I’m a big fan of the ‘what would an alien think’ thought experiment – the idea being that a bemused extraterrestrial’s response to the quirks of humanity will peel away the commonsense blinkers through which we view the world around us, ‘alienating’ (excuse the pun) the normal and bringing it into sharper focus. This week my alien has been shadowing me around South London. S/he (my alien is from a very gender progressive planet) is quite confused. We stand at red traffic lights that seem to anticipate a leviathan host, but watch nothing but air stream across junctions; we cross roads alone on green signals which would accommodate a Tokyo rush hour; we sit down on the Northern Line at 8AM every weekday morning, an event which usually occurs with the frequency of Halley’s Comet. The only clue that something is afoot are the various banners and boards outside cafes and pubs, obliquely advertising ‘The Greatest Event of All Time’. Is it the Second Coming? They’ve already found the God Particle this year; surely we’ve had our fill of the divine presence?
I turn to my alien and, with a practised air of Londoner resignation, sigh ‘It’s cus of the Olympics.’ But it’s not quite as simple as that – my alien would have understood, say, if we were sandwiched between German tourists sweating violently and clutching man-sized facsimiles of Usain Bolt. My alien’s heard the jolly nice sounding chap who’s in charge of the city on the station PA (‘but how did he get elected?’ S/he asks) telling everyone to batten down the hatches for the incoming storm. But it really doesn’t seem to have materialised. Something’s gone a bit wrong.
My alien is also terribly sympathetic to the news that our recalcitrant economy has stubbornly refused to expand for yet another quarter, asking the pertinent question: ‘If nice Mr Cameron and Uncle Osborne think you should be spending a bit less, why are you having this great big expensive event?’ ‘Ah well’, I say, ‘as nice Mr Armitt, Chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, said, “had they known the economy was going to be in such a terrible state they wouldn’t have done it!”’
‘Oh, ok…’ says my alien. ‘But, couldn’t they have tried to make it so that they could have the Olympics and help the economy?’. ‘Ah well’, I say, ‘Yes they can! As nice Mr Jeremy Hunt said “Anyone who’s got a business in London is frankly quids in”. Promoting real grassroots structural growth, boosting small business you see – Keynesianism at its best!’
‘Oh, well that’s good’ says my alien. ‘But, then why aren’t any of the businesses talking about it? None of the pubs we went to are saying anything about the Olympics; they just say that there’s this mysterious event happening. And only a few of them have anything on the TV, and they don’t seem to have any special drinks or anything. The only place I’ve really seen anything about the Olympics is in McDonald’s.’ ‘That’s nothing to worry about’ I say, ‘It’s very important to attract big international corporations to the city, and we have to make sure we protect their investment or they’ll all run away. That’s why they’re the only ones allowed to actually talk about the Olympics! Don’t you worry, all those extra people coming for the games will be supporting the little businesses too!’
My alien starts to get a little bit annoyed at this stage. ‘Hmmm, I dunno’ says my alien. ‘A man from the BHA said that actually there’s been a 40% decline in takings in central London restaurants compared to last year. Also, doesn’t it seem a bit silly to have the London businesses only indirectly benefiting, if at all? Isn’t that the whole point? Seems to me like the only people who are benefiting are the big companies. And also, if all this is predicated on all these extra people being here, then where are they? Aren’t hotel bookings actually down 30% from last year? All this hoo ha has scared everyone away!’
The alien’s mandibles begin to produce an acidic goo, and the antenna wave wildly as s/he gets more agitated:
‘Also, haven’t you noticed that it’s not only that there aren’t more tourists around? There’s fewer everybody! The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development say one in eight companies are encouraging staff to work from home, one in five in the public sector! On top of that, an extra 9 million people are taking a holiday under advice! And aren’t they blaming the GDP contraction on having an extra holiday for the Queen’s birthday? Didn’t that cost the economy 1.2 BILLION pounds?! Now they’re telling everyone to take two weeks off?!’
‘Ah, well, yes…’ I stutter. It has all started to sound like a bit of a monumental cock-up.
Unimpressed by my silence, my alien takes off in exasperation and returns to his economically prosperous and games-free planet, and I realise that I’ve been entertaining this bizarre little conversation in my head while on an empty train to Clapham Junction. Which was the previous stop. I glance at the Metro on the seat next to me. Apparently Mr Cameron has, rather embarrassedly, asked everyone to come back. The alien returns for one last comment: ‘At least you didn’t vote for them – that’s something, right?’