Archive for August, 2012

Isles of Wonder

Cover of "The Progressive Patriot: A Sear...

Cover via Amazon

There’s a conversation that’s been going on, here and there, across the blogosphere, since Danny Boyle blew our minds and melted our cynical hearts at the Olympics Opening Ceremony.  It’s not a new conversation for most of us, but it’s suddenly become more intense, more personal.

We – those of us who are having this conversation now, rather tentatively, almost apologetically – are generally of the left; our disposition is likely to be cosmopolitan and internationalist, and we’re likely to be sharply critical of current and previous government policies at home and abroad.  We’re highly unlikely to have celebrated the recent royal wedding, or the Jubilee, or to own or wear any clothing featuring our national flag.   We probably agree that the national anthem is a dirge even if we disagree about what – if anything – should replace it.

But we found ourselves recently coming over, as Mike Press put it, ‘a little bit Continental, even almost disarmingly American’, in the way we responded to that opening ceremony and the display of sporting excellence that followed.   Steve Sarson echoed this – ‘It was like I’d turned into an American, or something’.

A bona fide American, Kate Elmer of the ‘Yankee in Yorkshire’ blog,  mused earlier this year that ‘when I speak to English friends and colleagues about The Olympics they reluctantly agree that “Yes, I suppose this will be a rather large event won’t it?”  Some of them hope to attend events.  Most of them hope to keep their heads down until the whole thing goes away.’  Just the other week she wrote that: ‘I have never seen the British get so excited about their own success.  I have never seen them so patriotic.  The Jubilee didn’t do it.  The Royal Wedding didn’t do it.  The Olympics did.  It’s not an “In Your Face, World!” kind of pride.  It’s bone deep.  It’s real, true, forever love – the kind many of them perhaps thought might have been lost.  Every medal, every waving flag, every play of the national anthem has them physically on their feet and emotionally on their knees.’

Blake Morrison in the Independent was part of this too: ‘I didn’t expect to feel excited.  And as the opening ceremony grew closer, and the stories of mismanagement multiplied, I feared the worst.  I was wrong.  Most of us were wrong.  The last two weeks have been amazing.  I’m embarrassed to admit how many times my eyes have welled up.  And even more embarrassed that the cause has usually been a British medal’.

So our conversation has been about what happened to us and what it means for our perception of who we are.   There are two main threads to that, I think.  One is about the mood that prevailed – summed up in the opening ceremony – replacing our ‘seemingly eternal cynicism and negativity’ with the sensation that we are better than that, that we can be warm and open and welcoming, joyous and positive.    The other is about that tug of pride that we felt in the depiction of our ‘Isles of Wonder’, and in the performance of ‘our’ medallists.  The first is something we want to celebrate and nurture, the second, as another friend of mine said, is ‘complicated’.

It’s not a new conversation. Billy Bragg’s book The Progressive Patriot is an eclectic invocation of the history, literature and music of his homeland – one feels Danny Boyle must have read it – and a response to the BNP’s gain of a dozen seats on Barking & Dagenham Council in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings.  It’s an attempt to identify the narrative that explains ‘how we all came to be here together in this place, and how successive generations of those who were initially excluded from society came to feel that this was where they belonged … to reconcile patriotism with the radical tradition’.

That’s not straightforward, and it goes against a strain of radicalism that discards, as Gustave Hervé said in 1907, ‘a flag along whose folds are blazoned in letters of gold the records of so many butcheries’, that distinguishes the affection and loyalty we may feel for the place we were born or grew up, from love ‘for such countries of privilege and iniquity as are the great nations of today’.  Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks incurred the wrath of US patriots when she said, almost 100 years later, ‘I don’t understand the necessity for patriotism. Why do you have to be a patriot? About what? This land is our land? Why? You can like where you live and like your life, but as for loving the whole country… I don’t see why people care about patriotism.”

I agree.  With both of them.  And yet, and yet…   I  feel that tug of love without embarrassment or complications for another country, because of the place it holds in my childhood memories and because being there shaped how I see the world.   I’ve put Ghana’s flag on my desktop and my Facebook profile – I would never dream of doing that with the Union Jack.  I’d fail Tebbitt’s notorious cricket test if the England football team were to come up against the Black Stars.   So why is it OK for me to be gung-ho about Ghana, and not about the country where I was born, where I’ve lived the majority of my life, where my children have been born and raised?

