Saturday, 28 July 2012

Isle of plenty

It's sometimes a little tricky being British. Not in a life-threatening way. On the grand scale of things, we don't have too many problems to deal with; we're not being visited by tornadoes on a weekly basis and plagues of locusts seem to be rare. But we're difficult to label, hard to describe.

Oh, we've all seen the stereotypes - diffident, slow to show emotion, a little stand-offish. We all drink tea, and when we're not doing that we gulp down warm beer out of very large glasses. Actually, there's a grain of truth in that last one, but my point stands. Britain, and the whole concept of being British, is a hard concept to pin down.

That's why I was anticipating last night's Olympic opening ceremony with a touch of concern. After all, events like this are supposed to show the country and its people at their best. But what angle to take?

Britain has a lot of history. This is a truth universally known - after a year of studying British history at school we were still looking at Roman roads with another 2,000-odd years of castles, battles, errant clergymen and stovepipe hats ahead of us. The opening ceremony could have tried to cover this vast swathe of events, but with only a couple of hours to fit it in, it would have needed fast-forwarding. The Reformation of the Churches and Henry VIII on roller skates? I don't think so.

What creative director Danny Boyle, of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire fame, did instead was to look not at Britain as a rather rainy island in the North Atlantic, but as a collection of people. People who came together and ended up giving something back to the world.

We saw a picture of the country in its rural idyll, rapidly transformed by the pandemonium of the Industrial Revolution. Individual people - those who had the spark of an idea - working together to improve their lot. Of course it was broad brush stuff. There was no Marx and Engels discussing the avarice of Victorian factory owners to counterbalance Branagh's Shakespeare-quoting Brunel. But the social aspect wasn't missed.

At the first Olympics where every country finally had female athletes in attendance, there was a nod to the Suffragette movement. The appearance of the Empire Windrush marked the major incoming of West Indian immigrants in 1948, just one aspect of the constant influx we've seen since the Romans. Our greatest post-war achievement, the introduction of universal healthcare for all, got an affectionate nod. And then the rapid growth in digital communication - transforming our lives in ways far beyond Brunel's imagination - with the eventual unveiling of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. He waived all commercial rights to the Web and let everyone dig in, free of charge. That blows my mind.

God, that all sounds horribly worthy doesn't it? A rich tapestry, but not one you'd hang on your wall.

Luckily, Boyle remembered the one thing that binds us Brits. We like to take the piss. We can laugh, most often at ourselves. So we saw the Queen - the actual flipping Queen! - take part in a sketch with Daniel Craig, plummeting out of a helicopter with a Union Jack parachute. Mr Bean gatecrashed the famous Chariots of Fire beach scene. Gregory's Girl rubbed shoulders with Michael Fish.

And running through all of this was the music. Sometimes irreverent, anarchic, angular, sometimes throwaway, always there to move you. Elgar's Nimrod at the beginning brought a lump to my throat. Pink Floyd's Eclipse at the end, after the most fantastic Olympic cauldron lighting, had me pretty much blubbing.

Although being British, I tried to hold it in. I think I said "Well, that's quite lovely."

Last night proved to me that you can be proud of your country without the macho, chest-thumping nonsense that sometimes comes as part of the bargain. I don't think I'm the only one, either. We're a world-weary lot, normally, but the conversations I've seen since last night - online and in the real world - suggests that many of us have suspended our cynicism for the time being. A non-cynical British person? That just doesn't happen. It's a modern-day miracle.  

In short, Danny Boyle didn't just get Britain. He got us. It was a love letter back to the country. It might be baffling to outsiders. It might not translate into foreign languages. That's perhaps the British way.

Here's the thing, though. I said at the start of this, we're not easy to pigeon-hole, us Britons. We come from hundreds of different places, originally. We're a mongrel nation. We certainly don't all look alike. And we're not perfect. You might not always like us, although we're hard to ignore. We like to grumble. It's a little difficult living here sometimes. Things don't always work. Historically, our country hasn't always got everything right.

But from now on, if someone asks me about what it's like to be in Britain in the 21st century, I can simply show them last night's ceremony. After all, it's not about castles and kings these days. It's about people. It's about ideas. It's about dreams.

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