Posts Tagged ‘ Britain ’

Superhumans and national pride

I’d imagine very few people in the UK are unaware that our capital has been playing host to the Olympic Games over the last two weeks.  The newspapers, television and radio have been full of little else and it has proven to be a topic which can enliven even the most awkward lull in conversation.  And now we have a brief lull before the Paralympics and…then what?  Certainly the journalism industry is going to have to look a bit harder for news items to fill their pages and minutes, if nothing else.

I always rather enjoy the Olympics. I’m not much of a sports fan, but the coverage of a collection of very different sports, with the opportunity to watch just brief snippets of each is wonderful.  And the idea of the world coming together for a fortnight of friendly(ish) competition is even better.  There’s the joy of seeing countries you’ve barely heard of earn a medal or two, and the way in which the entire country can suddenly become experts on fencing, synchronised diving or the pole vault if it looks like a British athlete stands any chance in the sport du jour.  Having it in my own nation adds a bit of patriotic pride and excitement to the mix, even though I didn’t even enter the ballot for tickets, let alone attend.

The whole thing got off to a simply stunning start, with an opening ceremony which showed off the things which this strange little country is so proud of and showed an amazing theatricality.  I was in awe at the Pandemonium segment where chimneys rose from the stadium floor and the Olympic rings were forged in the sky, I grinned with delight when the Queen met James Bond, I felt inordinately proud of the NHS, our musical culture and the eclectic, multi-ethnic randomness of British society.  I felt quite emotional watching it, and indeed shed a tear towards the end.  The moment when it became clear that the cauldron would be lit not by a world-famous athlete, but by seven young people that most of us had never heard of made me glow with excitement – the symbolism of passing the torch on to the next generation and the thought of what those youngsters must have been feeling really struck me.  But I wasn’t prepared for the sheer beauty of those copper petals rising and coming together to form that beautiful cauldron.  Simple, yet utterly beautiful.  Add the fact that each petal was brought in by a different country, and I was gone.  That moment exemplified what the Olympics should be for me.

Then the actual competition got underway.   I saw bits of diving, gymnastics, handball, athletics, tennis, swimming, fencing, rowing, cycling, sailing, water polo and probably other sports which I’ve forgotten about.  As each event continued, I was in awe of what these people could do.  Even the last placed competitors were doing things which you wouldn’t think would be humanly possible – so fast, so high, so strong, not to mention so long, so graceful, so controlled, so coordinated and so on.  Whether I enjoyed the sport or not, I found myself open-mouthed time after time.  I also found myself shouting at the commentators and interviewers quite frequently.  They often seemed distinctly disappointed if the British hopes got anything less than gold (for shame, they’re only the third best athlete in the world!), even if it was a surprise that said competitors even made it to the finals.  And in one swimming relay, the commentator shouted “oh no!” – a team had won gold and broken the world record, but they still hadn’t gone quite as fast as he’d hoped.  I’m sorry, but they’ve just swum faster than any other team in history, and you’re disappointed?  Madness!

The things I’ve seen blew my mind.  In the diving, I was impressed simply by the control in their handstands, let alone what twists and turns they went though on the way into the pool (where they somehow have to avoid splash).  The table tennis moved too fast for me to follow.  The long jump covered ludicrous distances, and the pole vault is mind-boggling.  Men and women carrying on through serious pain, and everyone (apart from maybe a few badminton duos) giving their all even if they were so far behind the rest of the field.  Concentration, determination and humility.  And yes, some very large egos as well.  The Paralympics will be just as awe-inspiring, I have no doubt.

The closing ceremony didn’t quite live up to the opening ceremony, partly because it didn’t seem to hang together as well.  It did have some excellent moments to it, though, particularly the opening segment with the newspapers and street parties, and the inspired pairing of Jessie J with Queen.  It did continue to prove the point that this country has produced some amazing music and musicians, though.  Lord Coe’s speech was obviously quite emotional for him, and it would be hard to argue with his assertion that “we did it right”.  While marvelling at the abilities of athletes from around the world, arguing the merits of various sports and enjoying the warm, fuzzy feeling which comes from the world coming together, the 2012 Olympics reminded me that this country (while far from perfect) is capable of being truly amazing.

In/out/in/out, shake us all about…

Last year, I wrote about the general inability this country has to cope with snow.  It appears that we have learned little, if anything from the experience and our recent attack of the frozen white stuff has caused even more confusion and problems than the last.  Partly this is down to a lack of snow-related infrastructure  and contingency – unlike places where heavy snow is a frequent event, our train tracks can’t cope with ice, our cars lack winter tyres and even main roads can quickly become impassable.

Just like everywhere else, the shiny new learning centre was affected by the turn in the weather.  On the first day of snow, a number of staff left early in order not to miss the last busses and trains to their various home towns, then many of them found themselves unable to get in on either the second or third day due to the public transport system running away and whimpering in a corner somewhere.  However, a large number of staff did manage to attend, and services were able to run as normal.  But the general air of panic which seemed to sweep the country (even in areas like mine which were not so seriously affected) meant that before long, services could not continue as usual after all.  The whole university was closed at 12 noon on the Friday (the third day of snow), to reopen after the weekend, much to the surprise of the throng of library staff who were merrily getting on with our various tasks.  Still, we didn’t complain too much, to be honest – I, for one, loved the snowy walk with the dogs which the free afternoon allowed me to take.

Then the confusion set in.

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Snow joke

I love my country, and am proud to be British, but sometimes I despair.

Weather is a fairly common occurrence here on this lovely group of islands. In fact, it is such an important part of our lives that I would have thought it was our most common topic of conversation, even if we tend to grumble about it in all its variations. Come rain or shine, come gale or snow, sleet or hail, drizzle or heatwave, the British can be counted on to complain. It will be too hot, too cold, too damp, too dry, too windy or too calm. And in extreme circumstances, such as the appearance of frozen water from the sky, we simply retreat into our shells and hide until it’s over.

Today, it seems that snow brought the country to a standstill. Or at least it brought London to a standstill and this had a knock-on effect across much of the nation, partly because it seems all the trains had been sleeping in London overnight and were therefore not available to transport anyone to their chosen destinations. In my part of Kent, the snow made a vague attempt at doing its job, but mostly looked pretty and melted. It would be very generous indeed to suggest that we had an inch of it. Further west, roads were harder to travel on due to the lack of gritters. Quite why gritting had not happened, I don’t know. Snow on Sunday and Monday was forecast before the weekend, so there was plenty of warning. To be fair, the major roads around here seemed to be fine, but reports from colleagues and friends suggest that this was not true everywhere.

The Library of Doom held out longer than many places. Plenty of High Street shops remained closed today, and most of the rest of Kent’s institutions of higher education either never opened or shut up shop at lunchtime. We sent home those people who were having public transport difficulties, then continued providing our usual librarianic services until 6 o’clock, when we put the books to bed and turned out the lights.

Reports suggest that other areas were hit harder by snowstorms, but it is clear that the levels of snow were and are nothing compared to snowfall in places such as Russia, Canada and Scandinavia, where life seems to continue happily during even the bleakest winter. Here, however, our winters are less harsh than they once were, but they seem to affect us in ways they never did before. Suddenly, many places of work and education are closed, public transport throws in the towel and the radio is warning us of impending doom. Is it the wrong sort of snow, or is the country just a bit pathetic? I suspect more of the latter, but tinged with a lack of preparation, an amazing ability to be taken by surprise by something we all knew was coming. One suspects that the rest of the world (and probably other parts of the United Kingdom as well) is sniggering at us behind their hands. If so, I really don’t blame them.

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