Sunday, 12 August 2012

"Bipolar Britain"? : Reactions to the Games, Britishness, and Belonging

[A moment of exuberant British celebration:
Tom Daley and Team GB people (fully clothed) jump in the pool in celebration
of his emotional bronze medal earned in 10M platform diving.
Article from The Guardian]

Throughout London 2012 I have thought back to the similarities with the Winter Games held in Vancouver in 2010. They were also presaged by much-hand wringing over the exorbitant cost, doubts over whether it was really worth all the trouble, grave predictions about traffic chaos and other doom-saying. This was followed by exhilaration, over-the-top patriotism, joy, triumph, and a long-lasting warm and fuzzy glow capped off by 14 gold medals and the famous men's hockey "golden goal."

London 2012 has already been all this. On speed.

I follow a variety of Brits from different walks of life and political persuasions on twitter and have witnessed a roller-coaster of emotion since July 27th. It began with outright hostility, Olympic-sized portions of Eeyoreish worry and whingeing ["When Will This Nightmare End?"] about the cost, the G4S security debacle (remember them?), corporate authoritarianism, 81-year-old grannies being forced to withdraw Olympic hand-knitted dolls from church jumble sales and the like. Many wished desperately for a ticket out of town (as happened with many people in Vancouver and, similarly, those who actually left will bitterly regret it for the rest of their natural lives. Just saying.)

But then, By Jove, the Opening Ceremonies arrived and Danny Boyle was arranging Freeborn Englishmen (and women) in the green and pleasant land and children were singing Jerusalem and there were dancing nurses in a tribute to the NHS and Mr. Bean being unbelievably hilarious with a Chariots of Fire spoof and, OMG, The Queen and James Bond, and my tweeps were tweeting so fast and furiously that I could hardly keep up. These jaded souls who had been complaining only a day before that it would all be "rubbish" were crying (by their own admission) and cheering and declaring that Britain was the best country ever in all history [*] and that the Ceremony showed the nation's unbounded humour and individualism and creativity (read: "Take that, Beijing!") and they'd never felt happier in all their lives and Danny Boyle for a Knighthood *this instant* while we've got Her Majesty right here!!!!

[Danny Boyle's vision of pre-industrial England, before the
"dark satanic mills" - reference: hymn Jerusalem and poem by William Blake]

And the waves of emotion haven't let up. Team GB has truly done brilliantly. Of course everyone needed to panic for a day or two that Britain wouldn't win any medals at all, but from the first gold to Dickensian-named Bradley Wiggins dear old Blighty has been running on happy fumes. Even the acerbic and performative-cynic Charlie Brooker has been caught up in the frenzy.

There has been an uncharacteristic showing of collective emotion in Britain and among its athletes. As per one tweet: "@sarasheridan: Another gold! Only 7% of Chinese & 17% of US athletes cry on medal podium @TeamGB win blubbing gold on 37.5% via @sundersays @RolandGulliver". One British friend has proffered this explanation for the "blubbering": Chinese and American athletes largely expect to be on the podium. Brits generally, having bought into the national myth of being "rubbish" at sport and inevitable failures, greet victory with these wellsprings of emotion. (Winston Churchill was a rather weepy individual, and also one who knew a great deal of failure. That really is a complete non sequitur but one felt the need to include it, and one is the writer here.)

There are stories aplenty to provide a backdrop for an inclusive, meritocratic Games - as modern Britain wishes to see itself. There is the truly inspirational Mo Farah and the young diving star Tom Daley who won the bronze in an amazing 10M platform competition. And when the coverage paid tribute to the loss of his beloved father to brain cancer 14 months ago and showed the final competition which they attended together, well, regardless of nationality if you weren't crying too then you simply didn't have a heart.

All this has left many asking: What does this say about modern Britain, national identity, or the national character? How do these reactions fit with history and received ideas of "Britishness" in this post-Imperial and multicultural landscape? I claim no decisive answers to any of these questions, however, I have pondered over them just a bit.

Differing political factions have been able to read into the Games the narrative they wish. Conservatives like Boris Johnson trumpet the lessons (as they see it) for free enterprise, competition, and other assorted Big Society ideas. (Gratuitous link to Boris-stuck-on-zipline meme.) For The Daily Telegraph it was an opportunity for national regeneration and ascertaining where Britain's "genius lies." For The Guardian and more left-of-centre individuals the Opening Ceremony and the Games itself are a model of an egalitarian, integrated and less class-ridden nation they would wish to realize. As one twitter said after the Boyle opener: "Britain: slightly bonkers and more socialist than some would wish, for 2000 years." There was much chatter about this "socialist" vision in light of current British politics under the Coalition Government. For others, the bonhomie and fellow-feeling of the fortnight has hearkened back to a time of greater community and belonging - a very softly shaded "small-t tory" vision of the past.

