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Olympic opening: More Little Britain than Great Britain

Glorious traditions, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. When some chinless member of the British aristocracy was expounding on the ‘glorious traditions’ of the Royal Navy, the riposte – often incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill, once First Lord of the Admiralty – was, ‘What glorious traditions? The traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash.’

And so, too, with the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, themed as ‘Isles of Wonder’.??

The British media hailed the ceremony variously as ‘breathtaking … brilliant … delightfully, barmily British’. That, too, was the line echoed dutifully in most Anglophone newspapers around the world.

This glowing positivism has much to do with the global pervasiveness of syndicated copy. Many drew on the likes of The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail for their assessments, rather than having their own writers and critics.

But although spectacular in parts, the opening wasn’t wondrous at all. It was self-indulgent, historically misshapen, and politically correct to the point of absurdity – really, how many black captains of industry were there during the industrial revolution? Danny Boyle, creator of the extravaganza, would have us believe about 20%.

And lets add that to the non-Anglophone viewer it was obscure to the point of incomprehensibility. Brunel, tunnel engineer, as the nation’s major historical figure? Coronation Street as the epitome of British television drama? It was a gallon of allusions, tunes and visual snippets poured into a pint pot.

There is a plethora of statesmen, libertarians, and outstanding scientific and medical innovators that Boyle had to choose among but ignored. Even if one pretends British history moved straight from the maypole to the Victorian industrial mills, why not Robert Stephenson, of steam locomotive fame? Or James Hargreaves, inventor of the Spinning Jenny?

That, though, is to quibble about minor issues. What was unforgivable about the London Olympic ceremony was its massive intellectual dishonesty, its pretence that Britain’s most abiding legacy to many of the billions around the world who watched the spectacle – that is the legacy of exploration, annexation and empire – didn’t happen.

The Chinese glossed over the unattractive, repressive, parts of their history in 2008’s Beijing ceremony, over which many, especially the British media, were correctly scathing. It makes the lack of critical media interrogation regarding London all the more pathetic.

At its heyday the British Empire, the largest ever, covered a quarter of the world’s land mass and included a quarter of its people. When one includes the United States, which shrugged off the British embrace, as well as countries like Sudan and China, which eluded it, the enormous effect that the British have had on the modern world becomes apparent.

British imperialism was not exactly a benign experience for those at the sharp end of it. The British were enthusiastic slavers and it was also they who against the Boers invented concentration camps and a scorched earth policy, coming close to ethnic cleansing.

Nor was that nastiness a historical blip. These were the very same techniques that the British used half a century later in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurrection, when almost 1.5m Kikuyu were detained in fortified camps and villages. Thousands were beaten to death, or died of malnutrition and disease.

That is presumably why Boyle stuck with safe laughs, in the form of an over-long slot for comic Rowan Atkinson and a parachuting Queen. Ha ha! What a hoot!

A pity. For though the past is past, it is fruitless to pretend it never happened. Despite British excesses, there is much to salute.

It was the British people who first turned their backs on slavery. It was an indomitable British campaigner, Emily Hobhouse, supported by Liberal leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who exposed the atrocities of the Her Majesty’s Lords Kitchener and Milner in the South African veld.

It was ordinary Brits who most among Westerners backed the anti-apartheid struggle. And it was dogged British lawyers who fought the system and official secrecy for the right of three elderly Kenyans to stand in a London court last week, to sue the Crown for damages done to them and their people half a century ago.

London’s opening celebration was oh, so correct and cosy. More Little Britain, than Great Britain.


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


  1. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 4 August 2012

    I do think National Health worth celebrating, but hardly with hospital beds?

    But probably Britain’s greatest Empire achievement was its network of railways – still the main forms of transport in East Africa, Pakistan and India – but NOT MAINTAINED, just like our water systems which break every time there is a flood (presently in PE and previously in Knysna).

    I was horrified a few years ago when a train in Pakistan derailed into a river and the cause of the accident was “no maintenance since the end of colonial rule” – which was in 1947!

    The end of colonial rule appears to have been the end of both maintenance and planning – like Eskom, and our running out of water because 5 dams that were planned in 1994 were shelved!

  2. Dave Harris Dave Harris 4 August 2012

    An infantile analysis of the opening ceremony.

    Danny Boyle tried to avoid mentioning evil British Empire and the wake of destruction in the last few centuries for obvious reasons! Furthermore the inventors you name are questionable on of factual grounds since much of these “inventions” were actually COPIED from the East. Besides the father of the world wide web, Tim-Berners Lee, justly deserves the recognition since he epitomizes the spirit and humility of a true inventor by using technology creatively for the benefit of the masses and not obscenely profiteering from it.

    One of the main themes that you avoid mentioning, probably because it conflicts with your hidden neoconservative agenda, is their National Health System (NHS), something that we too, with our NHI, are aspiring to. An important initiative like NHI is opposed by most rabid DA!

