LONDON, United Kingdom — For some time now I may have given the impression that I and my fellow Londoners are less than enthralled about the Olympics. I want to tell you that is no longer the case.
I have seen the Torch.
Yesterday the Olympic Torch came through Stoke Newington, a residential district in Hackney, north London. Everybody came out for a glimpse. Even better, we didn't get soaked. The last three months have been the wettest on record – that's saying something on this rainy island. But not only did it not rain, the sun actually came out.
The turn-around in attitude is all the more remarkable considering what had gone before. In many ways the organizers and local London authorities seemed to go out of their way to make those of us who live in the vicinity of the Olympic Park (the back gate is three-and-a-half miles from my front door) feel not particularly wanted.
I'm not being overly sensitive. The message for months has been: "If you don't need to be here, go away. Public transport will be a nightmare, and you can forget about driving." At the Angel, the main interchange point between downtown London and my residential neighborhood, we were handed expensively produced, glossy information packs telling us which buses would be diverted and which Tube lines would be especially crowded – i.e., virtually all of them. Make alternative arrangements, they advise – yeah, like go on vacation.
But it's not just those of use who live close by who have been treated badly.
The IOC and its willing partner, LOCOG, the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, have been hard-hearted about their proprietary interests in everything related to the business of the Olympics.
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Use of the the logo or even the phrase "London 2012" by small businesses who didn't pay for a license have brought down lawyers like a hailstorm. A baker in South London made an arrangement of bagels in the shape of the Olympic rings; he received a cease-and-desist order.
Even the family of the Duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton, has received a threatening letter. They manufacture and sell party favors and and had a line in Olympic paper plates and napkins. Olympic lawyers have threatened the Middleton company with action.
Then came news that three Olympics sponsors (I won't tell you which) have exclusive rights to provide food and drink in the Olympic Park. And they aren't sharing. What this means is that no one from London, which has gone in two decades from culinary catastrophe to arguably the best food city in the world (and I write as a native New Yorker) will be able to sell food at the Olympics.
No London-brewed beer will be on sale either. For those attending, that is a real loss. British beer has gone through a renaissance every bit as astonishing as its food renaissance, as the New York Times recently noted.
It has all given the impression that London 2012 is not really about this great city.
Then there was the story of director Danny Boyle's fight with the Olympic Broadcasting Services, which have exclusive rights to provide the camera installations. Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, is staging the opening ceremony. The Guardian reported a few days ago that Boyle couldn't get the OBS to place cameras where he wanted them. Things sound like they are getting very tense.
Finally, there is the G4S fiasco. G4S is the private security firm with a quarter-of-a-billion-pound contract to provide more than 10,000 security guards at Olympic venues. Two weeks ago they admitted there would be a short fall – of thousands, although they couldn't say how many thousands. Then the firm's chief executive told a parliamentary committee he still thought G4S was entitled to its £65 million management fee. That's $101 million for total failure.
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So you can understand why Londoners were feeling a little blasé. But the torch was coming and my kid wanted to see it. I couldn't let my almost 7-year-old miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime chance to glimpse it going quite close to our front door just because I was feeling grumpy. (My wife was feeling even grumpier.)
Like I said, it has stopped raining and the sun is reliably out for the first time in months. So yesterday we went to our local bit of green, Clissold Park, early. The lawns were covered in picnic blankets. Families and friends were getting into a jolly mood. I bought myself a Mean Time Lager, brewed in Greenwich (Greenwich mean time, get it?), one of the new London brews you can't get at the Olympic Park, and worked myself into the Olympic spirit.
Twenty minutes before the torch was scheduled to come by, we found ourselves a spot by a tiny rise near the fence that separates Clissold Park from Church Street.
The sponsors sent big buses through with what in Yiddish we call tumelers – people who are paid to work the crowd up – but Hackney is not a place where folks from a big fast-food chain are going to get a lot of cheers. The big pre-torch shout was for a guy riding a Boris Bike – one of the rent-a-bikes that have taken London by storm since they were introduced by Mayor Boris Johnson. The bikes are sponsored by Barclays Bank. And this guy had eluded the police cordon and was riding down the street with a banner excoriating Barclays for its role in fixing the LIBOR interest rate.
We no sooner finished cheering him than a phalanx of motorcycle cops started tooling into view and then, and then: the torch! It came and went in about four seconds – it's a relay, after all, and whoever was carrying it was making a nice pace.
My wife shed all grumpiness and cheered and laughed. I overcame my inner Grinch and shouted with joy. My daughter looked bemused. It came and went so quickly.
"Darling, will you remember this forever?" I asked.
"No," came the disgruntled reply.
You can't please everyone.