My original intention vis-a-vis the forthcoming Olympic extravaganza was to keep quiet about my own feelings of irritation and despondency over the whole phenomenon (feelings which go back to the very moment the announcement that London had been awarded the Games was made in Singapore). I had intended to remain silent about these sentiments at least until it was all over, hoping that by then I might feel a little more in tune with the general mood.
Not, I think, that by now the mood of celebration is indeed universal, despite the obvious enthusiasm of some. “It’s already overwhelmingly exciting,” said Nicky Campbell on the Radio 5 Live breakfast show this morning (“this is the Olympic station,” says a man with one of those synthetically gravelly voices every five minutes or so; but you can’t escape the Games even on Radio 3, which insists on constantly updating its listeners about the whereabouts of the wretched Olympic torch).
But the further North you go, the less hyperexcited the mood tends to be; and there are plenty of people even in the south of England and in the capital itself who by now are beginning to feel distinctly bolshie about the whole thing. One of these is the historian David Starkey, who on Any Questions? last Saturday delivered himself of the following splendid rant (supported by about a third of his audience — Jonathan Dimbleby took a vote): “I am fed up of this national act of everybody get together, jump up and down and pretend they’re at a school camp for the Olympics. I hate forced celebration, I hate turning my capital city into a theme park. I hate Zil limousine lanes. I hate the Olympic emblem which has become a kind of plague curse on the entire city, distorting it, perverting it; and I hate the rape of Greenwich Park in which one of the noblest of parks is defaced by this monstrous erection, and I use that word deliberately, this monstrous erection for a lot of prancing horsemen and women for about five minutes to satisfy the television cameras. I won’t rejoice and I hope the whole thing is buggered.”
David Starkey was, in fact, one of the leaders of a campaign against using Greenwich Park for equestrian events, and in 2010 wrote to the Times explaining why; his reasons are relevant to more than the despoliation of Greenwich Park and I quote them for their evocation of the destructive and authoritarian mindset of the Olympic authorities and of the power they have been given over the rest of us. He vividly captures why an increasing number of people (I believe) are beginning to feel like worms who are turning, though maybe too late:
“Greenwich faces its gravest threat since the 19th century. Then it was proposed to drive a railway through the park; now, and scarcely less vandalistically, to make it the site of the 2012 Olympics equestrian events. To do so will require the lopping and pruning of trees, the removal and replacement of thousands of tons of topsoil, countless journeys by heavy lorries and soil-moving equipment, compaction of the soil by the feet of 75,000 spectators and the closure of sections of the park to the public for up to five years.
And for what? To provide a pretty TV backdrop for a few hours of an elitist minority sport – for which, incidentally, ample facilities in an equally beautiful setting already exist as near as Windsor. It will cost a fortune. And there will be no legacy whatever, apart from the likelihood of irreparable damage to the archaeology of the site and the long-term scarring of the landscape.
Local objections were ignored, in exactly the same way as those of the residents of a 17-storey tower block near the Olympic Park, who have now been told that they have no right to challenge an unprecedented decision by the army to deploy high-velocity missiles from the roof above their homes. They were told this in court in what seems to me an unpleasantly high-handed way by a certain Mr Justice Justice Haddon-Cave, who said that in his judgment, “the MoD’s voluntary engagement with the community and residents in this matter were immaculate”. He said the MoD had no duty to consult, had not promised to and that no “conspicuous unfairness” was caused by not consulting. He agreed with the MoD that a tower block was the only suitable site for missiles and the facts of the case were “not susceptible to a sensible challenge”.
The massive military involvement in the security for the Games is surely not merely disproportionate, but actually demented. The amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean has arrived at Greenwich, where she will remain until after the end of the Paralympics, acting as a helicopter landing platform and “logistics hub”.
A Navy spokesman said: “A mix of Royal Navy and Army Air Corps Lynx helicopters will be ready at short notice to launch from the ship’s flight deck to support the police by providing airborne and maritime security for the Games.” As well as HMS Ocean, RAF Typhoon jets will be stationed at RAF Northolt and Puma helicopters at a Territorial Army centre in Ilford.
Even before the extra 3,000 or so servicemen who have now to be deployed to make up for the G4S shambles, a total of 17,000 servicemen and women were involved in providing security for the Olympics, including 11,800 soldiers, 2,600 sailors and marines, and 2,600 airmen.
The whole thing is surely simply insane: all this military nonsense (costing how many billions? Does anybody really know?) is to give the illusion of security to (and here come all the personal prejudices I had sworn to keep to myself) a large number of self-confident and mostly illiterate young people running, leaping and otherwise cavorting around the Olympic Park and elsewhere (when, that is, they are not reducing London traffic to a state of gridlock). I admit, as I say, that this perception is entirely my own business, that my total inability to understand why so many people think the Olympic Games are actually important and worthwhile is my personal problem, and I do not expect anyone to endorse these feelings in any way.
The facts are, however, that by staging the Olympics we have set up a whole series of unprecedented opportunities for terrorism on a massive scale to take place with maximum publicity, and that terrorists, if they really want to (and you may be sure that they do), will always get through; furthermore, the extravagant “security” arrangements we have put in place themselves constitute new opportunities. What are those missiles on top of that tower block in Leytonstone going to be fired at, for heaven’s sake? And if they hit whatever it is, where will the debris fall, and who will it hurt? And how are those RAF Typhoon jets going to be used? Supposedly, it seems, to enforce the already imposed no-fly zone over London. But suppose an aircraft, hi-jacked or not, simply ignores the no-fly zone, ignores the Typhoon jets which will arrive alongside gesticulating wildly, and just flies on over London in the direction of the Olympic zone? Will the Typhoon jets just shoot it down? Over the most densely populated area in Europe? If not, what will they do? Are we all mad?
The fact is, and these words are not mine, but those of the eminently sensible Kate Hoey MP, an athletics enthusiast and former sports minister: “I just think,” she said yesterday, “we’re allowing the terrorists to win by changing the whole way of life of our culture.” That’s exactly right. By reducing us all to a state of fearful, militaristic, paranoid authoritarianism they have already won. Winning the Olympic Games in Singapore was a major national disaster, one we are now living through in a state of barely controlled anxiety, if not actual hysteria. Perhaps no terrorist outrage will even be attempted. It makes no difference; it won’t even be necessary. The damage is already done; our culture will have been changed in ways from which it will take years to recover.