As I watched the Olympic Opening Ceremony on Friday evening, I was struck by how unique the occasion was. True enough, an Olympic Games in London is a rare event and therefore witnessing the beginning with all its hype, excitement and splendour is a moment of history in itself. And yet there was also something more abstract to appreciate on Friday evening that was to be found from the context in which we were witnessing Danny Boyle’s creation unfold. The pace of life in which we now live, dominated by global corporations, materialist instincts, legal requirements and hostile competition, suffocates the memory, relevance and recognition of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills”, Brunel’s vision or Pankhurst’s determination. We are now producing generations for whom that past plays no role, generations of young people who have no option but to step into the globalised pace of life, playing their part as the global corporations, media moguls and money-makers demand.
Boyle managed to capture this modern era, allowing music and technology to reach out to the millions of young people watching throughout the world. And yet he did so as part of a chronology, as part of a societal evolution that paid heed to its past. For a short time on Friday, time appeared to stand still as we were drawn into a proud celebration of history, culture and identity. Every individual involved, whether participating or observing, was allowed a moment to appreciate this country and the values that she stands for, from whatever angle they chose. It was a spectacle that sought no conflict; that had no predefined message.
…a conscious decision to step away from such a paradigm…
The run up to the Games was hardly short of criticism, from the shambles of G4S to the understandable anger that McDonalds and Coca-Cola were to have such strong advertising rights. And yet for once, cynicism and incompetence could be absent for three hours or so on Friday evening. Furthermore, anxieties over austerity and growth, budgetary figures and employment statistics could be put to one side in a ceremony that merged patriotism with individualism.
Hype in the press beforehand had questioned whether London would be able to live up to the sheer brilliance of Beijing four years ago. It was never going to be a comparable contest between two extremely different countries. Beijing represented the might of China. Boyle took a conscious decision to step away from such a paradigm, portraying not only the obvious components of British identity but also took time to emphasise the slightly more intangible nuances that make up the national consciousness. The cameo by Rowan Atkinson, while not only being a popular move with global audiences, managed to encapsulate a comic spirit in a fashion simply impossible elsewhere in the world. The celebration of the NHS, an institution with extremely diverse connotations – good and bad – gave rightful recognition to a welfare system whose role in the past century cannot be undervalued.
Multinational companies now rule the waves…
Placing Britain in the global limelight and focusing on history and identity often present the opportunity to criticise an imperial past that is far from innocent. The horrors of empire cannot be ignored and they too play an important role in our cultural heritage. However, in no other environment will Britain’s significant contribution to the world we live in today be more apparent. Multinational companies now rule the waves and it is for them that the sun now never sets. And yet legacy and memory continue to live on, ensuring Britain’s relationship with the world remains as vibrant and significant as ever.
Friday evening was important in that it displayed our country to the world. And yet it’s true significance was in briefly putting a halt to the strains, tensions, monopolies and corporate demands that dominate us today. For a few hours on Friday evening none of that mattered. It was just about the emotions that make us human. Let the Games begin!