It’s not often that London speaks up for itself, and I think that might be hard to understand from the rest of the world given this past summer. London Pride is a beer and several old oil tankers, and in order to not infringe those trademarks, London’s pride festival is technically called Pride London. London Pride is rarely a visible emotion. Of course, I get to be a bit of an oddball, coming from a land of outward displays of patriotism and being a genuinely gushy person. I will tell pretty anyone how much I love this city on any day of any year. You know that already. But just believe me: it is not really the done thing.
(I’m reminded of the great marketing ploy of Portland, Oregon: tell everyone Seattle is better. Thereby Portland stays small and keeps itself weird and a zillion people don’t flock there and ruin it all. Except I don’t think that quite works for a city as ridiculously big and old as London.)
But in theory, those chosen as London Ambassadors all shared some sense of London love that made them apply and want to give up their time for this project. When we applied, we answered on-screen questions about London landmarks and getting from one place to another and had to write a very short essay on our specialist subject – one topic in one neighbourhood. I wrote about coffee shops in the West End. Then a day of interviews to those successful in the first application. We had to match slightly cryptic symbols to the item they might represent on a map. The first thing I drew out of the hat was an army tank and it threw me for a minute until my head came round to the idea of the Imperial War Museum, of course. More from the hat, we drew a topic and had to speak for a timed minute, telling all we could about how that topic related to the city. I drew ‘fruit’ and managed to cover London’s legacy of fruit markets (from the Covent Garden Apple Market to the current network of farmers’ markets), the marketing origins of Innocent Smoothies when they took over London’s train stations with free samples (which we now see all the time with products but was shocking at the time), and what at the time was still the world’s largest Apple Store. In one minute. Then we were paired with other applicants to role play our part on the street – play a tourist who doesn’t speak much English who is looking for an affordable restaurant near Piccadilly Circus, play the Ambassador helping a panicking parent with a child who has lost her backpack. And so on… then a proper one-on-one interview about what you would bring to the team… and wait to find out if you were one of the 8,000 volunteers chosen to stand on the streets of London. It was one year ago today that I was offered my post as an ambassador!
Then, into training we went. After the first day of training, London pride wasn’t really obvious from person to person. Then in the second day of training, they showed this short film. Watch it full screen: it’s so very pretty. (Hello, crazily shallow depth of field!)
And lest Portland think it’s the only awesomely weird city on the planet, of course it closes with something a bit random from our eccentric mayor, who is a whole other discussion. But it was at this point in the training that the love of London started to become a bit more obvious, as people around the tables picked up different things from this film. We were all from different neighbourhoods and got a bit excited when we saw things from our own turf – either where we lived, worked or spent our downtime. We recognised different people in the narrative, and we had long discussions about how they were a mix of people pretty much everyone could love (Julie Walters is a national treasure of the highest order, right?) and those who not everyone adores (to discuss London investment in a time of financial imperfection was interesting, and people have pretty polar reactions to Tracey Emin). We giggled about the rain in Rome comment, as this was something the mayor’s office really pushed and we came across it in several forms before we were out there on the street in all our pink and purple glory. No matter what caught our eye in that film, there was something that every single person at the table identified with and wanted to expand on. It made us storytellers.
Once we were assigned to locations, we had further training in that area so we could know really specific things. If you ever need to find a loo on the south side of Tower Bridge, I can get you to about a dozen in moments. I can tell you about those giant black orbs by city hall that are actually an art installation by Andrea Schlieker called Full Stops. I can tell you all the places you can go on the Thames Clipper from London Bridge City Pier if you’re fed up of trains, tubes and buses. Where to get cash, which Thai restaurant does take-away, and your three best bets for a hotel room for tonight. In true preparation on our local training outing, it rained. Of course it did.
My time was a bit more flexible than some of the other ambassadors, so I managed to sneak in a few visits to some lesser-known museums in the area and may have overused the excuse to eat way too much at the glory that is Borough Market. I have a particular love of being able to point out London backdrops from memorable film scenes, so brushed up on things less obvious than the complete implausibility that Bridget Jones could ever have afforded to really live over The Globe pub in SE1. Then I prepared myself for that early morning train where everyone else would be sat there in their business clothes, barely awake, and I would be there in pink neon and a baseball cap.
Yeah, that train wasn’t pretty. The games hadn’t started yet. There was a fair amount of eye-rolling. And when the train became really crammed, I discovered the stain-guarding qualities of the hot pink top when half my coffee went right down my shirt… and continue to roll right on off of it like water from a duck. (Yes, I really, really am the kind of girl who shows up on the first day with half a cup of coffee down herself. Apparently they knew ahead of time and made precautions, for which I am grateful.)
