Ceremonies are not only celebrations – they are also cultural declarations about where we come from, who we are, and where we are going. As well as being an exciting and powerful example of living theatre, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games was also a Spirit of the Age statement.
Many observers have argued over what the ceremony reveals about twenty-first-century Britain. But just as interesting is what the ceremony said about Britain’s relationship with its past. Boyle’s production was certainly dominated by the past. Reminding ourselves of history is, of course, no bad thing. But there is history and there is history. Often, history is used as a medium for projecting backwards our present-day concerns and rediscovering them in the past. So it was with the opening ceremony.
The Spanish daily El Pais took the view that the ceremony symbolised a nation that is more comfortable with its past than its future. It said Britain offered the world an image of ‘what it is: a country with more past than future’. Outwardly, El Pais seems to have a point; indeed, many foreign reviewers have treated the opening ceremony as a wonderful and technically superb history lesson.
However, what we saw at the opening ceremony was not just a history lesson, but also the portrayal of a nation that is not quite at ease with its past. As someone whose child has recently studied history and geography in secondary school, I was not surprised by the scene in the opening ceremony which depicted a destructive transition from the rural idyll of a harmonious pastoral England to the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. When, a few years ago, I asked a group of schoolboys what was accomplished by the Industrial Revolution, they all replied: ‘Polluted urban centres.’ What these children learned was that, yes, the steam engine was invented through the Industrial Revolution, but at the price of great environmental destruction.
This conversation came back to me when I heard the choirboy sing ‘Jerusalem’ during the opening ceremony. At the ceremony, that hymn, based on William Blake’s great poem lamenting the devastation of a ‘green and pleasant land’ by ‘dark Satanic mills’, came across not so much as a reflection of Romantic thinking but as a confused voice, mixed up about the past. Despite the ‘Satanic mills’ and the appalling conditions experienced by the new urban working class, the Industrial Revolution was arguably the greatest achievement, not just of Britain, but of humankind. During the opening ceremony, the huge chimneys that dramatically emerged to symbolise the Industrial Revolution showed that our society still has the technical creativity we need to face the future; what is lacking is the spirit of adventure required for embracing uncertainty and taking risks as we move forward.
Whatever one thinks of the ideas of Blake and his fellow Romantics, there can be little doubt about their capacity to dream and imagine. Living in an age when the world was turned upside down, they could be excused for the reaction they had to modern times. However, the current tendency to pathologise the Industrial Revolution makes nineteenth-century Romantic poets seem positively future-oriented in comparison. When compared with the Romantic pastoral of a bygone age promoted by those poets of old, Boyle’s scene of cricket-playing, contented agricultural labourers came across as forced, as a caricature of a caricature.
What would Blake make of the British pastoral of the twenty-first-century? In place of the shepherds and dairy-maids carelessly lounging about in the tall grass, Boyle’s snapshot of the more modern era offered us portraits of sweet teenagers obsessively texting each other in the middle of their dance routines. Carpe diem displaced by ‘OMG!’.
El Pais was only half right in its diagnosis of the Spirit of the Age in Britain. Both on the night of the ceremony and in real life itself, the future is often treated as an alien land these days. But a society’s estrangement from the future does not automatically lead to escaping into the past. What the momentous opening ceremony accurately captured was not the celebration of the past but rather a mood of intense presentism, an almost obsessive living in the present moment – a sensibility that is as cut off from the legacy of past achievements as it is from a positive vision of the future.