OPINION: Seven years ago the Red Arrows screamed over our street, trailing plumes of red, white and blue smoke. We looked up with huge, dopey smiles on our faces.
The English summer sky was cloudless back then and even the shabby old Roman Road seemed full of sun and hope. London had won the Olympics.
I am still full of hope, because that is the only way for Londoners to be if we want these games to be a success, but many of us are also now a bit afraid. What would happen today if the Red Arrows suddenly roared across the London skyline? You half fear that they would be shot down by one of the six ground-based air defence systems that have been positioned on the roofs of buildings in mainly residential areas. A cluster of rapier missiles are primed and ready on the roof of the Lexington Building in Bow, a kilometre from where I used to live before coming to New Zealand. And residents of the Fred Wigg Tower in Waltham Forest launched a legal challenge yesterday against having their home used as a silo.
I am with the Wiggs. Of course you would have to be daft not to acknowledge the high risk of terrorist action. The day after the capital had won the bid for the Olympics, religious maniacs were blowing up a tube train and a London bus, killing 52 people. Were we really only allowed one day of happiness before having our dreams terrorised?
But the answer to terrorism cannot be to ramp up visible security measures and to walk about in daily fear. Are we going to inspect every olive-skinned youth with a rucksack each time we get on a tube train? Do we want to bring the country to a paranoid standstill every time a harassed mum leaves her bags behind? These are important questions for London and the world to deal with.
One of the great, great joys of the Rugby World Cup was the lack of a visible police presence. There may have been the odd unacceptable incident such as the apprehension of a black South African journalist in Taupo. But the only police I can remember seeing were on traffic duty. Right from the magnificent opening ceremony through to the nervous final whistle, it was a World Cup of the people.
London can still pull off something similar. England has done it before in recent times. In 2002 Manchester draped its once grimy city in flags and put on a joyous Commonwealth Games. And as ever with these sporting festivals, the most important people were the volunteers.
The 2000 Sydney Olympics remains the most wonderful sporting event that I have attended. Every volunteer, and many had been on their feet all day, had a smile and a word of welcome. And you just can't fake that sort of thing with a plastic "have a nice day". It has to be real.
Manchester learned from that experience and picked up the baton. Jenny Brierley, a volunteer at those Games, remembered: "I enjoyed every minute. It's a cliche but we made it happen. You meet the most amazing people and you make a difference. Before it had even finished I knew I had to go to Melbourne for the next Games. I didn't imagine the impact Manchester would have on my life. I didn't think I would make lifelong friends."
Wind forward a few years to the Beijing Olympic Games. In the lobby of our hotel we went through security scanners. We were then ushered straight onto a bus that drove us down the prescribed route and dropped us at the stadium. In Sydney we took public transport. In Beijing we were moved in convoy by the State. We were the hollow men.
It is vital that London emulates Sydney rather than Beijing. Yes, there will be the odd delay. The walk from plane to passport control at airports will seem like the final week of marathon training and the odd scent of urine will waft from dilapidated public toilets. But as Londoners we can smile and welcome the world.
It will not all be perfect. I am disappointed that David Beckham is not in the football squad after everything he did to bring the Games to London. I am disappointed that security concerns are in danger of turning the city into a police state.
In World War II Britain, New Zealand and many other countries sacrificed thousands of lives so that we could live without fear. Now Britain seems unprepared to risk one life for such a noble cause. Last week powdered vapour from an electronic cigarette machine led to armed police stopping a bus, terrorising passengers and bringing a major motorway to a halt. If 2012 is to be the Para-noid-lympics, I don't want any part of it.
Seven years ago Lord Coe spoke of regeneration, magic and inspiring young people around the world. I am still naive enough to think all that is possible. The Rugby World Cup was a big success because of the people. My advice before that tournament was the words of the old Bobby McFerrin song: "Don't worry, be happy."
The message is even more relevant to Paranoid Britain. It is up to Londoners to welcome the world with truly open arms.
- © Fairfax NZ News