Let me tell you about a south London suburb which I know rather well.
I will not name it so as to spare it embarrassment; but if you have heard of it, the name will make your heart sink slightly. And so for the purpose of this blogpost, I will call the place “Drab”.
There is not a great deal to Drab.
It has a High Street which you drive or cycle down on the way out of London to Kent or Surrey. Few people stop in Drab High Street, and to be frank there are not many shops worth stopping for. Most of the shops are run by local people for local people. Other than a Boots and a small Sainsbury’s, you would be hard-pressed to find a familiar retail name.
The High Street looks dire, with blocks of stained concrete almost everywhere you look, dominating the surviving Victorian and Edwardian shop fronts. There is nowhere to park and nowhere really to walk. The pubs are declining, other than a welcome Wetherspoons at the furthest extreme of the High Street.
But this morning Drab was something rather different. The High Street was transformed. Instead of the lonely pavements, there were hundreds of people standing and talking, with flags and balloons. It was such a mix, and the crowd was genuinely cheerful. It helped, of course, that it was the first sunny day of the summer. The weather did not explain everything though; there was a sense of occasion. Something special was happening down Drab High Street.
When I heard the Olympic torch was coming through Drab, I was bemused and cynical. One imagined a few hardy patriots and some bored school children; with telling gaps between the people on the roadside. I guessed it would all be a bit contrived, rather like the supposed ‘jubilee’ street parties.
I was wrong. It was jolly and heartening. The various shops put stalls on the pavement; the owner of the music shop set up his amplifier outside and played some Deep Purple; the Salvation Army band performed in front of a funeral directors which was in turn covered in bunting; children played; a group of enthusiasts danced through the crowds promoting some cause or other.
And then there was the procession. The advance police motor bikes were cheered, and then a police van. The officers nervously waved back. A red double decker bus was cheered – it did not matter it was not actually part of the procession but a “driver on instruction”. By the time the torch was about to come, the crowd was roaring. Police motorcyclists slowed down and high-fived school children.
The corporate floats were received gleefully. People even waved and smiled at the bus sponsored by LloydsTSB.
Yes, in the Britain of 2012, people were applauding the police and a bank.
The poor man with the torch then appeared, mobbed by onlookers with mobile phones and cameras.
He alone had the honour of carrying the Olympic torch through Drab.
If he was a local man, he must have thought he was suddenly jogging on a different planet.
Then it ended.
The crowds dispersed, children bounced their inflatible gimmicks off each other, and adults moaned of the heat and chatted about the great atmosphere as they walked down the side streets.
And the High Street returned to Drab.