There can be few more exhilarating forms of travel than bouncing along at 40mph on a rib down the Thames from Tower Bridge to Bow. There’s nothing much between you and the water, and my grip on the fairground ride-style handlebars tightened every time we crossed the wash of some other larger craft. I had no idea that there is a colony of beautiful Thames barges downstream from St Katharine Docks, or that the Shard would look quite so stunning from the water – architecturally, the City and London Bridge outdoes anything Canary Wharf can offer. Though nothing, of course, can outshine Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece at Greenwich, the Old Royal Naval College.
The expedition – I know this rather over-dramatises it but that’s how it felt – was the result of a challenge put to me by Tony Hales, chair of British Waterways. As Tony knows, I’m chairing the board overseeing the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival. “The only way to see the Olympic Park,” he proclaimed, “is by boat.” So there we were, a small group under the command of a jolly British Waterways skipper, slowing to a more comfortable pace as we approached Bow Creek.
The waterways round here were once the preserve of dumped household appliances, tyres, old prams and God knows what else. Now a cheery woman waves as she steers the barge equivalent of a vacuum cleaner along the canal. And the views of the Olympic Park are wonderful. Across soft banks planted with reeds rises the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a structure whose boldness I love. But most beautiful, seen through a small woodland of silver birches, is the velodrome designed by Hopkins Architects.
And all along the waterways stand giant crayon-shaped pillars painted in bright blue, green, orange, green and red that are both mooring posts and works of art commissioned from Keith Wilson, a Hackney-based artist. Another example of art finding its place among the sporting venues, it’s just what the founder of the modern Olympics Pierre de Coubertin wanted: a celebration of sport and culture.
During the Olympics, a brand new opera produced by ROH2 will float along these regenerated waterways. Written by ex-Python Terry Jones with a score by the Oscar-winning composer Anne Dudley, it is based on Edward Lear’s poem “The Owl and the Pussycat”. A beautiful pea green boat would feel right at home here.
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A little earlier I’d been on another bumpy form of transport, a small propeller plane heading through veils of rain and mist, for the Shetland Isles. For the London 2012 Festival has also penetrated to the most northerly part of the UK. I met a fiddler from Foula, ecstatic about working with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, who were touring to Shetland for the first time in 21 years. “It galvanised all of us on the island to make music again,” he said. And indeed they’d relayed their work live to Lerwick, the largest town, alongside similar performances from three other remote islands.
I was also intrigued by Shetland Arts’ idea for a “hansel” of film – in the local dialect “hansel” means a gift marking a special occasion. On the day in June that the Olympic Torch arrives in the islands, they’ll start a relay of screenings of short films made by the public that’ll be shown as far away as Southampton, and will then make their way back to Shetland where they’ll be a marathon screening of all the films in early September. I love the fact that an idea born in the remoteness of Shetland can have an impact right across the British Isles.
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After a long day of meetings, it was a treat to be able to sit in my local cinema to watch live from Covent Garden Lauren Cuthbertson dancing Juliet in Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpiece Romeo and Juliet. It was a hugely powerful spectacle. There was such a buzz in the cinema, and worldwide we attracted our biggest numbers yet for such a screening.
And then next day on YouTube Royal Ballet Live, from class in the morning (for me just watching it is exhausting) to a discussion in the evening between our resident choreographer Wayne McGregor and the musician and producer Mark Ronson about their collaboration on a new ballet that opened this week. The dancers and staff were all so articulate and open that I hope all those watching felt, as I did, that they understood so much more about what makes the Royal Ballet tick.
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I have been spending much of this week at the Abu Dhabi Festival, with a group of actors, dancers, singers and musicians here to perform Beloved Friend, a Royal Opera House production based on the letters of Tchaikovsky and his muse and patron Nadezhda von Meck. Their relationship was long and intense – but they never actually met. When I spoke to members of the audience, they said that what overwhelmed them was the intimacy of being so close to the artists. And the artists love that too – one of them said to me they felt they had scooped up the audience into the performance. In difficult times this is what brings people together.
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The House of Lords – which I joined nearly two years ago – is now in recess but minds still might ponder over Easter the reform we’re all expecting in the Queen’s Speech next month. I hope that one facet of the Lords’ role is not lost: there is nowhere else I know that debates topics of real importance with people who know what they’re on about. One such grouping is the Lords Communications Committee, which last year produced an excellent report on the BBC, and now one on investigative journalism too. The debate on the role of the BBC – our greatest cultural body – was of the highest order. Trouble is, of course, it wasn’t what is conventionally considered news, so went largely unreported.
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I am chairing a panel of historians invited by the BBC have been asked to pick 60 “new Elizabethans”, men and women who “by their deeds will be remembered in history for the way they shaped our lives in these islands”. Each of the 60 will then be the subject of a 15-minute programme narrated by Jim Naughtie. Discussion among the panellists, who include Max Hastings, Bamber Gascoigne, Sally Alexander, Maria Misra and Dominic Sandbrook, have been lively. Listeners supplied about 1,000 names, the panel added some more. I am not allowed to mention any names but perhaps I can say I’m pleased that, from the beginning, one that shone through was that of a dancer.
Tony Hall is chief executive of the Royal Opera House