torch are presumably the sort of people who consider themselves to be members of their local community. Aside from events such as this one, they no doubt spend all of their time locked in their houses. I had an uneasy conversation with somebody at Tychy HQ about quite why the torch relay draws such big crowds. We both concluded that people feel they must take their children to see the torch. Most of the adults in these crowds are otherwise not really there on their own behalf. Yet Holy Corner has now filled up like a bath. There are truly hundreds of people here. Something must be good if it has spontaneously brought so many people together, but one cannot help wishing that they could have been united by something that was a bit more, well, profound, like a celebration of Shakespeare or a socialist uprising.
Two cheerleaders are clowning about in the road, repeatedly nagging the crowd to “make some noise,” as if this was a sort of tax that everybody has to pay. They perform outlandish mimes of Olympic archery and diving and table tennis, which they have been probably rehearsing for days, but it appears that this is a private thing and the crowd deems it polite not to respond. By now, the noise outside in the street is such a nuisance that I can no longer read, and so a pair of us are hanging out of the living-room window. The clowns shout at us to make some noise and we cheer limply, which appears to satisfy them. Disconcertingly, the crowd cannot seem to see us, even though we have hung ourselves directly in their field of vision. They are like creatures in a rockpool, oblivious to the eyes above.
The street is barricaded off but not completely closed, and the occasional white van or cyclist still trundles past, to great acclaim from the crowd. One of the cyclists zigzags and waves his hands in the air. When a police motorcyclist approaches, the official clowns demand cheers, and everybody cheers the police. I am feeling seriously depressed now. I try to boo loudly enough to drown out the hundreds of people cheering.
Prior to the arrival of the torch, there are a series of false alarms. The next torch bearer is delivered to the crossroads, where he stands waiting expectantly like a groom. A motorcade of buses parade past, one representing Samsung, another the Royal Bank of Scotland, and an open-topped double decker which purports to be fuelled by Coca Cola. The gremlins of Coke are dancing dementedly on the top floor of their bus, waving at the crowd as if they imagine themselves to be some fresh alternative monarchy. From overhead, we can see that their bus contains tanks in which hundreds of bottles of Coke nestle in ice. More buses pass, no doubt filled with bureaucrats, and the cavalcade sheds several more phases of its police escort. Some functionary skirts the crowd with a grey cyclopean Olympic mascot so that people can reach out to touch it with their fingertips. The mascot looks like a huge rotten tooth.
It is finally the torch bearer’s moment. A young girl with flowing blonde hair, immaculate in white, jogs framed by a body of hearty-looking security goons. She looks as simple as a princess and perhaps all of the suspense and tomfoolery that came beforehand have endowed her with a certain majesty. She reaches the next bearer, and their extravagant Bunsen burners dip together, kissing like lovers. And then the next torch bearer is off, and the discarded one presumably expires poetically.
The crowd has disintegrated in less than a minute. Some community.