The Olympic Torch is carried through Reading

July 16th, 2012 by admin

Wednesday 11 July: at 8.15 on a warm, sunny morning in Reading, the ‘Olympic Torch’ is carried through Valpy Street into Blagrave Street. The tune blaring from speakers on the supporting bus is, inevitably, ‘The Final Countdown’. I follow the procession into Broad Street, where the flame is transferred from a male to a female torch-bearer, who looks like Sheila Hancock. Large and enthusiastic crowds line the streets, ‘whooping’ their approval. The torch-bearers are elated.

The event seems strange and artificial, yet it is impossible not to be caught up in the festive atmosphere. In recent days it has been attended by moments of high comedy. One of the torch-bearers in Oxfordshire, the chef Raymond Blanc, came to a clumsy halt when he dropped his mobile phone. In Henley, a male ‘streaker’ stole the show. Possessing more obvious athletic prowess than the official ‘torch-bearer’, he raised the louder cheer, before being hustled away in a blanket by the police. I hope he has not been charged.

Later, I see film of the torch changing hands on Whitley Road, the bearers genuflecting in the course of some strange ritual that reminded me of the Greek evzones. A voice from the crowd utters a derogatory remark. I see pictures of two bearers elsewhere performing some sort of jig. Presumably these routines are choreographed by individual participants on the bus on the way in.

It has also been interesting to observe the official Metropolitan Police escort of young men and women in grey outfits, who take turns to jog along with every runner and must by now be in peak condition. They take a dim view of anyone straying onto the road. At one point recently, a young lad wobbling around on a BMX bike appeared to be wrestled to the ground. On another occasion, also shown on television, a woman on crutches hobbled out of the crowd and attempted to approach the passing torch-bearer, who was in a wheelchair. The escort swooped into action and she was quickly removed. The nearest policeman was heard to say, ‘Sorry mate. Did you know her? We’ve got to keep things moving.’ Animals are, of course, less easy to control and a police runner was nearly tripped up by an enthusiastic Jack Russell that darted out into the road.

The funniest moment (somewhere up north) was when two ‘urchins’ attempted to wrest the torch from the hands of the bearer, who clung on to it for dear life until the tiny assailants were removed, bodily, by the escort. So there can be no question of shaking the torch-bearer’s hand or patting him on the back as he passes.

Oddly enough, I saw the real Sheila Hancock the following day in the London Library – unless, of course, the woman in question was merely an even more convincing ‘lookalike’.