After eight days in Britain’s capital I’ve discovered three things:
1. The city has never looked better. It gleams. Well, maybe not shiny in a Las Vegas artificial way but cleaner and more polished than I’ve ever seen it. And I’ve been there more than a dozen times in the last few decades. The museums have all been refurbished, buildings have been spruced up and there are more pedestrianized areas than ever before. I knew things had changed when I went for a tea in the crypt of St. Martins in the Field at Trafalgar Square–home to the cheapest cafe in that expensive area. Yup, it has a fancy new round glass elevator and a slick new look.
2. For the first time ever, I could go into shops and buy those fashions I’ve previously only drooled over. For years a British pound cost Canadians at least $2.20. Items were the same price as in Canada, only the currency was much, much more expensive. One time, when the exchange rate was $2.60, I survived on sandwiches from Marks & Spencer. Now a pound is just $1.60 and it felt like Britain had a big sale sign on it. Sure, real estate is still ridiculously expensive, but there are plenty of low-cost hotels, and the Oyster card makes public transit efficient and affordable. So every time I did “shopping math” (multiple by roughly 1.25-1.30 to get the equivalent pre-tax price in Canada), I had a broad smile on my face. When I saw this dress at Hobbs I knew it was perfect for a summer wedding. And at just $170, a steal.
3. In the showdown between this summer’s two main events: the Diamond Jubilee weekend in June for Queen Elizabeth II and the 2012 London Summer Olympics, there is simply no contest. The royal festivities win in a round one, by TKO. They are to be celebrated while the sporting event is to be endured.
I’ve got to say that No. 3 was the biggest surprise of all. Sure, I’m a monarchist (umm, hello, you’ve seen the name of this blog, right?) and for me the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession is the biggest deal of the year, but I know that not everyone shares my view. For many, the four days in June to honour an 86-year-old great-grandmother are positively plebian in comparison to the 17-day international sporting extravaganza.
Though, yes, she gets a fabulous parade through the streets of London, a flotilla of 1,000 boats on the Thames and 2,012 beacons being lit around Britain and the Commonwealth. Plus the events are seen as a way for the entire nation (and the Commonwealth) to have what is essentially a four-day holiday that everyone can take part in. Literally. Last week, the self portraits created by 200,000 schoolchildren were constructed into a giant montage image of the Queen that was beamed onto the front of Buckingham Palace. Already more than 6,500 applications for street parties have been received. And the star-studded concert won’t be on pay-for-view but rather on the BBC. There will also be a lottery for 10,000 prime parade seats. And since most of the events are funded by private sponsors, it’s a relative bargain compared to the ballooning costs of the Olympics, now estimated to be in the realm of at least $15 billion. (And in Canada, communities overwhelmed the official Canadian Heritage site with applications to share its $2-million pot for Diamond Jubilee celebrations.)
Go to any shop, from Waitrose to the 99p Store and you can’t avoid the Diamond Jubilee swag: banners, napkins, tea towels, mugs and pins. In contrast, Olympic souvenirs are wildly expensive and hard to find. (More on that later.) And when I asked everyone–from cashiers and cabbies to transit employees and the waitress in the local pub–I got the same answer back: they were all looking forward to the jubilee, at least half were going to see at least one event, and they were all dreading the upcoming Olympics.
With less than 100 days before the opening ceremony of the London Games, all you see in London are the negative consequences associated with holding the Games: Warnings in the subway to start planning alternate routes NOW and that those going to the Olympic sites should figure out a multitude of routes in preparation for the inevitable diversions, and notices that lanes on key streets (nicknamed “Zil lanes” after their Soviet predecessors) will be devoted to the exclusive use of Olympic aristocrats, lest they suffer the indignity of being stuck in a traffic jam. Even theatre legend Andrew Lloyd Webber is forecasting a “bloodbath” for the city’s artistic scene as tourists avoid the city in droves.
And just like at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, the Olympic oversears are keeping their trademark neurotic control over the event so no one can take “advantage” of the event without paying for the privilege. There is such vigilance that official souvenirs can’t be picked up just any where, just at authorized locales. And that means they are far more expensive than the equivalent Diamond Jubilee swag.
And the dominating fervour doesn’t end there: the only water allowed on the Olympic sites is by Coca-Cola; the only food is McDonald’s; and athletes have been warned not to mention non-official sponsors during the event or they’ll be punished. So there was almost glee in the press when an Olympic official got peeved at being stuck in the chaotic Customs line at Heathrow. Well, welcome to the pain felt by ordinary travellers, was the reaction.
To be certain, just like the Vancouver Games, Britons will get excited once their athletes start winning, but after they close on Aug. 12, which event will they remember most fondly? A commercialized over-the-top international event or a fun, long weekend spent with friends and family while also honouring a woman’s 60 years of service. Perhaps the best way to decide is to look at the logos. The royal one was designed by Katherine Dewar, 10, who won a competition. It is intended to be “widely used” by everyone and is available “free of charge, for use for activities associated with the Diamond Jubilee celebrations including community and national events, publications, retail and merchandising.” The Olympic logo was professionally designed by Wolff Olins, cost 400,000 pounds and is to be a “powerful brand, one that could inspire and engage with a global audience of four billion people.” And that comes with a price tag. “To ensure we maintain both the emotional and commercial value of the brand, we need to carefully control its use and prevent its unauthorised exploitation,” the organizing committee states. Only those on the authorized and approved list can use the logo without fear of severe legal trouble.
I’m voting for the Diamond Jubilee. In the words of a souvenir pin I saw: I heart Liz.