It's musical chairs for The Takeaway this week, as John Hockenberry guest-hosts the BBC's World Update program in London, while World Update host Dan Damon joins The Takeaway. Here, John shares some thoughts from across the pond:
It’s starting to feel a little late in the day around here. The afternoons are getting longer and there is not much time left to make the magic happen. You might say that London is a city dressing up for a hot date, an all-out go-for-broke global celebration. This is a wear the pearls and the gold necklace moment. Yes, this is the moment for those traffic-stopping above-the-knee boots and that the fancy hat you haven’t worn in a long time, you know the one. You can see it everywhere here.
Construction, right now, is as British as souvenir Royals mugs, little Big Bens and Manchester United jerseys, and those items have all had to move over to make room on the shelves for tons of 2012 Olympics tee-shirts, banners and trivia. Steel cranes tower over neighborhoods. Barricades divert traffic when you least expect it. Traditional tourist sites are strewn with scaffolds and impromptu construction walls with earnest signs: "Pardon us as we spruce up Covent Garden. All businesses are open as normal," or something like that. The signs have a proper chirpy British accent.
All of London seems like a maiden blinking in the mirror on the eve of an encounter where she will want all of her past glory to shine and her present troubles to stay well hidden away. The maiden worries over whether to push harder and be seen to be trying too hard, or to back off and have her legendary British confidence be mistaken for laziness.
You can hardly fault the lady for some butterflies, after all, the "gentleman caller" due to show up in late July is the entire world and the last time the world showed up at London’s door for an outing like this was in 1948 when rubble from the bombardment in World War II was as much a souvenir of this city as any Olympic trinket.
On a cloudless Sunday afternoon in March the excitement on the streets of London was subdued but evident, and there is a caution here as well. People smile with excitement and roll their eyes when they talk about the 2012 Games less than five months away.
This will be both a celebration and a crossroads for Britain. The economy is deeply troubled right now. Storefronts are empty on streets that were recently booming, coveted retail locations. There is deep worry about the cost of the Olympics, but resignation that there is nothing to be done about all that now. The mentality of "chickens coming home to roost," "pipers needing to be paid," is a part of the sense of sober inevitability that has defined the UK since the end of World War II.
In the middle of all this, Britain is looking forward to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee marking 60 years on the throne, wondering where the time went. At the same time it is looking back on the victory in the Falklands 30 years ago, wondering what that nasty little war was all about. This nation is also having a surprisingly bitter debate about gay marriage, feeling guiltily relieved about not being in the Eurozone, feeling very anxious to get British troops out of Afghanistan and thrilled that Mad Men's next season is about to start.
In the British papers today was that wild chaotic focus I’ve come to expect and love about the UK. Headlines ranged from the somber memorials being held for soldiers killed last week in Afghanistan, anger over China stealing military secrets from British aerospace manufacturers, an outrageous betting scandal in English cricket, disgust over reported cheating at UK universities, and the sudden death of a man in Yorkshire who had a heart attack as he watched his Airedale Terrier get hit by a car.
I think that it’s going to be a good week.