‘Isles of wonder’ left me wondering: what?

The cultural melange was an authentic display of what ‘Britishness’ means today: nothing much at all.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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London 2012’s opening ceremony was entitled ‘Isles of Wonder’. Watching it left me to wonder: what on earth was that all about? What did Danny Boyle’s five-ring circus and the rave reception say about how these UK isles see ourselves today?

Let’s be clear. To say that you didn’t like (or in my case, hated almost every toe-curling moment of) the opening ceremony does not make you an ‘anti-Olympics cynic’. The Games and the preceding song-and-dance act are entirely separate. As argued on spiked last week, the true spirit and legacy of the Olympics are about sporting excellence and the human struggle to be the best. Opening ceremonies have nothing to do with any of that. They are political-cultural vehicles which, since Hitler’s Germany created the template at the 1936 Berlin Games, have been about the host nation projecting a national self-image.

So, what message did the London opening ceremony send about the meaning of Britishness today? Almost everybody felt able to claim a piece of it – from radicals claiming that it had been a ‘celebration of freedom and dissent’ because it included a snatch of the Sex Pistols and descendants of the Suffragette Pankhursts (though the BBC lauded the pro-imperialist Emmeline and ignored the revolutionary Sylvia), to the Tory Daily Telegraph claiming that it had ‘captured the spirit, history, humour and patriotism’ of the nation because it included ‘Jerusalem’ and all that.

It seemed to say that Britishness means whatever you want it to mean – and therefore, nothing distinct at all.

Whatever the chaotic cultural melange did say about the UK today was inevitably more about image than substance. It appears we are a nation of celebrity. The organisers seemed to conclude that the only Brits the world might recognise would be James Bond, David Beckham, and Mr Bean (they put the B in Team GB). And of course the queen. But she too has now got to be a celebrity rather than the embodiment of the Crown. So they cast Her Majesty in a skit with Bond actor Daniel Craig, and made her the Queen of Comedy. It was the wittiest bit of the show (scripted by Frank Cottrell-Boyce who, 20 years ago, was the brilliant TV critic on the magazine I edited, Living Marxism), but if I was a royalist rather than a republican I would have been aghast at what they had done to my monarch.

Or perhaps we might conclude that Britain is a nation of victims. The experience of world war was depicted as pointless suffering without any traditional triumphalism. Then came the mawkish blow-up pictures of dead relatives sent in by spectators, like some sort of minute’s silence for everybody in the UK. And there was Doreen Lawrence who, since her teenage son Stephen was murdered 19 years ago, has become a media-appointed representative of victims everywhere, carrying the Olympic flag alongside Muhammed Ali – ‘the Greatest’ now seen as a tragic victim of Parkinson’s disease more than the proud and fearless fighter.

As for what Britain, the former ‘workshop of the world’, does for a living these days, one could only conclude from this that the UK is a nation of ‘pop-pickers’, since so much of the show focused on our often-outstanding popular music from the past 60 years. Sheffield might not have a steel industry anymore, but at least it has still got Arctic Monkeys. Unfortunately the rest of us have still got Sir Paul McCartney croaking ‘Hey Jude’ at the end of every national festival.

When all else fails to inspire, fall back on the image of the UK as the nation of the National Health Service, with Boyle highlighting ‘NHS’ like a political slogan. But it has to be an entirely fairytale version of the NHS of course, far removed from the grim realities, with the poor kiddies in their hospital beds menaced by every horror from Captain Hook to Voldemort (what, no David Cameron?) before being rescued by an army of angelic nurses and an airforce of flying Mary Poppinses.

Afterwards, plenty of commentators praised the show for its typically British ‘self-deprecating humour’. That is a national trait worth celebrating. But there is a point at which self-deprecation can become self-caricature.

Presented as a celebration of freedom and dissent, the opening ceremony turned out to be remarkably conformist. Behind the designer quirkiness and idiosyncratic indulgence, this looked more like a national self-image shaped by a committee, a focus group, and an exercise in box-ticking. The result was an accurate reflection of what mainstream ‘Britishness’ means today – anything and everything, and therefore nothing much at all. You can try to cover the hole with the usual talk of ‘diversity’, but our diverse society still needs to sort out what it wants to stand for.

The best thing about the opening ceremony was the close – both because the cauldron, light show and fireworks were spectacular, and because it meant we could get on with the Games, where the only ‘message’ on display will hopefully be Citius, Altius, Fortius.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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