London is preparing for the Olympics as if it’s expecting a visit from one of P.G. Wodehouse’s more intimidating aunts.
Normally, you can put up with, say, a missing lightbulb in the hall, or the cistern not working properly in the downstairs cloakroom, or a funny smell in the kitchen that’s getting worse. They become part of your life. You navigate around them with increasing familiarity.
Even when you’re due a visit from the ultimate authority the countdown seems comfortably long. But inevitably, the frightening truth dawns: it’s really going to happen – soon. And you’ve got to do something. You have to make the place habitable to someone other than yourselves.
Thus, one morning Lord Coe, Boris and Transport for London got up and realised the sink was still blocked – or whatever the London-streets equivalent is – just as the Olympic visitors were approaching the door.
Cue frenzy. Hundreds of cleaners-up in high-vis tabards appeared out of nowhere. Orange cones colonised thoroughfares. Striped barriers took over pavements. Mini traffic lights popped up in unexpected places.
Result? Buses in London have become mainly stationary objects you might want to sit in, like a summerhouse or a beach hut, rather than a means of transport. So, recently, I was able to watch the activity for twenty minutes from my elevated position on the Number 11.
Some high-vis people were ripping up the road while, 20 yards behind them, other high-vis people were putting it back. Something may have been going on in between but I couldn’t see it. I did notice a chap wielding a stiff broom, so I guessed he was sweeping dust from the pavement into the newly-prepared hole while his colleagues covered it up.
On another occasion, walking near Victoria, I got lost in an orange-and-white striped maze of pedestrian barriers. I didn’t notice that the pavement had somehow become the road until I collided with the radiator of a revving black cab. The driver’s gestures were over-dramatic, to my mind, but I couldn’t hear what he was shouting at me because of a pneumatic drill nearby. Naturally the traffic wasn’t moving, so I survived.
The bloke with the drill, incidentally, was wearing ear protectors. The five thousand passers-by-a-minute weren’t. Is this why everyone talks so loudly in restaurants now?
The other day I set off from St Pancras to Oxford Street. It’s just over a mile. You could walk it in twenty minutes. But I was hurrying to a meeting, so, as is my habit these days, I jumped on a bus.
The trip took forty minutes. We were held up for aeons by men cutting paving stones into curves and others drawing shaky yellow lines around manhole covers.
Why didn’t I get off and walk? Because you never quite know when the lanes are about to open up and allow the driver to put his foot down. If you opt for hitting the pavement, that’ll be the moment the bus zooms off towards your destination. So I stayed in my seat, urging the driver on as if he were a horse I’d backed.
Eventually he and I were the only people aboard and it was a toss-up which of us would give in first. He took pity on me and persevered till my stop, then he got out and took the tube.
I reached my meeting tense and breathless. No-one else made it.
So, Lord Coe and Tfl, who are you trying to impress? The French? Have you seen the streets in Paris? They divert water into grids with off-cuts of coconut matting. The Germans? They keep the traffic flowing by fining pedestrians if they cross the road. The Italians? They ride their Vespas on the pavement. The Ethiopians? The Cubans? The Greeks? Well, what about the man on the Clapham omnibus? (The 137, I think.) It’s just possible that he’s not consumed with passion at the prospect of international weightlifting or trampolining. But he’d like to get to the office.
At least when Bertie Wooster suffered the trauma of an aunt’s visit he nursed the hope of an inheritance. So what can Londoners expect when it’s all over? Using traditional journalistic skills I hacked into the mayoral emails and found the answer. And it’s wonderful!
Pavements will be cushioned in slipper material and will move on rollers. Piccadilly and Oxford Street will have fitted carpets in tasteful designs. Every bus stop will be furnished with a chaise longue.
There will be cocktails and waitress service at pedestrian crossings. The push-button displays will show the next chapter of the Kindle book you’re reading. Kerbstones will deliver weather forecasts in popular regional accents. Road signs will have telescopic arms to lift drivers into the right lane. Traffic lights will flash subliminal jokes.
So that’s what it’s all leading to. Thank you, Olympics. It’s a fantastic legacy, and it makes it all worthwhile. All we have to do now is wait and see.