28/06/2012. Newark, Nottinghamshire.
It all started at 8.00 in the morning with a sweating Traffic Warden wrapped in a tight plastic high visibility vest ticketing a colleague’s car. The road was empty, there was no notice on the parking bay but Mr Traffic Warden informed her, aggressively, the bay was closed because in “ six hours’ time the Olympic torch is passing by and ‘the Met’ (London Metropolitan Police, why, surely not?) are involved”.
And so began a surreal day which found me standing for two hours in the rain on a roof in Newark, Nottinghamshire waiting for the Olympic torch to pass.
A strange and rather English narrative unfolded below me as I waited….
First the plastic union flag and souvenir sellers arrived. There were two distinct types:
Over-fifty, ruddy cheeks, huge beer belly
Young, ferret-like, in t-shirt and shorts.
Some looked resigned and bored, others played an act of theatrical showmanship, bowing to the gathering crowds, encouraging children to cheer, joshing with girls and looking like they were having fun, despite the rain. At £2 a flag they made a brisk trade, except the man selling t-shirts saying ‘I’ve seen the Olympic torch’. No one seemed interested in these at all.
Below me policemen grouped and then re-grouped in small huddles on the street corner, teachers arrived with groups of children, then decided it was too early, left and then came back again.
One teacher spotted me on the roof and told the class to wave. Everyone looked up and I became, momentarily, part of the theatre. Opposite in a beautiful Georgian building a high window opened, a lady waved to the crowd, there was a weak cheer and then the window closed again. The crowds thickened, rain increased from spots to thin drizzle then full on downpour. A police car passed slowly, the policemen waved like jolly storybook characters. A man with a megaphone told the crowds there was 40 mins till the torch passed.
So I looked upwards over the town. Newark is a beautiful place, a small town on the Great North Road, the old route from London to Edinburgh. Byron had his first poems published here and until around 1830 it was one of many overnight stops for the horse-drawn coaches. Throughout the town there are beautiful inns identified by the arch leading to stables and their evocative names. But with the coming of the railway coaching died, quickly, leaving the inns silent and then later the Great North Road became the modern A1 and Newark was by-passed. Some of the inns are now pubs but most have been converted to other uses, the arch leading to a shopping mall or supermarket. It’s a beautiful, sleepy, largely Georgian town, full of history and strangely forgotten from the tourist map although there is much to see and delight a visitor.
I looked down to the road again and a particularly ugly vehicle arrived, teenagers dressed in blue were handing out plastic batons with the word Samsung on the side. The idea was that they were inflated and waved as the torch went past.
Next there were other vehicles, a strange hybrid coach/lorry with dancers and people handing out bottles of coke, a coach with large LED screen and pictures of sportsmen and children. Another police car, followed by a gap of several minutes, two cyclists pass waving, a couple of minutes of inactivity then two motorbike policeman (waving) ride past. Megaphone man says 5 minutes to go and the rain eases and then slows to an occasional spot.
Suddenly a police car arrives around the corner, everyone begins to cheer, the torch comes in to sight, the Samsung batons are held up, the flags are waved, the crowd cheer loudly. I take photos and feel strangely emotional at seeing the torch.
And then it is all over, the coaches and torch disappear up Kirkgate, the old Great North Road, the crowds disperse quickly and the rain starts again, as if on cue.
Once I’m home many hours later I show Benjamin the pictures. Why, he asks, is the man holding the torch dressed as an Elvis impersonator? I was going to explain that it’s just a white track suit and some man, who I assume is known locally for his good works, with a quiff. But I decide that seeing an Elvis impersonator carry the Olympic torch along the Great North Coaching Road, in Newark on a rainy June day in 2012, is not a bad story to tell the nieces and nephews when I’m 80 and snuggled in a blanket in front of the fire.
Does anyone else have an Olympic torch story to share?