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Watch and weep

I regularly forget that my exposure to British culture is largely skewed these days, as it consists almost entirely of BBC programmes enjoyed at leisure, thanks to the wonders of technology and of a patient husband. So it was a nasty jolt that I received, as I was struggling to keep the enthusiasm going for live TV, which had navigated the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special (Bruce, Tess, judges, celebs and pros all sticking rigidly to the script of this-is-the-stuff-old-ladies-like-as-does-a-frankly-astonishingly-large-proportion-of-the-rest-of-the-population – yes, like me – and was then leading to eager anticipation for the Downton Abbey Christmas special.

The nasty jolt took the form of a supermarket Christmas advert floating across our living room and into my visual field, which was insufficiently impaired by overindulgence. This is what I registered : two paunchy men in late middle age wearing naff jumpers, asleep on a sofa (yes, yes, I know that ridiculous acrylic jumpers with reindeer patterns are part of the whole British Christmas ironic thing, but in heaven’s name, why?) who snuffled a bit when they woke up temporarily. Womenfolk smiled indulgently at them, a little boy was nudged into taking a “cheeky” picture of the sleepers, and the riotous evening in front of the TV rolled on. After suffering the realisation that the neatly ad-expunged episodes  that I normally watch on DVD are a whole 35 minutes shorter than what ITV viewers need to sit through, I settled down to grin and bear it (because I love trash, I really do, see Strictly above, and – spoiler alert – I understand that the Matthew actor was starting to find Downton a little career limiting, I really do, too).
But I had barely got back into Tom behaving very thickly with someone who would have been an erstwhile colleague if she had been a maid when he was a chauffeur (you following?), when another very similar clip wafted over my knitting needles and into my sleepy, but still just about functioning, brain. Just as I was thinking how remarkably similar it was to the previous one, and trying to work out whether it was part 2 of the ad series, the logo of a competitor supermarket chain popped up. (Sadly, like every single person in the Western world, surely, I know enough about advertising to expect adverts to come in series, and in varying durations, depending on whether they are proudly presenting a programme or doing the serious “buy us, buy US!” thing in full-on mini film mode).

This depressed me so much that I did a Youtube search and found a selection of Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s Christmas 2012 adverts, as these two organisations are the ones that had initially made me wince for twice 20 seconds. I must admit that there was, in my view, compared to the Sainsbury ads, slightly more colour and music in the Tesco ads, which helped to lighten the general low key approach and anti-style aesthetic of the whole thing.
Last year, the John Lewis advert got a lot of airtime and bandwidth and comment. That advert worked, in my book. Spades of nostalgia (as my husband pointed out, the boy’s clothes, bedroom etc could have been relevant to the childhood of a large number of viewers, whose age could span at least 40 years) and tons of sentiment of course, but it was sweet and watchable. Whereas “Just Forty Winks Day TV Ad – Christmas Days at Sainsbury’s”, as I have since found it is called, looks like Scrooge stealing into the nation’s living rooms with an extra strong Bah humbug can, spraying a trail of grey weariness and a feeling of “can’t complain, it’s Christmas”.
I do understand that it’s a falling asleep in front of the telly scenario, but surely even that can be amusing, rather than brain numbingly depressing? (For the record, falling asleep in our house is the adults’ natural defence mechanism, when they have been overexposed to their daughters’ exuberance, and I can readily accept that the latter blessing is one you might prefer to be spared, reader.)
The thing that I really don’t understand is that Britain is brilliant at marketing and advertising, presenting many things in a highly creative and fun way. What’s happened here? Or is it the case that Britain used to be good at this? Because it seems to me that it’s been OK to level down to boring and “good enough” for a while now. I realise that people reading this might think “gosh, what’s her problem, what a load of angst for a stupid little ad!” but I really got the feeling, watching it, that a new low had been hit.
So, please make my Christmas, help me forget that this might be the recession really biting. Please just give me ads with improbably hospitable families and friends, delightfully playful children, true fine food and drink connoisseurs and dazzlingly stylish partygoers. Final hints to ad film directors: steer clear of “The Little Drummer Boy” or “Mistletoe and Wine” for the soundtrack, add loads of chocolate boxes and a particularly decorative nativity scene to the set and you’re in business.

Hosting the Games – making noise is the real advantage, not hearing it

Olympics Musings 4

 Montréal, Moscow, Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing and now London, these are the Olympics I consider to be mine, in that I remember something about each of them. Like Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10 gym routine, the first opening ceremony that really bowled me over at Barcelona, the joy of being in truly a fun place, in Sydney, for my first live experience of the Games. Like all these cities, and others before it, and very likely better than most, London has made good its home advantage. How good exactly will be the focus of many articles, which will also address the legacy question in great detail, together with the economic points I tried to go into previously.

