Can we build Jerusalem?: overthinking the Olympic opening ceremony

Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony left me in the same position I began to explore in yesterday’s blog post: what kind of subjectivity as a spectator can I have now that thinking critically has become an integral part of how I enjoy a spectacle?

As rare an event as the Olympic Games opening in the country where you live is imagined at every step – by the director, participants, media, commentators, and the host-country audience – as a national focal point. That sets down an extra biographical layer of meaning: where were you when you saw the opening ceremony? A future oral history project or Mass Observation study could easily ask that question.

In the seven years since London was awarded the Olympics, my own expectations about where I would be on the night of 27 July 2012 have changed many times and radically, in ways I couldn’t even have conceived of in July 2005, when I hadn’t received funding for the PhD that ended up changing my life course. Consciousness of how I might be feeling in any other of those places pervades my experience as a spectator. What extra emotions would an imagined symbol like the shipping forecast, or something much more material like the sight of Richmond Bridge, evoke in me if I was still living near my family, or if I was working outside the United Kingdom now?

Before I write about what I found successful in the ceremony, I want to acknowledge the things I found most problematic (and to acknowledge also that there will be much more to say than this, which my own privilege and positionality will certainly get in the way of me seeing):

What to do about the Empire. The first sequence depicts the destruction of the British countryside during the Industrial Revolution; yet the even greater devastation wrought on others’ lands to produce the wealth with which the awe-filled men in stove-pipe hats were able to commission the smokestacks and municipal achievements is silenced. I don’t know how you would represent this, though acknowledging imperialism as a historical wrong while pretending that it causes no harm in the present (a criticism made of the Sydney Olympics) would be no better.

Celebrating disruptive protest while contemporary protesters were being detained a few miles away. The historical pageant included the women’s suffrage movement (led out by a descendant of Emmeline Pankhurst)  and apparently – although I’m not sure the cameras picked this up – the Jarrow march against poverty and unemployment. At the same time, up to 100 participants in a Critical Mass cycle ride through London were being kettled and detained by police for breaching instructions not to cross north of the Thames. This isn’t Danny Boyle’s fault, but takes the ceremony closer to the kind of bread-and-circuses simulacrum some people feared the whole thing would be (‘we are representing, simplifying and celebrating things that we are actually taking away’).

The peacemakers handing the Olympic flag to the military. As illusory as the myth of the Olympic truce is, if we’re going to play on this, shouldn’t it have been the other way round?

Black-faced demons. No. Not even if they were meant to be Dementors. There are other ways to do that.

But there were also choices I appreciated, and that deserve some further thought.

The downplaying of war memory. The myth of the nation coming together under German bombing in the Second World War became a significant part of public culture during Britain’s contemporary wars, gathered pace after 7/7 and accelerated to its current velocity under Brown and Cameron. It’s meaningful to Britons who experienced and suffered in the War, but its contemporary use is very often an attempt to graft moral responses to the Second World War on to contemporary conflicts that are much more contentious. Incorporating a massive representation of the Blitz in the historical sequence would have been very tempting, and in keeping with the dominant public narrative in Britain. War memory does appear, but in more subtle ways: the poppies in the cornfield; Britain’s industrial heritage interrupted by the bowed heads of Remembrance; the Chelsea Pensioners. (And unfortunately, during James Bond’s helicopter flight over the Thames bridges, a snippet of the Dambusters March. Really? There?)

Remembering the victims of terrorism without evoking threat, or what must therefore be done to protect us from it. The ‘memorial wall’ that appeared at the end of the pageant appears primarily, to a British audience, as a commemoration of the Londoners who died on 7/7 (there’s been a suggestion that it could also be read as a commemoration of the victims of Munich, whom LOCOG has not yet memorialised officially); the staging consisted of an interpretive dance piece by Akram Khan and a performance by Emeli Sandé of Abide With Me (a hymn traditionally sung at the FA Cup Final).  Again, at the security Olympics, there are many worse ways this could have been done.

