May 19, 2013
Wonders from below
Fears of a plodding, stately, dove-filled dirge of Britishness to welcome the world’s cameras to London lasted about five minutes. For once the rustic maypole had been put away and the sheep and goats carted off, cacophony unfurled. Friday night’s event to inaugurate London 2012 has had its critics, in Britain and abroad, and has been slighted among other things for its Socialist bias, its dependence on local pop and its intimidating length. But on one matter there seems no doubt: when five rings of supposedly smelted, sparking iron rose out of the pandemonium of the British industrial proletariat to form the Olympic insignia, jaws dropped inter-continentally.
Betty, apparently, was the codename for this object of awe. Of all the secrets of the opening ceremony to the Olympic Games, it was the best kept: news of the Queen’s fling with James Bond had leaked out. Rumours on the grapevine had also spoken of hospital beds and Chariots of Fire. But this singular feat of stage engineering, all the more courageous for coming two years after the breakdown in the Olympic torch-lighting machinery in the Vancouver Winter Games, was utterly hush-hush. The silence of 7,500 volunteers in the event, somewhat un-British, was total.
Naturally, strong views on the ceremony were to be found all weekend across the world media and a streaming host of digitalia. It was derided for escaping the issue of empire, either because this was because this was the best thing Britain ever achieved, or because it was the worst. After all, show director Danny Boyle’s industrial history is unlikely to be one most foreign students of Britain are familiar with. Even for those educated in Britain, it is either subordinate to great battles, kings and queens, Gladstone and Disraeli, or is air-brushed into a reassuring zip of material progress.
“The new situation created by the Industrial Revelation was boldly met by the statesmen of the day with a wave of Acts, such as Tory Acts, Factory Acts, Satisfactory Acts and Unsatisfactory Acts,” wrote the comic authors Sellar and Yeatman in their great satire on British classroom history, 1066 and all that. “The most soothing of these enacted that children under five years of age who worked all day in factories should have meals (at night). This was a Good Thing, as it enabled them to work much faster.”
Two years in the making, this monumental pre-Olympic spectacle was conceived in opposition not just to the tide of British history, but also to everything around it. In the Village and circling the stadia in London, athletes and spectators traverse a tightly woven fishnet of commercialization and merchandising — everything is sponsored in the Olympics, and McDonald’s and Visa reign supreme. The City of London is merely a few miles away. Whereas Boyle and his team picked out the atrocious caesura between farm and factory, and transfigured history from below into hyper-kinetic pokes in the eye.
This hymn to the collective was, according to a gushing New York Times, the portrait of “a nation secure in its own post-empire identity.” Possibly not, if the young party people featured in one segment riot as they did last summer. However, it may be that British people’s steps were indeed lighter and faster the next day, if only because the nearby abandoned factory, green hill or bramble-covered stone cottage had briefly been enchanted by a brilliant spectacle, watched by the world. “Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local gods,” declares the protagonist of Peter Shaffer’s great play, Equus. “Sprits of certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip shops.”
Were that emotion actually felt, however, better not expect the average Briton to admit to such an altered inner state. And least of all, do not expect the haunted woods to affect the other prevalent opinion that the British currently hold of themselves. Economic data released just days before the Olympics began shows the economy contracting by 0.7 percent, back to the size it stood at 2006. Meanwhile, the government led by David Cameron cleaves to austerity as the sole solution, amid the growing popular perception that he and his ministers watch DVDs and strategize rather than do anything to arrest the national decline.
It is fairly likely that Boyle and his crew would think the same. And yet, in its way, the stand-offish nature of Cameron’s government, full of young patricians with private fortunes, seemingly ill-disposed to getting the state involved in anything it can avoid, should also be given a share of credit for Friday’s subversive extravaganza. From the information now available, Cameron could well have seen an animated mock-up of the event. Given that the chairman of the London Olympics is Sebastian Coe, a former Tory MP, lines of communication from the Olympic nerve-centre to Downing Street were solid.
Yet rather than meddle, block the reference to the National Health Service and obliterate the swarm of factory workers, Cameron, as he has with the economy, appears to have done precisely nothing. In this respect for artistic license, he has surely surpassed almost every other government in an Olympic host nation.
Such is the blithe over-confidence of the British upper-class, ever reliant on people to rely on themselves. In Churchill’s opinion, Britain should aspire to become Greece to the latter-day Rome, the United States. As post-imperial identities go, this cannot be bad, unless of course you also start to resemble the Greek economy along the way.