Sunday, 29 July 2012

An opening

Cynic though I sometimes am, I warmed to the Olympics opening ceremony.   Yes, I know it cost a lot and I know the performers were volunteers and that there are numerous problems with corporate sponsors and the treatment of dissent.  I might not have watched the ceremony had my daughter not been one of the volunteers but, once I'd got used to the style, I found a great deal to love.

It's easy to be critical of the account of history, especially since there was so little time and so much was going on.  I glimpsed the suffragettes but only learned later that the Jarrow marchers were also present.  Perhaps the Chartists were somewhere around though I don't think the Tolpuddle martyrs or the Diggers were included.  They didn't represent the the Commonwealth either - perhaps the execution of Charles I was judged unsuitable for all sorts of reasons - and Britain's uncomfortable colonial history was omitted.  But Blake's "Jerusalem" made a good starting point and the complexity of the Industrial Revolution - with its excitement, achievement and damage - was stupendous.  I'm still thinking about the implications of conflating Shakespeare's Caliban with Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  Perhaps because it appeals so strongly to my imagination, it's made a slight adjustment to my views of the 19th century.

I expect most viewers took what they wanted from the ceremony.  Some of my friends lauded J.K. Rowling. There was great enthusiasm for James Bond, the Queen and the corgis.  Mr Bean had even more fans than Simon Rattle.  I was thrilled to see a huge CND symbol in the arena, even though I understand that it was there as part of the history of Britain in the late twentieth ceremony.  But a huge number of people were excited when the letters "NHS" appeared.  Most people in Britain still agree that being able to go to the doctor and be treated in hospital when necessary without worrying about money is one of the great achievements of Britain's welfare state.  As the story of the health service was entangled with children's books, it wasn't surprising that villains from children's literature appeared to attack children in hospital nor that nurses and a number of Mary Poppinses finally defeated Lord Voldemort.

But perhaps the best thing about the opening ceremony was that it showed so many people what they love about Britain: its countryside, its industrial achievement; its literature;  its music; and above all the huge mixture of ordinary people who mostly live happily together, enjoy life and like one another.  It was an optimistic and hopeful picture of life here today, appropriate for the short period in which, in theory, there should be an Olympic peace.  I liked the way the peacemakers handed the Olympic flag to representatives of the armed forces, because, if we're ever to build peace, we'd be wise to involve armies in the movement away from violence.  

The parade of the athletes, many grinning broadly as they entered the stadium, fitted well with the show as a whole.  I know it's not always like this but I'd like to think of the Olympics as somewhere in which competitors form friendships across national boundaries and despite suspicion and conflict.  I'm also happy to celebrate the huge variety of people who take part in sports for love of it and who often aren't very well-known.  Since I joined a fencing club, I've learned about the amount of dedication shown by people in "minority" sports.  At my fencing club the coaches are unpaid (but qualified) volunteers and members of the committee donate their skills in such roles as web-designer, accountant, social secretary and armourer so that the club can keep its fees down and welcome members of the basis of interest.  It's given me a great respect for people involved in sport.

It seems that Danny Boyle's vision is one of peace, freedom and equality - one in which the contributions of all people are valued.  It's a fantasy, of course, and I see the strength of the objections.  People say it all costs too much in an age of austerity,  that it's a bit unreal and that sport isn't for everyone.  People quote Juvenal and talk about "bread and circuses" - some of them go on to ask "where's the bread?"  I can see their point.  They see sport and the arts as an extravagance when we need to to campaign once more: for the health service, for workers' rights, for food for the hungry, for an end to torture and oppression, for the welfare state, for equality, for freedom. I want all those things but I want circuses as well.  

Juvenal saw bread and circuses as something that distracted the people from Rome's serious political purposes.  He didn't like the people much.  For him they were the enemy of political decency - and he didn't reckon he belonged among them.  But I am happy to be one of "the people."  For me there's a different way of expressing what I want.  Just over a hundred years ago a poem declared that a life devoted to work and survival was not enough.  Two lines have often been repeated:

 Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
 Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

 I want a world in which people experience delight as well as having enough to eat.  I don't think art and sport necessarily turn us into passive consumers of whatever the government says.  They can bring people together and widen their knowledge and understanding of the world.  They can set the imagination and intelligence alight, and bring people who would not normally encounter one another the joy of engaging in a shared activity.  They can give us some idea of how much better the world might be, even though they leave us with the task of achieving it.  

Photo by Nick Webb, courtesy of wikimedia commons.


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