It was the surrealness of it all that struck us most. As we strolled with hundreds of others across the sun-lit streets of NW1, people smiling and drinking coffee, or eating ice cream, the vibe was a lazy Sunday afternoon – yet it was 6:30am.
Like thousands of others, we had hauled ourselves out of bed at 5:30, and rolled down the hill to grab whatever space we could outside the Roundhouse, in the dawn shadow of its wildly successful Camden Beach. Sure, we thought it’d be busy, but even then weren’t quite prepared for the crush. The whole borough had turned out to watch, or so it seemed, with ‘ambassadors’ rather bossily telling everyone to ‘keep walking’, yet no, we wanted to stay put and watch the flame being lit right outside Made In Camden.
Faces were painted with the Union Jack, children brandished flags and bright green wigs, dozens of dogs were leashed, the elderly in wheelchairs posed proudly. Some were armed with a camera in one hand, a couple of slices of toast in the other, munching happily while they waited for the procession to begin. All to the hazy strains of the choir.
We were fortunate to be right at the front when the flame was lit, a roar rippling through the crowd. It was a very 2012 affair, with everyone as obsessed with recording the moment – on iphone, ipad or good old-fashioned camera – as actually experiencing it. In fact, the overwhelming impression was one of raised arms wielding digital devices.
But that sea of hardware didn’t damage the carnival atmosphere one bit. And no sooner had the mayor posed with the lit torch, the first bearer – Sir Clive Woodward OBE, England’s former world cup winning Rugby Coach – disappeared down Chalk Farm Road, bound for Kings Cross.
The crowd dispersed and we meandered down Kentish Town Road and Royal College Street, where a brilliant New Orleans-style brass band was entertaining passers-by at Goldington Crescent. Amusingly for some, our dog Pepper was singing along (ie barking) a little too loudly, so it was time to make a sharp exit towards St Pancras Gardens for their community breakfast. Taking place in the sun-dappled churchyard, the tombstones reflecting the rays, it was quite magical. Surreal touches were provided by energetic aerobics routines and an Irish lady on stilts having a laugh with her outsized cakes trolley.
But we couldn’t resist the lure of Granary Square. It’s a majestic space anyway, poised between the new Central Saint Martin’s and the canal, but this morning, filled with eastern music, T’ai Chi, water-jets and stilt-walkers – juxtaposed with hard-hat wearing construction workers, office suits, tourists and the curious – made for a unique atmosphere indeed. People idled, chatted, and basked in the sun now intense in the sky.
Elsewhere, exciting stuff was occurring all over King’s Cross, especially in St Pancras where Kentishtowner favourites Soul II Soul drew a crowd for a boogie under the clock – and the Olympic rings – while sunlight streamed through the glass roof. Swaying commuters obeyed the call to Keep on Movin’, then like a flash mob they caught their trains, headed to work and went Back to Life.
The whole city feels different right now. That’s what it is. The scale of what is about to take place has become tangible. Around every corner buildings, vehicles and people are festooned with regalia. Art, parties and sport are everywhere. Those that have been enjoying a seven year moan at the cost, logistics and the rest must surely be starting to feel slightly humbled. The celebratory feel in London is infectious. And the sun is blazing.