Olympics a test for England's grey unpleasant land
'The modern English have, en masse, forgotten the liberating fact that although the worst-case scenario might one day happen, most of the time it doesn't.' Photo: Getty Images
IT WAS the real-time footage on a screen in the red bus that ultimately did it for me. I had been living in England, happily enough, for six months. But in that instant I'd had enough.
As camera angles flashed by, I realised there must have been at least eight security cameras on the bus. Looking for what? I decided then, this bus contained the ultimate proof that England might have gone just a little safety mad.
I was wrong. It was reported this week that an East London apartment building may have anti-aircraft missiles (plural!) on its roof for this year's Olympic Games. That's a real live missile launcher providing security for athletics. And the country wonders why it has run out of money.
Historically, there is nothing unusual about a British building being equipped with a bit of rooftop security. Most of the old properties in the town where I was living still bristle with vestiges of turrets, arrow-slits and gangways. An Olympic missile launcher does, though, really take things to a new level.
The reason for this development is that the modern English have, en masse, forgotten the liberating fact that although the worst-case scenario might one day happen, most of the time it doesn't. Always planning for doomsday has made everyday thoroughly miserable.
To say this is not, though, to seek a return to a laissez-faire, OHS-free, golden age. Things were also pretty grim for the 19th-century English when the only career path for a northern child was to head up a chimney or down a mine (albeit that a career path for any young adult now living in the north would be an improvement).
It's a balance. But a life without risk is really no life at all. That's what makes the upcoming Olympics such an interesting test for the country. Sport is inherently unpredictable and sometimes a little bit chaotic. Screaming fans, shock results.
Great Olympic Games have this vibe. Sydney did. The last Olympics, Beijing 2008, did not. Though how the autocrats there saw to it that most of the events, in a country of 1 billion people, felt largely unattended is a great wonder in itself.
For my part, I am pessimistic about the Old Dart. I see a future with five grey Olympic rings.
The stifling urge to control and prevent any possible misfortune seems to be growing. I suspect the reason, at least in part, is the global financial crisis. When the finance industry, an industry of risk, was discredited across the country it seemed to let the last air out of the balloon.
This is evident even in the ongoing controversy surrounding Rupert Murdoch. This week a parliamentary panel of MPs declared to the world their opinion on the ex-Australian's ''fitness'' to run a British corporation. They are, of course, free to do so. But with even the smallest insight of historical perspective the image of politicians, for want of a better phrase, press-ganging a newspaper proprietor is one that is profoundly chilling. One can't shake the feeling that very old scores are being settled at a very high price. No one wants a press that bullies politicians, but when politicians feel liberated to bully and control the press that is infinitely worse.
A confident country would feel this strongly. The US, even in its current torpor, would never stand for it. But English support for Murdoch is muted. A dangerous precedent is being set.
This is not ''first they came for Rupert'' exaggeration. Nor is it a defence of his product. When his paper the News of the World was closed due to controversy, I felt compelled to buy a copy. Feeling some sentimentality at the demise of a famous masthead (albeit one I had never actually read), I even bought it on Fleet Street.
What I found inside was a ghastly retrospective celebrating invasive and aggressive journalism. The paper, it seems, spent years bullying celebrities and pulling stunts such as sending out a reporter dressed as a fake sheikh. And hacking voicemails brings it down? No wonder no executive saw the controversy coming.
How could they? What, really, has changed is that English tolerance of freedom and risk has steadily evaporated. It's the Londoner on the bus, being filmed from five angles on her morning commute, who has come to feel that the free press should also be brought under control. What a grey life she now leads. Eight cameras on the bus, all missing the point.
Ben Jellis is a lawyer and lived in England from 2010 to 2011. He is writing a book, Australians in Oxford, about the experience.
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