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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  1. #1 by yankeeinyorkshire on August 23, 2012 - 9:12 pm

    First of all, wonderfully thoughtful. Second of all, I do think this is a conversation Britain needs to have. I stand by my early observations of England in particular. Ya’ll are having a bit of an identify crisis. You are no longer The Empire, so who the heck are you and (more importantly) who do you want to be? I believe Patriotism gets a bad rap and I have to say I disagree with my fellow Yankee, though I respect her Dixie Chickness. Patriotism is important. It reflects a kind of meta sense of self-worth and self-respect. Where you grow up is a part of you and I think everyone has to come to terms with it. So sayeth the Genyoooiiine American.


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