London 2012: What the real East End makes of the torch

  • Published

The Olympic torch relay is becoming an EastEnders storyline, with "Fat Boy", played by Ricky Norwood, starting his bid to carry the flame in fictional Walford's café. But how is the plan for a 70-day UK extravaganza and six-day London tour going down in the real East End?

"I'll have another Rosie over here, thanks."

The proper East End way to order a morning cuppa rings out across a proper East End 'caff', on a street in Tower Hamlets, one of London's Olympic boroughs.

At E. Pellicci, customers are drinking tea and Italian coffees, flicking through the 'red tops' and putting the world to rights, as their fore-punters have done for 111 years.

It is shuffle-around-the-formica-tables busy here, between the wood-panelled walls and stained glass doors and windows. Decorating the walls are the framed faces of celebrity clientele who might have ordered the Full English or bacon ciabatta with sauce.

Up front is the barista bar. Out the back, through the hatch, mamma Maria is flipping bacon on the hot plate.

Outside is Bethnal Green Road - an East End artery pumping traffic into the City at the start of the working day. The street market is setting up under grey skies.

It is gritty - from the atmosphere to the dust in the eyes.

In this area's fictional incarnation, the BBC soap EastEnders, the Olympic torch relay is being introduced as a plotline.

Sitting in Walford's greasy spoon cafe, the soap's flashy wheeler-dealer Fat Boy hopes he'll be one of the 8,000 torchbearers nominated to carry the torch, as the relay makes its way through London at the end of a 70-day UK tour.

But what do people here think of the relay, which will start at Land's End on 19 May next year?

"The Full English. Lovely," says Danny Skinner. He is fuelling-up ahead of a day fixing the pavements for London's transport body, a year out from the relay and 14 months ahead of the opening of the Games.

"Me? No, I've not really paid much attention but it's good the relay is coming down this way," he says between the egg and the chips. He'll tune in when the sport starts: "Boxing, and the 100m final, things like that."

Image caption,
Alex hopes his children will be inspired by the Games and they'll be out to cheer the torch

The café stops bustling for a quick chorus of "Happy Birthday to you". Tom is here, newly four, enjoying a treat of a plate of homemade chips and a game of Angry Birds on the iPhone before boarding the bus to nursery.

His Dad, Alex Scott-Gall, is a City lawyer, clued-up about the Olympics and the UK's sporting chances in Taekwondo. His family of five have put in ticket applications for a handful of events.

He is optimistic about the relay: "Last time for the Beijing one we all turned out to 'boo'. But that was about Tibet and human rights. This time there'll be more cheering."

Double celebration

The orders are coming fast from inside the café and at the street-side tables: "A bit of mustard on the roll. I'll take it outside."

Nevio Pellicci is turning out cappuccinos from the coffee machine, as did his late father, also Nevio, for more than 50 years, and his grandparents before them.

He is excited about the Olympics and the relay, and says the Games at least are a topic for chat among customers. "People do talk about it a lot, they're excited. People were talking about the tickets the other day. It'll be good for the area," he says.

There is talk of foregoing the cafe's August holiday shutdown during the Games. They might "get the TV down and have a party" as they did for the recent royal wedding.

After all, 2012 will be a "special" year - Nev is to marry his fiancée in what will be week seven of the ten-week relay.

Among the Pellicci donne, however, the real excitement surrounds the new Westfield shopping centre under construction next to the Olympic village.

"I am not a sporty lady," confides Nevio's mother Maria, as she dishes up eggs through the kitchen hatch.

"I am looking forward to the shops - only two stops in the train!"

There is also Olympic scepticism among the clientele here.

They worry the Games will attract extra residents to one of London's most densely populated boroughs, where housing and homelessness charity Shelter estimates it would take 10 years to clear the housing waiting list.

And where ,joblessness, premature death and long term illness are above the London average.

While 73% of Londoners support the city hosting the games, cafe customers fear the coming crowds and disruption, inflation, possible violence.

Who to nominate?

"D'you like another cup of tea, Norm?"

Storming Norm, a customer of 55 years standing, is installed in his corner, regularly jumping up to make way for the frequent deliveries going through to the back.

"Don't get me started," he says of all things Olympic. He will get up to watch the relay only: "If it goes past outside here".

Norm is a more enthusiastic contributor when the debate turns to who the café should nominate as a torchbearer.

Locog wants communities' inspirational people to run with the torch. People have to submit a 100-150 word explanation when they put forward a person or themselves.

Will it be Taxi Driver Joe - "a cabbie legend in his own coffee time", or "lovely guy" Adam? They settle on Wendell, who "knows everyone around here and coaches local kids at boxing for free".

The brunch orders are coming through: "One spicy, One escalope."

At 24, Mark Tween, a security consultant sitting down with his boss for a "bacon and egg ciabatta, orange juice, twice", is at the upper limit of the 12-24-year-old age group Locog wants to make up 4,000 of the torchbearers.

He hopes all the talk of legacy will translate into participation in sport, as happened with rugby after England won the 2003 World Cup.

Why should he carry the flame? "I'm really patriotic, really big into sports, and there's my military background of service in the Royal Military Police," he says.

There's a tap on the stained-glass window, a finger points to the pastry counter; dessert.

"What Tone? Cheesecake? I'll bring one out."

Past the outside tables, the market is open for business, the grey has turned to drizzle, the traffic bound for "up West" is steady. And in 'soapland', time will tell if Fatboy secures his 300m of torch relay glory.

Around the BBC

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.