The story of Britain, of who the people of these islands are and how they - we, I suppose - came to be here, is hotly contested political ground right now. The Conservative part of the coalition government is trying to retell that story. From highly misleading narratives about benefits scroungers sponsored by the Prime Minister to cutting taxes for top earners and practically handing the history curriculum to right-wing historian Niall Ferguson, the story this government is telling of what Britain as a nation values is one of individualism, money, and empire.
From teasers and early coverage of rehearsals for the Olympic opening ceremony (turning the stadium into a representation of rural Britain, complete with sheep and all that), I must admit I was expecting a continuation of that story, a sequel to the sickly-sweet pageantry of the Jubilee complete with miles of bunting. Given that it was Danny Boyle running the show, I perhaps did him a disservice. Yet with everyone and everything else who has sold out to turn London into an Olympic-occupied territory with shocking restrictions on free speech, more troops deployed for the games than in Afghanistan, and the infamous Olympic missiles, I can perhaps be forgiven for having extremely low expectations of the opening ceremony.
Danny Boyle blew my socks off. Bizarre though this sounds given the £27 million cost of the show, his opening ceremony is perhaps the most overtly grassroots-political act in the Olympics since the 1968 Black Power salute. Politics and the Olympic games do tend to go hand in hand. From boycotts and counter-boycotts during the Cold War to the spectacular display of Chinese ascendency that was the Beijing Games, grand political gestures by world powers are par for the course. Yet such gestures tend to leave real people behind. Danny Boyle's retelling of the story of Britain, on the other hand, swept us all up with it. It presented a powerful, credible image of Britain that couldn't be more different from the Tory narrative.
From the shipping forecast to the hard labour of miners and factory workers during the industrial revolution, to successive waves of immigration, a celebration of the NHS and a jawdropping tour of British culture and music, the Britain Boyle showed us was idiosyncratic, diverse, multicultural and fun. This is after all the country that gave us the World Wide Web and gave Saudi state television its first lesbian kiss. There is a place here for everyone: black, brown or white, young or old, able-bodied or otherwise, male, female, straight, gay, born here or overseas, it is all of us who make this country the amazing place that it is. This is the Britain fell in love with, the reason why ten years after finishing the degree I came here for I am still in this country. It is arguably also a Britain that doesn't, strictly speaking, exist.
In between all the sound and fury, the celebration of different people and cultures coming together, there are plenty of those who do not wish for this Britain to exist. One Tory MP called the spectacle "leftie multi-cultural crap". At the same time as winged figures cycled into the stadium in another stunning set piece, police outside were kettling and manhandling peacfully protesting cyclists. Then of course there are the aforementioned troops and Olympic missiles. Danny Boyle's vision doesn't quite match reality. It is, however, a representation of the best of Britain, of Britain as many of us would like it to be, of the kind of Britain many of us a working towards. At a time like this, when the story of these isles is so hotly contested, creating such a powerful, inclusive and inspirational vision, and using the greatest global marketing campaign to do so, is a truly audacious political statement.
The crowning achievement of the night was - how could it be anything else? - the lighting of the cauldron. Not one single cauldron but 204 individual petals representing the nations taking part in the Olympics. Not one single mega-star carrying the torch those final few steps but seven young athletes, lighting that Olympic flame together. At a time when individualism has practically become a religion, when we are worshipping the rich, famous and powerful, the cauldron and the seven young people who lit it are a stunning symbol of what we can achieve by working together and supporting each other. Against the backdrop of multicultural, diverse Britain which serves as a reminder that we can still be individuals, there is immense power in that image.
Danny Boyle has stuck up two fingers to the story of individualism, money and empire and given us a vision to work towards. Just when many of us have begun to wonder whether we can turn the tide of selfishness, pettiness and narrow-mindedness that seems to be sweeping the country with this government, whether we can tell a different story, Boyle has given us that story and reminded us that we, indeed, can build Jerusalem.
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