‘I forgot how rare and intoxicating collective joy is. It revives the heart, a bit, doesn’t it?’ said Megan Cat-Noises on Twitter. I may be the only person in the country to have woken up depressed on Saturday morning. Perhaps it’s just what collective joy does to me and I am therefore to be pitied. It’s certainly the case that I deeply dislike spectacle of all kinds and the heavy symbolism it demands. Still, let me try and clarify a little my response to the Olympic opening ceremony.
I’m pretty sure that nothing more overtly political or antagonistic to government policy could have been staged in such circumstances, and Danny Boyle, his writer and the performers are to be saluted for giving the dissenting left a morale boost. Even more they are to be congratulated on provoking the right and forcing the likes of David Cameron and Boris Johnson to put a brave face on the veiled criticism they were forced to view.
It also revealed the extent to which the right abhors the NHS and what it calls variously ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘political correctness’. On the night, the Tory MP previously known mostly for attending a Nazi-themed stag party complained: ‘The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state! Welfare tribute next?’ Toby Young felt as if he’d ‘just watched a £27 million Party Political Broadcast for the Labour Party’. (That would be the Old Labour Party of myth and story.) On Saturday, the Daily Mail wailed about ‘the NHS being shamefully glorified’, and then went on in truly mad-dog style about a scene: ‘showing a mixed-race middle-class family in a detached new-build suburban home’. It went on:
This was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up.
Even the Mail had second thoughts about this paragraph, and revised it to read:
This was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but such set-ups are simply not the ‘norm’ in any part of the country. So why was it portrayed like this and given such prominence? If it was intended to be something that we can celebrate, that two people with different colour skin and different cultural heritages can live harmoniously together, then it deserves praise.
So far so good. What was more, there was no sign of either Tony Blair or Stephen Fry in the entire three-hour show. The liberal press and twitterers who regularly howl about the doings of the coalition government delighted in it, and spoke of its ‘progressive imagery’ and the ‘subversive’ content.
But back to my antipathy for spectacle and the scant opportunity it gives for more than a general lift to the low mood of those of us who feel we are witnessing the grand finale of the welfare state and collective responsibility. What we got in the montage of English (rather than British) history were some very crude broad strokes. The bucolic contentment of an unenclosed countryside circa the age of the fairies, where everyone played catch or danced round the maypole, gave way to the evil industrial revolution, all smokestacks, fat-cat capitalists and dirt-encrusted workers creeping out of the earth. A dig at enterprise capitalism, the destruction of the unions? Probably. Then the NHS sequence of dancing nurses and bouncing sick children threatened by J.K. Rowling’s Voldemort. A hymn of national love for the NHS? Certainly. But the nurses were dressed in the uniforms of the 1950s and 1960s, and the love was expressed by a dozen Mary Poppinses seeing off the bad guy. It was a wishful tale of things long gone. It was love as sentiment, a nostalgic cry for what has been lost. And it is lost. There is no party of the left with a different attitude towards the economy, privatisation and cuts in benefits and the NHS.
I understand and appreciate the coding, but, unlike everyone else, it left me as low as before it started. It looked like a last shout. It seemed to infantilise us as it pleased us. And after the athletes’ parade (during which, the Mail said, ‘viewers dozed off to the procession of banana republics and far-flung destinations nobody has ever heard of or even cares for’) we arrived at a celebration of popular modernity: mostly singing and dancing culture, and the not entirely uncomplicated or benevolent wonders of the internet as Tim Berners-Lee ciphered: ‘This is for everyone.’ It was all as well-meaning as a village fête. People delighted in describing it as ‘bonkers’ and typical British idiosyncrasy. And that was very nice, but is it a little sleepy-making?
The next morning the corporate seats for the Olympic events were empty, the London 2012 shop was still boasting ‘we are proud to accept only Visa payment cards’, some of the arrested Critical Mass cyclists were still in custody, the missiles remain on the roofs, the NHS is still facing £20 billion in cuts, Tory insistence of austerity continues to justify slashing local services and employment, and education is being returned to division by class and wealth. Those opposed to all this are feeling good. They’ve had their moment, publicly laughed in the face of Cameron, and have a sense of collective acknowledgment. As to making any difference, I’m not sure a boost to our morale is quite enough.