    You mock Danny Boyle’s decision to be more inclusive of people of colour who are less than 10% of the population and not the 20% that you falsely allude to, and marginalized in British society. But I wonder why?

  3. Richard Richard 4 August 2012

    A few thoughts: yes, misshapen history (and portrayals of the present) most decidedly. The average modern British family protrayed as mixed-race (and not just any mixed race, white and black, because to have Asians or Orientals doesn’t have the “cool” factor so adored in modern Britain) is another fallacy. Concentration camps invented during Boer War? Not correct. You will find they were used in the Civil War in the USA before then. Ethnic cleansing? I think if they wanted to ethnically cleanse the Boers they could have done so much more efficiently than burning crops and houses, which was a common practice in those years, used perhaps by the Boers against the indigenous inhabitants of the Transvaal/Free State? And as for putting a gloss on things, isn’t that the same as in South Africa before the FIFA event in 2010? Should the opening ceremony there have shown Negroid Africans sweeping south to ethnically cleanse the San and other indigenes? Then scenes of unremitting inter-tribal fighting, before more fighting with whites, to be followed by political unrest, necklacing, etc? What a splendid opening that would have made! You condemn PC in the beginning, and then indulge in uber-PC later on.

  4. Rich Rich 4 August 2012

    Applying modern perceptions to acts of history is flawed. Two thousand years ago we would have all happily bought our ‘popcorn’ and fought for front row seats to watch gladiators spill each others guts (as long as we were a citizen). To analyze it and learn from it ok – but to say how bad they are and how good you are just illustrates your stupidity. What you say Dave?

  5. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 5 August 2012


    The difference between a prisoner of war camp, which holds only soldiers from the other side captured in battle, and a concentation camp, is that the latter holds civilians including women and children (and servants in the case of the Anglo Boer War).

    I must admit to not knowing that there were concentration camps in the American Civil War. Can you give some references so that I can research this?

  6. MLH MLH 5 August 2012

    As South Africans, we are so serious!

    It was an interlude of entertainment Chaps, and the Brits make no bones about poking themselves in the ribs. If you don’t like that sort of thing and would rather watch an episode of Soul City: be my guest.

    I see no reason for any form of competition in opening ceremonies, anyway, when they are really only all about stating the obvious: ‘We are gathered here together…’

  7. Richard Richard 5 August 2012

    @Lyndall, there is quite a bit about it on the internet. One site is this, for example, from the Institute for Historical Review.

    I do not know whether they conform to the definition you have given of concentration camps, however. Internment camps were also used by the Spanish, but again, I don’t know whether they would be the same thing.

    Concentration camps have really been symbolised by the Nazi camps during the War, but that was perhaps a certain kind of camp, and perhaps would be better described under another name.

  8. Garry Southern Garry Southern 5 August 2012

    I write this from Franschhoek. However I watched the opening of the Olympics from the USA, where I live for six months of the year.
    I confess to being somewhat baffled by your three writers who wrote fairly belittling articles on the Ceremony. Take one theme..that it was all about a country in decline , harking back …
    Yet several of my British friends thought it was light on aspects that were better reflective of the UK viz writers , poets, countryside, Capability Brown etc

    I saw it as genuinely interesting commentaries on modern Britain… Music, design , Bond, the very modern issue of National health …depicted in a light handed witty well choreographed fashion..

    Most of the global media comments seemed hugely positive ..yes , largely English speaking ( gosh, why didn’t Boyle make much out if the country’s language contribution??)
    Re the web… Silly of Boyle no to invoke the tv, the jet engine etc….

    What small part of me that’s British felt unusually proud. My hunch is that your writers simply misunderstood what was being conveyed, other through parochialism or chippiness

  9. Havelock Vetinari Havelock Vetinari 6 August 2012

    What makes Britain Great?
    Funnily enough, Little Britain is exactly what makes Britain Great – the ability to have a good laugh at their own expense… to take the piss (and have the piss taken) without giving or taking offense.

  10. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 6 August 2012


    Thanks, I will look it up. The American Civil War was a very ugly war, and Lincoln was far from the hero that American history presents him as.

  11. OneFlew OneFlew 6 August 2012

    You know what it’s like when you hear or read an opinion which you disagree with, but which offers so few common terms that it appears improbable that the differences could be successfully litigated in a reasonable time frame. Because life is just too short.

    This is the response which your article triggers in me.

    Having thought about it a bit, I think I’ve got it. Or at least one of the major disconnects.The opening ceremony happened in 2012. But you argument, virtually in its entirety, appears to have been constructed on a 1970s boilerplate.

  12. Jon Story Jon Story 6 August 2012

    O ja, the national health system , as Dave Harris thinks NHS stands for, comes to South Africa – one day – and will then surely be hailed as an invention by the ANC. How infantile can you get?

