Happy 2010

Date January 1, 2010 | Map

Tourists are doing it, locals tend not to, I did it: I went to the official New Year’s fireworks display at the London Eye. To Victoria Embankment, directly opposite the Eye, the most sought after place, where crowds must be densest. Am I insane?

Adventurous, rather. Actually, I am a repeat offender, as I was directly behind the London Eye last year. Went there around 10.30pm, waited a bit, and immensely enjoyed the spectacular 2009 display – so much that I vowed to view it from the place of places this year, come what may. And so I declined three different offers to spend New Year’s Eve in the warmth with friends and food, and instead found myself waiting in the cold, wedged in between a group of madly celebrating Asian men (all sober and in unbearably good mood) and some chain-smoking tourists, who were sipping something out of plastic bottles.

Read on for a video.

Firstly, some tips for future fireworks-dwellers: everybody says, get there early, and it is a wise piece of advice. I arrived at the scene around 8.30pm and it was already full, though not yet packed. The best place to watch the fireworks is obviously Victoria Embankment between Westminster Bridge and Charing Cross Railway Bridge, however, some trees block the sightline in regular intervals, and where there are no trees, there are chains of lightbulbs between the lampposts – only a minor obstruction, but cutting through the lower third of the Eye.

For the best vantage point, head for Cleopatra’s Needle, the ancient granite obelisk, which used to stand in Heliopolis some 3,400 years ago, then in Alexandria around 2,000 years ago, and above the Thames for not quite 150 years. Yes, this is a true Egyptian monument, and its sister (or do obelisks have brothers?) oversees New York’s Central Park. Ok, there’s a third one in Paris, but that one is a bit different. Immediately to the left and right of the monument, there are short sections without trees, without chains of lightbulbs, but with a brilliant, unobstructed, almost full-frontal view of the London Eye. The only better place is the 100% frontal view a bit further to the south, but it’s only light-bulb free for the first row, which may still have been unoccupied at 3pm. I managed to get a small space on the sidewalk, meaning that I would obstruct the view for the poor souls on the street behind me, while I comfortably towered above the smaller folks in front of me. I only needed to stretch my neck a little to see the Eye in its entirety, including the County Hall building and the waters of the Thames.

115 minutes to go...115 minutes to go…
115 minutes to go…31-Dec-2009 23:05Canon Canon PowerShot A95, 2.8, 7.8125mm, 0.125 sec,

Then the waiting began. Sitting on the pavement was not really possible, although some people tried. I put on my earplugs and entertained myself with good music while the crowd had to listen to whatever they were fed through the PA. That’s the beauty of being on your own: no need to talk to anybody, so you can beam yourself into the iPod universe and ignore what’s happening around you. Acoustically, at least. I was extremely thankful for that when Big Ben announced 10pm, because suddenly some higher-volume noise erupted from the speakers as BBC Radio 1’s DJ Nihal took over. Because of the great demand, they say. Well, I for one certainly did not demand this and would have preferred some atmospheric muzak to Nihal’s “biggest house party in the world”, as he shouted out repeatedly. And he shouted relentlessly. I briefly wondered whether this man shouts all the time, at breakfast, on the loo, at Christmas Carol concerts… I mean, I am sure he is a nice bloke, but in my world I can never decide whether to rank DJs higher or lower than estate agents.

Visually, though, all of our eyes were drawn to the big Eye, which celebrated its tenth anniversary tonight (of the formal, not the public opening), but nobody cared to sing a birthday tune. From 10pm to 11pm, the Eye was bathed in full, single colours, matched by the central part of the County Hall building, with colours changing every few minutes. From 11pm onwards, the display was more dynamic, and combinations of colours decorated the steel ring and the capsules. Disappointingly, the Shell building was not used as a canvas for a giant video projection this year. While it was transformed into a huge smartphone last year, apparently no sponsors had stepped forward this year. Recession, I guess, but on the other hand a whole evening of good entertainment without a single company sales proposal in sight was quite enjoyable.

The tension was rising. Every now and then, people would suddenly put their hands into the air, or flash their cameras, obviously screechingly instructed by Nihal. Some folks danced, and I did modest moves myself, so not in tune with the others, as I listened to completely different, much more elaborate and sophisticated rhythms than the boring, repetitive DJ-induced rubbish. However, everybody seemed to have a good time, apart from this poor bloke who dressed way too thinly and tried to keep warm by pulling his coat above his head and cowering on the floor, protected from the chilly wind by the mass of bodies. I could only laugh at that, feeling comfortably warm with my three to four layers of woolly winter clothing. Then the countdown began.

Five minutes before midnight, Nihal stopped shouting and treated us with an appropriate ambient soundtrack, to which the London Eye flashed in expectation. With sixty seconds to go, we discovered that the lighting crew managed to use their scanners to project a digital clock onto the Shell building. About twenty seconds before midnight, the introductory bells of the Palace of Westminster announced the upcoming turn of the year. Everybody joined the countdown from ten to nought, accompanied by single rockets fired from the centre of the Eye. And then Big Ben started to chime and the Eye exploded.

2010-1-1-0-601-Jan-2010 01:05Canon Canon PowerShot A95, 2.8, 7.8125mm, 0.03333333 sec,

The fireworks display was magnificent as always and absolutely worth the visit. Even worth the three-and-a-half-hour wait, if you weren’t dressed too thinly. The best bits were those when rockets took the circular shape of the Eye into account, but we were equally wowed by the dense cloud of gold dust fired from the middle of the Thames, which created a glimmering semi-transparent curtain between us and the Eye. Impossible to have this effect from any other vantage point!

However, the display was probably a bit less spectacular than last year. Difficult to measure, but it was definitely shorter: in a bid to save costs, the Mayor of London cut two and a half minutes from the usual ten. I am not quite sure if this was the most effective cost-saving measure: the public lost 25% of the time (plus the Shell building video display), but the overall budget of £1.6m was just 5% below last year’s budget. That’s Boris maths for you: the actual effect on the budget may be negligible, but it is important that you feel the impact.

Anyways, I had my fun, even though it took over an hour to walk home instead of the usual twenty minutes, but this provided an opportunity to admire the logistic masterpiece (and the major cost factor) of crowd control with scores of stewards and police on horseback. Mightily impressive, these tall horses.

So, would I do it again? No. But I am very glad that I did it this one time.
Before the Mayor starts to charge entry fees.

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