Thursday, July 26, 2012

UK: Summer sun brings relief from economic gloom

News this week that Britain had fallen once again into recession was, perhaps, unsurprising. However the gloomy economic assessment which topped headlines on Wednesday and filled Thursday’s front pages seemed to have been brushed aside by Britons who were determined to make the most of the belated summer sunshine.

Olympic build up

Months of almost perpetual rain came to a sudden halt last weekend and on Sunday the clouds parted over London and temperatures soared. The sun brought out thousands to see world renowned Chinese pianist Lang Lang take the Olympic torch through Hornchurch, a small town to the east of London.

Up to three thousand people packed the green in front of the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, to listen to music before Lang Lang took the Olympic torch for a short 300 metre dash through a jubilant crowd [Xinhua / Shanghai Daily  / China Daily / CRI ].

Relaxing in the sunshine, drinking free bottles of Coca Cola handed out in special collectors edition bottles, Lang Lang gave a shout of encouragement to Britain. "Thank you everyone, Olympic London," he shouted.

While a popular and highly reputed pianist, some in the crowd might have questioned why a Chinese citizen was even carrying the torch. Earlier this year Lang Lang had played at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert in front of Buckingham Palace.

China comes to town

Lang Lang came to London as an ambassador for cultural exchange. As well as taking part in the Jubilee concert and the torch relay he will also be playing in the Barbican center, Europe's largest multi-arts and conference venue, on 1st August 1 on the "China night" stage, and on a dragon boat the next day in the Thames.

"The Beijing Olympics greatly boosted the influence of China in the world," Lang Lang said after his short run with the torch. "Now that people in the world are knowing more about China, I am proud to be representing the Chinese for the torch relay."

Lang Lang is only one of dozens of so-called ambassadors who have arrived in London ahead of the Olympic Games. On board a replica of a 15th century Chinese sailing ship dozens of volunteers took part in the launch of the Chinatown Ambassador Programme in the shadow of Tower Bridge.

According to the organisers, the Chinatown Goodwill Ambassador program is designed for Chinatown residents to provide a friendly face to London visitors, provide information and assistance, and "show the world that London and Chinatown are the best to make visitors feel at home.” [Citizenside ]

Olympic predictions

China, has certainly pulled out more stops than other nations to make its mark at the London Games. But such efforts may not necessarily win success at the Olympics themselves. While earlier predicting great Olympic success, one Chinese spokesman has suggested China will not repeat the success of the Beijing 2008 Games which raked in 100 medal, 51 of which were gold.

“I don’t think we’ll have the same amount of medals as in Beijing,” Xiao Tan, a deputy chef de mission for the Chinese, said this week [WSJ]. However, a team of experts from the Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany predict that China, US and Russia will top the medal table with 102, 100, and 71 medals, respectively [Daily Mail / Economic Times]

Olympic pride

The sunshine and the Olympic games has brought a feel good factor across parts of Britain. While there are no doubt many cynics around the country complaining about the waste of money poured into the games, there is a sense of national pride amongst a large number of people.

The Union Jack, once hijacked by right wing nationalists, has been reclaimed and is worn with pride, emblazoned on T-shirts, bags, and umbrellas which were much needed during the damp Jubilee celebrations. And as the Olympic torch made its way around Britain throngs of people adorned in red, white and blue, turned out waving the Union Jack.

Strike threats

There has also been public anger directed at those who would seek to disrupt the Games. The threat by The Public and Commercial Services Union [PCS] to strike on the eve of the Olympic Games was widely criticised, not only by the government, but also members of the public. There were even calls by some to sack the strikers, seen as holding the country to ransom [Daily Mail].

“Do these people have no pride for the country they live in!” wrote one irate reader, incensed by a series of threats of industrial action timed to coincide with the Games.

Strikes averted

The PCS strike was called off at the eleventh hour [BBC / Daily Mail], a bus strike was averted after a bonus was accepted [BBC], as was another by London Underground and rail workers.

But the cost to taxpayers and commuters could be enormous. The London mayor is said to have offered hand outs to transport workers totalling £35 million to stop them striking during Olympics.

London Underground drivers will get around £1,000 for working throughout the Olympics while London Underground station staff will get a bonus of around £850. Meanwhile at Network Rail, around 800 maintenance and control staff have negotiated a pay rise of £3.50 an hour for the whole of the summer [Daily Mail].

Meanwhile Essex fire fighters who had threatened to walk out over a dispute concerning working conditions, reversed their decision. The Fire Brigades Union [FBU] had planned action on 11th and 12th August, which coincided with the mountain biking event at Hadleigh Farm in Essex. However in a turn around the FBU called off the action amid concerns it could cause "some confusion to 999 services" [BBC].

Steaming temperatures

Even without the threat of industrial action the hot weather has brought its own problems and disrupted the transport system [Sun / Daily Mail]. And while some buses are comfortably air-conditioned, most commuters travelling on London’s transport system will feel more than a little steamed with temperatures soaring above 30 degrees Celsius.

Those on holiday, or of course out of work, were taking advantage of the sun and avoiding the hustle and bustle of London’s streets. Hyde Park was packed with people throughout the week, some even taking a dip in the Serpentine lake. Others cooled off by the fountains in Trafalgar Square as the Olympic clock ticked down to the Games.

Outside of London people swarmed to the coast. Cool sea temperatures did not put everyone off from taking the plunge and seaside resorts saw record numbers of visitors.

Brief relief for businesses

The sudden spell of hot weather was good news for business. Ice Cream vendors were suddenly very popular, and supermarkets finally saw their stocks of barbeque supplies flying off the shelves. The brief heatwave is unlikely to bring any long lasting recovery to the economy however. Months of rain, and even the extra bank holiday set aside for the Jubilee, have been blamed for poor economic performance [Sky News].

The dreadful summer and torrential downpours throughout April and June dampened demand for clothing, food and leisure activities and the last week's respite is unlikely to turn things around.

Sadly the warm weather will fade away by the end of the week. Cooler weather with yet more rain is forecast for the weekend and next week, bringing yet more gloom for Britain, though we do have the Olympics to enjoy!

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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