So, the Olympics Opening Ceremony. I didn’t want to watch it. I thought; surely if it appeals to so many people there must be something wrong with it – on top of being really uncool? I’d heard enough about The Olympics. At my graduation ceremony one of the speakers kept banging on about how many previous Brookes students were Olympic medal winners. This was an Arts and Humanities graduation ceremony; thank you for presuming that we’re all such well-rounded young people that we win Olympic medals as well as getting History degrees but, next speaker, please. Then the ceremony was sprung upon me the morning after it aired. I struggled at first. Then I relinquished control, watched … And I enjoyed it.
I have nothing to compare to as I have never watched another but – I thought Danny Boyle did a pretty good job. My expectations only extended so far as imagining another Jubilee raising the rich and regal to the sky. I couldn’t have been more wrong, instead they were dropped from it. Cunningly, Boyle remained within the parameters of decency and respect whilst pissing a few people off without giving them the machinery for valid justification for their surging anger and negation of his presented notion of what ‘Britishness’ is. If the crown fits … ?
Once one made the effort to overcome the dazzling lights and smoke enshrouding the stadium the event’s purpose became manifest. It was a reflection on our society and who it is made up of. It was a review of how it has been created and what Britain’s position in the world has been found on. It was a ‘what the fuck?’ jerk of the head and a moment of pride. It was also a nudge nudge, wink wink prod on the arm to think about the future of this country despite The Games having been anticipated to be the mother of distractions from the business of Britain and what is actually going on on this little Isle with an identity crisis. Not everyone will have seen through the lights and the smoke, most will have remained dazzled and distracted but this is not for the lack of trying.
If people think the ceremony was a bit ‘lefty’, that’s because it was. I imagine the subsequent slaps in the Tory faces of the NHS sequence to be what keeps them up at night and drinking Horlicks with their whisky. It was provocative, but not just for the immature hell of it. Boyle’s Ceremony was a celebration not just of the institutions and services we enjoy, or rather, take for granted in Britain – it celebrated free speech and differences of opinion. While some may be lambasted for their opinions and many of ours are still not taken into consideration, we are entitled to hold them and voice them without being banged up. Queue Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen whilst Her Majesty sat in the audience.
And was Jerusalem builded here?
It took a few moments of reflection to ‘get’ the opening scene featuring the Industrial Revolution in choruses of Jerusalem before dissolving into heavy tinny drumming whilst The City was being created. Though somewhat trite and reductionist in its portrayal of Britain as the ‘Workshop of the World’ (to be fair, how intense of a history lesson can one go into in an Olympics opening ceremony?), I resolved to interpret the purpose of the destruction of the rural idyll by rising turrets and chimneys as ‘context’. It alluded to the displacement of peoples as the cities grew and the consequent consolidation of a new socioeconomic group – the working class. These were the people who toiled to make those five giant Olympic rings that were raised in the stadium as the men in top hats, or Kenneth Branagh, stood admiring.
Later the Windrush, with the first large group of West Indian immigrants to the UK since the Second World War, arrived. Together these were the people, who made up this multicultural Britain. These are the 99%.
In her book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich posits the question: ‘If we possess this capacity for collective ecstasy, why do we seldom put it to use?’ This is how I felt whilst watching the segment on the Digital Age and its accompanying soundtrack of British music throughout the decades. Yes, the ceremony was a distraction of some sorts, but simultaneously it was thought-provoking in an honest acknowledgement of what our society is and what is happening to it. I couldn’t help but think that we should be sharing our time in different ways than we presently do. I don’t denounce these thoughts as naïve because ‘life just isn’t like that and it will never change’. I know that it might take decades or centuries for us to disentangle ourselves from our construction of work and life – and ultimately change the structure of it – but change does happen. Accepting there is a problem is the first step.