Mike Rowbottom: Westfield agogo as Nicole Scherzinger and Boris Johnson do their thing

Tuesday, 13 September 2011
Mike Rowbottom(9)Rammed. Jammed. Packed. These were the words which best described the Westfield Stratford City shopping arcade as it conducted its grand opening.

It was as if one of those optimistic architect's sketches, showing the building as it might be, softened by trees and sauntering pedestrians, had been brought smartly to life.

The largest shopping centre in Europe, a tangible sign of the regeneration that the London 2012 Games has always promised east London - and the wider world - was about to become an officially operating entity. The self-styled gateway to the Olympic Park was about to open wide.

Shoppers had queued outside for four hours before the doors to the stores were opened at 10.00am, an hour before the official ceremony for the £1.45 billion facility, at which the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales were due to share the honours along with Frank Lowy, chairman and co-founder of the Westfield Group.

Thus the main opening was preceded by lots of smaller ones - Kelly Brook was to be found doing the honours for New Look, while Next had called on synchronised swimmer Jenna Randall and Olympic fours rowing champion Andy Triggs Hodge. Meanwhile Colin Jackson, former world champion high hurdler and man who was robbed of the Strictly Come Dancing title, was posing with shoppers at Lloyds TSB.

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So while the PR business, witnessed by an assembled crew of media and VIPs, took place on the top floor underneath skylights featuring swiftly travelling clouds, the serious business was getting underway below. In steerage.

Many had put their shopping on hold and gathered at the foot of the elevators, penned and observed by security operatives, staring up at the outward manifestations of the big show - coloured ribbons, changing lights, and the backs of more security operatives.

Most of them knew they were about to hear, if not see, the main attraction - sorry Boris - of former Pussy Cat Doll Nicole Scherzinger.

But first, of course, the speeches.

Lowy said that that many people had questioned the timing of the Stratford City project at a time of global economic downturn.

"People were saying 'How can you build Stratford City centre at a time like this?'" he recalled.

"One person who didn't ask this question was Boris Johnson."

Lowy went on the praise the way the Mayor of London had spoken with such confidence about the city and described it as "the capital of the world for goods and services."

He said that centre was providing 10,000 new jobs, of which 2,000 were being filled by local people, and added that more than 20 million people were expected to visit each year.

Then up stepped the tousle-haired champion himself to laud the fact that the centre would be providing 18,000 new jobs, of which 2,000 were being filled by local people.

So - 8,000 new jobs in the space of 10 seconds. If Westfield can continue to expand at this rate, the Coalition will have no fears once the new unemployment figures are released.

Inimitably, Johnson recalled the character of the Prioress, from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Such an obvious reference. I was surprised he hadn't been beaten to the punch by the young hosts who had got the ceremony underway a little earlier, Pixie Geldof and Nick Grimshaw.

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Anyway, Boris the teacher offered all those present, top deck and steerage, the benefit of a little Middle English, spoken, one assumed, in a manner which Chaucer himself might have recognised. It was a shame he couldn't have been present, really.

"And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetishly, After the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe," declaimed the city's Mayor. "For French of Parys was to hire unknowe...remember that?"

There was a small ripple of uncertain laughter. I don't personally think anyone in the building did remember, and suddenly Johnson, as he so often does, was teetering on the brink of an apocalypse of tension.

But then one more reference regained the dressing room.

"I've got news for Geoffrey Chaucer," he said. "After 625 years I can tell him, or I would if I could, that there will soon be a lot more French spoken here in Stratford, and it will be after the fashion of Paris."

How so? Well, already, according to the Mayor, regular exchange shopping trips are being planned between Stratford and that other noted emporium, the French capital.

Warming to his theme, Johnson proceeded to offer some bang-up-to-date price comparisons: Levi's jeans, £84 in Paris, £70 in Stratford; le Big Mac meal, £5.77 in Paris, £4.46 in Stratford. QED.

As the scissors, jointly held by Lowy and Johnson, incised the red ribbon to enthusiastically encouraged cheers from assembled media and VIPs, our MC's brightly enjoined everyone to get shopping. Thirty feet beneath them, everyone already was.

It only remained for Miss Scherzinger to strut her funky stuff - I believe that is the correct phrase - for the benefit of the gathering, and more especially, you sensed, for the male members.

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"Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?" she sang. Perhaps that was why she had just removed her shiny red and white top.

"Ful weel she soonge the service dyvyne, Entuned in hir nose ful semely..." as Chaucer himself put it elsewhere in his tale of the Prioress.

Catholic as Johnson's musical tastes no doubt are, I suspect this was not his cup of tea.

Perched rather stiffly on a padded bench, he had to be given full credit nevertheless for resisting any temptation to tap either his feet or his fingers to the music. If only some of the other suited, middle-aged men around him could have resisted the temptation. It was a depressing sight on a generally uplifting day.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.
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