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Two Countdowns…

I have two countdowns going on in my head at the moment. One is quite exciting, the other is exciting and terrifying.

The first is the countdown to the start of the Olympic games, being held in London this time. There are now just 30 days to go until the Opening Ceremony of the Games, and I have no trouble in admitting I’m really looking forward to it. No, I’m not particularly sporty, but I’m a sucker for Big Events, even sporty ones, so give me a World Cup, Wimbledon or the Olympics and I’m happy to get caught up in the excitement they create and inspire.

I particularly love the showbiz spectacle of the big opening ceremony of the Olympics. Let’s be honest here: it’s got absolutely nothing to do with sport, it’s theatre and showbiz, pure and simple, and anyone who thinks that it’s a reflection of “national pride”, or a showcase for athletes, a celebration of the “sporting spirit” and an international goodwill party is kidding themselves. It’s a huge, glittery, garish TV show, for a global audience – a chance for a country to shout out at the rest of the world “Look what WE can do!”.

How the hell we are going to follow China’s opening ceremony extravaganza of four years ago I don’t know, but it seems Danny Boyle, who is producing the show, is going to pull things right back and put on a simpler, less poked-in-both-eyes-with-sharpened-chopsticks. That’s a relief; I was dreading an English episode of GLEE with rows of dancers dressed as Morris Men, Beefeaters and Spitfire pilots…

It’s easy to be cynical about the Olympics – and some people are taking a real delight in being lemon-suckingly bitterly cynical about them, as the Games approach. I just let them get on with it. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, of course, and – like those stupid, tin foil hat-wearing Apollo Hoax Believers – I’m sure nothing I could say to them would change their minds, so I’m not even bothering to try. Let them wallow in their cynicism and misery! I’m going to watch the opening ceremony with relish, get caught up in the whole thing, and then, for the following few weeks, cheer on Team GB as they challenge the world for those priceless gold, silver and bronze medals. Bring it on!

One of the criticisms levelled at these Olympics is that they are totally irrelevent to people living outside London, that people in areas like mine – the beautiful, lush, rain-soaked Lake District – have no connection with the Games. “All the money is being spent in London”, people say… “they’re just for rich people Dahn Sarf…”  The suggestion is that up here, north of the London Eye, we’re just going to be observers, northern paupers dressed in dirty rags looking in the glittery shiny Olympics window like Tiny Tim looking into the toyshop window on Christmas Eve. . .


My part of the world was – and is – connected to The Games because of two events which took place last week. One was held about half an hour’s drive away, in Bowness on Windermere. The other happened outside my front door. Yes, literally outside my front door. And because of those events these Olympics are connected to me directly. Emotionally. And physically.

You see, the Olympic Flame has been touring the UK, taking in hundreds of towns, villages and cities on a route that’s wound its way around and through almost each and every region of the land. And, brilliantly – and fittingly I think! – that route brought the Flame, carried in a Torch relay – not just through the Lake District, but through Kendal – and past my front door! How cool is that?! To have the Olympic Flame carried past your own front door!

But I’m jumping ahead of myself a bit. Before the Flame was carried through Kendal, and past my door, it was carried to Bowness on Windemere, which is just half an hour’s drive from where I live. As was the case with Kendal, the Flame was scheduled to “stay” in Bowness overnight, and its arrival was to be celebrated with a big outdoor event – with local singers and bands performing on a big stage, supporting a national star – at the end of which the Flame would be carried onto the stage and used to light a kind of brazier/cauldron/thingy. And after all that, when darkness had fallen, a big music and fireworks spectacular! Come on, how could I resist that! That would be like The Doctor resisting an invitation to a  “Bring a bottle” party on Skaro!

So how did it go?

It was fantastic, it really was. True, the good old Cumbrian weather tried its very best to absolutely ruin it, by being all windy and rainy and cold on the day  – not unusual for a Lake District summer, I know – but the thousands of people who gathered on The Glebe (a big field beside Lake Windermere) that night weren’t going to let a bit of crappy weather ruin our fun. We’re Cumbrians! We’re part duck! We have gills! What do we do when the sky is grey, the wind is blowing, and rain is falling? We do this

And so we queued up for our outrageously-priced ice creams, hot dogs and “Hog Roast Buns” (yummy!), fended off the unwanted attention of the local wildlife when they decided they wanted to eat our outrageously-priced hot dogs and yummy “Hog Roast Buns”…

… happily took the freebies (i.e. frisbees, glow in the dark wrist bands, flags, free bottle of Coke, etc) off the unnaturally bouncy, happy, Smiling Young Things stalking the field representing the Games’ sponsors, and sat ourselves on the sodden grass overlooking the big stage…

…to await the arrival of the Torch, and welcome the Olympic Flame to The Lakes.

