Many lessons to learn about London in weeks leading up to the Games
Since moving to London with my family, I've learned many things about the city
Brits treat Olympics with an admiration and respect found in few other places
City has much to do before the Games, including Diamond Jubilee, Wimbledon
LONDON -- Three days to the hour after the Olympic flame alighted in Cornwall, England, I arrived here from Cornwall, Vt.
Though it beat me to the United Kingdom, the flame was immediately diverted on its 70-day hegira around the country. I, on the other hand, was free to burrow into the host city, from which I'll report for Sports Illustrated until the 2012 Games begin on July 27. I'll file to SI.com every Monday, following preparations, writing up previews and trying generally to tap into a vein of the British sporting circulatory system.
After pulling our two kids out of elementary school, and moving into a flat carved from half of a refurbished Georgian terrace house in the London borough of Islington, Job One for my wife and me has been to get a better fix on our location. We seem to live -- no one seems quite sure -- in either East Bloomsbury, or North Clerkenwell, or West Finsbury, or Amwell, which is easiest to remember given the eponymous high street steps from our door.
In light of that nomenclatural uncertainty, it's probably best to lay down some markers of a sporting nature. So:
Our local pub is Filthy MacNasty's Whiskey Café, aka "McFilthy's," and while you won't find Rick Mahorn or Bill Laimbeer behind the bar, you may find Arsenal fan and chronicler Nick Hornby, a longtime regular, holding forth.
Just down the gentle hill from McFilthy's sits the studio of Zaha Hadid, the architect who designed the Olympic Park Aquatics Centre, which looks like a butterflyer in competition. Because of cost overruns, the "arms" are composed of temporary stands, which means that post-Games, alas, her structure will suffer architectural amputations.
Our tube stop, Angel, is festooned with signs directing passengers on foot to the Gunners' football ground. The Angel station is home to the longest escalator in the London Underground, which may take the gold for altius, but I can attest leaves lots to be desired in the citius department.
Just behind that tube stop, the Regent's Canal begins its run east toward Olympic Park. The Islington borough council is petrified that during the Games hordes of ticket holders freaked by the crowds on public transport might mount bikes and ride the towpath to the Games, thereby dunking very old and very young pedestrians into some of the filthiest water in the city.
Our local Marks & Spencer -- whenever I visit, I want to take the Target logo, replace one red ring with RAF blue, and slap the result on the façade -- is getting into the Olympic spirit by selling Eddie the Eagle T-shirts. Which is a reminder that Eric (The Eel) Moussamboui, the swimming sensation of the 2000 Games, will be in London as coach of the Equatorial Guinea swim team.
At the nearest Waterstone's, on Islington Green, you can find The Secret Olympian, a new book by an anonymous former British athlete who confirms in its pages that, yes, the athletes' village in Sydney did indeed run out of condoms a dozen years ago -- but as a result of an instinct much more prosaic than lust, for the packs, graced with the logo of the 2000 Games, were free and coveted as souvenirs.
It's a short stroll to Virgina Woolf's old haunts around Russell Square, where my colleagues in the media will be lodged come the Games. They write, they drink, they have complicated marital arrangements, they engage in disputatious conversation: Meet the international press corps, a latter-day Bloomsbury Group.
The nearest betting shops huddle to the northwest around King's Cross Station, home to the most famous train platform in children's lit. As of this morning I could get down a bet at Ladbrokes on the host city for the 2020 Olympics (Tokyo at 4-6, with both Istanbul and Madrid at 3-1); at William Hill on British heptathlete Jessica Ennis to win gold (even money); and at Jennings on Usain Bolt to take the men's 100 (8-15).
A pleasant 15 minutes' amble west sits the most wondrous urban oasis, a charitably supported park with three turf pitches called Coram's Fields. It features one overriding rule: No adults unless accompanied by a child. Every late afternoon for a week my wife and I -- accompanied majors? -- have taken our children, ages 10 and 9, there to play field hockey, tag rugby and all sorts of pick-up soccer, with black and white and brown kids who have in common two things, the English language and a jones for play.
This is, writ small, London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) chairman Sebastian Coe's gauzy vision for these Olympics: all the world gathered in London for games, with the next generation taking inspiration.
But this city has much to negotiate before the cauldron is lit. First there's the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II's rule, set for this weekend. (Every active member of the royal family will join her on the barge for the float down the Thames, except granddaughter Zara Phillips, a three-day eventer who'll be busy trying to qualify for the Olympics with her horse, High Kingdom.) There's Wimbledon in early July, before it pulls double duty as the Olympic tennis venue. And slotted between the two there's soccer's Euro 2012 tournament, which in London will mean drunken yobs in pubs watching the action from Poland and Ukraine on the telly.
Every time I come to England I'm struck by how the lowbrow mingles with the high, especially when it comes to the media. There's the guttersnipe vulgarity on display at every newsagent's shop: Yes, retired footballer Paul Gascoigne confesses, I've done botox; no, avers Jess Ennis, I'm not bothered that some unnamed British track official suggested I'm "fat." When will.i.am whipped out his mobile in the midst of a shamble with the torch on Day Three of the relay, misspelling in his tweet the name of the town he was in (Taunton, not "Taurton"), he got ripped by journos of every stripe. It took Marina Hyde in The Guardian to highlight the Black Eyed Peas' frontman's lone redeeming quality: "He seems to have been punctuated specifically to enrage the Queen's English Society."
At the same time the Brits' Etonian attitude toward sport, and their reflexive defense of the purity of things like the Olympics, reminds me why there will always be an England. The British Olympic Association is unrepentant about having lost an arbitration case, after trying to enforce tougher anti-doping rules than the World Anti-Doping Agency's own. A stage version of Chariots of Fire has opened in the West End, with a documentary based on the entire story dropping in early July. And then there's LOCOG, which doesn't have a "director of security," but rather a "director of security and resilience." This Churchillian character is Ian Johnston -- sorry, Sir Ian Johnston -- and he sits behind a desk no doubt graced by a KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON coffee mug.
So I'm settling into a London that's reassuringly familiar at both ends of its well-stretched spectrum. In light of the Diamond Jubilee someone thought to ask, and the British people last week obligingly answered: Only 22 percent would like to see the monarchy done away with, the lowest figure in 15 years of such polling. That news broke along with the latest economic figures, which reconfirm that Britain is mired in a double-dip recession. It may indeed be the case, as Monty Python put it so memorably in The Holy Grail, that "supreme executive power is derived from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony," but civilian rule isn't winning itself many fans in the U.K. these days.
One expat family, however, has found after a week that the borough of Islington functions well enough. We were issued library cards. If we get sick, we'll get health care. And once a week someone comes to collect the garbage.
Or rubbish, rather. Our London orientation wasn't complete until the evening we were to leave out our trash bags for collection the next morning. Before we took the bags out, Harriet, the tenant in the downstairs flat, advised us not to do so too early. It seems that tens of thousands of foxes roam the city at night, itching to feast on rubbish left prematurely on stoops. Already, out at the Royal Artillery Barracks shooting venue in Woolwich, foxes have chewed through fiber-optic cable, destroyed microphones and -- oh, sacrilege! -- fouled the podium.
Who knew? We left rural Vermont, accustomed to bears having their way with our bird feeders, for the depredations of ... urban foxes!
Let slip the hounds, I say. The Olympics are coming.