WHY WAS everybody so surprised that millions turned out to watch the opening stages of the Tour de France? After all, the event was in Yorkshire and it was free.
Even I, not prone to overexcitement, got nearly swept along by the enthusiasm, although I didn’t previously know what a peloton was and will probably have forgotten by next week, along with the name of the team which came third in the World Cup. (And I should apologise here for tipping Belgium to win the cup, although there can be no refunds for readers who foolishly put money on it; they will just have to write it off as a learning experience).
On Saturday, I got to Leeds city centre early, enjoyed striding boldly around the traffic-free streets (I’m a nervous pedestrian) and got mildly infected by the enthusiasm of the hundreds of thousands who had suddenly caught on to the joy of bicycling.
I found a good vantage point to watch the build-up to the race, during which trinkets were thrown into the crowd from passing floats and everybody cheered everything, including ordinary cars driven by tour officials. I think that if a street-sweeping machine had passed through, it would have been greeted like a royal carriage.
Eventually, during one of the many breaks in the proceedings in which we had to make our own entertainment, me and my partner Lynne wandered off and couldn’t get back into viewing distance when the cyclists finally arrived. I could see, in a short-lived blur, the tops of their helmets but not, which would have been more relevant, their legs or their wheels.
Still, I was glad to be part of that great, good-humoured mob (one spectator led many of us into a chorus of ‘If you’re happy and you know it…’), in which the cycling became a kind of sideshow. The more important thing was just being there.
There was great ingenuity shown by people who dressed and dotted themselves for the occasion, or found viewing perches on street furniture, ledges not designed for standing on and – health and safety be damned – the roofs of bus-stops.
The more savvy spectators, who must have done this sort of thing before, even though this sort of thing has seldom been done before, at least in Yorkshire, brought their own step-ladders.
The organisers and sponsors produced very expensive promotional posters which, unless the tour returns to Yorkshire, can never be used again.
Most were based on the fiction that Yorkshire people habitually say ee-bah-gum and French people say oo-la-la, although it’s good to see the sort of national stereotyping which can lead to wars being used purely in fun.
The phrase I heard again and again was ‘Well, this will only happen once’ and as the riders left town, people continued to mill about anyway, as if reluctant to part with their big day.
At some point, I bought a coffee from a hairdressing shop selling hot drinks in its doorway, because this was an entrepreneurial opportunity as well as a sporting spectacle. I don’t expect the cost of the coffee (£1.50) will be counted in when organisers try to work out how much extra spending the tour’s Yorkshire visit generated, and actually I’m not sure it matters.
We all want bread and circuses and when the bread’s a little thin on the ground, we need the circuses even more.
Everything we enjoy, from the BBC to playing in the park, now has to be justified on cost grounds, although there’s no exact way to measure the value of an event which gave so many people a lift.
Prize travel writers spun a new line and spun my head
THIS WEEK, after a lifetime of standing at the back of the prize queue, I finally got to hand out prizes myself.
This unexpected reversal happened because the Leeds Writers’ Circle asked me to adjudicate in a travel-writing competition for members.
Which should have presented no problem because in 30 or more years (I stopped counting at some point) as a sub-editor on the YEP, I read scores, possibly hundreds, of travel articles and wrote many myself.
But journalists’ travel pieces tend to be rather formulaic and predictable and easy to judge; the more creative entries in the writers’ circle competition, which approached the subject from many different angles in 15 substantial articles, left my head reeling in a way it’s not done since Tony Blair was appointed a Middle East peace envoy.
So, because I’m both indecisive and conscientious, I had to read and reread the entries and rearrange the prize-list many times. I’m just glad, since I had to comment at some length on each piece, I didn’t feel obliged to praise any entry which didn’t deserve praise. They were all (although I don’t want to sound creepy) worthwhile and certainly a lot more entertaining than routine newspaper holiday usually articles are.
I still felt, though, that me handing out the prizes was breaking some law of nature. I was never meant to become an authority figure presenting people with certificates and trophies, as if I had unaccountably been turned into Sepp Blatter, Princess Michael of Kent or the leader of a cycling proficiency course.
How to ruin a perfectly good salad - Russian-style
FRIENDS OF MINE came across a Russian acquaintance making a big bowl of salad, which he invited them to share.
The ingredients, including boiled eggs and lettuce, were quite conventional until it came to the finishing touch – two bottles of beer poured straight over everything and leaving the leaves floating in a dark brown puddle.
The Russian said this was normal in his part of the world and apologised that he had been unable to find the best salad-making beer, as if there might be such a thing and as if there might be an easy way to eat the salad except by means of giant soup spoons.
My friends said thanks, but they had just remembered that they weren’t hungry.
There are various recipes for incorporating beer into salad dressings but I can find no recommendation that it should be sloshed over neat.
I’m not going to try it, unless (unlikely) there is a Russian beer which tastes like balsamic vinegar with a dash of olive oil, because I don’t like wasting salad or, more importantly, beer.