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TOWER FOR THE OLYMPICS
- The isle is full of noises

An unlikely meeting in an unlikely place has led to London’s newest and most unlikely monument. Many people, me included, think the monument sets a national record for gigantic pointlessness, but it threatens to be a prominent feature of the east London skyline for decades to come — as permanent a novelty as the Eiffel Tower but a lot less pleasing to look at. We owe it to the moment when London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, met Lakshmi Mittal in a toilet at Davos in 2009. Both men were attending that annual jamboree of self-importance, the World Economic Forum, and on their way to different dinner engagements at the Swiss resort when the encounter occurred. Some details aren’t clear — was it a conversation between stalls in the urinal, or over wash basins or in the queue for the coats? All we know is that the London mayor asked the steel billionaire if he’d fund the construction of a piece of ‘public art’ at the site of the London Olympics, and that Mittal agreed to supply the steel. Nobody then had any clear idea of the form this piece of public art might take, but it eventually resolved itself into a 115 metre-high twisting steel tower with an observation platform at the top, designed by the Mumbai-born sculptor, Anish Kapoor, and the Sri Lanka-born architect, Cecil Balmond, artistic figures so modish that criticism rarely comes their way. The tower has been named the ArcelorMittal Orbit after the steel company, which is an understandable piece of puffery given the £16 million that Lakshmi Mittal has spent on it — rather more than he envisaged when he met Johnson in a Davos toilet. What, if anything, is it meant to symbolize? According to its creators, it represents the “extraordinary physical and emotional effort” of Olympians in their continual quest to be higher, faster and stronger. What does the Daily Mail call the ArcelorMittal? The Eyeful Tower. What does it look like? Like a fairground attraction, a helter-skelter or a roller-coaster, that has had a nervous breakdown. The art critics in the better newspapers are much kinder about it than the people who live nearby. When I passed it the other day by chance what struck me was how tawdry and childish it looked, like an unloved and discarded toy. But then I grew up beside one of the world’s greatest pieces of Victorian engineering, the Forth Bridge: a mass of girders and struts painted a dark red just like the ArcelorMittal Orbit, but in every other way its opposite, being handsome, dramatic and useful.

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Middle-class London has divided into two camps, the stayers and the goers. That is, those who will stay for the Olympics and those who will get out of the city at almost any price, citing packed public transport and traffic jams as the reasons to go. The government is taking the threat of over-crowding very seriously — perhaps too seriously, given that many of London’s usual summer visitors look as though they’ll stay away, making the city actually less crowded than usual. Civil servants and other office workers have been told to work from home to free up space on buses and trains for Olympic tourists. Roads will be closed and anti-terrorist squads posted to the roofs of tall buildings as convoys of black limousines ferry Olympic bureaucrats and sponsors (such as Mittal) from their hotels to the sports venues. Taxi drivers are quick to tell you how awful all this will be (“A nightmare, mate, I’m taking the month off”), but perhaps the sense of impending mayhem is misplaced and when the running and jumping begins everything will fall into place. In which case, the stayers will be confirmed in their optimism, while those of the goers who have let out their property can be consoled by how much they’ll make in rent. A few months ago, Londoners would astound each other by swapping stories about the scarcely believable sums their homes could command; flats that in normal times might cost £800 a week were now advertised for the Olympic season at ten times that figure. Yesterday, out of nothing more than a desire to shock myself, I discovered that houses like mine in my part of London, which is to say Victorian terraced houses a few miles from the major events, were being advertised online at rents of £15,000 a week for the months of July and August. Think about this. (I certainly did.) Eight weeks of that rent = £120,000. Cost of insurance, storage of valuables, management fees, and eight weeks in a Mediterranean villa for self and family = say a generously estimated £40,000. Profit = £80,000, which is about three times the British average annual wage. Greed awoke in me like a roaring monster, and then went to sleep again. Renting your house to strangers — a television crew from Lithuania, say — means a great deal of bother and worry. Better to stay poor and sleep peacefully, which is something the International Monetary Fund would never dare to tell its clients.

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The Slumdog Millionaire director, Danny Boyle, is confecting an Olympic opening ceremony that he says will evoke Britain’s ‘green and pleasant land’ even to the extent of populating the stadium with live farm animals and creating artificial clouds that will rain on the artificial meadows below. Progressive eyebrows have been raised at this whimsical idealization of a predominantly urban country, but that isn’t my worry, which comes with Boyle’s declared intention to be humorous. I’m not sure that those favourite English attitudes, satire and irony, can work on such a gigantic scale; the four-hour opening show will cost at least £27 million and employ a cast and crew of about 12,000. Even so, it won’t rival Beijing’s opening show in 2008 for sheer spectacle. Perhaps nothing ever will. And so Boyle has deliberately devised an entertainment at a more human level, taking a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest as his inspiration. The line is “Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises”, which suggests comedy will be stumbling towards us wearing its clumsiest boots. I really hope not. Boyle has taken on one of the most difficult jobs in the world and it would be good if he succeeded. But the comic approach? It suggests Britain can’t take itself seriously (which tends to be true), but, worse than that, it may fall as flat as a pancake.

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In 1980, I reported from the Moscow Olympics. The Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan, so America boycotted the games and the British team marched under a sign that said BOA — the British Olympic Association — rather than GREAT BRITAIN because Margaret Thatcher’s government wanted to placate our favourite allies by withdrawing official recognition of the British team. I had a little gentle fun wondering about an imaginary people called the Boanese — what was their national costume, their favourite tipple, and so forth — though it turned out that on the running track BOA managed to field several winners, with golds for Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Allan Wells. Memorable times. Who could have imagined then that not much more than 20 years later Afghanistan would have US invaders, getting into precisely the same kind of trouble as the Soviets? Not the Boanese for sure, though these days one or two of them in uniform get killed there most weeks.