An American tourist, in the marvellous old story, is visiting a venerable English country house. “This lawn!” he exclaims to the owner. “You’ve got to tell me how you get it like this!” The owner shrugs. “It’s nothing, really. First you have to seed the ground, then water it.” “Uh-huh,” says the American. “Then, when it grows – well, you just have to mow it and roll it.” “OK.” “And then you mow it and roll it again. And basically you keep doing that for about 600 years.”
Why is this such a great story? I think because it brings out so brilliantly the darker underside of English modesty. “We will probably do a terrible Olympic Games,” we say. And then we schedule road races to whizz past stunning architecture, royal residences and magnificent parks. For those of us who live in London, the Olympics is making the preposterously lovely Richard Curtis version of city life suddenly come true.
This is London as a beautiful and majestic (and quite clean) world capital – but of course we still wouldn’t make any special claim for it; not us. It’s a backdrop, that’s all. Do some riders and horses need a decent spot to jump about in? Um, would Greenwich Park do? Please, please, be our guest. Honestly, it would be just lying around idle otherwise.
For people who live here, it’s thrilling. I find myself childishly shouting “Been there!” at the television, as familiar landmarks flash past. I mean, swimming in the Serpentine – isn’t that wonderful? I take the dog for walks in Kensington Gardens sometimes, and now the whole world will be thinking that Kensington Gardens looks like a fantastic place to take a dog. The marathon route passes St Paul’s and the Tower of London, as well as the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. Well, been there, been there, seen that, been there.
The cycling road race went to Box Hill in Surrey – the site of a famous picnic scene in Jane Austen’s Emma, which I’d love to expand on but ought not to for space reasons. Anyway, “Been there!” was my cry, as the cyclists ground their way up Box Hill not once but nine times. “And look at that glorious Wealden view, by the way. You won’t get that in Brazil.”
Will the Olympics legacy be a lasting pride in the city? It partly depends on whether the idea of London being in the spotlight makes you uncomfortable in the first place. Some people will be glad when it’s over – when the streets can be over-run with the normal traffic congestion, and when the holier-than-thou cyclists can go back to whizzing through red lights and bowling along pavements without fear of official reproof.
Personally, I don’t want the Olympics ever to finish. The best bit is telling people from other countries that, honestly, London’s not so special really. You just have to start with a Roman settlement, preferably with a bridge. And 2,000 years later, you get this!
Lynne Truss is reporting on the Olympics for Today on Radio 4