Updated: May 10, 2020
Several zillion words have already been written about the Olympic opening ceremony in the 24 hours since it sent an electric charge through the whole of Britain, and it seems, beyond. But I want to add a few of my own, because it was about so many things that matter to me. It was about sport, people, the ideas of society and progress, and about pride in who you are and where you come from.
The thinking behind it is succinctly expressed in ceremony director Danny Boyle’s programme notes, which have been circulating on Twitter. Simple ideas which mean so much, and based around an understanding of history and what it is that shapes lives. I loved the chaotic depiction of a rural country being transformed by the Industrial Revolution, and of how the brutality and harshness of that revolution was also recognised to have led to the creation of so much that is good and improving. For the whole of my adult life, the concept of industry, of the central importance of making things, has been under attack. Last night, as I saw the link between the Industrial and Digital revolutions drawn in graphic terms, I dared to hope that 30 years of imposed amnesia had been broken.
The genius – a much-misused term but correctly applied here – of the ceremony was, as The Times observed, not to tell but to show. And that helped too in that other great controversy of my adult life, the debate over nation and national identity. Boyle didn’t tell us what Britain was, he showed us what it is, and particularly what London is. And he showed it in all its chaotic, self-deprecating, quirky, brash, witty and awkward glory. Above all, he showed we can celebrate who we are without thinking this means attempting to be better than everyone else. We can be comfortable in our own skin.
It’s been interesting to see who didn’t like it. An idiot right-wing attention seeker on Twitter ran into early trouble and has been digging himself deeper into the hole he deserves to inhabit all day. And a mass-circulation newspaper that confuses readership numbers with readership respect demonstrated how objectionably out of touch it really is. It won’t give either of them the benefit of a link, but I’m sure you can deduce if you must.
There have been, noticeably fewer, objections from the left. I saw one which objected to the celebration of the NHS at a time when it is being destroyed by the government. I can’t really see how you defend something without celebrating what is good about it myself. And there have been some mutterings about nationalism which seem to entirely miss the point Boyle’s ceremony made. But there’s been a section of the left which has for too long been willing to let the right hijack national identity. And sport too, for that matter, as my friend Mel Gomes (@melstarsg) observed.
Two of my favourite observations came from The Times and from Laurie Penny (@pennyred). The Times said that, while the talk in the run-up to London’s opening ceremony was all of how the London ceremony would measure up to Beijing’s, maybe the talk now should be of how China should measure up to Britain. And Laurie Penny, pithy as ever, tweeted after the shindig ended: “So, Britain. Two thousand years of deeply fucking odd, and a lot more socialist than some people would like. Bout spot on.”
I know it will get irritating very soon to keep hearing how good our tradition of tolerating dissent is. Parts of Britain are developing a tendency to make a big show of tolerating dissent and parading the awkward squad while simultaneously trying to get rid of both. And it’s long been a bugbear of mine that many of those who laud the opportunity to dissent only value it as long as the dissenters don’t get their way. If you want to read more on those lines, I highly recommend Laurie Penny’s essay London, Underground in The New Inquiry.
One the evening of the opening ceremony I walked from Blackfriars along the river to London Bridge to catch my train home. There was something in the air, and that something was good. I remembered how much I loved my city. The ceremony that night restored my faith both in what we have, and in why it’s important to make the effort to improve what we have. And it also reminded me why I’m going to drink in as much sport as possible during the Games.