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BIRMINGHAM BOOK FESTIVAL

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OLYMPIC 2012 TORCH RELAY

Gemma was the writer in residence for the Olympic 2012 Torch Relay as it travelled across the south west of England. She followed the torch over four days and produced 12 works to capture the place, the people and the totemic atmosphere.

#1

(Teignmouth)

The light lingers on the hill line, where trees are dark, where the fields glow green. By Teignmouth, the weather lifts. You ask me what I read and why I'm here, and I answer with Thomas Hardy and strangers. You are an officer, an advisor, son of an aging father. You are a tightrope walker between two stages of life. Balancing. Scorn for the Jubilee and Olympics charge from you, powerful as a horse. Your childhood on the moors was good. It was good, you say. Good. At Newton Abbot, you and your folded newspapers and your neat spectacles depart.


#2

(Plymouth City Centre)

Let's say I'm drifting out of a haberdashery shop and perhaps I fall into step with you. Maybe your thoughts are rolling from side to side in your mind, like marbles. It could be that I question whether this is a typical Plymouth Saturday, and that you say it's the Lord Mayor's Show. You might move swiftly; pace as quick as winter nightfall, using your time well. Why don't we agree you have white hair, like candy floss on your head? Let's imagine you never believed you'd look like this. Age, to you, was just the roadside's car-glimpsed tree rot.


#3

(Barbican, Plymouth)

Eight morris dancers skip along the Barbican, raising sticks, bells and legs in pairs. Jangle, tap, jangle. One performer closes his eyes, dreaming and also leaping, so the moment contains both the jump and the stillness simultaneously. You, meanwhile, watch the scene unfold from your shop doorway, fingers interlaced. In your window display, there are Jubilee bouquets and garlands of red, white and blue. Standing by you, I see your skin is creamy, mascara eyelashes a procession of navy. You are proud of this city, of these people; and the words you speak are blankets to wrap around them all.


#4

(The Hoe, Plymouth)

Smeaton's Tower is a cyclops in the distance, with its fixed lightbulb gaze. The city waits for the torch to arrive, urging it to race through neighbouring streets and speed to us. And here you are, a boy with beer and a friend. Here you are, telling us you love our dog, saying he's a gentle one. And now Š donÕt look Š here you are offering your lips for licks, your chin and both your cheeks. Your voice repeats, returns, releases, it's a clacker, which you sound until your wrist aches. The evening has arms, and sweeps you into its crevice.


#5

(Alma Road, Plymouth)

Unhelped by any wind, I march along silent streets and an underpass. YouÕre waiting alone, assured, lilac anorak, blonde bob. I pass you once, taking the hill in my stride. Then return to share your perfectly selected position. It's early morning, and the streets are bare. Last night, you were part of the management, wearing a blazer, passing children balloons. Today, youÕre merely a spectator. The sole unquiet thing is the helicopter overhead, circling through the lace curtain clouds. As the torchbearer approaches, gold and white, faces are expectant and cameras are poised. These are the snapshot moments in life.


#6

(North Embankment, Dartmouth)

I am eyeing up the Queen and Prince Philip when your granddaughter slaps me with her Union Jack flag, twice. How we laugh, how I inwardly frown. The royal couple are wearing paper masks. She touches his shoulder with light fingers and he stretches back in his wheelchair to reciprocate, chuckling to himself as he poses for another photograph. The sponsors' buses crow: Hello! Hello on the balconies! Are you all having a good time? Back on our side of the road, you say you moved from Hackney to Dartmouth, and that your children glowed, letterboxed, crabbed, because of it.


#7

(Babbacome Road, Torquay)

On the low stone wall, we swing our legs and discuss the Rotary Club and the timings of the relay advance party. Later, you click the shutter release, capturing the sharp smart now of the torchbearer and I, standing smiling. You hand my camera back and then I lose you in the crowd. I think you had dark hair. You wore a single gold chain. Your nerves might have been fine, or they might not have been. You look with pale blue hollow eyes, or soft hazel ones. You could be a train driver, a mountaineer, or a trapeze artist.


#8

(High Street, Exeter)

We are edging the car forward and listening to your voice on the radio. Within the hour, I find you on Exeter High Street. Here, the pavements are swaying with sunglasses and small children on adult shoulders. Straw hat and leather jacket, your eyes are searching like the slow sun. You'll be traveling across the country in a van, with a route that is the labour of your thirty years. All that space and emptiness ahead. All those country lanes. May you see the Willow Warbler, scare resident but very local. May you find Redpoll and Whinchats on Dartmoor, migrant.


#9

(The Quay, Exeter)

It's the earliest start the torch has experienced and Exeter is lining the streets. I count school uniforms and briefcases, listen to a rowing club chant. Quayside I stand, watching the mother flame alighting the golden torch. With a spark, the relay has begun. You and I consider the white tracksuit zipping alongside the water. Your jacket hangs loose, as though reluctant to commit to one specific shape. Into the air, you say, That's that then. I reply, Did you enjoy it? You say, Well, it was all done before I have to get to work, so I can't complain.


#10

(North Walk, Barnstaple)

Stopping to talk to you is the brightest moment of the day. You're filled with good will, gratefulness, unabashed joy, but you donÕt know how to express such feelings. Your granddaughter shows me her photographs, but itÕs you I want to hear from. Talking, you're a river dashing downstream. Gesturing, you're flicking away the stray drips, this excess emotion. Your niece is about to perform on stage, a dance routine rehearsed weekly, for months. The relay was swift and the spectators well behaved, each child sitting neatly on the pavement and waving flags. I wish youÕd have screamed; if you'd wanted.


#11

(Lee Road, Lynton)

Wait, then take a photograph with two torchbearers, you say. But the crowds don't understand. This is their first sighting of a relay runner, so you are tugged and positioned. The torch is slipped from your grip. I notice your grey plait tapers to a fine point. Cameras snap. Your stare is fixed. Not on the road, but somewhere else beyond. You're part of a chain you may never see: you started as a tall brunette, became a teenage boy, turned the corner as a champion fundraiser and ended the race with hair red as flames facing the Somerset border.


#12

(Lynmouth Hill, Lynmouth)

Framed by two trees: one bursting with leaves, the other twisted and bare, we watch the sun drop behind the sea. You and I eat chips in the company of seagulls. Aiming your food at the birds, you tell me about your day painting window frames. The torch passed and you didn't raise your head: a living to make and there's no time to spare. We speak of the model railway museum, how careful fingers made tiny figures and crafted town buildings smaller than matchboxes. In the background, the handmade 'welcome' banners still hang, the ribbons curl, the flags sway.