Consider this comment by Jonathan Edwards at the end of yesterday’s Virgin London Marathon. What does it signify to you?
The London Marathon is a major event on the athletic calendar and one of the most renowned international marathons in the world. The annual event is broadcast across the globe, with enormous economic, social and cultural significance for London.
Thinking back to your prelim lectures and readings on cultural geography, you will have encountered the way in which landscapes have sometimes been understood as visual representations, rich in signs of cultural meaning and power. For many of the ‘new’ cultural geographers, these signs – flags, architecture, statues and buildings associated with key institutions such as military or monarchy – constitute texts encoded with purpose and meaning. As Daniels (1993) notes in Fields of Vision: landscape imagery and national identity: “Landscapes, whether focusing on single monuments or framing stretches of scenery, provide visible shape; they picture the nation” (page 5).
The show that London put on yesterday could be understood as a (re)presentation to the rest of the world, and conveyed by the media. The London Marathon provides a means through which people come to see and to know the culture of London. For us, the marathon offers an opportunity to examine the production of key cultural geographies. What features might you examine?
To start with, there is the race route. Runners jog 26 miles, 385 yards along some of London’s roads, across cobblestones, over bridges and past many cultural icons – the Cutty Sark, Sir Christopher Wren’s Old Royal Naval College, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, St James’ Park and the Houses of Parliament. These sites are showcased to the world via aerial views, carefully selected shots and commentators providing information about people and places along the route. What is the narrative presented here? Is there just one story or many overlapping histories?
We might also think about the runners themselves, for alongside elite athletes, many take part to raise money for charity. The London Marathon is presented as a celebratory sporting festival through its street-party ambiance: roadside musicians, colourful bunting and runners in fancy dress. Who or what do these people represent? You may think that a good balance is struck between fancy dress fun and courageous efforts of those who compete and complete despite illness, disability or injury. These runners also showcase the nation, of which the London Marathon is a part, and this is particularly poignant as the competitors arrive in the Mall at the end of the race with Buckingham Palace in the background and an avenue of Union Flags lining their final metres.
By considering the London Marathon as a text in which cultural meanings are encoded; through which a cultural geography of London is constructed, we can consider Edward’s view that “London has put on a fantastic show” from an understanding of landscape as a way of seeing.