It is perhaps only correct that there should be (not to sound too postmodern) "multiple meanings" of the Games. Perhaps Britain's "genius" lies in the direction of being able to equally combine both the pre-Games criticism, hatred of authoritarianism and being told what to think and do, and also a plurality of "meanings" inherent in sport and belonging. Britain has been doing its freedom-thing for awhile now. It can cope with contradiction and ambiguity - which strikes me as an exceptionally useful quality. Somehow these elements become spun into positive narratives of national identity. I do think the much-lauded British sense of humour goes a long way in this direction. The Games have been a triumph for Britain at a time when it was sorely needed. All this brings up the fact being squarely faced as I write this just hours ahead of the Closing Ceremony: London 2012 is at its end. I've already noted a "pre-mourning" for the end of the Games. Many people admit they will feel somewhat depressed next week. The aforementioned friend suggested that the post-Games letdown might well be akin to a two week holiday in Majorca from which one returns to a mundane and ultimately empty life. One Brit has voiced exactly this sentiment in The New York Times:

"In truth the lesson of Britain’s bout of bipolarity is that we are lonely. That is the problem with modernity. When we come together, rediscover community, the feeling is as good as an adrenalin rush."

There is, one hopes, rather more reason for enthusiasm than gloom in the green and pleasant land. This is modern Britain. Bold in its eccentricity, culturally confident, and unashamed to jump into the pool in jubilation. Perhaps a little bipolar, but all the more human for it.

[*] One must, ahem, at least briefly comment on how the British press lambasted Canadians for our unashamed and supposedly "jingoistic" expressions of patriotism during our Games. Ahem, throat clearing now complete....

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils


Esther Montgomery said...

There's a division in my family. I say we can't all take credit because one individual is able to create and co-ordinate such a wonderful opening ceremony. Nor can we claim credit because a group of people which did not include us were so wonderfully efficient in setting up and organising the games. My son disagrees. He sees their success as ours - a reason for national pride even though hardly any of us would have had the skill and confidence to do it. Thinking what we should eat for lunch is enough of a challenge Neither of us can run a mile let alone a marathon. No way would we ever dive off a high board!

To me, it's on a par with claiming credit for things our ancestors did and feeling the need to apologise for things done before we were born which we think wrong or embarrassing.

I was a 'bother it all' person before I saw the opening event on television. The next day I woke up happier than I have in years; not because I am usually unhappy, nor because I was suddenly more than usually proud to be British, but because it was a specially uplifting and enjoyable spectacle. (I realise I might not have felt the same if I weren't British - or, specifically English, it seemed very English to me . . . maybe you know the answer to that. (?))Since then, I've followed the games with interest, not because I've got interested in sport but because I was grabbed by that ceremony and have been buoyed along by it since.

Thus, at the end of the games, I am left with two thoughts. To what extent have we the right to take pride in and credit for the expertise of others, even if we happen to share nationality/geography? And a realisation for the first time how powerful the arts are. If it weren't for Danny Boyle (I reckon) everything would have been different. If he deserves a knighthood - then he deserves to be made a Lord ten times over.

IdleHistorian said...

Esther, Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I do think that taking pride in the accomplishments of our ancestors or fellow citizens (in moderation) is part of belonging and national identity.

The Opening Ceremony certainly was very "English." I'm neither English nor British but I identify with its traditions culturally and so it was very meaningful to me. I can understand why others might have found it a bit baffling. I've just finished watching the Closing Ceremony which has received a lot of criticism on twitter. I don't think it was necessairly the choice of music etc. that was the problem but rather the feeling that it lacked this deeper meaning that was conveyed by Danny Boyle.

I have enjoyed the Games thoroughly from Canada. Thanks to GB for hosting such a great spectacle and I hope that Brits remember the triumph in their more "Eeyoreish" moments!

Hels said...

I lived through and participated in two Olympic Games in Australia (Melbourne and much later Sydney) and agree with almost everything you said. Exhilaration, over-the-top patriotism, joy, triumph and a long-lasting warm glow capped off by a great swag of medals.

But there were two main differences between the Australian Olympic experiences and Britain's. Firstly Australia expects to win every sporting contest it every goes into. We have no fake modesty about sport... I would say we have overweening immodesty about sport.

Secondly Britain (and half the rest of the world) was going through the worst depression since the Depression. Squillions of pounds were spent on luxury projects instead of on employment projects, desperately needed infrastructure, housing, schools and hospitals.

Now if the Games had been held elsewhere, Britain would still not have spent the money on infra-stucture, but still.... the timing emphasised the immorality of the spending decisions.

IdleHistorian said...

Thanks for your comment, Hels!... Very interesting point about Australians expecting to win. I think in Canada we are somewhat more like the Brits - "gobsmacked" when we do win. :)

The cost of the Games is certainly a concern - for "austerity Britain" and most definitely for Brazil in 2016. The Games have become so massive.

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