Ceremony and memory (July 2019)

[Published OnLondon, 10 July 2019]

26 July, 2012 was a warm evening. I arrived to meet a friend at a pub in Brighton, which was hosting its annual visit from the Chanctonbury Ring Morris. As we sat outside, and the dancers whirled, jingled and clacked, I took a photo and tweeted – very drolly I thought – “Beat that, Danny Boyle.”

The next night, by common consent, he did. And how. After a slightly iffy handover in Beijing in 2008, featuring double-decker buses, bowler hats and a bemused-looking Boris Johnson, the London 2012 opening ceremony was a spectacular. It took in Brunel, Blake, Berners-Lee and Beckham; dancing nurses, lesbian kisses, and parachuting monarchs, Shakespeare and smokestacks. A nervous nation breathed a sigh of relief, and began to tell itself that maybe, just maybe, the London Olympic and Paralympic Games would go okay.

Seven years later, the lavish performance is still memorable, a very modern celebration of patriotism and pride, unity and diversity. But its meaning is now freighted with awareness of what followed, of the divisions that were triggered or laid bare by Brexit. We re-watch it through our fingers, like the opening scenes of a film where unsuspecting teens arrive for a party at a beautiful, isolated, cabin in the woods.

For many Remainers the ceremony stands for everything that Brexit threatens to destroy. Writing just after the EU referendum, Frank Cottrell-Boyce (who co-created the event with Boyle) made the contrast explicit: “The nation we saw in the opening ceremony and the nation we saw in the referendum are both real. They’re two parts of diptych. One holds out the possibility of inclusion and ease. The other might be seen as a kind of scream of pain and fury that tells us how it feels to be excluded from that ease.”

Similar sentiments are easily found on Twitter:

“The opening ceremony was the best of our gods, Brexit is the worst of our demons.”

“The optimism, pride and celebration of multiculturalism woven into that marvellous opening ceremony should have been a launchpad. Instead we made it a diving board.”

“On the night before Brexit I will be watching the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony and wondering what the fuck went wrong…”

For some Leavers, on the other hand, the opening ceremony’s celebratory optimism remains a reminder of Britain’s potential, of what Brexit can recapture if only the nation would re-unite. In the recent words of Liz Truss: “We need to revive the Olympic 2012 spirit – a modern, patriotic, enterprising vision of Britain and we need to use Brexit to achieve that.” In 2016 – a few days after the referendum – Johnson wrote pointedly of the “gloomy predictions that were banished” by London 2012.

But not everyone is convinced. Writing in the Guardian this week, Dawn Foster identified the “false premises” underpinning “centrist thinking”; one was “that the 2012 London Olympic ceremony represented an idyllic high-point of culture and unity in the UK, rather than occurring amid the brutal onslaught of austerity, with food bank use growing and the bedroom tax ruining lives”.

Others have argued that the ceremony’s reprise of a rosy national story fostered a sense of “Britain can make it” nostalgia that stoked anti-EU sentiment. Conversely – and as hinted by Cottrell-Boyce – its inclusive vision has been seen as deepening the resentment of those who felt alienated from the multicultural zeitgeist – a resentment which would later find expression in some Brexit votes.

Certainly the ceremony’s narrative – The internet! The NHS! Britpop! – can sound like a Tony Blair conference speech, but with better dancing and more verbs. And the golden glow of our memories can blind us to what else was happening in the early years of this decade: the first austerity budgets, recession, riots on the streets of London, divisions that were perhaps as deep as they are today but less visible.

But fact that the meaning and significance of a sport festival’s opening ceremony is still so keenly contested is a tribute to its persisting power – as a symbol of what we are losing, as a reminder of what we could be, or simply as a powerful piece of propaganda for a national unity that was always illusory.

In 2016, scheduled “four years on” reflections on the opening ceremony collided with the disruptive shock of the EU referendum result. I suspect we will still be debating both on 24 July next year, as Tokyo 2020 gets underway.

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