This is a seminal moment for the United Kingdom when the eyes of the world are on us. The Olympic opening ceremony showed the country at its most assured: true to its past, but not weighed down by it; capable of being spectacular, but also of being thoughtful, moving and funny. The gold-rush which has followed over recent days, full of great stories of achievement and bravery, has brought more encouragement and inspiration, and enabled us as the host nation to look confidently out to the world.
Yet a year ago, the world saw another side of our society. The riots, and the reaction that followed, portrayed a discontented, angry, violent nation, a nation full of 'problem families', an 'underclass' not committed to playing by the country's rules and a 'destructive, nihilistic youth'. We appeared a country split between rich and poor, between those in positions of power and authority and the disaffected and disengaged; a materialistic nation happy to loot trainers and mobile phones; a nation turned in on itself.
Of course, the reality of every day life for most British people lies somewhere in between these two extremes. In the aftermath of the riots, I travelled across the UK, seeking to write a book about what the country was really like by talking to ordinary people about their perceptions of life in Britain. I visited over a hundred villages, towns and cities across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, meeting over a thousand members of the public along the way, and found a nation which was full of kind, decent people, but also where fear, loss and disillusionment were all too common.
Most of the concerns of the people I met related in some way to the economy: jobs, mortgages, pensions, tuition fees, as well as Britain's place in the world as we struggled while China, India and others surged forward. But there was also deep anxiety that there seemed to be few role models and leaders to rely on during such difficult times; and concern that for all the steps forward the country had made, too much had been lost along the way in terms of social bonds in communities and trust, both in institutions and in one another.
Perhaps this is why the UK has showed two such different faces to the world over the last year. It is possible, we have shown, both to aspire to equality and tolerance yet still to have divided communities, to seek social mobility but still to have many who feel that they struggle to 'get on', to have built a democracy to which other countries aspire but about which many of its own citizens are apathetic, to be able to put on a great show to the world but for many to feel that it is not a true reflection of their lives.
The riots showed us at a real low. The Olympics have been a national high. We have seen the best and worst reflections of ourselves over the past year - and so has the world. The fact that neither is an accurate reflection of our everyday lives does not mean that we should not learn from them. Perhaps the lesson we might take from the Olympics is about the society we might want to build in the future: confident enough to laugh at ourselves, our weaknesses and our eccentricities; secure in ourselves and trusting of one another; comfortable in our past, but looking forward. Yet the riots show us how far we have to go to build make that kind of society a reality in Britain and what might happen if we fall short. So let's remember the riots, and what they felt like even for those who were not directly involved; but let's also enjoy the Olympic party, the feeling of success and energy, and take inspiration for future from it; and when the party is over, let's begin in earnest the work to build a stronger nation.
Follow Joseph Hayman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joehayman