Here’s the scene at around 3pm, when Stella and I arrived at The Glebe…

…and then at 6.30pm, before The Entertainment began…

…and here’s the scene an hour or so later, after local kids had sung their hearts out on that stage, when Britain’s Got Talent acts had done their thing, when Brit rapper Katy B (surprisingly good, I thought!) was blasting out her hits, as the arrival of the Torch was imminent…

Now. If you click on that image and enlarge it you’ll see that at the top of the picture you can just see Lake Windermere through gaps in the trees. And it was on the lake that the Torch made its first appearance, carried down its length on one of the tourist ships that crisscross it every day. Followed by a small flotilla of local boats, the ship made its way down the lake and then pulled into the jetty on the side, but before it docked we all caught a fleeting glimpse of the Torch being held aloft by the Torchbearer at the front of the boat…

After that the Torch was carried along the side of the lake, through the huge crowds and then onto the Glebe, where we were. It was then carried up the field, through a sea of people, and then along a pathway along the top of the field before dropping down again towards the stage.  And at this point, even the most cynical people in the crowd (and yes, there were some, standing there with hands plunged in pockets, looking miserable, happy to tell everyone how they ‘didn’t agree’ with the whole thing, which left me wondering why they’d bothered to stand in the rain and cold and wind for hours in that case!!!) couldn’t fail to be caught up in the excitement of the event. As the Torch arrived on the Glebe it was as if an electric shock ran through the crowd, everyone turned around to see it, to look for it, to try and spot the tiny tongue of golden fire flickering and dancing as it was carried through the throng, over the mud and crushed grass and discarded bottles of Coke, broken frisbees and ripped flags. Before we really knew it the Torch was being carried up onto the stage, and suddenly the torchbearer was standing in front of the brazier…thingy… holding the torch high… preparing to bring the Olympic flame to Bowness…! People went nuts, cheering and shouting and clapping…

…and then she lowered the Torch, and – without a loud whumpf! There should have been a whumpf! I thought – the flame burst into life!

What’s beyond “nuts”? Because that’s what we all went. It was just wonderfully exciting and moving. And again, yes, it’s easy to be cynical, to dismiss the Games as a huge corporate thing, a million miles away from a genuine sporting contest, which it probably is now, in 2012, but to be standing there, in a huge crowd of people, young and old, soaked through with rain, shivering in the cold,  seeing The Flame moving past you, having been carried to you by hundreds of people already, to feel that link, that connection to a truly global cultural and historical event, to be linked personally to hundreds of years of history… well, it was very moving, real lump-in-the-throat stuff, and everyone around me whooped and cheered and shouted as that flame burst into life, and there were more than a few people in tears too. Some of you reading this will think that’s a bit daft, probably. But you had to be there, it’s hard to explain.

Anyway, here’s Stella with the Olympic Flame. Well, with the Olympic Flame behind her. Ok, quite a way behind her…

After that things settled down a bit. After all, the Torch had arrived, the Flame was lit, and there was an hour and a half’s gap until the second part of the night was due to begin – the world premiere of “On The Night Shift”, a new show by the brilliant (quote: “French percussion and pyrotechnics wizards”) “Les Commandos Percu”, a mad, loud, drum-thunping celebration of dance, fireworks and music.

This was organised by “Lakes Alive”, a local group which promotes performance arts here in the Lakes. I can honestly say I’ve never met a harder working, more committed, and friendlier group of “arty” people in my life, it’s a pleasure to know them and support them, which I try to by writing and Tweeting about their events as much as I can. Lakes Alive are the driving force behind the annual performance arts all you can eat buffet that is “Mintfest”, which I’ve written about on this blog before.

I can’t praise Mintfest highly enough. For one magical weekend, Kendal shines like a lantern on a stormy night, its streets are full of actors, dancers, singers, clowns, performers of a dozen different kinds, from countries all over the world. And people come from all over the world to watch the shows. Which are free. Yes, free. Thanks to Mintfest, and Lakes Alive, it’s as if Kendal has two Christmasses every year, seriously. Mintfest is on again at the end of August, and I can’t wait!

