Olympics ceremony exposes British identity dilemma
JULY 31 — I’m usually quite cynical about this kind of thing [What do you mean “usually”? You’re always cynical, you miserable grump!]. Ahem, sorry, that was my wife invading the keyboard.
As I was saying... I’m usually cynical about ostentatious extravaganzas such as the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, but I found Friday night’s grand event in London’s Olympic Stadium rather captivating.
Besides being — to my untrained eyes, at least — a well-produced and entertaining display, I was fascinated by how the ceremony, created by movie director Danny Boyle, attempted to tackle the thorny history of British history and identity.
For those of you who didn’t see it (which may be many of you considering the 4am start time in Malaysia), Boyle’s production was essentially a potted history of Britain, racing with breakneck speed from the green hills of the pastoral Middle Ages through to our high-tech digitised contemporary society.
Among the varied and occasionally obscure subjects covered were Britain’s role in the Industrial Revolution, the world wars of the last century, the suffragette movement for women’s vote, the influx of immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean in the 1950s, the National Health Service, the Beatles, cricket, James Bond, the Chelsea Pensioners, Her Majesty the Queen, Mr Bean and the inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
Quite an ambitious scope of work then, with Boyle and his team striving hard to present a demonstration of why Britain was important in the past and why it will remain so in the future.
But this was far more than just a one-eyed jubilant celebration. Indeed, at times, it was a surprisingly dark and introspective performance, with some of the sequences seemingly expressing sentiments of doubt, regret and sorrow — unexpected elements in an event that is usually the exclusive domain of boisterous triumphalism.
That was apt because Britain is a confused, somewhat self-tortured nation, seeking a sense of identity and purpose in the contemporary world.
If the ceremony was at times uncomfortable and unsettling, that’s entirely appropriate because the majority of British people have those feelings about their country’s past, present and future.
Most Britons are reluctantly aware that many of our most impressive achievements — especially those based around industrialisation and the ruthless policy of colonialism that predominated for two or three centuries — would be regarded as unacceptable acts of aggression and exploitation from a modern viewpoint.
A lot of the exploits of our forefathers are difficult to admire, especially with regards to colonialism: we invaded foreign lands, stole their valuable natural resources, enslaved many of the native people, told the remainder how they should carry out their lives and then shipped all the profits that resulted from their hard labour back home. Exploitation, plain and simple.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad and many of the colonists were motivated by genuinely altruistic intentions — albeit often misguided ones — in terms of empowering the local populace: improving standards of education, building communication links, introducing modern methods of agriculture and industry, and putting years on average life expectancy through improved healthcare.
But it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the bad — the exploitation, violence, greed and selfishness that were wreaked upon millions of innocent lives — outweighed the good.
These days, you won’t find many Britons under the age of 60 who look back at our country’s past with unrestrained fondness. A sense of embarrassment is more common, especially when you throw into the mix the tense relationship between the constituent parts of the “united” kingdom (the uneasy truce that exists between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and the difficulties that have been encountered in truly assimilating immigrant populations from the former colonies into the mainstream of British culture.
Having said all that, I don’t think we should feel too sorry for ourselves; Britain is not a bad country and has achieved some magnificent things.
London is one of the most cosmopolitan and culturally open cities in the world, and a positive spirit of hard work, personal enterprise and self-effacing humour runs through the country.
Boyle’s opening ceremony, I reckon, did a pretty good job of saluting the achievements of the past whilst acknowledging the imperfections that accompanied them.
And the overriding theme of the ceremony — that this is an inclusive event “for everyone” — said a great deal about the kind of country that we would like to be: Dizzee Rascal meets Paul McCartney meets the Arctic Monkeys. There’s something for everyone; nobody is excluded.
Those messages of inclusivity had something of a hopeful, pleading tone because, in reality, Britain is not a country of equal opportunity. A child born into a white middle-class family has a much better chance of enjoying a happy, healthy and successful life than a black child in an inner city housing estate. And so, perhaps the ceremony was ultimately more a statement of what we would like to be, rather than what we really are.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Britain has a rich and complex past, blending astonishing achievements with shameful exploitation. How we reconcile ourselves to that awkward mix of good and bad, and map out a confident new British identity for the future, is our biggest collective cultural challenge. And if nothing else, the Olympics ceremony has at least got people to talk about it.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.