The Unbearable Lightness Of Being British

Photo: Shimelle (cc)

The epithets attached to the Olympic opening ceremony piled up: eclectic, spectacular, monumental, shambolic, parochial, world-beating, hideous, embarrassing, filmic, and even inspiring. In its parts, the spectacle was all of these things because of the whole, which formed a gush of free-floating anxiety, a confession on a therapist's couch.

Many commented on the ceremony's focus on times past, in what viewers outside of Britain took as a flamboyant history lesson or, less charitably, as a statement of a country with no future. This was, however, no simple portrayal of past events, but a raid conducted to shore up a particular view that exists at this time; a malaise suffered here and now.

In this respect, it was significant that director Danny Boyle posed Britons as stoic victims of two world wars and not victors, inventors of an environmentally destructive Pandemonium (Milton's capital of Hell) not liberators of humanity through the scientific revolution (where was Newton?). British school children are, indeed, more likely to be aware of the pollution created by industry than its role in making sure they can read history at all.

Many on the right in Britain balk at the ceremony's sugared presentation of our National Health Service, which has not been 'free' since soon after its inception and which now relies heavily on private finance to keep going. However, the mythology of our history here was not straight-forwardly 'left' or 'right' wing at all.

Caribbean immigrants to the U.K., arriving on the Empire Windrush, were welcomed with open arms this weekend–not immigration police and hostile locals. None of the suffragettes in the stadium threw themselves under the monarch's horses. Recent bombings were deemed worth mentioning (if not by America's NBC, which cut them from its broadcast) but not the more significant loss of life in the struggle over British rule in Ireland.

Even the punk rockers were robbed of their more 'unsavory' associations with drugs and rebellion. This was a thoroughly contemporary vision, deracinated and empty of traditional 'politics' or even 'reality'. In Boyle and writer Frank Cotterel Boyce's sensitive vision, we ordinary Brits became sick children, mourning soldiers, love-struck teenagers and harmless old rockers and anything else you can't argue with.

This is a British society in which the presentation of an idea always has an easier passage if it is attached to a victim or an innocent, rather than to a vision of the future. It is a Britain where schools are fortresses because children are very rarely attacked by madmen, and where families of the victims of appalling crimes, such as the parents of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, are expected to become policymakers.

This self-consciousness was summed up (and subverted) in the genius touch of turning Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, into a self-deprecating joke. It was beautifully done and, yes, 'very British, Mr. Bond'. But as one of those teens, unable to finish a dance routine without stopping to text each other, might have said: WTF?

Everything seemed double-edged. Even an ideal like the celebration of heroism was presented more as an opiate's dream than a hope, with 'Heroes', David Bowie's theme from the heroin flick Christiana F, serving as soundtrack.

Britain's lack of a future orientation has much to do with an arbitrary and defensive relationship to its history, as displayed this last week. The past haunts us like a Warner Bros.-licensed specter, but even these ghosts are more substantial than our tenuous grip on where we come from. The opening ceremony showed us a Britain where the past is not so much another country, but a Neverland where visions of tomorrow slip further out of reach.

As Bowie wrote: "I could be King, and you could be Queen". Putting aside the literal constitutional impossibility of such an outrage, we forget now how any of us ever achieved such Olympian heights.

Let's hope the herculean efforts of the sportsmen and women—here to demonstrate human excellence—remind us.