Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Olympic Games

Exactly one year from today, the Olympic games begin in London.

I've mixed feelings about the event. Normally I couldn't care less about the Olympics, but commuting to London over three years and passing the construction site on the train twice a day meant the games were hard to ignore.

The site is impressive, although the main stadium seems rather bland from the outside. Not so for the aquatic centre which has a roof that resembles a manta ray or something fishy like that. Reports on the radio today mentioned that it had been a sod to build. That's not surprising with all those complex curves to achieve.

People, quite rightly, are concerned about the cost of the games which has risen and risen since they were first worked out, according to legend, by Tessa Jowell on the back of an envelope. But since the bid was won back in 2005 we've spent billions bailing out the banks and on bizarre wars so we might as well blow a bit more on an international party, which is basically all the Olympics is.

My main concern is the cringe factor of the opening ceremony. I remember the horror of the Euro 96 ceremony, which one commentator compared to the opening of a village fete circa 1956. As a country we don't do these things very well, especially when compared to the preceding games in China. Say what you like about communism but one thing it excels at is creepy mass parades featuring thousands of identically clad people marching and dancing in lock step like mechanical toys.

My main regret is that Britain didn't have the courage to challenge some of the existing Olympic orthodoxy. Since the infamous Berlin games of 1936 this has consisted of building an elaborate huge stadium, staging a stupidly complex and ornate opening ceremony and building a highly guarded Olympic village. It's just ridiculous for 17 short days of minority interest sport, which includes 'disciplines' like beach volleyball, rhythmic gymnastics, and my favourite synchronised swimming.

A braver approach would have been to scrap the opening ceremony with all it's associated Leni Riefenstahl bollocks and replace it with a parade of all the teams, perhaps around the streets of London. Accommodate the athletes in existing student halls of residence and scrap some of the more meaningless events. That would have opened the door to a more affordable Olympics which developing countries could have staged in the future.

Oh well, it'll be fun to revisit this post in a year's time and see whether my fears are realised...


Monday, July 18, 2011

The End of the Party

Recently I've been reading Andrew Rawnsley's brick-like tome on the apogee and long decline of New Labour.

It covers the period from 2001 election all the way to the chaotic last week of Gordon Brown, when the coalition was still up in the air and some (although not Brown) thought he could cling to power and keep 'the project' going.

What a shocking era that was, that began with the last days of the 'no worries 90s' which persisted until September 2001 and then crazed paranoid years that followed. The entire dysfunctional international cast is here but the main focus is on the extraordinary symbiotic hate filled relationship between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Largely concealed from us on a day to day basis, Rawnsley's whole story boils down to a series of bitter quarrels, sullen silences and patched up reconciliations between the two men.

The tragedy of this relationship was that they complimented each other so perfectly. Blair was a brilliant performer with natural political instincts. Brown was a more intellectual introverted man with a superb grasp of policy detail a horrible temper and the ability to get the boring nitty gritty done. When they worked together the results were unbeatable; the last time this happened was the third general election of 2005. Blair was unpopular with most and hated by many, yet by pulling together (and aided by a weak opposition) they managed to secure a record breaking third term with a respectable majority of 66.

But it's the rows and rages that shock; for long periods up to that election the country was being governed by a Prime Minister who wasn't even on speaking terms with his Chancellor! Each has his own power base, and Brown treated most of his fellow cabinet colleagues with contempt. In some ways it seems a miracle that anything got done at all.

Rawnsley is very good indeed at describing the daily events of government, every episode no matter how small is described in compelling detail, from "Cherrygate" to stuff that's long faded from the collective memory like the G7 summit in Edinburgh. But of course it's the big stuff that gets most of the pages. In particular I found the extended description of the run-up to the disastrous invasion of Iraq really addictive. And there's a very satisfying few chapters afterwards that describe how it gradually dawned on Blair just what a terrible mistake it had been. His health began to suffer, he couldn't sleep at night and people around him were shocked to see how old and tired he became (on television acres of make-up and clever lighting concealed this).

What will history's verdict be on Blair?
Disappointingly, Rawnsley the detail man doesn't give us his own opinion. My own is that Blair was a brilliant actor with a great feel for what moderate thoughtful Britons regarded as important in the late 1990s and early noughties. Sadly he lacked historical perspective and over estimated his ability to influence others, particularly the fuck-wit George W Bush whom he foolishly supported to an extent it was no longer possible for him to act independently in British interests. He seemed completely ignorant of the power and determination of the neo-cons that surrounded the President and essentially ran his foreign policy after 2001.

On the domestic front he was a brilliant tactician but his ability to follow through keep hammering away at details and badgering colleagues meant strategically he was weak. In any case a lack of historical knowledge and perspective meant he couldn't really think coherently in long term strategic terms.
None the less (and I write as a one time fan turned into a Blair hater) when one reviews the other politicians of the era, was anyone better? The United Kingdom got the best leader it's political class produced and he did the best he could with what he had.

Nobody can ask more, but of course we did and still do.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Popular Culture is Strange

Popular culture is always a bit strange, but just for the record we're living in an era when both marathon running and growing vegetables on allotments are really trendy.