28 July 2012

Our island story

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“The isle is full of noises,” read the tempestuous pledge on the giant Olympic bell.  From the moment that our latest British sporting great, the Belgian-born cycling hero Bradley Wiggins, rang the giant Whitechapel bell, and Kenneth Branagh began to narrate a story of this sceptred isle, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony certainly delivered on the promise, writes Sunder Katwala.

Here was our island story of how we, the British, became us, the people we now are. Its emotional punch and power arose from its animating the long history of our British nations, centred on an industrial revolution which remade the world, yet  connecting it with the integenerational iconography and soundtrack of our lived experience across the last few decades in a society so much transformed, albeit rather gradually, across the sixty-four years since an Olympic flame was last lit in London.

There were plenty of famous British icons – the Queen, James Bond, the Beatles, David Beckham and Mr Bean – who would be recognised by the global TV audience, so many of the ceremony’s references and allusions will have passed international viewers by. This was an opening ceremony by the Brits, for the Brits, packed with the in-jokes of our national consciousness. It may be that the show’s overall sensibility – a showmanship never afraid of a little silliness too – could disrupt and challenge, and maybe even change, the impressions that some overseas have of the Brits. But that was not the point. This was not an exercise in external rebranding along the lines of ‘cool Brittania’ a generation ago. The motivation today is a more insular one. The need to project a story to the world offered a catalyst for a conversation that we have needed to have here, about how we want to think about who we are, how we live together, and what we share as modern Britons.

The voice of one young child singing in the opening moments may soon come to be recognised and remembered as the day which inaugurated Jerusalem as the national anthem that the English have been lacking. (The medley of songs from across the UK’s nations which followed did, though, prefer the great Welsh rugby anthem, Bread of Heaven, to the Welsh-language national anthem).  As green and pleasant countryside gave way to dark, satanic mills, perhaps the most stunning moment of all was the forging of five Olympic rings as Britain became the workshop of the world.

This was a ceremony bursting with warmth and infused in a gently fierce national pride of as inclusive a variety  as might ever be imagined. Here was the patriotism of care and service – symbolised by remembrance of the war dead and the British secular religion of the NHS. What the show captured is that national pride also resides in our shared cultural experiences.  The ceremony offered a celebration of the shared belonging and allegiance forged by children’s books and the films we love to rewatch, by iconic sporting moments which we have experienced together, by the everyday resonance of the shipping forecast, or the theme tune from Eastenders or the Archers, and a veritable wedding playlist-style celebration of a great pop tradition which has provided the soundtrack to our lives. There are a few, though a minority, who worry about what sentiments like being “proud to be British” could mean or might lead to. But few could have watched the ceremony without at least a little buzz of recognition – or nostalgia, or belonging, or a civic pride in at least some of the inheritance we were reminded of. Olympic cynics were best advised to steer clear: they may have found a contagious bit of dust in the eye at one point or other.

The Boyle spectacular especially pitched for something the British believe – that we have a distinctive sense of humour, which helps to define how we think about who we are.  If that’s mistaken, then another country will have to prove it, by deciding to tell its own story on the grandest of stages with a mould-breaking ceremony like that!

The Chinese media have been keen to question whether London 2012 can match the scale of Beijing’s achievement in hosting the 2008 games. London can not emulate Beijing when it comes to choreography on a massive scale, of the kind intended to send a signal that a rising power is very well organised. But nor can Beijing match London as an Olympics host, in our ability to look itself in the mirror, to tell a true ‘warts and all’ story about the host city which has genuine popular resonance, because it contains dissent and conflict, and room for argument. There were certainly no allusions to Tianamen Square in the 2008 ceremony!  So it is not for London to emulate Beijing, but perhaps the hope that one day Beijing might still emulate London. If it follows the pattern of London since 1908, and so gets to host further Olympic Games in, say, 2048 and 2112, then it would be good to think that it may also have become a society which could celebrate popular struggles to achieve liberty and democracy.

So it was that Danny Boyle achieved something which politicians have struggled (and have even been told is impossible): he told the story of what Britishness means today.

How? “Show, don’t tell” was the simple core principle.

That matters because it is possible to intellectualise national identity, and to articulate what it means and why, but any authentic version depends on feeling it first.

And his show finally exploded the common, but rather thin, objection that there is little to be said about what Britishness is, because it contains nothing that is truly unique. Modern, industrialised western societies have a good deal in common with each other. Every country faces outwards and inwards, and thinks about how to reconcile its past with its future.
Almost every liberal democracy is grappling with the challenge of how national identities which were once largely ethnically defined can become civic and inclusive, while retaining an authentic sense of belonging. But those shared challenges does not mean that their distinct identities are somehow fake, nor do they make make our histories or our futures identical. Emotional commitment comes from the particular, not the abstract.  Of course, other countries have democracy and human rights, trade links around the world, language and literature, culture and film, science, technology and the internet, and all of the rest of it. So Shakespeare and the suffragettes, the Beatles and James Bond, Harry Potter and Tim Berners-Lee are our story, our icons, before we share them with the world too.

