April 03, 2020
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London Diary

In the lead-up to the Olympics, Londoners had more than the weather to be wary about...

London Diary

The Frere Tuck

Shortly after my British Airways plane had taken off from Mumbai, the pilot informed us that the UK “was also having a bit of a monsoon”. He signed off as Bartle Frere. I was intrigued. Bartle Frere was the name of a governor of Bombay who ordered the old fort’s walls torn down in the 1860s, giving the city’s animal spirits more room to prowl. Flora Fountain, in the heart of the city, was built in his honour. After his term in the subcontinent, Frere was dispatched to Zanzibar and then made the High Commissioner for Southern Africa. Though he was recalled home amidst controversy (his attempt to unite Southern Africa into a confederation resulted in a string of wars), the administrator has been memorialised across the Anglophone world: one of Karachi’s most imposing buildings is called Frere Hall, Mt Bartle Frere is Queensland’s highest mountain, while Mombasa has a Freretown neighbourhood.

As we shuffled off the plane in London, I was delighted to find the pilot standing by the exit. Yes, Captain Bartle Frere said, he was indeed a descendant of the old colonial. His parents had a big book about their ancestor on their shelf, though he couldn’t offer me any particularly juicy details about the governor’s time in Mumbai. However, he did know that a statue of his namesake stood tall on the Thames Embankment. I promised to go look for it.

Neither Rain nor Swine

The captain wasn’t exaggerating about Britain’s monsoon. The Isles recorded their soggiest April in a century and the most sopping June ever. The torrential rains had many unforeseen consequences. Several parts of the country were flooded and when the waters abated, squadrons of mosquitoes made an appearance. The water ran so high in the River Cam that one leg of the summer boat races in Cambridge had to be postponed. The naturalist David Attenborough warned that the excessive moisture could push even more of the nation’s butterfly species to the brink: already one-third of the UK’s varieties of lepidotera are in danger of extinction. Toddlers have been driving parents to despair by jumping into every puddle in sight, apparently imitating the favourite pastime of a popular TV cartoon character called Peppa Pig. Among the forums on which defenders and detractors of the creature faced off was a website called mumsnet. One parent complained that her three-year-old was copying many of the pig’s actions, “but the most annoying one is the jumping in muddy puddles when out walking the dog, not always with her wellies on either!!”

Zilch, Comrade

In the lead-up to the Olympics, Londoners had more than the weather to be wary about: they panicked at the prospect of their city being paralysed by hordes of visitors swarming the Tube and whose vehicles would jam the streets. There was a lot of grumbling about the congestion that would result from the decision to reserve some traffic lanes for Games participants and officials. The press took to calling them Zil lanes, a reference to the sections of Moscow roads blocked off for senior party leaders’ limousines—made by a company called Zil. Tube stations bore signs advising, “Get ready for the Games: leave more time for your journey” and “Taking a different line may be quicker during the Games”. Some companies decided to let staff work from home for the duration of the Games. One London couple decided to take no chances: rather than negotiating the Olympian traffic, they vacationed in Bangalore.

All Black Blues

The sun did shine down gloriously the afternoon I visited the Olympic Park, but only literally. Though half of Alperton and Southall had poured into the Riverside Arena waving the tricolour, India’s hockey team was unhappily scrappy against New Zealand. They’d roared off the blocks to score a goal within the first two minutes. But after that it was deja vu all over again: missed passes, uncoordinated attacks, players hanging on to the ball for too long. The Kiwis won 3-1. The gloom spread far from the Olympic Park. All the warnings about traffic jams turned out to have scared tourists away from London during peak season. Some tourist venues reported a 35 per cent decline in business. One shop assistant complained, “This isn’t the West End anymore—it’s a dead end.”

Orbital Decay

Despite the hockey team’s defeat, India loomed large over the Olympic Park in the form of the Orbit, Anish Kapoor’s 115-metre-high sculpture and observation deck, sponsored by Arcelor-Mittal. Britain’s largest piece of public art hasn’t exactly thrilled the critics. It reminded one writer for The Times of “an enormous wire-mesh fence that has got hopelessly snagged round the bell of a giant french horn”. The Daily Mail decided that it looked like a “catastrophic collision between two cranes”.

Changes In
Migration policy  have made Nepalis a visible minority in London. Nepali food stalls have cropped up all over the place, including in the edgy Camden Market. Yes, the momos were delicious.

Journalist Naresh Fernandes is the author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot and Bombay Then, Mumbai Now; E-mail your diarist: naresh.fernandes AT gmail.com

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