August 17, 2012 9:37 pm

A time-traveller in London

‘Wandering around town before and during the Games, I saw ghosts of people I’d known on almost every street corner’
Illustration by Jonny Wan©Jonny Wan

The new Javelin train was pulling up outside London’s Olympic Stadium. The conductor addressed us through his microphone, in what sounded suspiciously like an American accent, but then you get all sorts on London transport: “Before leaving the train, please make sure you have not left any young children behind, because I’m too old to raise more.” Then we walked out of the station into a better London.

I left London for Paris 10 years ago, and my three-week Olympic sojourn was the longest period I’ve spent here since. Wandering around town before and during the Games, I saw ghosts of people I’d known on almost every street corner. I came away with a sense of how London and Britain had changed since I left, and how the Olympics will change them both again.

As a time-traveller with an older London in my head, I was constantly surprised. Visiting the City one morning, I wondered why hardly any men were wearing ties. The “sick buildings” that I remembered all over London, built on wartime bomb craters, had mostly gone. In the 1990s, I had travelled to work on 1960s Tube trains; a journey to east London had been practically a safari. Now London has decent infrastructure.

When I’d left in 2002, my friends were just starting to have children and were fretting about London’s bad schools. Now they were still fretting, but less: as an FT analysis showed this month, London’s state schools get the best results in England, even though many of their pupils don’t speak English at home or are poor. I found a London that had avoided becoming a “bourgeois ghetto”, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm called Paris, and yet had become more liveable than before – a city made for people, rather than a sort of western version of Moscow.

The Olympics will change London again. First, the Games will help give Londoners a shared identity. Until the 1960s, this was a white, mostly working-class “Cockney” city. But then the whole world arrived. The newcomers mostly rubbed along well together, but they lacked a common identity. That’s the main reason why Londoners almost never speak to strangers in communal places such as trains or parks. When I lived here, I don’t remember anyone ever saying they were proud to be a Londoner.

But then Londoners went on a shared seven-year ride together, a ride that began not so much on July 6 2005, the day London was awarded the Olympics, but the next morning, when Islamist suicide-bombers killed 52 people in an attack on its public transport. That set off years of fretful Olympic preparations, culminating in a 17-day communal party. Today, Londoners are still Bangladeshi, Japanese, or even English, but the Olympic journey has helped turn them into Londoners, too.

The Olympics are already fading like a dream, but the main thing Britons may eventually retain from them is Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. There are many reasons why people have been arguing about it for three weeks, and one is that Boyle gave the country a new story.

Shakespeare and William Blake probably did the best job of laying down visions of England. However, the task later passed to prime ministers. I grew up with Margaret Thatcher proclaiming “Great Britain is great again” after the country’s victory in the Falklands war, while crowds sang “Britannia rules the waves” outside Downing Street. Whatever you think of Thatcher, her vision was false. Despite the medal rush of the Olympic fortnight, post-imperial Britain isn’t a great power.

Her successor, John Major, didn’t bother thinking up his own vision of Britain. Instead, in the hallowed custom of newspaper columnists, he nicked a thought from George Orwell. In 1993, Major eulogised “the country of long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and – as George Orwell said – old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist”. This rural vision made no sense of the real Britain, where most people live in not-very-green suburbs, or in cities such as Birmingham.

Tony Blair, uninterested in the past, spoke of a “new Britain”, “a young country”. This recalled his predecessor Harold Wilson’s talk of a cutting-edge technological Britain. In a country where trains stop moving because of “the wrong type of snow”, Blair, too, seemed in denial of reality.

Nobody has probably ever had the chance to present his vision of Britain to as many Britons as Boyle did. His four-hour show drew an average audience of 23.4 million, the most for any British programme since 1998. People live by stories, and Boyle gave us one that made sense: a Britain that had binned its fantasies of grandeur, and that after many stumbles had learned to laugh at itself. Here the Olympic torch was run into the stadium not by an Aryan superman, but by a potbellied middle-aged ex-rower who can’t run. It was a more appealing Britain, and a more appealing London, than I’d seen before.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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