I am very pleased that the Games are being held in London for two reasons. Firstly, it is better that they be held there rather than Edinburgh, where I live. We would love to have the Olympic Games in Edinburgh, but not just yet. Perhaps some time in the next century, or possibly the one after that. Secondly, I am very pleased that they are being held in one of the most agreeable and lovable cities in the world. London is not only the capital of the United Kingdom, it is one of a handful of cities that can claim to be joint capitals of the world. New York is another, as is Paris, and there are perhaps one or two other cities in that league. These cities in a sense belong to all of us – a positive part of our intellectual and cultural human patrimony. Having the Olympics in a place like London makes a great deal of sense and, frankly, London gives so much to the world that it is fitting that it should occasionally get something that it wants very much. So the London Olympics are not only a sporting event, they are a celebration of a marvellous, rambling, tolerant place that is one of the most good-natured large cities in the world. People actually like London – they may moan about its inconveniences and its difficulties – but they actually like it, and with good reason.
I have never lived in London, but I do like going there, and visitors to the Olympics will probably feel the same. It is very much a lived-in place. Some cities make you wonder where the people live; London is not like that at all. There may be some parts that have a rather refined and grand feel to them (Mayfair is an example) but if you look closely you will see that there are people living there after all – it’s just that they are rather refined and grand people, who have to live somewhere. For the most part, London is filled with ordinary people living in rather ordinary conditions but, by and large, reasonably happy with where they are and why they are there.
It is a very kind and tolerant place. It has its problem areas, areas where lives are bleak and blighted, but in general it is not a threatening place. People in London can behave badly – there were shocking riots not all that long ago – but one thing that is very striking to the visitor is that there is a fundamental decency about London. The authorities are not overly stern or oppressive and the police are generally good-natured. That is not a naïve remark – compare the London police with the police of so many other large cities and this conclusion will seem quite reasonable.
London still represents many of the attitudes that are quintessentially English, something that it succeeds in doing in spite of its cosmopolitan nature. The English strike me as being a rather likeable and gentle people in spite of their long history of seizing foreign territory. They are, I think, kindly disposed towards others, even if their leaders, including some fairly recent ones have led them into unfortunate adventures. London reflects this kindness in all sorts of subtle ways. For example, it looks after those who fall ill in its midst: a litmus test of a city’s humanity.
London is welcoming. For a long time it has provided a home for newcomers and it continues to do so, in spite of the tensions and difficulties that arises from the movement of peoples. The fact that there are so many people from other countries living and working in London tells us something about the city. These people live there by choice, and they appear to appreciate the city that has received them.
As well might anybody appreciate London. Look at what it has to offer: acres of visible history, with its architectural heritage and its still astonishing number of ancient and undisturbed nooks and corners. Pageantry galore with its toy soldiers and parades and gun salutes and so on. A functioning, highly appreciated monarchy that is astonishingly popular all over the world and still capable of putting on a show that has something for everybody. A parliament that provides constant entertainment. Pubs. Flower shops. Music. The occasional surviving dog racing track. A river that inspired T.S. Eliot. Magnificent art galleries and museums that show the whole world’s culture: those who come to London for the synchronised swimming should also see the Poussins in the National Gallery. Characters galore as well: ask your taxi driver for his views on the banking crisis, traffic regulations, or even the Olympics and you are likely to be highly entertained.
When you are in London you are at the centre of things, not just at the centre of one country, but at the centre of the modern human drama. I happened to be in Washington last week and was reflecting on how, when you are in the impressive and really quite beautiful American capital, you are aware of the fact that you are at the heart of an empire. Yet you do not feel that you are at the heart of world culture. You do get that feeling in London, even if power has drifted off in the direction of places like Berlin or Beijing.
I am glad that London is glad that it has the Games. I imagine that the people who flock there to participate or witness them will find their experience of London a satisfying one. They may experience the occasional discomfort or irritation, but that is not necessarily what they will remember. They will remember a rather human city, of distinctive character, with a face that is hauntingly familiar, as the face of these world cities always is, even if we have never visited them before. They may also remember the Games, of course – the moments of triumph and excitement, the thrill of the close final, the sheer magnificence of the exceptional performance, the … Perhaps I should watch them after all.