This is not the piece I hoped to write. I hoped to write of a climb-down on my previous views. First you may be served by reading them, so that I don’t go back over old ground. The quick version; me and patriotism have issues. Also Chris T-T got in before me here with a piece that renders much of mine redundant. But I have snark and I’m not afraid to use it.
I missed most of the Olympic opening ceremony. It was competing against my chance to see Batman battle Bane on an Imax screen. I knew what I was going to get from the opening ceremony -crass jingosim and nothing reflective of my Britain- and I knew what I was going to get from Batman -three hours of greatness. I caught the first 30 minutes of the ceremony and it somewhat reinforced what I’d expected. It was clumsy and crass and full of some dodgy symbolism in the rush to get from a depiction of middle earth to the modern day via the scouring of the shire. Then James Bond jumped out of a helicopter with the Queen and, though I don’t like monarchy, the image carried with it the promise of something I might want to see. We went to watch Batman and realised three hours later that we had made the wrong choice.
We heard that after the Bond stunt the ceremony began to do some interesting and remarkable things. There was a love letter to an NHS that is being destroyed, there were moving tributes to victims of tragedy, and the overall message that this was a ceremony aimed at all of us. There was the feeling -one I’ve cobbled together from hearing others talk of it- that perhaps this was a ceremony made specifically for those like me; those disenfranchised with nationalism or patriotism and removed from any need to wave flags.
I am a skeptic rather than a cynic, and deep down all skeptics want to have some form of faith restored. Even with a sneer in place and a wall of snark, I still began to get the feeling as the games progressed that perhaps there was something here. In seeing not just the success of Jessica Ennis and Mo Farrah on that great evening, but also the reactions of the public, I started to feel tempted to join in. For the first time in my adult life I felt this was something I could get behind. That the Britain of Ennis and Farah was a Britain that I could argue for, a progressive, exciting and hopeful place. Moreover in seeing the bigots and the reactionista becoming increasingly isolated and mocked, I saw progress. And even in London, in a city that I’m often quick to dismiss, I started to see an open and inclusive capital that might be worth defending over the next few years as political lines are drawn by those who want to redraw the map of the UK. Even in my current frozen home of Glasgow, I saw a thawing. People who shared my sneer -if not my motivation- at the outset of the Olympics were prepared to jump for joy at the victories ‘we’ achieved.
I sat to watch the closing ceremony to make up for missing so much of the opening, to join in on the new experience and see if I could follow through on the troubling little feeling of hope that had been building. Could this be the perfect closing? Could this be the message that said, this is who we are in the 21st century, all of us, deal with it?
Fortunately for my skepticism, if the opening ceremony had been a fist-pump for a modern inclusive Britain, and the games had been a celebration of this idea, the closing ceremony was a hasty and repulsive step backwards.
Come world and look at us, the land where rich white people can perform their new singles to a captive audience, where women are only there to wear glittery shite and where any sense of multicultural progress has to be a tick-box excercise. Whereas everyone worked in the opening ceremony in celebration of something bigger, they only worked here in celebration of themselves. The athletes? They were just an inconvenience in the middle who took too long to hit their mark in an event that was supposed to be all about them. How dare they take so long in the limelight.
When Timothy Spall gave a speech as Winston Churchill he waved a red rag to my bullshit meter. Not only that, but they had an actor portray Winston Churchill reciting Shakespeare. Why not have an actor portray Shakespeare reciting Shakespeare? You know, that working class writer from the provinces, that image of Britain that deserves to be far more long-lasting than a millionaire reactionary bigot, who hated the working class almost as much as he hated being out of the limelight?
They followed that up with Madness. I’m from the Midlands, and we love us some 2tone and Ska there. And I’m also (mostly) white and of an age when I’m not afraid to dance to a few Madness tunes after some beer. But we can’t escape that they are the clean-cut, white and shite pop version of what was a very open and inclusive movement of socially driven music. The Selecter and The Specials sang of poverty and desperation, Madness sang of buying condoms and living in a house. Fun, safe, dull. Early on the feeling set in that never left; this was the Top Gear version of an Olympic ceremony.
I’m also not afraid to say that George Michael is a pop artist who is capable of doing interesting and subversive things. When he’s in the right mood, and has a target to aim at, he can produce as much venom as any punk-rocker. But that wasn’t in the script, so we got a half-baked rehash of an old hit and then a confusing and plodding new single, all while he did his best Bono impression. An unfunny comedian mimed to The Beatles followed by a middle aged white dude miming djing one of his own songs. Jessie J sang about money, and the Spice Girls sang about, well, whatever they sing about. All of the interesting acts who may have had something of value to contribute were kept to video montages or audio loops. And then Imagine. Fucking Imagine. The most condescending and patronising song in history, placed firmly at the centre of the event. One of the few songs that has struggled manfully to take imagine’s title is Park Life. But never fear, we got to hear a brief snippet of that, too.
Nothing of interest happened until the Brazilians turned up. I may well have a Brazilian counterpart right now complaining that their contribution was a cliched tick-box exercise in itself, and he may have a point, but in contrast to the rest of the show it felt vibrant and celebratory. This was then followed by some more ageing white-dudes singing about ruling the world, before some further aged-white dudes turned up to, uh, “Jam in the name of the Lord.” Whilst Roger Daltrey’s 68-year old vocal rasp about people trying to put his generation down would, perhaps, suggest a route to solving the impending pension crisis, it felt like the final apologetic whimper to an event that had nothing progressive to say.
The best achievement of the night was forcing Liam Gallagher to squirm in self hatred as he sung the most famous song written by his brother, from that band that neither of them are in. Thankfully Supergrass and Pulp would have too much self-respect for such things.
This is our statement on Britain in 2012, then. Women know their place, ethnic groups belong to tokenism, and white men can make all the good noise. The athletes -the figures who we all agreed had created such a liberating experience- were an inconvenience to be penned in, and Boris Johnson was there to dance. All that was missing was the fucking Stig turning up to machine gun some hippies while Jeremy Clarkson talked about bombshells and we all agreed how horrible it would be to be anything other than British.
We are back where we were a month ago, and it stinks.