Short Cuts

Andrew O’Hagan

The opening ceremony is now a familiar occasion on which state-sponsored creativity can be given an enthusiastic public airing, most often in the company of expensive fireworks, assorted pixies, the occasional high-kicking nurse, and members of the thespian community who look like the 1980s never ended. Just the other day I thought all my Christmases had come at once, or all my Brigadoons, when I took my place in Celtic Park for the opening of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. It wasn’t just that Scotland showed itself to be a country that likes being itself – that’s never been in doubt, except on the ground – but that it possesses a surprising degree of pride in being a wellspring of colonial power. I never thought I’d live to see the queen given a standing ovation at Parkhead, where the words ‘Fuck the queen and the UDA’ resounded through my childhood, but I wasn’t entirely prepared, either, for a tannoy message bearing the excellent words: ‘People of Scotland, host nation, please welcome in the people of Tonga!’

I can’t swear to know everything about life today in the Friendly Islands, but I’m sure the Tongans, who often live in houses thatched with woven coconut leaves, might have been alarmed by Glasgow’s initial plan to mark the opening of the games by blowing up a few tower-blocks. And not just any tower-blocks, either, but the Red Road flats, which until recently were used to house large numbers of foreign refugees. There are Commonwealth countries poorer than the Kingdom of Tonga which might have been more than surprised, shocked even, at the sight of modern houses erupting like giant sparklers. ‘Jeezo?’ the people of Malawi might have said. ‘Is this how the decadent West celebrates sporting excellence? What next? Bales of medical supplies dropped into a volcano? Famous paintings trampled by herds of Highland cows? Rolls-Royces driven into the sea?’

Thankfully, the organisers thought better of such absurdity, and opted instead for a dancing haggis and people dressed as Tunnock’s teacakes. You have to admire a country that not only revels in its own tat, but makes enduring icons of it, and sugary cakes vied on the field of play with sugary drinks (Irn-Bru). A blow-up doll of the Loch Ness Monster seemed more smiling than carnivorous. Imagine an opening ceremony in, say, Seattle, that opened with a giant rubber Sasquatch being chased round and round by a battalion of energetic Tootsie Rolls. But kitsch and kilts gang the’gither – or go together, as the BBC’s commentator Huw Edwards would say – and I found myself enjoying the ceremony as a pure demonstration of the high camp that regularly passes for identity.

Sitting quite high up in the stadium, I didn’t have the best view of the 41 Scottie dogs leading the national teams. The Daily Telegraph, always a reliable protector of religious sensitivities around the world, later reported that many Muslim countries were outraged by the Scotties. ‘Muslims are not allowed to touch dogs,’ Mohamad Sabu, the deputy president of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party said, ‘so the organisers should have been more aware and sensitive on this issue.’ In fairness, the organisers’ awareness was pretty much at full stretch: they had the meaning of a whole nation to cram onto an LED screen the length of Sauchiehall Street, plus they had Susan Boyle, the underdogs’ underdog, who is required by popular edict to sing with the winds of destiny blowing about her skirts. I think the wind machine at Parkhead might have been too strong, though, even for Scotland, clearly blowing the singer’s memory off course as she reached for the words to ‘Mull of Kintyre’. Yet memory, and the way people want to be remembered, could be described as the well-oiled engine of the typical opening ceremony. Danny Boyle, for London 2012, might have invented a new sort of display in which we remember our values. Glasgow had a bit of that too, although for the Second City of the Empire, its nostalgia for industrial glory came a weak second to images of celebrity and sugar.

In 1953, Arthur Freed, the possibly delinquent genius in charge of musicals at MGM, was scouting for locations for Brigadoon, the film about a miraculous Scottish village that appears out of the mist for one day every hundred years. He visited Scotland with the film’s star, Gene Kelly, but concluded, after a few days of rain, that it might be best to shoot the film in Hollywood, given that ‘Scotland just isn’t Scottish enough.’ The opening ceremony put paid to that, yet it still owed more to Hollywood than to any brand of Scottish realism outside of Walter Scott. When the home team finally arrived in the stadium – wearing a tartan that might have put Technicolor out of business before it started – the stadium was incandescent with belief and the children around me cried.

The management of sentiment is a crucial business in nations large and small, and you might argue our historical period is especially given to such bumper feelings. Or perhaps we only become aware of their size when experiencing a bit of it ourselves. More than twice as many people, a hundred thousand of them, attended the opening of the Glasgow Empire Exhibition in 1938, waving newspapers and hats in the air as George VI and his wife entered Ibrox Park in a horse-drawn carriage. ‘The queen and I are happy to be in Scotland once more,’ he said with a stammer, before praising Glasgow for organising such a show of unity ‘whilst the country was still under the cloud of a long industrial depression’. The two squadrons of RAF planes that flew over Ibrox in 1938, seconds after the king’s speech, would soon after be deployed over the English Channel. This year, after the queen spoke, we heard the rumble and craned our heads to see a flypast by the Red Arrows, and I couldn’t have been the only one to notice, drifting over Celtic Park, the famous trails of jet smoke, red, white and blue, the colours of the Union Jack. It later emerged that the Ministry of Defence had rejected a proposal from the games organisers that the smoke be simply blue and white.