D J Taylor: No weird food, please – we're British

We might not enter into the true holiday spirit, but we're determined to enjoy next year's Olympics extravaganza
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Until recently, a consensus has been maintained on staging the 2012 Olympics.

The prospectus on which it was sold to the public did not, of course, have a great deal to do with sport. It was accepted, almost from the outset, that only a fraction of those keen to attend had any serious interest in the various competitions. Essentially the sales pitch was one of prestige, spectacle, and economics. An Olympic stadium would naturally create jobs and help towards the regeneration of east London. No doubt there would be complaints about corporate sponsors ganging up to acquire tickets, but this, alas, is how the modern sporting extravaganza gets its subsidy.

Just lately one or two cracks have begun to appear in this consensual façade. In particular, Iain Sinclair's new book, Ghost Milk, an exploration of the Olympics and other New Labour-inspired grand projects, is a wounding assault on what he calls "the scam of scams", in which the legacy, he insists, will be one of lasting shame. The curious thing about the reaction to Sinclair's polemic is the difficulty that even sympathetic readers have had in staying the course. "I never thought I could feel sorry for the Olympic organisers until I read this book," noted the historian Dominic Sandbrook in the Financial Times, before amusing himself with Sinclair's claim that the 2012 committee are the spiritual heirs of the people who directed the Berlin Olympics of 1936.

All this confirms a profound truth about our national life, which is that there comes a time when ideological objections to some notional abuse have to be abandoned in the face of people's determination to enjoy themselves. Mr Sandbrook ended his review by suggesting that there are punters who like shopping at the Westfield Centre (another of Sinclair's modern plague-pits) not because they are corporate drones or have been brainwashed, "but simply because they fancy buying some new clothes or a better television or even the latest book by Iain Sinclair". I was reminded of Frank Richards' famous riposte to George Orwell's essay "Boys' Weeklies", in which Orwell, having analysed the political underpinning of Richards' Billy Bunter stories, diagnosed a capitalist plot. Should he then remind his specimen reader that his father was an ill-used serf, Richards wondered. No, he didn't think it was fair to take the boy's twopence for telling him that. And even Orwell makes the point somewhere that the last thing you should deny the working classes is their materialism.


There was a delicious irony in the speech in which a newly emboldened Ed Miliband discussed some of the implications of phone hacking. The irony lay not in Mr Miliband's conclusions – "a far greater sense of responsibility in our country" – but in the venue at which it was delivered: the London headquarters of the international accountancy firm KPMG.

I am biased, of course, having spent several years working in the marketing departments of two of our leading bean counters, but if any organisation needed to be read a lesson by a senior politician on the need for greater responsibility, it is an international accountancy firm. The role of chartered accountants in shoring up vested interests is not explored often enough by journalists, but this week's Private Eye thoughtfully enumerates some of the recent exploits of Ernst & Young. This is the firm that missed the £1.5bn Equitable Life black hole and the $50bn inflating of the Lehman Brothers balance sheet, not to mention an audit of News International that has no record of the six-figure payouts to Max Clifford and Gordon Taylor. Perhaps they simply weren't "material".

Then there is the disastrous part played by certain big firms in government IT procurement; the disappearance of much-needed tax revenue through avoidance; and the regular complaints about auditors warning a bank that a client is in trouble and then contriving to emerge from the wreckage with a commission to wind it up. One of the first acts of an incoming Labour government ought to be the setting up of a royal commission to investigate the fitness for purpose of Messrs Ernst & Young, KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the others. It would have the makings of the City's very own phone-hacking scandal.


I was highly amused by the Tesco survey of Britons' top 20 holiday hates. Apparently, holidaymakers' pet peeves include not being able to drink water straight from the tap, the lack of a decent cup of tea, excessive heat, "weird food", and inadequate showers. This seemed to confirm a long-held suspicion that the vast majority of people who go abroad don't really want a holiday in the traditional sense of the word: a different environment and a departure from normal modes of living. No, they want a change of location in which all the usual paraphernalia of their lives are, miraculously, transported with them: a tiger-crammed jungle with a cash-point machine in every clearing.

Eyeing up the rest of the list ("not having my own kitchen", "understanding a foreign language", etc) I found myself swept back to a Sri Lankan hotel where my wife and I stayed in the early 1990s. This was by no means a five-star establishment, but one in which a harassed and no doubt badly paid staff tried cheerfully to do their best. One evening, I heard a tremendous detonation of rich Milwaukee accents. "Mom, mom,"' a male voice yelled, "the coach is here." "Oh, my Gahd," Mom howled back, in tones that suggested world war three had just been declared, "I can't get any hot water." Mom could count herself lucky that the shower cap didn't release a hail of cockroaches onto her peevish transatlantic head.


The politician for whom I felt the greatest sympathy this week was the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, whose ratings have fallen to a bare 26 per cent. Ms Gillard's crime has been to introduce a carbon tax, to be levied on 500 of the country's leading polluters. It will be followed by a market-based emissions trading scheme, which rewards the carbon-virtuous. Australia, it should be said, is the developed world's worst producer of greenhouse gases.

Naturally, the voters of a democratic nation are perfectly free to turn against a politician they don't like, even if the effect resembles a polar bear happily gnawing off corners of the ice floe on which it sits. Perhaps, half a century hence, as she surveys the parched Antipodean wilderness, Ms Gillard will be able to congratulate herself on her prescience.