Opening Remarks

I wasn’t intending to watch last night’s Opening Ceremony for the 2012 Olympics, but in the end I did. I found it unexpectedly wonderful, in a wild and rather surreal way, especially when it made a point of celebrating one of the things I think we British can be truly proud of, our National Health Service.

Somebody  posted on Twitter Danny Boyle’s introduction to the show from the programme. I can’t put it better than he did.

The irony, of course, is that the Olympic games aren’t really for everyone; they’re mainly for the benefit of the few multinational companies who’ve purchased the rights to sell their merchandise, including junk food,  at the events and to have large parts  of London closed down so they can ply their wares. And for the legions of corporate guests and other hangers-on who’ll fill their bellies over the next few weeks. Not far from the ceremony, Police used draconian tactics to stamp out a protest by a group of people who had the nerve to cycle in the Olympic lanes; 200 were arrested. The right to demonstrate is an essential part of a democracy, but it too has been sacrificed on the altar of commercialisation.

But I think the irony was deliberate. A Tory MP, Aidan Burley, moaned on twitter that the ceremony was full of “leftie multi-cultural crap”. People like him symbolize everything that is wrong with modern Britain. I think Danny Boyle conjured up something special last night, the image of a Britain that most of us, and especially our politicians, seem to have forgotten. Not one about greed, warmongering and xenophobia, but one of creativity, freedom, and generosity of spirit. It must have made members of our government very uncomfortable, especially because they paid for it.

And I should also add another thing I liked about it. It was very British. Not in an arrogant or pompous way. There was, after all, plenty of self-deprecating humour on display, especially Mr Bean’s appearance with the London Symphony Orchestra. In amongst the MacDonalds and Coca Cola logos, I find that very refreshing. I  do wonder how much of it was understood by foreign viewers, but that’s not the point. The world is more than a dreary retail park in which every shop sells the same tat. You don’t have to eat pork scratchings or drink warm beer if you don’t want to, but some of us over here rather like them.

I don’t care much about the actual games, and probably won’t watch much on TV, but I do hope the message of the opening ceremony isn’t forgotten.

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20 Responses to “Opening Remarks”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’m glad (I’m not proud of the word ‘proud’) to live near where the Industrial Revolution started. It took a concatenation of several things: iron ore nearby, a coal seam nearby, limestone to leach out specific impurities from the ore in the blast furnace, an arterial river (Severn) for transport of heavy stuff, a banking system prepared to loan, and the know-how. It all came together in 1709 in SE Shropshire when Abraham Darby used coal that he had pre-heated, in order to drive off the wrong sort of impurity, in a blast furnace. The sort of impurity found in coal had previously wrecked the strength of the iron that resulted when coal was trialled in blast furnaces, and before Darby it had been necessary to use charcoal, obtained by letting wood smoulder under a soil blanket. Blast furnaces (actually a mediaeval invention) could then be greatly scaled up. Thus began the first phase of the industrial revolution, based on big iron. The second phase was the stationary (and steam) engine. The third phase was the moving engine. The fourth phase was electricity and the fifth phase is miniaturisation, which we are still in.

    This happened in a rural area, but the Industrial Revolution’s first city was Manchester, and its first port was Liverpool. The resulting architecture remains remarkable. As for the social problems that came about, to me these were not so much the conditions in the factories as the insecurity. It needs to be remembered that people left the fields to work in the factories *voluntarily*. They knew well enough what factory life was like from first-hand reports from family members and friends, and they preferred it. Today’s romantics who talk about rustic England would do well to remember how tough it must have been if factory life was better. The problem, though, was that you had security working the land, whereas a factory could go out of business overnight when a competitor began using a superior process in a different city.

    Engels’ “Condition of the Working Class in England” is nevertheless a must-read document about factory life. He was right about the problem, his friend Marx was wrong about the solution. I’m glad there was only one revolution (industrial), not two.

    I’ve ranted about the Olympic opening ceremony at the “Waterloo Sunset” blog entry, but I’d like to add that Aidan Burley would probably disapprove of that police action. I find neither him nor ‘O’ Danny Boyle particularly tasteful. I also know a policeman or two, and, while I disapprove of what they did last might, it’s a difficult job.

    Anyway, C’MON CAV! It would be great if one of our Tour de France heroes picked up an early gold medal.

  2. I thought it was brilliant, especially the first 30 minutes or so. I haven’t seen later stuff yet when the athletes parade, but the pandemonium section was superb. As an ex-pat it almost brought tears to my eyes…

  3. It was wonderfully, crazily, quintessentially, embarrassingly British!

  4. Michael Kenyon Says:

    It seemed to be one long pop video accompanied by dismal music, if our ace card is Paul Mccartney we might as well give up now. If there was a point to it I missed it. Great to celebrate the NHS but how many of these sportspeople or overpaid commentators are actually paying their full whack?
    Throughout the day at work it has been nagging me that it was all too familiar, and then I remembered …http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T72TopWbXJg.

  5. Andrew Liddle Says:

    I’m very much with Peter on this. I tuned in more out of curiosity than anything else, and maybe hoping to convince myself that it wasn’t going to be an embarrassment. Instead I found it compelling and often moving and watched it through to the end.

    It was indeed a very British event, with wilful eccentricity, so it is a pleasant surprise to find that it has apparently been very well received around the world.

