Saturday, July 28, 2012

Being British

I love Greece, but as an outsider. It isn't the same as being part of somewhere. If I was going to say what I love about my own country, I could mention literature and music obviously, the scenery and the townscapes, though not the weather, and that would tell you nothing about what it is like. No, I would pick out a few other things instead. There is our glorious cosmopolitanism. Self-deprecation as a national sport is another; we find ourselves funny. Then there is irreverence, humour, satire, surrealism and, of course, sentimentality. And I have just described the London Olympics' opening ceremony.

It was different. A rural idyll destroyed by dark satanic mills; Blake and Shakespeare (Caliban not Richard II); workers and women on the march. The historian in me was pleased to see that though the WSPU colours were in evidence amongst the suffrage campaigners, the most prominent banners were those of the NUWSS. The Jarrow marchers make an appearance, the Windrush arrives, so do the Beatles, and then a centrepiece celebration of the National Health Service, which has to be saved from monsters drawn from children's literature by an army of flying Mary Poppins. And that was only the beginning. We moved on to the Sex Pistols accompanied by giant bouncing punks, James Bond and the Queen parachuting from a light aircraft, the London Symphony Orchestra featuring Mr Bean ... and ... and ... and ...  before Dizzee Rascal performed Bonkers. Quite.

It avoided being kitsch, which so many of these ceremonies are, pulling back from the brink just as you thought it was going to slip over the edge. It was rarely banal, was often wildly over the top, didn't take itself too seriously and was always supremely, utterly surreal. But then the sentimentality was beautifully understated  - Abide With Me was sung exquisitely by Emeli Sandé.

What impressed me most was that it was populist in the best meaning of the term. It was of and about the people. It celebrated them and their collective experiences, their work and, by the end, their ability to laugh and to party. And when the Olympic flame entered the arena, the guard of honour was made up of the construction workers who had built the stadium. I liked that.

Of course a particularly obnoxious type of Tory MP has gratifyingly ruined his career with his "leftie," "multicultural crap" tweets. Then again it didn't take long for another bit of pious carping to drop into my inbox from someone who would have preferred some sanctimonious agitprop. But that is not what an opening ceremony is for. Wait a minute, what is an opening ceremony for? Er ... Hold on a sec ... Oh well, if we are going to have one, why not something fun - and creative - and entertaining - and touching - and mad - like this. In short; art, popular art.

I'll end on sentimentality. It is a hot day, the cicadas are screeching, this isn't Britain, I feel like a little sentimentality. Here is Emeli Sandé's studio recording of Abide With Me. Listen, lie back, and think of England.


Anonymous said...

for me it was an avantgarde OGames opening ceremony, but many of the audience around the world could understand it; other folks, other cultures... a bit too British maybe? if it had some more universal elements, then that's what supposedly are the Olympic Games about. but British culture has become universal, hasn't it?
PS loved the construction workers welcoming the flame too :)

The Plump said...

Some British culture has spread, but is too often confused with American culture. We have awful language problems with each other because we both speak the same one.

What I don't think that most non-Brits get is our intense pride at being pretty rubbish at most things. The piece didn't celebrate British achievements, it reminded us that we had some. This comes as a great surprise, and rather a pleasant one at that.

el Romandante said...

I would agree with the anonymous first commentator that the opening ceremony was a bit too british for the rest of the world to bear. However, I could not agree more with the fact that what was presented yesterday - the british pop culture and technology- are nowadays universal.
What I loved most from yesterday was this symbolic pass of the torch to the youth, something so common in your country, Plump, and something I am so desperate to see in my own which is still dominated by 70s thinking leaders.

el Romandante said...

and the indirect but clear message for the NHS of course

Anton Deque said...

Oddly, no one says Chinese culture is too Chinese.

In regards to my previous comment, I have had my answer to a nationality question on an official claim form altered in my presence from 'English' to 'British'. Recently an attempt by me to amend details on my Electoral Roll entry resulted in a another fail. I could, I was told afterwards, describe myself as'Irish' if I filled in another form, but not 'English'.