Ben Cashdan
Ben Cashdan

An opening ceremony as confused as the British psyche

“We know we’re great, we’re just not sure why.” For me those words sum up a generally strange, occasionally spectacular Olympic opening ceremony in London on Friday.

I guess the starting point for opening ceremonies is the desire to be bigger and deliver more prolonged thrills than the previous guy. And if good sex is partly about size and stamina, then Great Britain was always going to feel some performance anxiety, unable to put the might and financial muscle of the Chinese state into its show, especially in this age of austerity.

So how not to appear like a limp and cheap imitation? An obvious bet was to play on Britain’s unique quirky character. To make up for one’s lack of physical size by being the funny guy at the dinner table so to speak, with lots of cool stories to tell.

But what exactly is at the core of Cool Britannia’s uniqueness in the world today? The memory of empire? The National Health Service? The Queen? Queen? The Eurythmics and eighties pop? Multicultural love affairs conducted over social media networks?

Not convinced? Neither am I. And the problem for Danny Boyle was just that — Britain still thinks it’s great but it has no idea why. All the reasons to celebrate Britain’s history are shot through with flipsides we might rather forget, and which haunted the Boyle extravaganza on Friday.

William Blake’s green and pleasant land is a bit of a myth, given the dispossession of British peasants by the enclosures and taxes used to create a ruling landed aristocracy, which still exists today. The industrial revolution gave birth to fossil-fuel-driven greedy capitalism. And the chimneys belching forth smoke in the stadium made one feel as guilty to be British as the smarmy capitalists in their top hats. They reminded us of the British bankers from Barclays who recently ripped off the world’s poor by fixing interest rates in the bank’s favour.

The arrival of dark-skinned foreigners from the West Indies opened a can of worms about the British Empire. These were workers displaced from their home lands to offer blood sweat and tears to make Great Britain great. Later as the teams entered the stadium we were reminded of Britain’s expansionist past in the Union Jacks that still appeared littered across the flags of many smaller nations.

And as we celebrated the National Health Service (NHS), one could not help but be struck by the irony that Britain’s present government is dismantling that institution by firing thousands of doctors and nurses to fuel an economic doctrine popularised by Margaret Thatcher — that to strengthen our economy we need to stop caring for people.

So what else contributes to Britain’s greatness? The Queen, who would be fine as a fictional character from James Bond stories if it wasn’t for the fact that her household continues to cost taxpayers tens of millions a year. Millions the NHS could use.

OK Britain has produced some good music over the decades but I certainly wouldn’t invite Boyle to DJ at my party with his jumbled selection of British pop music genres — new romantic music from the 80s giving way to a bit of punk, rock and bhangra.

What’s left? Don’t talk to me about Britain’s values — democracy and fair play on the world stage. If anyone was suffering under that mythology, then we were finally put out of our misery when Britain went to war with Iraq on the basis of unproven assertions about weapons of mass destruction.

Maybe our sense of humour? OK I’ll concede that Mr Bean’s perverse dream about leading the race in Chariots of Fire was cool — but primarily because it takes the piss out of Britain’s delusions of grandeur. And that’s perhaps the punch line of the whole strange affair on Friday in east London. We are a nation who feel great, but if we’re not great we don’t care, cos we’re too busy having a laugh down the pub.

Ben Cashdan was born in the UK and lives in Johannesburg.

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    • Typically British?

      I also have British forebears and I was just just as confused! There was a complete lack of coherence in the programme. My kids said rather cruelly that the reason why it was so wierd was because there was little about royalty or colonisation – both of which caused Britain to call itself “great.” Mr Bean and the Queen’s helicopter “jump” were the only highlights and they were also the only particularly British flashes of humour in my view. Ah well, signs of the times I suppose. How the mighty are fallen. The last time I was there I tried ordering a take away and had to ask a barely articulate shop assistant 3 times what he was trying to say to me. It sounded like ” ooo-aaa-su-eyes-wi-a-yeah.” I realised eventually that he was saying “you want some fries with that yeah? the irony of not understanding English in England was inescapable.

    • Dave Harris

      Well its was a first time when the Chinese team parading on opening night, in addition to waving the Chinese flag, all waved little Jack Unions as well out of pity at such a pathetic spectacle compared to the Beijing Olympics opening night. LOL

      Aawww, but the kids were cute though. However not a single word of the evil of colonialism and imperialism when the British Empire ruled almost the entire world no so long ago! By Jove, old chap, the new world order is upon us!

    • Pingback: The Olympics: What To Make of Them, Britain on the Verge, The Debt “Debate” in Congress,()

    • Easyleesie

      I think you’re falling into the trap that many Saffas and Aussies do in slagging the UK off because they’re the UK. Credit where credit is due. That was a spectacular show telling the story of Britain. You forget that such a small island won two world wars, contributed more to popular culture than we South Aficans can dream of, invented the Internet and as for the NHS, would you rather have your baby there, or in Limpopo?. Look, I like beating them as much as the next man, but this article smacks of a big chip on your shoulder.