    As to the music, I’m sure it is not to everyone’s taste, but surely no-one can deny the amazing British contribution to popular music; indeed from the sixties onwards I’d argue it is unmatched by any other country. For me it was a particular pleasure to have all sorts of memories triggered by the short snatches of music from all stages of my life. The right choice of music can add immeasurably to the impact of what you watch; a particular example that will stay with me is Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse” played over the closing fireworks and montage.

    Andrew

    • telescoper Says:

      The moment I realised I was captivated (and I willingly admit that I gasped) was when I saw a little clip of David Niven in the Powell/Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death, an appropriately dotty and charming inclusion.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Powell/Pressburger were brilliant filmmakers.

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    I wondered at the time of the Beijing Olympics about what the London opening ceremony should do. Though the Beijing opening ceremony was spectacular, it was extremely regimented and tightly controlled. My view then was that a democracy should do the exact opposite: emphasise difference, individuality, variety and diversity.

    Clearly, Danny Boyle and everyone else working on the London opening ceremony thought that. They made absolutely the right decision. They adopted just the right tone.

    Admittedly, the opening ceremony did portray a rather English view of Britishness, not that there was anything out of place in that given that the games are taking place in Stratford.

    • “Admittedly, the opening ceremony did portray a rather English view of Britishness”

      When the athletes marched in, it was announced as “Great Britain” rather than “United Kingdom”. What’s up with that? Does Northern Ireland have its own Olympic team?

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      No, Northern Ireland does not have its own Olympic team.

      It is very odd that the British Olympic Association calls its team Great Britain and, as part of its branding, Team GB. This appears to be a continuation from the long gone era of empire when Great Britain was seen as politically dominant over other parts of the former British Empire. The British Olympic Association represents the United Kingdom – including Northern Ireland – and also the Crown Dependencies (the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands), and British Overseas Territories (essentially small territories that have refused independence for various reasons).

      So the team that calls itself “Great Britain” at the Olympics is really the United Kingdom plus some small territories. I find this really odd.

  7. “He was right about the problem, his friend Marx was wrong about the solution.”

    Was Marx wrong because he overlooked the electric motor? Marx thought England would be the first country to succumb to a communist revolution and Russia the last. Would that have happened if the electric motor hadn’t been invented, which allowed decentralization and small factories?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Before electricity, every factory had one large steam engine that turned a single central shaft. Belt-driven off this shaft, at varying wheel radius ratios and therefore rpm, was an amazing diversity of smaller shafts that reached everywhere in the factory that power was needed. The principle of dispersion was exactly the same in principle as electricity, but a lot more cumbersome. I don’t believe that the difference between this system and industry run on electricity is responsible for why there were revolutions in some places but not others. I’d question Marx on some pure economic grounds, and also on his model of the individual, including the poor and entrepreneurs.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      It’s amusing to see what Engels wrote about my home town: “Stockport is renowned throughout the entire district as one of the duskiest, smokiest holes, and looks indeed, especially when viewed from the viaduct, excessively repellent. But far more repulsive are the cottages and cellar dwellings of the working class, which stretch in long rows through all parts of the town from the valley bottom to the crest of the hill. I do not remember to have seen so many cellars used as dwellings in any other town of this district.”

  8. I agree with Peter and Andrew; I was pleasantly surprised. But why was it so late?

    • Tom Shanks Says:

      Twas a brilliant opening ceremony, full of emotion at least for a Brit! I liked particularly the “smelting” of the 5 rings and the NHS tribute. Also Nimrod with the audience as the sea and the voice over of the Shipping Forecast with the cricketers in the background. “Abide with me” was also special. Mr Bean and Chariots of Fire were also original. Not so keen on JK Rowling, The Arctic Monkeys or Paul McCartney or indeed the Olympic pyrotechnic obsession but the rest including Muhammad Ali et al was magnificent.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I don’t understand why the ceremony began so late (9p.m. local summer time). Somebody claimed on television that it was so that the fireworks would be set off when the sky was properly dark, but they were let off around 00:30 a.m., about two hours later than was necessary. Perhaps there was some compromise to fit in with televising the event in daylight in East Asia rather than in the middle of the night?

      • telescoper Says:

        Perhaps it was “tailored for a U.S. audience” …

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        The ceremony took place between 4:00 p.m. and 7:50 p.m. summer time on the east coast of the United States, and between 1:00 p.m. and 4:50 p.m. on the west coast, as far as I can make out. So it’s difficult to see much of a time constraint in that.

  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’m appalled that someone has been arrested for tweeting that British diver Tom Daley let his (recently deceased) father down. Nasty thing to say, but in a nation of 60million not everybody is going to have a wonderful personality, and footballers get worse tweets from fans of opposing teams every week.

    Not everything that is wrong should be criminalised. This is a major nail in the coffin of free speech. If I may say so.

    • telescoper Says:

      Agreed. It’s the price for free speech that you have to allow people to say such things. The Malicious Communications Act covers missives that are “indecent, offensive or threatening”. I agree that there should be legal protection against sending letters that are threatening or intimidatory, but “indecent” and “offensive” are terms that are so vague they are liable to absurd interpretations.

      I doubt if this miscreant’s father is very proud of him right now.

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