I am still asking myself how it was that I came to be just at the junction of Mill Road and the Ring Road, just at that time, on that particular stormy summer Saturday evening. I don’t yet have a credible answer, but I do know what I saw.
Admittedly, I had only an hour before eaten the last of my supply of “Dick’s Special-Recipe Chocolate Truffles”. Dick had been left me three months by this time, but I had continued to make them for myself, in accordance with his specific and time-honoured recipe, a batch or so a week. It was a Saturday in July, height of the tourist season, and I had been strenuously avoiding the over-crowded city centre all day. In particular, the “Summer In The City Weekend” in Pisser’s Park organised to coincide with the parading of the Olympic Torch across the UK, something else I had been pathologically ignoring. For a few brief nonchalant seconds my thoughts returned to my shopping list – chocolate, icing sugar, brandy, cocoa-powder.
Then I began to think about the Olympic Torch and what it signified. Fire carried from Mount Olympus where the Greek Gods lived, borne down in a reed-quill and handed over to mankind. The Gift of Fire, no less. The torch-bearer was Prometheus, bringing the fire of the gods down in a torch of peace to enlighten all men. Had I ever seen Dick as a Promethean figure during our dull many-years-together?
Prometheus, whose mother was written about by Shakespeare, The Tempest I think. I might have that wrong. Prometheus, who instead of being rewarded by humankind, was punished by the gods for stealing this valuable resource. Prometheus, who was chained to a rock off the coast of Malta and seagulls, or were they crows? Anyway, carrion and vomit-eating raptors, or maybe pigeons, tore out his liver, from daybreak to nightfall they pecked at his guts. And as he slept his liver re-grew itself, so that every morning he woke to the sound of his own disembowelment, and lived through another day-long agony of wallowing and sobbing through his own ripped up entrails, and all over again the next day and each day after. I think perhaps I did sometimes see something of a Prometheus in Dick.
This torch carrying hype I’ve been hiding from all day was starting to look interesting. I remembered reading a London Psycho-geographical Society pamphlet back in the late 1990s comparing the London Marathon to the Roman spring rite of Floriala. Likewise the Olympic Torch Parade was beginning to appear as a re-enactment of another pagan myth. A ritualised performance depicting a mythological event and thus transmitting the cultural memes of pagan polytheistic past.
The control of fire is a cultural myth marking an important milestone in the evolution of the human species. I thought about the physical and social benefits of fire and concluded that fire is the beginning of community, because people will always gather to exchange news and stories around an open fire.
I scan the advance warning of road closures in the local paper, brushing aside the cat litter, I trail the route on the map with the tip of my finger. A slip road off the bypass feeds the torch-bearers straight into the Ring Road, covering a quarter of its circle in the NE quadrant to where Perne Road jack-knives at right angles into Mill Road, running the full length along to the party at Pisser’s Park.
I decide on the spur of the moment that if they’re re-enacting pagan myths just up the road, I really ought to cycle out and go have a look. So I put on my shoes, put a bottle of water and a sandwich in my bag, fed the cats and left the house. I had the shopping list in my pocket – chocolate, cocoa, icing sugar and brandy. According to the local paper the route passes the big-sainsburys so my mission was to get to the supermarket before they closed all the roads off and then have a gawp at the pagan re-enactment on my way back home. I had no intention of struggling with crowds at Pisser’s Park, so a trip to the big-sainsburys seemed like the best way to see the fire of the gods and get my shopping in at the same time.
There were no roads closed off yet, and the traffic was still flowing at a snail’s pace as I reached the Ring Road. Groups of people were all walking in the same direction, towards the big-sainsburys, many were carrying union flags, some were sort of chanting and could feel energy rising as we all moved slowly along the Ring Road towards the place where the torch would be passing. There was a strange unfamiliar folk-song ringing in my head and to block it out I ran over the conversation I’d had just after eating the truffle. We’d talked about 2012 and all the cock-eyed variations of its significance we’d come across this week. My friend said December 20th 2012 was a mid-point, a peak in psychic evolution, and for months either side of that date human consciousness would be slowly evolving person by person “Who’s to say we’ve not already evolved and are experiencing altered psychic states at this very moment”. “I wouldn’t know” I said and reminded him that the common guestimates extrapolated from the Mayan Calendar were possibly 70,000 years out, according to some new calculations on the internet.
As I near the junction and I think I’m going to make it to the big-sainsburys the police move in, closing off the road. The crowd ambles and weaves off the pavement forming a human barrier. The traffic stops, but rather than car-free silence I hear hootings and cheers of glee as motorcycle outrider cops blare horns and wave at the jubilant spectators. But I can’t see a lot because I’m short. All I can see are the backs of taller people strung out in front of me. Standing way back by the traffic lights, I can see a little up the road, where white vans and buses crawl sluggishly past the big-sainsburys, accompanied by cheering and waving. It looks like it’s going to be a long weary wait.
After the motorcycle cops came some white vans, then a white single decker bus saying “Relay Team Support” on its destination board. People in sports-style leisure-wear lean out from the open door and wave. The crowd goes wild and for the first time I notice a large logo, depicting something like a floating eyeball freed from its bloody socket, pasted on one of the blacked out windows of the bus.
It goes a bit hazy after this; I see red lorries, with people in red t-shirts and baseball caps, dancing energetically to airport muzak, a white lorry with a ginormous telly on the side, beaming out bizarre advert images and trade names, incidental scenes from Blade Runner impinge on my consciousness, people in white t-shirts and baseball caps dance energetically. I see the ripped-out-eyeball logo on blacked bus windows again and again. Another white bus goes past, this one says “nowhere” on its destination board. I hold back an uncanny urge to shout out “But the Emperor’s wearing NO CLOTHES”
As I stood waiting to get to the big-sainsburys on the Ring Road it all began to become clear. This whole shebang was a psychic energy-harvesting enterprise put on by sponsoring corporations. I remembered a Radio One roadshow I had gone to accidentally in my teens and shuddered. And I remembered a terrifying story I had been told about coca cola’s political intrigues, that would make a good short story in itself sometime. But mainly I saw that this bright pagan rite had been turned into a heavy trudging sermon, a dull criminological thesis on the pacifying effects of corporate sponsorship in matters of crowd-control. My friend, who lives further up on Mill Road, said he heard a voice yelling through a megaphone “This is your chance to shine. Shine. Shine. Shine” as the parade went by. I don’t know what he means, I thought they were shouting “Work. Consume. Die”.
The parade dragged on. More motorcycle cops, more hooting, more “support” buses. Then suddenly I saw the crowd turn their heads as one, as if following a passing flaming torch. Except there was no flame. I was there and I didn’t see any flame. True, something passed, a stick, maybe two inches above the crowd, who turned their heads in unison to watch as if a phallic fire wand, after circling the curvaceous Ring Road boundaries of the recumbent city, thrust all bright and flaming upright into the crowd-throbbing vulva of Mill Road. I saw the crowd, the cops, the heroes and white vans with disgorged-eyeball logos, but I did not see no flame. It simply wasn’t there.
The police immediately opened the road, the crowd dispersed, talking loudly with children shrieking and the traffic bore down again, nose-to-tailing it around the Ring Road.
The lad on the checkout at the big-sainsburys said it was the slowest Saturday he’d ever sat through. Nobody was buying today, what with the flame and all that. But I had to tell him, really there was no flame. There was no flame at all.