      They will never compete with China on scale, but jeez, what other country can pull out Shakespeare, Rowling, the Stones, Queen, blah bla blah? Contribution to world culture per capita, they leave us in the shade.

    • Ed

      Confused? Of course they are, you try having a world Empire, being the worlds technological leader and l

    • Ted

      Confused? Of course they are, you try having a world Empire, being the worlds technological leader and losing it all so quickly and see where you get. You chaps have plenty of your own confusion issues. Jeez, I just need to take a monthly perusal of these forums to come away with my head spInning at your immensely convoluted racial issues.

      Dave Harris seems to be enjoying the rise of China, I wonder how he’ll be at analysing their human rights issues that we all face in the future… My bets are he’ll secretly pine for the days of yore when he could sit around criticising most of the achievements of western civilisation from his little throne.

      But surely Dave, you appreciated all the token black peasants and industrial workers the British included in the celebration… At complete odds with historical accuracy.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      They were right to boast of their SOCIALIST National Health, which costs a third of the Amercan National Health INSURANCE which uses insurers as Middle Men.

      Guess which model the Kleptocrats in the ANC want to follow? So that someone gets a LEGAL profit share in the insurance middle man no doubt.

      This PROFIT share on every deal and in every tender is LEGAL and no amount of Hot Lines can stop it!

    • Lennon

      If you can find it, then I’d recommend watching the documentary called “Empire”.

      Explains it all.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Actually the Queen of Great Britain is still Head of State of about 40 countries in the world.

      And English is still the International Linga Franca (which used to be French before the Colonial period, and Latin during the Holy Roman Empire period)

    • OneFlew

      Of course every generalisation that one makes is vulnerable to the falsifying exception and even the coherent counternarrative.

      The green and pleasant land wasn’t equally pleasant from all vantage points, the consequences of the industrial revolution aren’t all positive, the music wasn’t all great or to one’s own taste, not every government policy or action reinforces all aspects of every myth.

      But because every narrative about every country is susceptible to that sort of nitpicking, such nitpicking about the narrative of a particular country doesn’t necessarily reveal very much. Such truth as exists mainly resides in the narrative itself, not in its piecemeal refutation.

      The mythology isn’t irrefutably true? I don’t think that insight undermines the storytelling at all. Nor does it begin to make sense of the storytelling.

      Of course Britain has an identity crisis. But your analysis doesn’t help to illuminate it, it simply identifies the low-hanging fruit that can be found in any such narrative.

    • DumZA

      Ben, great piece. I see the UK as a grand empire built by means not always humane. Contributions to human civilization? Sure, together with some of the greatest evils in human history, such as slavery. There seems to be a counter-balancing factor for everything mentioned as merit. There is another side to it. There were good sections in the opening ceremony. A friend who watched it said that it was like watching a huge primate huffed-up and beating its chest saying look at me I am the greatest. Disturbing imagery, but showing the varying impressions created by trying a bit too hard.

      Ted, Chinese human rights track-record… Yup, sure. At least they give others a chance to negotiate part of the deal.

      Yes, there are great British acheivements, but then everyone has a song to sing about their own greatness. Most of it delusional.

      No need to compare. the uniqueness is the best part. When you compare you dilute the unique flavours, as it were.

    • Typically British?

      Too right , but then we didn’t put on an incoherent world spectacle. Mmmm Maybe the hollywood producer tried to get them back for their past ‘tendencies” lol. @ Lyndall. America is keeping English (and Christianity) alive – and that as long as they control communications technology. I speak under correction, but I seem to think that Spanish was more widely spoken than both French and English at some stage.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      There are great achievements by Britain and also great atrocities (eg the Highland clearances in Scotland when thousands of Scots were sold into slavery; the Anglo Boer War in SA).

      Which is more or less the same for all countries.

    • Joanne

      Ja – I wasn’t too keen on the fake grass/rural/farmyard vibe – thought it was a LITTLE kitsch – but I loved the torch – I thought that was pretty fantastic!! And I think British sense of humour is definitely the taker in their “greatness” 😉

    • Allan

      I don’t have big words or anything, but that ceremony was as exciting as cold fish and stale chips. As a spectator in the stadium one could not make out head or tail with what was going on. You cannot have a thousand individuals doing all sorts of individual things and expect the audience at such a big stadium to know what is happening. At the top of the stands it seemed like a bunch of shoppers in a shopping mall. China understood how to produce a huge spectacle. Britain needs to learn from them. Of-course, the grumpy Elizabeth did not do much to elevate the spirit of the crowd

    • MLH

      Must agree with Easyleesie all the way.

      The best thing about the Brits (being one myself, by virtue of birth) is our ability to laugh at ourselves without being prissy and squeamish. What so many missed (because for them it’s all about trying to better the next man) is that Great Britain was not trying to compete with any opening ceremony; she was just herself.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      What British slavery? Give concrete examples which were not historically the same as most of the rest of the world at that historic time!

    • Rich

      DumZA – I think you should read more.
      Just an aside: the British contributions to civilization are probably the reason you are still alive today. Sure others might have got there after but they did not. The Brits got there first…