29 July 2012
The 2012 London Olympic games were born in the melting pot of multiculturalism. As we were reminded on Friday, the tragedy of 7/7 happened on the day after the announcement of the success of the London bid. The London games arrived in 2005 with the London bombings. Thankfully, we have come a long way since then.
The rationale for the games had within it the recognition of the need for a legacy of inclusion and diversity. As the 7/7 bombings showed us, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that legacy is successful. This is a huge responsibility for us to hand over to future generations.
For me, this is a major part of what multiculturalism is about. It is not about counting the ‘non-white’ faces in the pageant, or where they had been placed. It is about working on the process of understanding who we are, and what we can become. I think that was one of the things that Danny Boyle was up to in his gloriously self-indulgent take on how to subvert the concept of an Olympic opening ceremony.
I must confess I missed the show on Friday night. I wasn’t invited, of course, but I missed my seat in front of the TV, as I had carelessly found myself in hospital. Thank heavens for BBC iPlayer, the moment will now last forever. I must stress I didn’t find time to jump and somersault on my hospital bed, sadly there were too many wires and sticky pads to allow me to join in. But like Mr Boyle I pay tribute to the great doctors and nurses of our NHS, and Ninewells Hospital in Dundee in particular.
So what was the opening ceremony about?
The comments by Aiden Burley MP, who tweeted as he watched the event that it was ‘leftie multicultural crap’, have been shot down quickly by his friends and foes (not least Boris Johnson).
All well and good. It was not crap.
But it portrayed workers and bosses, and it portrayed diversity in various ways. To a degree it was historically revisionary – not radically so (and certainly not marxist). And it appears the Queen still enjoyed it, once she’d recovered from her jump.
The imagery of the ceremony was rich and provocative. I am sure that scholars will spend many years trying to deconstruct and analyse the messages of the event – of what it tells us about Britain in 2012.
What did the imagery of the dancing, drumming industrial revolution actually mean? Was Mr Bean’s performance representative of a collective indifference to high pomp and ceremony, or did it tell us of a more general apathy to the contemporary national political and social processes? Answers on a postcard please… or in a conference paper abstract?
But the question I cannot help asking is whether this is a representation of multiculturalism to applaud or one to critique? Or both? As one of the commentators said about the music, what is most interesting is not what was included but what was not.
To put this another way, did it show us an inclusive vision of our country, or was it simply an enjoyable and complex representation of diversity today?
It did show me a lot of what I know of my country: of history, of class, and diversity. Also youth, technology, music, and communication. It was great to see. It was a spectacle that pushed many boundaries.
But I am sorry to say that it was a mainly English vision. The Olympics are in London, yes. And London is England, for sure. The ceremony was first and foremost a celebration of the city, not the wider country (of countries).
To have choirs from Ireland, Scotland and Wales singing on windy causeways, beaches and castle crags said volumes – they were outside the stadium looking in. And yes, Emeli Sande is Scottish, as was JM Barrie, and JK Rowling has become a native (as I have too). But the imagery was very much a local English set of images.
Funnily enough the contemporary youth culture bridges that cultural gap more than the historical. Status updates and grime music are not local to any part of the country (everyone of a certain age is certainly ‘bonkers!’). There is a lot of shared culture, but there are differences too, and not only in the kitsch tartan-shortbread-tin symbols. For heaven’s sake, has Mr Boyle not seen ‘Trainspotting’ (lol!)?
When there was so much other diversity showed, it is a shame that there was not much to show the rich national differences of our country, as well as our points of communality.
And where was the question of religion? Apart from in the awkward moment when the camera focused in particular on a Saudi female athlete as Jacque Rogge, the IOC President, welcomed the women members in every national team. I could not feel any point of contact with Islam and Muslims as part of Britain. This is a nit-picking point, perhaps, but one of huge significance given the 6/7 origins of the London games.
The most recognisable sign of Islam in Britain today – the hijab (women’s headscarf) – was only seen on the heads of the international competitors. Why not have it worn by the home performers too? Do we think that there are no young Muslim women into Dizzee Rascal?
I am a firm believer in the idea of a multiculturalism that is inclusive and not separatist. As some writers have argued, multiculturalism requires a strong national identity, that brings all people in to a common space. If anything, the processes of multiculturalism need to allow us to have our differences and also to feel a sense of sharing an identity too.
The former prime minister Gordon Brown (from Scotland, of course) nodded towards this, with his attempt to encourage the question of ‘Britishness’. His agenda is now long gone, but the questions still remain. Events such as the Olympic ceremony make bold, memorable, and lasting representations of such a vision – and will probably have significant influence for years to come. But we are not there yet.
So, let the games begin!