(Ah. That means I’ve actually got three countdowns running in my head… oh well, too late to change the title of this post now!)

So. With the main event over, and the crowds thinning-out – many people went home post-Torch, probably because the rain really started to pelt it down once the Torchbearer had left the stage – we settled back and watched local band “British Sea Power” do their thing for a while, before yomping up the field and over into the larger field to find a good spot to watch “On he Night Shift” from.

Unfortunately, as the minutes passed, the rain got harder, and harder and harder, and we were really worried that the performance would be called off for safety reasons. After all, electric lighting+fireworks+sound systems+people on gantries+driving rain is not a good equation. Here was the view from our “spot” w half an hour to go…

…and as darkness fell, things got no better. But the show must go on, they say, and it did!

For an hour, soaked to the skin by the driving rain, blinking to slough raindrops from our eyes, huddled together against the cold,  we watched fireworks leap and burst, heard drums booming and thumping, and felt our bodies vibrating with the force and power and volume of the music. yet again, Lakes Alive had put on a fantastic show, and despite the godawful weather the field was full of people, all enjoying the spectacle…

When the show ended, with great clouds of smoke drifting acros the field like a scene from the Battle of Waterloo, everyone erupted into applause and cheers as we celabratde the end of a fantastic evening – and the start of the real build-up to the opening of the Games, because the Lakes Alive event was actually the official openeing event of the London 2012 Festival! We kicked off the Olympics! Well, sort of. :-)

Then… a farewell hug for friends Carol and Simon who had almost drowned with us… and a squelchy squilchy walk back to the car, parked way up in town… ready for what the next day would bring – a more personal connection to the Games…

The next morning the weather was just as bad. Rain was sluicing from a grey sky, but we weren’t going to let that stop us from seeing the Olympic Flame lighting a Torch up at Kendal Castle, so at 7.30am we headed through the park, across the river and up the by then very muddy hill, to join a crowd of hundreds at the castle, and wait for the Torch to be lit within the ruins. When the proud Torchbearer arrived, everyone followed him into the castle ruins, to witnes his torch being lit…

Then it was time. The ‘guardians of the flame’ (the guys who keep it flickering safely in a little lamp overnight!) pulled the Torchbearer away from the crowds and led him over to a cleared spot beside the castle wall… and lit his Torch…

Again, despite the rain, and the cold, a loud cheer went up, everyone celebrating the moment and that link with history, art and culture. The Torchbearer spent a while posing for photos inside and on the castle ruins…

Then he was off, jogging gingerly down the steep, muddy hill on the eastern side of the Castle hill, at the start of a short Tour de Kendal, with several different Torchbearers running a short distance with the flickering flame. Stella and I managed to make it down the western side of the hill, and through the crowds, just in time to see the Torch being carried up my street – and, yes, past my own front door…

And that was that. We’d seen The Flame carried down a lake, through a seething crowd, and burst into life upon a stage. We’d seen it flickering in a tiny lamp in the shadows of our town’s castle ruins, seen it leap into a golden torch and carried down to and then through our rain-soaked town. We’d been close enough to reach out and touch it, to almost feel its heat, to be burned by it.

So what? I hear some of you asking.

Well, when the Opening Ceremony in London reaches its climax in 30 days time, and the Beacon is lit in thebeautiful stdium, we’ll be able to say “We’ve seen that flame!” And that’s quite fantastic, I think.

And just for me, personally, to have seen the Olympic flame flickering and dancing within the ruins of Kendal Castle, the place where I’ve spent countless nights watching the International Space Station, planetary conjunctions, meteor showers and noctilucent clouds, was a heck of a thing. And I refuse to let any of the cynics, or doubters, or moaners, ruin the memory of that moment for me. :-)

But what about the second countdown I’ve got tick-tick-ticking in my head?

In 40 days time (40 days!!! where the hell has all that time gone?!?!?!) the Mars Science Laboratory rover “Curiosity” will arrive at Mars.

If all goes well it will land safely and begin what might be a decade-long geological survey of a huge crater called Gale, which has an honest to god mountain in its centre. If all doesn‘t go well… no, I don’t want to think about that.

More about that soon…

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