The show also succeeded through a generous pluralism, which refused stale polarisations. Debates about British identity have sometimes got stuck around issues of whether we think of ourselves as an insular or a global nation; whether we need to recall and strengthen our traditions, or focus on the future in a fast-moving world; whether we are really a rural or urban nation. The truth is that we are all of these things, so that many would feel a sense of loss if forced to make a stark choice between them. The Christian heritage can form the inheritance of a multi-faith and secular society too, as the moving use of Abide With Me to quietly remember the atrocity of 7/7, the day after London was awarded the Games, showed. The ceremony as a whole ratified a resolution which London made, collectively, by 8/7 and 9/7 that year; that we wanted to remain true to the hopeful story that had been told in our name on 6/7 in Singapore to invite the world to our capital.

If Boyle kept that promise, he also finally laid the ghost of the Millennium Dome too. It was a project that never established the suspension of disbelief that a major moment of national communion requires. We declared we would tell a story about our nation for a once in a thousand years occasion, but somehow failed to find the voice to do it.The Dome felt spiritually empty for most, in large part because it seemed part of a project which regarded British history and tradition as an impediment to the brave, young modern country that we needed to become.But that was probably never the route to modernity that the British would want to take.It is to entirely misunderstand the internationalism of London too to regard it as representing a cosmopolitan, post-national escape from history. London’s identity is the product of Britain’s history, not an escape from it, and is deeply rooted in the history of London itself, in its river, in its literature, in its shifting patterns of trade and population.

Being the most open city in Europe can give it more to be proud of, not less, though that has depended on opening up the identification with London, and being a Londoner, to those who have come to contribute, from around the UK and overseas too, despite being born well out of earshot of the Bow Bells.That is how London has built perhaps the leading claim to be the city in the world which is most confident about its identity and its future, even in these anxious times.

Though the Olympic ceremony, by contrast with the Dome, largely succeeded in linking the ancient and modern, it did not quite manage to join the dots between them quite as well as it might have done.

Boyle’s history lesson included the SS Windrush to represent how post-war immigration, and the rise of multi-ethnic Britain, would change our ideas of who counted as British, and on what terms. So the show did capture the last London Olympic year of 1948 as the foundational moment of post-war Britain: the year, too, in which the NHS was created, and the Windrush arrived. But one other epoch-making moment was missing: the independence of India. Danny Boyle was committed to a ‘warts and all’ history – of patriotism, pride and sacrifice, and of struggle and dissent too. That Empire and decolonisation seemed to be skipped over entirely suggests, perhaps, that they may be considered still  too sensitive a topic for the diplomatic sensitivities of an international sporting jamboree, attended by over 200 nations, around a quarter of whom will have, at some point, sought and achieved independence from British rule. I suspect there could have been civil and inclusive ways to include that story too – to show the symbolic lowering of a Union Jack as a clock struck midnight, and perhaps to link the political change to the infusion of new influences in English literature and language.

There are two distinct stories about Britain’s place in the world – and this show chose to prioritise one of them, the forge of the industrial revolution, but perhaps to duck the other, the story of a global island’s imperial expansion and Commonwealth contraction, and how that was to change Britain irreversibly. The problem with skipping over it all is that it leaves a crucial gap in explaining how we got here. But we miss out a lot of shared history if we see the post-war arrival of Windrush only as the start of a story, rather than a new chapter in a history which stretches much further back. Many of those arriving with their suitcases on a boat knew everything about a shared British cultural inheritance of Shakespeare and all of that. The bemusement of those who arrived on Windrush and after, as with many of the Asians who fled Uganda’s Idi Amin a generation later, was often of how this metropolitan ‘mother country’ about which they knew so much turned out to have so little awareness of them, as the island chose to look inwards again in the immediate post-war decades.

There has certainly been more anxiety, outside London, as to whether diverse, multi-ethnic societies can have a shared pride that is authentic.

Yet we should now see that the answer to the question ‘what makes you British?’ was staring us in the face all of the time.

It is Britain that makes you British.

It is strange, but it happens to be true, that some those who have proclaimed themselves proudest to be British have sometimes been those with surprisingly little confidence in British culture and identity, seeing it as a brittle and fragile thing, easily lost and swamped by newcomers arriving, talking even of the building of funeral pyres so that Britain would not be Britain anymore, not recognising that the majority of newcomers did want to celebrate a sense of identification with their new society, and its longer history too, as they seek to contribute to another chapter in it.

Boyle showed us how much Britain has changed – and why it is still Britain too.

The core message was one of hope as well as pride.

Here was a Britishness with deep roots and a warm ability to adapt, to absorb, and to include too. Boyle showed us why, once we understand Britishness like that, most of feel it deeply, and so want to keep it and share it too.

On a night like that, our Britishness seemed irresistible.

**Watch our interviews with people around Britain and see how they feel about their own histories. Add your own story.

Or watch some of our Olympic interviews and videos:

British Future director Sunder Katwala at the very first Olympic event of 2012

British Future at the Olympics’ first day

British Future interviews crowd at first match of Olympic Games

British Future interview with football fans at Olympic Games match in Cardiff


British Future’s latest activity on Twitter