I’ve just been to the Olympics for the day and it was such a stunning and overwhelmingly positive experience. People – and I mean British people – were really going out of their way to be helpful, and the spirit of optimism and Olympic ideals was burning bright. This was British Nirvana and I wished that we could be like this all the time!
None of our usual British complaining, moaning, dwelling on what’s wrong: how the transport system will collapse; how inconvenient the whole thing is; ‘it will never work anyway’ etc…….
Danny Boyle’s Evolutionary Journey
And then Danny Boyle’s extraordinary show for the Olympic opening. What a wildly creative, surreal, moving, humorous roller-coaster journey through British history and culture! From an evolutionary beginning underwater at the source of the Thames to the heart of London, to Blake and pastoral scenes morphing into the industrial revolution in front of our eyes, with Suffragettes, music and culture through the decades. The Queen jumping out of a helicopter with James Bond? Sex pistols, Beatles, Stones, Who, Pink Floyd, Bowie, Dizzee Rascal–and, yes, the NHS–all in one journey. It could only have happened in Britain. Sincere but never too serious, and outrageously funny in a uniquely British way.
But best of all for me was the sheer unabashed positivity of the whole spectacle.
In that moment I felt so proud to be British! Yes, proud – I dare to say it. And I think it’s both healthy and important to feel a sense of national self-esteem and at times to celebrate our culture instead of being so self-deprecating, pessimistic or convinced that we live in ‘broken Britain’. Mitt Romney wrote that, ‘England [sic] is just a small island. With few exceptions, it doesn’t make things that people in the rest of the world want to buy’. Well, I guess that’s right if you happen to be a tad uninformed about cultural influences, such as: largely forming the modern world, inventing modern sport, and exporting popular music, theatre, TV, design, values, culture and creative media globally.
I want to say that being proud of my country doesn’t in any way equate to nationalism with its divisive overtones of thinking we’re better than every other country, or that one necessarily agrees with or supports some or even most of one’s government’s policies.
The Patriot George Orwell
Patriotism sounds jingoistic and outmoded to our modern liberal ears, and in its usual connotations, it certainly is. But wait a moment before dismissing it out-of-hand. Yes, we are first of all human beings, and that is prior to and far more fundamental than nationality. Yet our national origin is, also, a very real part of our identity, and that identity is constantly evolving over time. One of my heroes, George Orwell, who was such a powerful individualistic voice against the wrongs of both the extreme right and the extreme left, was a great British patriot, and he distinguished patriotism very clearly from nationalism or conservatism. In his brilliant essay, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ he says,
‘Patriotism has nothing to with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past.’
The Creative thread of a Nation
This is what I felt that Danny Boyle expressed so beautifully in his show, though not in an overt way. We need that bridge between the future that Orwell speaks of. There is such a thing as the creative thread of a nation, coursing through the decades and centuries. Many pioneering British figures of the past have each expressed this in their own way. It is this thrusting of the evolutionary impulse through the long struggle for greater human freedom and advances on all fronts that we need to be connected with. Because it is us. It’s what’s formed us and is an important part of who we are, and it needs embracing and re-contextualising for the next step forward to meet our challenges.
‘The Future is Unwritten’ is the title of a film about Joe Strummer of The Clash and in order to write a better future, we need to release our full optimism and creativity.