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London's window to the world

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Roger Mosey | 16:18 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Hundreds of thousands of individual decisions are being made now about whether to apply to be an official volunteer for London 2012. But underpinning them is that huge question for the United Kingdom and its capital: how do we want to present ourselves to the world in two years' time?

From my own experience, volunteers really do matter to the atmosphere of the Games. Vancouver was, as Canada always is, populated by the cheery and the willing. The memory from a different trip of an elderly woman whooping it up in a cowboy hat as a Calgary Welcome will never fade.

And the potentially monolithic Beijing experience was humanised by the Chinese volunteers who must have spent weeks at Smiling School - to the extent that after a few days there I really wanted someone to scowl or snap at me as a reminder of home.

Which brings us to London. Point one is that, important though the official volunteers are, it's the city as a whole that's on show. The Vancouver and Beijing teams felt a true part of the experience because the populations of the host cities wanted to make it work too: there was a buzzing enthusiasm that went beyond the uniform t-shirts.

Everyone felt like they were in on the act - and it was, for instance, remarkable that on leaving Beijing Airport you were invited to give an electronic score to the immigration officials for how nicely or not they'd treated you. (I gave them a top score just in case they changed their mind about letting me out.)

The London Underground network

For foreign visitors, literally bumping into Londoners in mid-commute isn't a wonderful experience

Point two is that the London we know isn't really like that. I'm an unashamed lover of London and there's nowhere I'd rather live and work, but I wouldn't pretend that a day travelling round would give you a series of 100% "happy face" responses to customer service people or the various branches of officialdom. For foreign visitors, literally bumping into Londoners in mid-commute isn't a wonderful experience; and the pace and noise of the city disguise what is, essentially, a warm heart.

The issue, then, is how much we want London in 2012 to be a different experience to everyday life in 2010. I was interested to hear Boris Johnson say he wanted to harness the Olympics to make London a "less selfish" city if he wins re-election in 2012 - yes the mayoral election campaign is already underway - and if that is to mean something it has to extend well beyond the volunteers into the daily lives of millions of citizens.

Would that be a good outcome? It may be that a world city's culture is inevitably at odds with the kind of community you get elsewhere, and the authentic voice of London is simply different from the "have a nice day" superficialities.

But welcoming smiles from Londoners will go a long way to ensuring that visitors' memories of 2012 are as positive about the city and its people as we want them to be about the sport and events.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Well, there's a few things I'd suggest as key:

    1. Make sure that Oysters can be purchased online, abroad, before people come. It'll help enormously and, if an m-oyster is possible by then, so much the better.
    2. Talking on the tube is hardly a criminal offence, but you might think so when you go on it. Talking to those coming to this city is a sign of friendliness, respect and relaxed confidence. It doesn't say much about you if you blank people: it either means you're racist, rude, incapable of stringing 10 words together or an insular, self-absorbed prat. Hardly the image London wants to portray, is it????
    3. Helping a stranger isn't hard. I had a woman with a pushchair parked on our street who was caught in M25 nightmares and hence unable to get to Heathrow to meet her husband on time. She wanted to know what to do next: another route to get there or her husband to get a taxi? How hard is it to talk her through the options, supply a postcode of where she was for a cabbie to locate on Googlemaps and then, an hour and a half later, meet her again happily reunited with her husband?
    4. Each city in the world has its bad points. Far better to be honest and pragmatic about London's bete noires than to try and make out that guests are being unreasonable about frustrating realities. London has so many good points as well, there's no point being uptight about its foibles. It is what it is..........
    5. The best thing will be for the city to just decide to party for 2 weeks. People party in millions of different ways, but the best way to be great hosts is to party happily in a million different ways. Why do you expect guests to enjoy their stay if their hosts are grumpy, surly gits????

  • Comment number 2.

    Rjaggar - I'm with you most of the way. And then I thought about complete strangers talking to you on the tube... Really?!

  • Comment number 3.

    @rjaggar
    "Talking on the tube is hardly a criminal offence, but you might think so when you go on it. Talking to those coming to this city is a sign of friendliness, respect and relaxed confidence. It doesn't say much about you if you blank people: it either means you're racist, rude, incapable of stringing 10 words together or an insular, self-absorbed prat. Hardly the image London wants to portray, is it????"

    Your assumptions are ridiculous. Choosing not to flap ones lips at every passing stranger is in no way correlated with racism, lack of intelligence or rudeness. Quite why one would feel the need to inflict your personality on all and sundry is beyond me. The prospect of being accosted on the tube by people so desperate to prove their existence that they feel the need to engage me in banal superficialities and inane small talk all in order to project some faux friendliness strikes me as odious in the extreme.
    Can you imagine everyone on the tube talking trivialities with the person sitting next to them? The boorish racket would be unbearable. Next you will be suggesting that we find a way to get mobile phone reception down there!

    The quiet smile, small nod and good manners when dealing with other travellers seems to me a far better impression (and more accurate) than overbearing chatterboxing. I adore the quiet reserve mostly displayed on the tube. Knowing that when I am aboard I am unlikely to be accosted is one of the few things that makes commuting bearable.

    By all means let’s try and make the Olympics enjoyable, especially given how much we have paid for the privilege, but why not do that by being polite, helpful and courteous where required rather than descending into replica day time chat show hosts.

 

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