The joy of cheering

What does a home advantage actually consist of? Well the highly praiseworthy number of medals of all three colours achieved during London 2012 is clearly due to a combination of personal belief, work and sacrifice, extensive collaborative efforts, significant resources – in the present instance, resources that were channelled in great part through the National Lottery – a bit of luck and … crowd support.

The phrase “cheering him/her home” has certainly been heard often over these past couple of weeks, but there’s no better way to describe it. And before some party pooping professor of social psychology mentions crowd hysteria or collective emotion, can I just say that it’s great fun. Great fun to add your voice to the thousands of others, to add your flag to the colourful kaleidoscope showing up on the screen, to relieve your feelings after high drama with a stupid dance, and to cap it all, to be rewarded with another medal for the girl or boy from Ordinarytown. After all, that’s basically what some people paid silly money for, “because you just can’t describe the atmosphere”.
Supporting and cheering is great, and I joined in enthusiastically, trying to keep up with Sophie, and to prod Emma into more action… Richard yelled a fair amount too, but refused the warpaint outright, which I accepted only for the final event we saw, the basketball as you recall (and if you didn’t remember, consider yourself rapped over the knuckles).

The pain of jingoistic coverage

But now I put my disgruntled angry-from-Manchester-hat on. The coverage. It really hit home in Sydney: I’ve still not digested Steven Redgrave (that name probably needs no explanation on my part) and, to a lesser extent, David Douillet (French judoka) being ousted from the screens in favour of Aussie Taekwondo bronze medal hopeful or somebody. And naturally, for London 2012, the host nation behaved in exactly the same way (I kept an eye on French TV, which was also wearingly über parochial), with what practically amounts to the censure of many great performers.
I’d like to suggest a new IOC rule: half the coverage on the world’s TVs has to be on competitors from outside the viewing country. And if any media organisation falls foul of this rule, their key culprits are feathered, tarred and rolled around the stadium on each of the five Olympic rings just before the cauldron is lit. This could result in: less about Tom Daley’s little left toe (and hopefully less scope for the haters to send him stupid tweets), and more about how Hungary achieved eight gold medals. Out of ten minutes’ BBC actual sports coverage, I’d say eight minutes went to Team GB and, one and a half to Usain Bolt and half to Michael Phelps. And I’m not talking about the torch relay, presentation of venues, volunteer interviews, plugging the festivals around the country and so on.
So, hosting the Games is a welcome home advantage for the competitors. It also represents a sometimes unbearable bias in the media coverage.

Small things – English as she is wrote

You know those fast, apparently underused (they were full when we were on them), Javelin trains? Well, on day nine, an electronic sign directed me, with a flashing arrow, to “JAVLIN TRAINS”. You will share my relief in finding out that on day ten, I was reassuringly directed to “JAVELIN TRAINS”.
A more lasting mistake: helpful signs told me that such-and-such a venue was “10 minutes walk” away (and I forgot to take a photo of this for all the doubting Thomases out there). Now, I’ve checked this with a 100% native English speaker, thanks Elizabeth, not a half-and-half effort like me (or a “mixed bag” as a fellow supporter described our two-flag waving family…) “10 minutes’ walk” is correct, as is “a 10 minute walk”, but NOT “10 minutes walk”. Richard’s theory is that this is an Americanisation, thoughts anyone? Of course, speaking yank ranks just above a plain mistake in my scale of crimes.

Photos: Richard Wilkinson

XXXth Olympiads of the Modern Era, 9th Olympiads of the Big Business Era?

Olympics Musings 3
 In 1948, Britain functioned with post WWII rationing, so the fact that the medals were made mostly out of cardboard was par for the course. In 2012, Britain, along with a large chunk of the planet, finds itself in its worst economic situation since 1929, or so the pundits say, and the current estimate is that achieving each of its to date 57 medals cost the country close to five million pounds (and yes, the maths is more than likely to have changed before the end of tomorrow.)

The cost-per-medal discussion is one I remember after Sydney’s terrific 20 golds in 2000, with our wonderful hosts (second nature for Aussies, but still, the Huxleys opened their house for two weeks to an invasion, which included this Pom-French couple they’d met at a wedding five years previously…) pondering the cost of school and community sport in comparison. I’m going to move swiftly on from that precise value-for-money analysis and just pause to note what a fantastic sporting result Great Britain and Northern Ireland (still no further forward on this…) has achieved, even before the end of the games, heavy-duy lottery funding and home advantage notwithstanding.

What I want to focus on more here is what Games we want to be paying for, and how much. Given that we are clearly incapable of thinking sensibly about what we can afford (football finances, anyone?), let’s think of what we truly want to spend. It has already been pointed out to me that comparing London 1948 with London 2012 is pretty meaningless, as the former were just before television installed itself firmly in our living rooms. Fair point, but, one billion dollars shelled out by NBC for Olympics coverage rights? And incidentally, a 6 000 strong media team mobilised, yes, six thou-sand! they could have invaded the Channel Islands, if they’d had a mind to. Anyway, the big-money low for me at London 2012 was the price tag of £15, £30 or £50, for what was branded as a bronze, silver or gold photo you could have of yourself, carrying the torch, posing next to I don’t know whom. I think anything relating to “the Olympics enthuse the local community” or “share in the spirit of sport” kind of got lost there. Happily, I can report there was NO queue there.

