I have never been greatly interested in the Olympics. It is partly because most of the sports I enjoy watching are either not represented (cricket, at least not since 1900) or peak elsewhere (football, cycling); and partly because of the ways in which the games have been increasingly suffocated by political corruption, commercial sponsorship and militarised security. So I made no special effort to watch the opening ceremony of London 2012 the other week.
But I didn’t miss it completely. On Twitter it was hard to avoid, as several dozen of those accounts I follow commented on the unfolding spectacle on their TV screens. Many of them I expected to be cynical of what was surely going to be a state-sponsored festival of Britishness: monocultural, jingoistic, Conservative. But this was not the case, and no one was more surprised than the tweeters themselves who (rather grudgingly) admitted that the performance delighted them.
That the ceremony found fans as different as Richard Williams in the Guardianand Tim Stanley in the Telegraph suggests that Danny Boyle managed to achieve what many progressive cultural critics have been dreaming of for years: that the Left reclaim Britishness from the Right. Even the notorious tweet by Aidan Burley MP (‘Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multi-cultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!’) might have been scripted by Boyle, given the crucial role it played in reinforcing this new consensus. Of course the Daily Mail disagreed – but even they were forced to tone down some of their fanatical remarks.
I’m still not sure, though. I’ve never felt particularly at home with the idea of Britishness. The soundtrack of my childhood was not television but the Third Programme, now Radio Three, BBC’s flagship classical music station. As I absorbed the standard repertoire (all those B’s – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz, Bartok, Britten…), it soon became obvious that the British contribution to that canon was modest, to say the least. And maybe that nurtured a cosmopolitan spirit that deepened as I got older.
Of course, there was always the Home Service – later renamed Radio Four – which remains tied to a certain notion (a very English notion much of the time) of Britishness, even while its borders are becoming more elastic. And when I began to buy books and records of my own, there was a pattern that suggests that I was caught in its gravitational pull. I was an avid reader of World War II classics such as Reach for the Sky and enjoyed fiction like Lord of the Rings and Watership Down. The first album I bought was Tubular Bells and Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeiishaped my adolescence even more than ‘Carry On’ films. (These titles are – like God Save the Queen – all choriambs. I wonder if there is something in that).
But by the time I was doing my ‘O’ Levels in 1975, I was clearly venturing further afield. I had begun working my way through Dante, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in my dad’s collection of black-spined Penguin Classics (by definition, not originally written in English). I pestered my local bookshop for Ginsberg and Kerouac, and was amazed to find some introductions to Buddhism, and hardback volume of Whitman on the shelves at home. From a lyrical passage in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn I followed a trail to the early twentieth-century modernisms, especially Dada, which – soon to be revived in the ethos and aesthetics of punk – framed what passed for my intellectual horizons in my last year at school.
This isn’t in itself an argument against the Opening Ceremony. It’s not even saying that embracing Britishness prevents you from appreciating ‘other cultures’. I found my own discomfort liberating: it opened doors, made me more curious to seek out things that teachers and television presenters ignored. But if I’d been more patriotic, would I never have discovered the pleasures of U-Roy or Francis Picabia as a teenager?
I felt Jenny Diski struck a chord when she confessed her lack of enthusiasm for ‘collective joy’. And I shared something of her scepticism towards the Ceremony’s alleged achievement. But despite the criticism of the nostalgic, backward-looking character of the pageant, I got the feeling that she still believed in the possibility of a radical Britishness that really would make a difference. If only it had been a bit more confrontational, visionary, utopian…
And for this she was rebuked by Norman Geras who thought she burdened the event with unrealistic expectations:
It is hard to imagine how an opening ceremony for the London Olympics could, just in itself, have transformed the politics of this country, so that the morning after, all the objectives that Jenny Diski favours would have been hugely assisted or brought forward. This wasn’t, mainly, a political event – a campaign, a set of reforms, a new party programme or movement.
And he detected
a subtext here according to which for people simply to enjoy themselves is somehow not enough if there’s no political payoff. Shall we watch ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ tonight? Ooh, I’m not sure – what would it do for the struggle? Hey, why are you singing a love song? There’s surely still stuff we need to protest about, and songs can do that too, you know. And so on.
But for me the problem is not that the ceremony did too little, but that it did too much. It seems a little disingenuous to compare it to a Hollywood musical. After all, when almost all the commentators felt obliged to read the event as the latest contribution to the century-and-a-half series on ‘the condition of England’, its political implications can hardly be trivial.
The thing about Britishness, though, is that however multicultural, it is still a notion tied to a nation state that goes to great lengths to keep people out. The United Kingdom is not alone in being defended by stringent and discriminatory immigration controls, and excessive powers to detain or expel those defined as outsiders or monitor and restrict the movement and activity of those who even look like outsiders. But ‘Britishness’ must take some responsibility for the way in which the right to belong here and make full use of the opportunities on offer is predicated on a sense of national identity, an allegiance to a required – if heterogenous – set of affective or ideological ties shared with everyone else in the country.
Would radicalising Britishness undermine the racial discriminations on which the kingdom seems to thrive? Would it do anything to stop the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society from bearing the brunt of what – in a triumph of spin that masks its fundamental difference from, say, wartime rationing – is blandly called ‘austerity’? Would it even have helped the 182 cyclists who were arrested on the monthly ‘Critical Mass’ ride as they passed close by the Stadium during this apparently ground-breaking ceremony? I doubt it. Whatever its content, ‘Britishness’ is a fungal infection that we ought to stop feeding.
Local and regional identities don’t have anything like the same power to exclude others. They certainly don’t have the same purchase on social policy or the criminal justice system. Being Scouse or Geordie is not about common values or ancestry but something that emerges from the shared experience of inhabiting the same space and perhaps a way of speaking. And even nation-states don’t need their citizens to identify with it in order to function. Look at Scotland. The SNP’s case for independence (such as it is) is being made not on cultural grounds (appealing to those who feel Scottish, think of themselves as Scottish more than anything else) but because an independent scotland would be fairer, more democractic, more accountable, dare I say more modern place to live.
The opening ceremony did not have to be a celebration of ‘Britishness’. It could have simply celebrated sport (perhaps allowing itself a little dig at the Olympic grandees by dwelling on some activities – like rugby or karate or women’s canoeing – it does not yet recognize). (Maybe even a bit of Indian Dancing). Or it could have created a series of tableaux that represented all the previous games – with its controversies (the black power salute in Mexico 1968) and tragedies (the massacre at Munich in 1972) as well as triumphs (Jesse Owens in Berlin 1936). Criticizing that would have been puritanical.