The Olympics weren’t on our mind when, just under a year ago, we looked around the camping parc (yes, that’s euro style parc, with a ‘c’, and camping with a static van, decking and air-con), and decided we’d like to come back the following year.
On Friday night, watching the opening ceremony on a biggish screen, surrounded by mainly Dutch fellow holidaymakers in a Catalan resort, to the backdrop of europop karaoke, the decision to be here rather than at home was ambiguous: cheering Wiggo as he rang the bell alongside people who understood more than most Brits the magnitude of his achievement was a special moment. Having the coverage turned off and being turfed out of the bar during the M’s of the athletes parade was disappointing. I thought ‘it’s the rules’ was a peculiarly British excuse for failing to give the customers what they want, but of course with shifts to finish and homes to get to I guess employees anywhere would take the same approach. We’re ‘guests’ in name only.
We did see the majority of Danny Boyle’s hectic ‘magic eye’ vision of England. If you scrutinised it too closely, as at least one of my Facebook friends seemed to do (apparently removing the lengthiest of his posts overnight in an Aidan Burley style retreat) then I guess you could see it as a preposterously overblown Spinal Tap vision of Britain; a glamorisation of the environmental brutality and inhuman exploitation of the industrial revolution; a magnification of the trivial and superficial . But it wasn’t a story designed for scrutiny: unfocus your eyes and look straight through the bewildering blur of one those magic eye autostereogram pictures and an admittedly sketchy but starkly clear image pops suddenly – sometimes fleetingly – into vision. Others can’t see it, but find other pictures in the chaos (is it an ice-cream van? A duck smoking a cigar? – look, there’s the smoke!).
That’s what Boyle’s pageant was like for me. The moment of clarity, the popping into focus, came around the time that my son said “why does it say ‘gosh’?” and the Great Ormond Street Hospital / NHS sequence kicked in. The bucolic green and pleasant land was simultaneous nostalgic myth of Albion and satirical caricature. The belching chimneys and Test Department drumming yes, glorified and glamorised the workers’ sweat, but the smug top hatted industrial barons kneeling to mark out and carve up the sward, shaking hands on the deals that would rip it apart, reminded us – along with the Jarrow marchers and the Grimethorpe colliery band – that Britain’s historical industrial might was not an unalloyed march of glorious progress. Those complaining that our imperial plunder was ignored perhaps have a point, but one dulled by the fact that Aidan Burley’s complaint that this was ’multicultural crap’ showed that those who yearn for the glories of Empire found the Britain portrayed by Boyle anathema, while the MV Windrush reference recalled – albeit obliquely – the African roots our nation ripped up, and how,replanted, they have become part of us.
This was a Britain at once proud and self-deprecating, like a hybrid of Narcissus and Janus, looking at once backwards, forwards, and inwards. Believing in nothing, and in six impossible things before breakfast.
I was able to follow reaction on Twitter while watching the event; my favourite tweet epitomised the irreverent playful, sometimes subversive inventiveness of the thing (and of course it required an earthy ’Anglo-Saxon’ epithet to do so, so look away now if easily offended) : The world right now is thinking, “What? What the fuck?” and Britain says, “This! This the fuck!”