I’ll admit that very first early morning was a bit of a false start. We were new at what we were doing, and as the very first shift to work that location, we weren’t sure what questions we could answer. Most people were really just on their way to work and had no interest in talking to us. We were paired up and plotted out across the space in view of the kiosk and the first person to ask us a question was clearly just testing us (unless the Australian Olympic reporters really didn’t know that the Olympic Park was not in the centre of town?) and we got a bit shaken but quickly found our feet and we were off! We could spot tourists to help and we found out what sort of stuff the locals wanted to know – including a lot about the torch relay as it zigged and zagged across the London boroughs each day. As the big day grew closer, we had more and more questions about getting tickets, watching the opening ceremony and where the big screens would be set up around town… but there was still a certain amount of hesitation. We could still feel the cynicism and the negativity that had come along with planning the games.
I think it’s hard for people to remember sometimes that the bid and all the preplanning for London 2012 came before the recession hit, and then after the city knew it had the responsibility of putting on this big event as promised, markets fell apart. If you took that sort of situation down to a family level, you would make changes. If you bought a huge house and a fancy car then lost your job and couldn’t make the payments, the first plan of action would be to make changes that would make things more affordable – smaller house, more economical car, fewer luxuries – and I know that is a huge oversimplification of the economy, but hey: this is a craft blog. The point was that when the economy changed drastically, London couldn’t really say Sorry, World, we just can’t have the Olympics right now. And to anyone who lives here, it has been obvious for all that time that it costs a great deal of money to host the games. There were so many times when local areas had to stand up and say something about how the games were affecting their neighbourhood. There were debates about how much money really should be spent on making all this happen and whether it was possible to ever make it back. Meanwhile, these photos of the Athens Olympic Park from just eight years earlier appeared and made many a little nervous about what would happen in East London post September 2012. Let’s just say there was a fair amount of stress in this city leading up to this giant event.
And then, just like that, on the morning of the opening ceremony, everything started to change. I headed into London early for All the Bells, and stood on Westminster Bridge ringing and listening. Then off to my Ambassador spot at More London, with more people smiling at the high-vis pink outfit than on the previous days, and a free coffee from a kind person serving the morning crowd at Borough Market. “I think you’ll need it even more today,” she said. The torch would be making its way to Tower Bridge, rowing down the Thames from Hampton Court, and along with it a mighty crowd of people hoping to catch a glimpse and quite a bit of speculation about what might happen when it reached the bridge. (That turned out to be a slight disappointment, as it mostly just hung out for a little while then went into City Hall with a security team, where apparently David Beckham was already camped out for the day if the rumours were true.) That night, eighty thousand people would be heading into the stadium to watch the ceremony, while plenty more watched on big screens around town or on the BBC in their own homes. That day, we didn’t get the negativity as we stood there with our maps and copies of Time Out. We got pure excitement.
We also got quite a few film crews showing up to ask us questions. This one had the easiest request: could I shout ‘Welcome to London’ to the camera? Why yes, yes I can. Somewhere there are also interviews with our London welcomes and facts translated into several different languages, as we smiled and answered questions for television coverage in Macau, Taiwan and Belarus. CNN interviewed a man from Utah while I helped a tourist in the background. Before all the sporting excitement started, there was definitely an interest in the vox pop footage with the bridge in the background. Oh, how iconic… even if the games themselves weren’t near the bridge at all! (No problem: cross over to Tower Hill and take the District Line to West Ham and walk the greenway from there to the Olympic Park or head back to Tooley Street to London Bridge, and the Jubilee line will take you straight to Stratford!)
At some point during the games, I saw a tweet that said something along the lines of Why can’t we have London Ambassadors all the time? and I have to say our team felt the same way. We were all volunteers, we all applied with one thing in common: that we wanted to help people see the same fabulousness we see in this city. But it’s big. It’s busy. It can be really, really confusing. Sure, there are guide books and websites and reams of information written about the topic, but it’s a whole other thing when you’re standing there on the street feeling overwhelmed and lost and confused. It was a pleasure to do just a tiny bit to help make that feeling go away whenever possible. And one of the best things is that it is quite possible that you’ll see London Ambassadors return to the streets again for other big occasions, admittedly in smaller numbers than what we saw this summer. The few ambassadors I’ve been able to chat with since our shifts finished have all been quite excited about that… and we’ve all had moments of our off-duty experiences too. It’s so much easier now to see someone in a worried panic and have the guts to ask if they need help and be able to point them in the right direction.
One final part of the process was an invitation to line the Mall for the Team GB victory parade. Everyone along that stretch was a volunteer: London Ambassadors, GamesMakers, Ceremonies performers and technicians. All in uniform (or costume!) and in ridiculously high spirits. And before the parade started, just chilling with Eddie Izzard, as you do. He was amazingly energetic, generous and friendly…
And rather full of London love himself.
Truck after truck of Team GB athletes cruised down the road, and the cheering never stopped.
I know I wasn’t the only volunteer a little bittersweet and emotional that day to know it was all coming to a real close. Happy to know there are more opportunities to come, but certainly not an experience to be replicated. So with today marking one full year of that adventure, I wanted to make sure I recorded a few words somewhere. A gold medal to you for reading them!
So now: to get on with something crafty, eh?