Celebrating the NHS. This sequence in a children’s hospital – incorporating J K Rowling as the storyteller, and Mary Poppins flying in to defeat the villains of children’s literature – could have come across as precisely the kind of simulacrum that Boyle needed to avoid (and that I was afraid it would turn out to be). Yet it contained the potential to be, and much of the sub-audience to whom I’m connected through social media have read it as, something much more subversive: blogger Steve Walker, for instance, even read it as the centrepiece of a ‘coded message’ to the coalition government. In the age of internet memes, this section produces some powerful resources, such as this image put out by UK Uncut before the ceremony had even finished:

Rowling’s own views on tax and the welfare state, set out in this interview from 2010, play nicely into what is being evoked here:

I never, ever, expected to find myself in a position where I could understand, from personal experience, the choices and temptations open to a man as rich as Lord Ashcroft. The fact remains that the first time I ever met my recently retired accountant, he put it to me point-blank: would I organise my money around my life, or my life around my money? If the latter, it was time to relocate to Ireland, Monaco, or possibly Belize.

I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall.

The participation of Tim Berners-Lee. Not because he’s from the same country as me, or because he’s associated with a university I worked for for four years; but because he invented this thing, and then chose not to profit commercially from it. Or, as his (genuine) Tweet during the opening ceremony read: ‘This is for everyone.’

The flame ritual. Olympic flames are traditionally lit by a celebrated Olympian from the host country; rumours before this year’s ceremony suggested Roger Bannister, Steve Redgrave, Bradley Wiggins, or even the Queen. The London flame was lit by seven teenage athletes, each nominated by an Olympian from the past; the cauldron, invisible throughout the ceremony, turned out to be made up of the copper vessels that had accompanied each of the 205 national teams into the arena; strength in diversity, none greater than another.

Probably by coincidence, given the timescales involved, this ended up resembling the aesthetic of the film version of The Hunger Games: a multi-racial group of teenagers, dressed in black tracksuits, standing in a circle, around something that looks very like a cornucopia, lots of flame around, and the tallest athlete happening to look incredibly like Alexander Ludwig/Cato. But there’s a deeper sense in which this felt like a Hunger Games moment, since what resonates most with me about the books is how the author prevents her protagonist becoming the classic superhero who brings complete public and private resolution; in turning away from the figure of the single heroic Olympian, there’s something of that here.

The complete absence of Wenlock and Mandeville. I intensely dislike the Olympic mascots. Their origin story slips easily into them representing ‘the last two drops of British steel’. Their design, deliberately mimicking CCTV cameras, is even more unfortunate when the main public critique of the London Olympics has been around the intensification of surveillance and security, with concerns over when or if all the extraordinary measures in Stratford will be rescinded. One unfortunate Mandeville, brought to life size during a public art project, had its glaring eyebrows turned into the brim of an imperial military pith helmet.

If there’s another one of these shows next century, celebrating a from-below pushback against neoliberalism, something that looks very like Wenlock is what Mary Poppins will be fighting against.

Final thoughts

Danny Boyle’s programme notes have been circulating on Twitter since Riz Ahmed photographed them from his copy of the programme. Boyle asks in the final paragraph, playing on the themes of William Blake’s Jerusalem that inspired his staging of the ceremony:

But we hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring notion that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone.

Is this enough to ignite a political fightback against neoliberal policies and the dismantling of the state? One of the Hull Labour MPs, Karl Turner, certainly implied this last night when he retweeted a photo of the programme notes and another user’s comment: ‘Can we build Jerusalem?’

(I won’t be surprised if riffs on this appear all through British political communication in the next few years – both from those who are more or less in sympathy with it and from those who are not. Today, however, I’m not sure ‘building  Jerusalem’ is the right language to use. It echoes the ‘shining city on the hill’ syndrome that gives legitimacy to US exceptionalism; more to the point, imagining a Jerusalem in Britain seems to appropriate the material, political Jerusalem 2,000 miles away.)

What was dramatised last night was a series of achievements: public, industrial, cultural, literary, musical, political. I agree with many of them and want to feel inspired by them; but I don’t want to be inspired by them on a basis that excludes others because of some essential aspect of themselves. All these are achievements, but considering the global context in which they were achieved, can we ever think of them as solely British?

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