I think that the worst of the current economic mess is that we are totally inured to crazy numbers, like the ones just above. Whenever I timidly try to point that the financial figures attached to something seem bewilderingly huge, I am usually either treated to a discourse on the (arguable but, to my mind, usually highly illogical) mechanics of the industry in question, or given a rueful and increasingly frequent “I know, it’s crazy!” answer.

Let me link that up to the wider sustainability question of the Games. I think that the wind turbines in the Olympic Park and the recycling bins at all venues are a very neat reflection of how far most of us (I include myself) are prepared to act sustainably: agonising over buying a (second) car, justifying the purchase of a new fridge before the old one falls apart, because it’s got an A+ environment friendly tag. And that’s it.

Yes, we’re a long way from the sort of Games brave/nutty (depending where you stand) Indignados or people in transition communities would approve. Unfortunately, this is a much tougher and more complex question than I can address here. (This last sentence is a pure writing ploy: I haven’t the beginning of a clue of how to address the economic, environmental and social mess we’re in. Perhaps we could commission flavour-of-the-month Martians to help us out. Little green men, take note, we never really took to communism, unbridled liberalism’s no good either, and we don’t want anything to do with slavery, so you’re not using those charming camp-operating people in Leighton Buzzard as a model, OK?)

That whole rights issue nonsense

This is getting ridiculous. It started with a problem that never was, ie the reports pre-Games that spectators wearing or otherwise ostentatiously consuming Nike or Pepsi stuff would be refused entry, on the grounds that Adidas and Coca-Cola would feel the terms of their megabucks deals had been infringed. Well, either people took note and revised their gear or it was a silly season story. BUT the reality is every bit as bad as that story, which I can illustrate with two annoyances, which are symptomatic of the whole rights management thing, again, as above, one of those Big Difficult Things.

One, the magazine with lots of glittery stickers and fuzzy felt and bits of coloured cardboard that drives Richard mad on environmental grounds, but which I love on it-keeps-Emma-constructively-occupied-for-at-least-an-hour-at-a-time grounds, had a July issue, which was sports-themed. Sports, not Olympics. Because if the five rings design, the word London, next to 2012, or the word Olympics had appeared in it, the publisher would have had to pay what it obviously considered was too high a fee. So, educate the kids about the benefits of sport, by using the fantastic opportunity of arguably THE leading sporting event in the world being on your doorstep, yes, please do, but you gotta pay. Lots.

Two, I thought ahead of what I would like as an Olympic souvenir, to try and stop myself wanting everything when I got there, and I settled on a London 2012 themed iPhone cover. And before you say, what a trivial thing, I leave you with this thought: what are you going to do with your Wenlock mascot after the Games? Richard shook his head over my clearly brilliant idea, saying “Samsung is a partner.” “Yeah, and?” sez I. “They don’t make iPhones”. Obvious. So far, I’ve found an obscure website in goodness knows where that’ll sell me 20 iPhone covers with THAT London 2012 logo for one dollar something apiece. Certainly, no such covers were available at the Megastore in the Olympics Park, at the Olympics Store in St Pancras, at John Lewis in Milton Keynes (but l fell for the tea towel and the Team GB biscuit tin, with Union flag stamped butter biscuits inside, which went down very well at my office – they’re certainly not too chauvinistic to sample food).

The little things – London welcomes the world, avec un français excellent

Wearing a tricolore flag meant I got quite a few of “Allez les bleus” and “Bonjour la France”, which was lovely, and I thanked each of my greeters, en français, bien sûr. Welcoming words were delivered in, I have to say, often perfect French. Actually, this was rather symptomatic of what we suspected was a large proportion of home counties people among the volunteers and spectators (judging for instance by the kids’ names in the families sitting next to us. I know, I know, I’m an inverted snob.) People’s games? Well, let’s say we heard more “you know?” in interviews with “deserving young people from disadvantaged local communities” than in the venues.

Anyway, the French in the signs, during bilingual announcements etc., was impeccable. I know it’s an IOC rule, but still, London definitely beat Sydney there: I remember someone said then that she was damned if she was going to say anything in French during the opening ceremony. Also, “Snacks and Drinks” was translated  into “Snacks et Poissons” on a sign. LOL. True, nuclear explosions somewhere a lot closer to Oz than France a few years previously meant that diplomatic relations between the two countries were possibly still not optimal…

Photos: two volleyball ones at the top and handball at the bottom: Richard Wilkinson. Two middle beach volleyball ones: Hélène Wilkinson, given that our younger daughter had finally managed to fall asleep on her father…