Thursday, 21 June 2012

A song of unsung heroes

I've recently added a new item to the list of sites I check every day.  It is, to my surprise, the Olympic Torch Relay.  When I first looked at the route it was taken and saw that it was going to go everywhere, I thought that this was overkill; what was more, I thought that it would devalue the whole enterprise, because--as W.S. Gilbert put it in The Gondoliers, 'If everyone is somebody, then no-one's anybody.'  If you have 8000 torchbearers what's the distinction worth?

I was quite wrong.  I love the relay.  In part it's the pictures: the torch abseiling down bridges, riding steam trains, crossing Hadrian's Wall, up the summit of Snowdon and over the Giant's Causeway, like some stupendous campaign to persuade people to visit Britain.  Most of it, though, it's the torchbearers.  It's true that some of them are the usual suspects--B-list celebrities, the nominees of corporate sponsors and the relatives of IOC members--but most of them are people who have made a difference in their local communities but who we would never otherwise have heard of at all.  Many are sportsmen and women--but not the sort who win medals.  They are, instead, the people who make sport work: PE teachers, coaches in local football or rugby, the secretaries of running and cycling clubs, people who put in long hours of effort for no money and little recognition.  There are schoolkids, too, who put in hours training and show huge sportsmanship, but are never going to win anything outside their hometown.

Other torchbearers--the kind I find most inspiring of all--are ordinary people who have shown extraordinary courage or generosity.  They have raised thousands of pounds for charity, worked with disadvantaged children, set up support systems for families dealing with crippling diseases.  Some have had the fortitude to cope with some of those same diseases, and are carrying the torch despite Parkinsons, or MS; carrying it in wheelchairs or on crutches.

Every day uncovers uncelebrated stories.   A Josephine Loughren who carried the torch yesterday loved running, but gave up half of a lung to help her sister, who had cystic fibrosis. Lucy Gale, a hired car driver, came across a car accident on a railway line, and, in the two and a half minutes available before a heavily-laden freight train arrived, managed to get both cars and drivers off the line, saving, certainly, their lives, and, possibly, the lives of others in the passenger train that would have been derailed if the freight train had crashed.  Mia Rathband, daughter of PC David Rathband who was blinded in the line of duty and killed himself, ran blindfolded in honour of her father.

The Torch Relay is on the BBC website, and it's a strange experience to go from the rest of the news, which is, almost by definition, bad, to this bald account of altruism and quiet heroics.  I don't dare read it in public, because I cry too easily.

The torch arrives here in Coventry on the 1st of July.  There will be a celebration in the park across the road, and I will certainly be there, cheering.

Monday, 4 June 2012


Ancient cities were fond of pageants and processions.  Athena, Demeter, Dionysos, Zeu, Isis--they all seemed to have liked  elaborate parades.  Statues of the gods would be dressed gorgeous draperies and carried throughout the city, accompanied by handsome young horsemen got up in their best on neighing steeds; priests in magnificent robe;, musicians playing lyres, flutes, sistra; celebrants crying 'euoi, euoi!' or 'ite Bacchai, ite Bacchai', as the case might be; sacrificial cattle with gilded horns, garlanded with roses or ivy; incense and offerings.  Hellenistic kings paid for floats on wheeled carts, showing scenes from mythology or of battles where they'd defeated their enemies; crowds would be showered with coins, or flowers, or nuts and sweetmeats. The Rhodians, and other naval powers, went in for naval processions, with their magnificently decorated ships processing past the cheering crowds on shore. The Romans were as eager as the Greeks: their triumphal processions were probably the most elaborate of all ancient pageants, and were so intoxicating to the triumphing generals that a slave had to be appointed to whisper in the victorious ear, 'Remember that you are mortal!'

When the Roman Empire went Christian, the processions carried on, though the excuse for them switched from gods and glory to God's glory: North Africans used to celebrate saints' days by processing round the churches, drinking heartily at each, a kind of sanctified pub crawl which drew occasional criticism from their bishops.  Byzantine basileis and medieval kings eagerly seized any excuse for show and display, and Renaissance geniuses contributed mechanical contrivances, playlets, and painted backdrops; gunpowder allowed fireworks.

It all seems very jolly, but recent experience has left me wondering how much the average woman in the street actually saw of all this cheerful vainglory.  We went down to London yesterday to watch the Diamond Jubilee river pageant, but the crowds were so thick I couldn't even see the river.  I did just about glimpse the queen, because the royal barge was tall enough that the top was briefly visible through binoculars as it departed downstream.  All the rest--the flotilla of rowboats; the barges of bells and musicians; the fire brigade's working boat imitating a moving fountain, the Dunkirk little ships--was hidden behind a wall of backs.  I only know about them because I looked at the BBC website afterwards.

I'm not really sorry I went, though.  It's something, to be able to say 'I was there' at what may prove to be the monarchy's last hurrah, and there was entertainment in looking at the crowds--the girls with the union jack lipstick; the children waving flags; the people in the queen and Prince Charles masks; the man opening a bottle of beer against the curb.  A brass band emerged twice from a private party on a moored boat and played 'Rule Britannia', 'Land of Hope and Glory', and 'God Save the Queen', which the crowd sang lustily.  I just wonder how many people at, say, Augustus's triumph, saw no more than the top of the model of the Pharos going slowly past above a sea of heads.