What do we mean when we talk about pride?  What do we mean, come to that, when we talk about Britain?  Kenan Malik‘s response to the Olympics was sceptical.  He asked ‘What is the Britain in which we are supposed to have pride? The Britain of immigration and diversity, a diversity celebrated in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony and that has resulted in the gold medals of Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, Nicola Adams and countless others? Or the Britain that is suspicious of immigrants and immigration, and whose politicians continually seek to limit it and to preserve ‘British jobs for British workers’? The Britain that went all out to stage one of the best Olympic Games in recent memory? Or the Britain of austerity and public spending cuts? The Britain of the Levellers, the Pankhursts and Red Clydeside? Or the Britain of Knox, Rhodes and Rothermere?’   Easy answers spring to mind, but he’s right, my Britain may not be your Britain.

And yet, and yet.   I think there’s something going on here.  I don’t want to wrap myself in the flag any more than I did a month ago.  I’m the same person that I was before, but along with many others, I thought I’d had a ‘glimpse of another kind of Britain’, of a ‘soft and civic’  patriotism that maybe I could be OK with.   Jonathan Freedland said that  ‘It will slip from view as time passes, but we are not condemned to forget it. We don’t have to be like the long-ago poet who once wrote: “Did you exist? Or did I dream a dream?”’

So, do we treat Boyle’s vision of the Isles of Wonder as a requiem for what we value about our country, or a celebration?  Or even, perhaps, a warning and a call to action? Do we allow our ‘normal state of being’ to be reinstalled in the British psyche, without protest, without attempting to hold on to what we briefly experienced?  As Billy asks in his blog, ‘Has the euphoria of the past two weeks has caused a seismic shift in the meta-narrative of Britishness? …Can a new spirit of engaged and transformational patriotism emerge from this experience? One that seeks to build a fairer, more inclusive tomorrow, rather than constantly rehashing a narrow vision of the past?’

We could just say, well, we got a bit carried away there, but it’s ok now, we’re ourselves again. But with the Paralympics just around the corner, what if we get a bit carried away all over again?  What if we actually rather like it?  I think we need to talk.

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This is my country

I’m not given to patriotic outpourings.  I have difficulty saying I’m ‘proud’ to be British – I’m too aware of our colonial history to feel that in any simple way it is a matter of pride.   But I’ve always resented the appropriation of patriotism by the racists of the National Front, the BNP and EDL, and whilst flags and royal weddings and the like don’t move me terribly I do feel lucky to live here, and I love my homeland.

I wasn’t expecting to find anything about the Olympics that would move me, any more than that wedding did.   I was wrong.   Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony celebrated my Britain, my home, in all its glorious diversity, in a way I hadn’t for a moment expected.  It was a delight – I was laughing with pleasure, and with tears in my eyes.   And last night I was moved by our own Jess’s triumph in the heptathlon – a Sheffield lass, after our own Arctic Monkeys had greeted the nation with a cry of ‘Y’alreight?’ – and by Mo Farah‘s triumph in the 10000m.

2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony (11).jpg

And so the whole thing, which I’d expected to be a massive bore, has turned out to be instead a massive, bonkers celebration of this marvellous, mixed up country, where the multiculturalism which a Tory idiot and the Daily Mail derided has brought us medals beyond all expectations, where the successes of a Yorkshire girl with a Jamaican dad, and a Somali refugee have been celebrated across all the boundaries that sometimes divide us.

Last night Mo was asked if he’d rather be running for Somalia.  His answer is powerful in its simplicity and confidence: “Look mate, this is my country. This is where I grew up, this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I’m proud. I’m very proud.”

That’s not a pride that requires disparaging or disqualifying anyone, it’s not a pride that is based on being white or being able to trace centuries of ancestors on British soil.  It’s not about believing that we as a nation have always been heroic or just, or that our policies at home or abroad are right now.

I’m proud that over centuries we’ve kept our doors open to people who’ve needed to find refuge here, from French Huguenots to Russian and European Jews, to victims of more recent conflicts and oppression.  That’s the Britain I love, and celebrate – whilst at the same time wishing we were more welcoming, less mean-spirited (see my series of posts for Refugee Week, and if you would, sponsor me to run for Refugee Action in a few weeks time!).   Our diversity is our strength, and I love and celebrate that too.

Danny Boyle’s vision for the opening ceremony was summed up in Tim Berners-Lee‘s gift of the internet to the world, a gift, as he said, that is for everyone.  That celebration of ‘the creativity, exuberance and, above all, the generosity of the British people’ had ‘a golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of a better world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring nation that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. We can build Jerusalem. And it will be for everyone.’

Idealistic, naive – perhaps.  But that’s my country.  And I’m proud.

Click to access OPENINGCEREMONYGUIDE_English.pdf

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