Shotputting doesn’t do it for me, nor does the synchronized swimming or any of the other leaping and jumping shenanigans that are to be going on at Stratford next summer. As soon as I see the lycra I can feel the chafing. Couldn’t give a monkey’s about any of it. Not even a pole-vaulting monkey. Or a 300m race monkey. Sport isn’t my passion. But the frisson of London-oriented passion that rippled through me when I read about the Cultural Olympiad meant I almost let out a gleeful “whoooop!” on the Northern Line.
Letting out whoops, gleeful or otherwise, is not a grand plan on the London Underground. People think you might be a bomber, or one of those sickly people who initiate marriage proposals on the tube network, complete with a capella choir (did anyone see that slightly creepy proposal on the 19:57 to Watford last week – now on You Tube?). So I kept schtum for the rest of the journey, but the London 2012 Festival looks IMMENSE.
Essentially, it’s £50 million spent on making people have fun, orchestrating artistic events, presentations and productions and general musical and dramatic tomfoolery all in the name of London-tastic fun. It starts, with a hint towards both ancient, Celtic folklore and Shakespearean romance – on our midsummer’s day and chortles happily through summer, weaving around the sporting fixtures, before ending shortly before the autumn equinox. But the bit I’m looking forward to is Martin Creed’s art installation concept, that at 8am on July 27th, the day the Olympics and the Paralympics both begin, everyone in the UK is encouraged to grab a bell and ring it ; every chuch, every handheld school bell, ever cow bell and every doorbell. Find someone you really want to piss off. Head to where they live at 8am on a pleasant summer’s morning and blast them out of bed with a dingle dongle of a tune on your bell and the authorities won’t be able to touch you. You’ll simply be doing your duty.
Bell-ringing is particularly evocative for the British and for Londoners. The Romans, being self-obsessed Italians who worried about being so short and so needed bolstering, started to encourage citizens to ring bells before a procession or a formal event of some kind. The British ring their church bells at royal weddings and at the end of battles and wars. During the Second World War, the BBC used a broadcast of the famous Bow Bells for their World Service, which was designed to boost morale and keep the idea of victory bells ringing in the psyche of the populace. On VE day, the sound of London church bells was deafening. But, for those of you who think I’m showing my usual regional bias – fear not. The 2012 Festival stretches the whole land, engineering musical workshops to disadvantaged schoolchildren in Scotland and arranging performances of ancient Celtic warrior stories in Welsh forests . It’s a daring and brazen festival : theatrical installations of prose and poetry will be performed by some of our leading actors on our best loved national beaches. Argentinian choreographers will be worrying the populace with their take on dance-themed outdoor presentations. The Reading Challenge runs for a month across Britain’s libraries to create the biggest book festival for children ever created. Mark Rylance will be moving around the underground giving impromptu performances of Shakespeare’s poetry and sonnets to bewildered tourists and commuters alike.
That last has to be the most interesting, as I, or anyone else who was fortunate enough to see Rylance’s Jerusalem in the West End or on Broadway in the last year, would agree. The middle-aged darling of the theatrical demi-monde then, will be floating about the Circle Line, asking whether or not to compare those alighting at Great Portland Street to a summer rose, or commanding old ladies at South Kensington tube with noisy grandchildren en route for the Natural History Museum, that they should “follow your spirit and upon this charge cry God for Harry, England and St George!”. This will make the children cry, the old ladies back off, and – at worst – may encourage some onlooker to invade France. It is so mindblowingly daft that I cannot but look forward to it. I think I’ll book a day off. Just go for it. Hover around the network until I alight upon Mr Rylance and follow him for some wonderful street theatre for the day. He might try to get away from me – oh yes – by rushing through those dastardly electronic ticket terminals for Oyster card – but in the underground no one can hear you scream. So I can capture him and demand soliloquies hourly from the Rylance. I believe Shakespeare would most certainly have approved.
There are to be retrospectives of British artists (Hockney, Hurst & Emin – and – bizarrely – Yoko Ono). Daniel Barenboim, the innovative creator of the celebrated Israeli /Arab orchestra West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will rock up to the Proms, whilst over the EC2 the diverse collection of musicians involved with the Barbican end of the festival range from Simon Rattle conducting his little heart out and the Wynton Marsalis Swing Orchestra. Of course, the fact that 10million tickets are available for free cultural events harbours fear in the heard of every British breast, as it carries the threat of “audience participation”. People don’t know where to look when Fiona Shaw starts monologue-ing by a speedramp near Southend beach, or when a culturally valid, but essentially confusing, Eastern European dance troupe takes up temporary residency doing cartwheels on Tower Bridge. We might find it all embarrassing. Because we spend most of our time in a national cringe. If our nation had a national expression it would be somewhere between half-baked anxiety and faint embarassment. The British face would squirm if it could.
However, it really shouldn’t. The cultural achievements warranted in this tiny island over the last sixty years have been ridiculously great and we have an awful lot to be proud of. Somewhere between old-fashioned English modesty and huge, X factor crocodile tears about “journeys” we forgot to confidently celebrate the things we have consistently done well since about 1950. And this London 2012 festival is our chance. Get out. Stop squirming. Be proud. And get on the District Line and follow Mark Rylance all the way to Putney Bridge. Let’s hope it doesn’t become a really British event and end up being naff. I mean, how could it? With BoJo at the helm? Flinging his albino-coloured hairdo about whilst in command of a waving Union Jack flag? Our 2012 Festival couldn’t be anything other than dignified. Could it?
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