My Olympics: Isle see you (and raise you one)
When I got to work this (Monday) morning and everyone was talking about the Opening Ceremony I was struck by how long ago it seems – it was only on Friday night and yet a lot of water seems to have passed under the proverbial. It was exactly a week ago that I sped down to Stratford after work to watch the first full Technical Dress rehearsal of the ceremony thanks to a last minute ticket courtesy of London 2012 digital boss Alex Balfour. I was bowled over by what I saw and heard. It was clearly designed as a television event – you could sense many of the camera angles to come – so I was more than happy to experience the real thing via that medium five days later. I found the structure very interesting too – it seemed to revolve around an iconic moment right in the middle – the coming together of the five Olympic rings in a shower of steel mill sparks. We did not see the other iconic moment at the end – the lighting of Thomas Heatherwick’s 204 petal fire flower – which shifts the structure to something more balanced across the whole event. Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder proved to be a panoramic vision of what and who this country is, was and will be. It had a natural diversity and balance – ethnically, generationally, geographically, culturally – which reflect the greatness of Britain.
I’ve thought for a long time that Englishness (I’ll switch perspective for a moment) is characterised by these four things in particular:
- Eccentricity – we always have been an odd, outlandish bunch: the world will think so all the more now (no bad thing), with the striking contrast with Beijing 2008’s bombastic opening ceremony which I wrote about back in July 2012 in this very blog here
- Humour – we have a sense of humour that undermines authority, sometimes in a self-deprecating way (but different from New York humor in that regard)
- Tolerance – basically these isles have tended to absorb other peoples in a constructive way
- Creativity of a particular hard-edged brutal sort – I’ve written about this elsewhere in this blog, Creativity being one of the two the main themes, but to reiterate I believe the combination of Norman refinedness and Saxon warrior tendencies has brought about the kind of culture where a beautiful feminine dress is finished with a pair of DMs, that constant undermining of the conventional.
Danny Boyle’s ceremony was infused with all of these: Eccentricity in turning a sports stadium into a bucolic world from the past complete with farm animals and rugby players, that very eccentric game created when some maverick picked up the ball and ran with it; Humour well captured in that modern day Chaplin, mute and recognised the world over, Mr Bean, dreaming of Chariots of Fire (yes, it pains me to bracket him with Chaplin but there is that common universality) and in getting the reigning monarch to be shoved out of a helicopter to make her entrance (I loved the quotation in The Telegraph the next day: “With the words ‘Good evening, Mr Bond’ the Queen secured the monarchy for the next thousand years.”); Tolerance in the easy racial mix of the whole cast and story-telling, like the modern phone-centric romance of the Digital Revolution sequence, as well as the inclusion of the choir of blind, deaf and other children; and of course Creativity in every fibre of its being. I’m not a huge fan of Boyle’s films but I can’t really fault anything in his conception or direction on this occasion – real vision and insight.
Whilst writing this I had a quick look back at that blog post from the time of the Beijing Opening Ceremony and it read as surprisingly precient:
In 2012 to follow these people making a spectacle of themselves, partying to the tune of the Party, London must be itself, tune in to its idiosyncratic, eccentric, spirited creativity (one thing that cannot be manufactured); its rich mix of cultures and peoples; its unique, particular, genuine handmade in Britain talent; its individual dreams which thread the tapestry of its Jerusalem spirit.
I even got the opening song right – that beautiful rendition of Jerusalem which really should be our national anthem (or the English one at least). That child’s voice, and children throughout the event, were included with a genuine warmth and respect.
What was brilliant about the whole thing was how, despite the regime under which it was created, it raised an almighty finger to the Tory establishment and other right-wingers (including the US of A) by showcasing the NHS, the workers who built this country (and the Olympic Park itself, forming the honour guard when the torch finally entered the stadium), Johnny Rotten and the Pistols, Tim Berners-Lee who gave everything away in a very non-Capitalist way, ravers, lesbian kissing, volunteers, the works – all this, without aggression and in good spirit, plugging in to the energy of creative ideas and imagination.
It also captured the intergenerational aspect of the Olympics perfectly, no more so then when transferring that flame from the elder statesman of sport that is now five-time Gold Medal winner Steve Redgrave, via a generation of highly accomplished British Olympians who mentored and selected them, to the 7 emerging talents who carried those distinctive perforated metallic torches (one of which I’d seen from a few feet away two days before as it jogged across my manor by Victoria Park London N3) to light the petals of the cauldron which rose and were united in a single flame in a perfectly judged moment of symbolism.
On the Friday of the Opening ceremony I did my first shift at the Main Press Centre as a Gamesmaker (London 2012 volunteer). That I was working there is testimony to the narrowness of my skills – you didn’t apply for any particular job, you told them what you could do and they assigned you to a role, so I got the website and related social media. I woke up that Friday morning, in another well judged moment of symbolism, at dawn – excited like a child. And like a child I got on my bike (after first having driven it in the back of the car to Stamford Hill, site of my own raving in my 20s at Watermint Quay by the canal) and cycled along the self-same canal in the deserted early morning to the Hackney Wick corner of the Olympic Park. I clocked on at the MPC in good time, joined in the bell ringing at 8:12 (All the Bells by Martin Creed) and then got to it. Seb Coe wandered in during the morning to watch the Jacques Rogge press conference on our telly. He wandered in again exactly 24 hours later the morning after the Ceremony. He looked tired but content. (I’d had only 4 hours sleep myself, and I’m a basket case without at least 16.) I took the opportunity to congratulate him (his speech alone must have been nerve-wracking to a global TV audience of that magnitude) and talk about the reaction so far. He was delighted with the UK press reaction and felt that international coverage was equally positive. We then talked for a bit about what the approach signified for the future of the country, how it was emblematic of the edge our unique British creativity can give in a world dominated by huge populations and their cheap labour. What a telling comparison between the conscripted soldiers making up the serried ranks of the Beijing ceremony and the volunteer health workers and the like who populated the Isles of Wonder.