We only had a few seconds left to get ready. There were 91,000 people in the stadium and (allegedly) about 1.5 billion watching apathetically at home. I advanced to the little plastic sign on the red carpet saying ‘Mayor of London’, and as we waited to be called to the centre of the arena I decided I had better spruce myself up. Now the crowd were roaring and waving their red light sabres, and hastily I got out my wallet, mobile, keys, and all the other clobber that might impair my flag-waving performance, and handed them to a chap on my left. I rolled my shoulders like Rocky, and rehearsed the agenda again in my head. What could possibly go wrong? Take flag, get red circle out to left, wave four times, hand flag to flag-bearer. Piece of cake. Just as I had it taped, just as I was in the zone, I became aware of a chap beaming and pointing at his midriff. Then another chap was pointing at me, jabbing his finger in the direction of my stomach. Was I too fat? Was I insufficiently Olympian? ‘Button,’ said the chap. ‘Do up button.’ I looked and saw that my fellow performers on the podium all had their jackets done up, and so did my charming Beijing counterpart, Mayor Guo. I reached instinctively for my middle button, and then thought, sod it. I checked swiftly with the chap from the International Olympic Committee, and no, there is no Olympic jacket-button protocol. Open or shut: it’s up to you. I was going to do it my way, and on the matter of jacket buttons I was going to follow a policy of openness, transparency and individual freedom. I am sad to see that some Chinese bloggers are now attacking me for my ‘lack of respect’, since there was no disrespect intended. It’s just that there are times when you have to take a stand.
At an idle moment during the rehearsal we found ourselves standing on the sacred red rubber of the Olympic track. It was a lull between events, and people were milling around clearing things away. The white lines of the 100 metres section dwindled invitingly before us. Suddenly I could hear the great Vangelis soundtrack surging in my ears. ‘Guto,’ I said to the GLA communications director, ‘man or mouse? On your marks, get set, go!’ Amid the enthusiastic yelps of the bystanders — at least I think they were enthusiastic — we thundered down that track at about half the speed of Usain Bolt. I am afraid Guto won by a short head, but I am certainly going to claim to have run at the Beijing Olympics.
‘Who are we going to see?’ whispered Seb Coe as we were ushered into the VIP sanctum of the Bird’s Nest stadium, a place of thick snowy carpet and a horseshoe of white armchairs. ‘We’re gonna see Hu,’ I whispered back. ‘Who?’ ‘Hu.’ Before I could elucidate further we were shaking hands with the Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China, general-secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the 65-year-old Hu Jintao. For the last couple of hours I had been practising a phrase I had learned from my brother Max, who speaks fluent Mandarin. ‘He’ll love it,’ said Max. ‘It means, Very pleased to meet you.’ So it was with great excitement that I took the hand of the Chinese leader — a kindly-looking man with glossy black hair — and blurted my line. ‘Renshi ni hen gaoxing,’ I gushed, scanning his face for approval. ‘Thank you very much,’ he said, which was pleasing, though I think he said the same to Seb. We also met Jiang Zemin, the former paramount leader, and Hu’s predecessor. The workings of the Chinese Communist Party are of huge importance to geopolitics, and far from clear. Why is Jiang still knocking around? How did he become less paramount than Hu? Who knows? And Hu knows.
Before you accuse me of making silly British puns, I would remind you that Geoffrey Howe is said to have greeted Brezhnev with the words ‘How are you?’, to which the Russian brilliantly riposted, ‘No, no, you are Howe!’
There are some superstars who turn out to be horrors, and there are some who turn out to be as nice, thoughtful, well-balanced, good-humoured and modest as their publicists claim. Such a man is David Beckham. His arms may be as tattooed as a Yakuza gangster, but all the Olympic wallahs say he showed real diplomatic skill in helping to win London the Games. I notice that there has been a certain amount of critical belly-aching about London’s eight-minute ‘segment’ during the closing ceremony, the business with the bus and the umbrella dancers. The criticism is all rot of course (how would YOU represent London in eight minutes?) and anyway, I tell you this: those Chinese absolutely loved it when Beckham kicked the ball.
Ever since I was a child I have believed that the only man-made structures visible from space are the Belgian motorway system and the Great Wall of China. Alas, this turns out to be balls. To see the Great Wall of China from the Moon you would have to be able to discern a human hair from two miles away. It’s big, the Great Wall, but not that big. I am afraid the myth was invented in 1754 by the English antiquary William Stukeley. No scientists now accept the claim, though the ever-obliging China Daily still claims it’s possible if you know where to look.
I have come away from China a convinced Sinophile, and determined to return and drive around for a family holiday. Of course there are things that we find tragic and reprehensible about the Chinese system. There are abuses of human rights; there is the hideous practice of re-education through labour. The whole place is a vast and withering rebuke to those who thought, in 1989, that the triumph of capitalism must be accompanied by democratic pluralism. I am certainly not suggesting that we should stifle our criticism. But won’t that criticism be more effective if it is better informed? That means going there, like my brother, and learning the language.
And by the way, I recommend going there in the luxury of British Airways World Traveller Class. Forget Business Class. Forget First Class. You’ll get just as much sleep in the back of the plane, and you’ll save yourself — or the taxpayer — a fortune.