The voices against the Olympics in my cultural neck of the woods were loud in their disdain. After all, the Games were being held in the middle of a double-dip recession, in the term of a Tory Prime Minister, in the city of a Tory Mayor, the lot organised organised by a toffish Tory gold medal winner of thirty years ago. That was enough in itself: if the Games were a success the glory would redound to the Tories. Some of these people are friends, and I am of their political persuasion, but I still didn't feel like them. I'm not sure why.
They, as well as another group of people, the everything about the UK is crap group, looked at the usual things - cost, disruption, legacy, likely botches, real botches, commercialisation, branding, corporate greed, problematic private financing and the sheer misery and assumed incompetence of all native enterprises - and groaned.
Then the Opening Ceremony happened and it all looked different. The Danny Boyle- Frank Cottrell Boyce show began as awkward pastoral then steamed into history with a good-natured, spectacular, lyrical and funny paean to the best instincts of the British people, who saw themselves in it and - rarely enough in their lives, especially at such a time - felt good. Even the critics felt good. That was partly because they saw it as a celebration of values counter to those of the average Tory, but partly because they recognised it as in some way true, beautiful and vulnerably human. I'll not forget the children bouncing on their beds while real nurses danced with them. It was a triumph: a version of history that knew it was incomplete, that laughed at itself but articulated a form of trust that is not only required but is, in very many cases, deserved.
The Opening was not an aswer to the objections: it was simply an alternative way of approaching the next fortnight. The focus was not going to be on drugs, on cheating, on national pomp, on individual egotism, but on the promise of people acting as we know they can, straining every nerve and sinew to compete, seeing competition not as gloating but as drama: work and reward; the perfecting of the imperfect; the accommodation of both success and failure within a common human frame.
I thought the Heatherwick nest of flames was beautiful and apt. That's it at the top.
I have work to do and am always worried when a full programme of some external sort takes me away from the desk, so I entered the Games slowly. I'd be working at the computer but every so often I'd switch to the BBC screen, which was a little hard to follow at first, but quickly became a regular, brief recourse. Our children went to the real thing: here I was, in Olympic terms, at no place but in several places at once, in thr modern on/off condition of isolation that comprises mass viewing. So I never did meet the good-natured volunteers, feel the surge of proximal emotion, hear the Mexican wave of sound, or find myself hugging the stranger next to me.
As the Games wore on C and I would spend evenings together on the sofa watching this or that event. We had our physical selves, our trust in each other, but we did not constitute a crowd. On the other hand we had no need to be self-conscious either, as one might be watching it with visitors or even friends. The sight of Denise Lewis dancing deliriously in a formal studio, or Steve Cramm rising from his seat while commenting were open intimate moments when neither was conscious of being observed: they weren't 'presenting', they were the closest we got to being inside things. Other people's unselfconscious and unfettered delight can be deeply moving. It enacts a moment of liberation. The rest was our own excitement.
For all the talk of branding I didn't spot a single example in all my watching. Maybe it was there but I was too engaged in watching what was really happening. It was like being seized by the moment, over and over again. One could forgive the breathless patriotism of the unseen commentariat, the cruelty of the post-failure interviews, the endless by-now hollow ritual of 'How did it feel? Unbelievable!' because I too was willing the GB team to triumph, because failure though terrible is dramatically gripping, and because, while all attempts at getting exhausted people to explain how they feel seem to me an extraordinarily crude and crass intrusion into a perfect personal moment, it was still good to see winners in their moment of astonishment.
I am letting the series on Brevities hang fire until I finish this. Maybe one more post, maybe two, while it's fresh inthe memory. One tiny thought on a possibe British variation on the How do you feel? Unbelievable! formula:
- And how did it feel winning? Was it unbelievable?
- I'd say, on the whole, it was agreeable.
Proper hype is counter-hype. Any fule kno that.