Thanks to the London Olympics, volunteering has shed its worthy image and taken a great leap in our perceptions. Be it patrolling rain-sodden Thames paths, containing the crowds in Greenwich Park or participating in their thousands during the opening night, the Olympic volunteers have made this English summer into an admirable demonstration of just what volunteering can achieve, how it glues us all together and, indeed, what fun it can be.
The volunteers’ joy and enthusiasm, their discipline and their appetite for long hours and bad weather have combined to make them look not so much like the salt of the earth but more the olive in the Martini of our national life.
Whatever the sporting outcomes, nothing can detract from their brilliance. Whoever was responsible for training this happy army should take a bow – and be immediately promoted to revitalise our retail and restaurant industries where service looks antediluvian and sleepy in comparison.
Millions of people, a great percentage of them of Saga age, volunteer quietly and constantly without having to put on a purple uniform to do it and without newspapers singing their praises; but the Olympic volunteers will, I hope, shine a new light on all volunteering and put some whizz into worthy.
There was a moment during that magical Opening Ceremony when a sole youngster held the arena in the palm of his hand, singing the opening verse of Jerusalem to a hushed, expectant crowd of 80,000 – not to mention a TV audience of millions. It was a poignant moment, made all the more powerful by its context – except, that is, in the two rows of people sitting just behind the utterly focused choir, where two oafs started waving dementedly at the distant TV camera. They had seen themselves on the screens. Hello Mum! This was an opportunity not to be missed, so they started mugging like baboons.
Thanks to 24-hour TV coverage and CCTV, showing off to the camera has become the naffest of national sports. To call it uncool and inappropriate is the most polite way of describing it. At the Olympics even some of the athletes were at it. Don’t they realise how this undermines their potential long-term stature as cool heroes? Waving to Mum is the main excuse offered for this wildly irritating habit. Indeed, we mothers should threaten our offspring with an immediate change in our Final Wills if we ever catch them mugging to the camera.
I am sure that the TV broadcasters find this as exasperating as we viewers do – as they know it can ruin their coverage of a live event. TV crews will have to start disguising their cameras as crowdcams, just as wildlife crews use rockcams when filming in the jungle. And the comparison is cruelly accurate.
A couple of very instructive exhibitions are on this summer at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – an unlikely juxtaposition of ballgowns and the work of the Thomas Heatherwick Studio. Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 is a big disappointment, redolent of a past and surprisingly irrelevant age – even though most of them were designed and worn within the past 60 years. In the intervening years, not only have dress codes changed, but the class system that underpins them has been given a massive makeover.
Despite this, the display would have been more diverting if the frocks were sensational, fine examples of design and cut. But sadly they are not.
Having several times sat on little gold chairs at French couture shows, I can reliably report that French and Italian designers such as Dior and Valentino have brought evening dresses and ballgowns to heights of breathtaking perfection and beauty.
The English never did formal wear very well. And these rather badly fitting frocks really should have been left wrapped in their tissue paper. Sadly, they were not shown with the tiaras that were often worn with them – lifting these confections onto another level (or at least distracting from their weaknesses).
However, just across the Hall at the V&A is an exhibition of the work of Thomas Heatherwick, designer of the cauldron in the Olympic stadium and the new London bus. It is almost impossible to pigeonhole him. Very British. He is part architect, part designer and another third inventor, and the work that the Heatherwick Studio produces is mind-blowing in its originality, wit and engineering precision. For example, his Rolling Bridge, the Boris Bus and a brilliant seaside café are all witty, pleasing and accessible.
The marriage of the talents of Danny Boyle and Thomas Heatherwick was made in heaven, and at that memorable Opening Ceremony, the Olympic cauldron, nicknamed Betty and designed and built in great secrecy, was unveiled in all its glory to prove it.
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