  13. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 7 August 2012

    Jon Story

    It is not the British Socialist National Health System that the ANC wants, but the American Capitalist National Health INSURANCE which is 3 times as expensive because it has Insurance companies as Middle Men making profits!

    The ANC want this system for the same reason they want E-tolling to pay for roads and not a fuel levy.

    The Middle Men make PROFITS and have to include the ANC elite in those PROFITS in terms of the AA/BEE laws of our “non racist” country!

    Which are the same AA/BEE laws imported from Black America on the basis that “blacks were disadvantaged by whites” that collapsed all the other African States post independence!

  14. freespeech freespeech 9 August 2012

    Thanks William for a refreshing take. I agree with much of what you write.

    This was well worth pointing out:

    “These were the very same techniques that the British used half a century later in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurrection, when almost 1.5m Kikuyu were detained in fortified camps and villages. Thousands were beaten to death, or died of malnutrition and disease.”

    Briton General Frank Kitson virtually wrote the textbook for modern military third force/false flag operations based on his experiences against the Mau Mau. The British learned a huge amount from that episode and their experiences filted through to American military text-books as well.

    Kitson’s book is called “Gangs and Countergangs” and highlights the need to psychologically confuse and cower people by staging violent and dramatic acts against them using agent provocatuer or infiltrated cells.

    Kitson’s work is well described in an excellent book on the media called “Towers Of Deception: The Media’s 911 Cover-Up” , by Canadian journalist Barrie Zwicker. The book focuses on the US Department body NIST – the in house ‘investigative team’ – effectively Dracula called in to investigate a crime at the blood bank – or the fox called in to investigate the carnage in the hen-house. I’ve a feeling you’ll get a lot out of it, William.

  15. Sterling Ferguson Sterling Ferguson 9 August 2012

    @David Harris, you got that wrong again the WW web was not invented by one person the English were able to get two computer to communicated with one another. However, this wasn’t the work of one person like you are saying in your comment. There were technology break through that made the develop of the Internet possible.

    There were the development of the transistor and the micro-chip that allowed the development of the Internet. Both of these break through were done in the US and not in Asia. The E-Mail that you are using today was perfected in the US and it now being used all over the world. The person that perfected the E-Mail was an American and his work was stolen by a company that didn’t want to pay him for it. The computer for the masses would not be available without the development of an operation system like windows.

  16. Sterling Ferguson Sterling Ferguson 9 August 2012

    @Beddy, in the US there is no such thing as BEE because it’s against the law for a company to give shares of their companies to special groups at a discount. In the US many companies will allowed their employees buy stock but, it’s not a BEE thing like in the US. As a matter of facts, this is why many US companies will not come to SA because of the BEE. I am wondering if the BEE deals apply to Asian companies as well as the Western companies in SA?

    Speaking of the AA, this is only used if that person has the minimum qualification for the position in the US. For an example, if a test is given and an interview is given to everyone who scored ninety or above, AA can be used to hire people in that group. So you can see that SA doesn’t used AA the same way it’s used in the US.

  17. Sterling Ferguson Sterling Ferguson 9 August 2012

    @Richard, the only concentration camps that the US had were against the Native Americans and Japanese. There were never any camps setup during the Civil war but, there were camps for the soldiers captured.

  18. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 10 August 2012


    Affirmative Action, from which BEE devolves, is a Californian policy to uplift a black minority, which was adopted elsewhere with disasterous results, not only in Africa but also in Sri Lanks and Malaysia.

    But in California it might have related only to education perhaps?

  19. Sterling Ferguson Sterling Ferguson 10 August 2012

    @Beddy, you don’t have BEE in the US but, you have AA in a limited form in the US. AA didn’t start in the US, it was started in Canada to give the French speaking people equal opportunities in that country. As a matter facts, the US was the last country to start AA in the world along with Brazil. Malaysia has setup AA for to help the ethic people in Malaysia because the Chinese were controlling everything in the country.

    There is a book written by a ethic Chinese called “World on Fire” by Amy Chua.
    In this book the author talks about how unequal the playing field for many groups and she isn’t just talking about race. For an example, she talks about how the Igbos were so successful in Africa and how the Lebanese controlled most of the businesses in Brazil and Mexico. In Russia ninety percent of the billionaires were Jewish people in that country. Nobody know why some ethic groups do better than other groups.

  20. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 10 August 2012


    The difference in Malaysia and Sri Lanka was cultural. In both cases the Majority culture did not favour education for their children or a strong work ethic and later claimed the minority had been “advantaged by colonialism”.

    Read the book “A Passage to Africa” by the Tamil author whose family escaped Sri Lanka, only to hit disaster in the disintergration of Nkruhmh’s Pan Africanism bankrupting Ghana.

  21. Sterling Ferguson Sterling Ferguson 12 August 2012

    @Richard, that was a very good article but, there was no mention at what happened at Gettysburg when thousandth of people were left on the battlefield shot up, waiting to die. It has been said that the union of the US is sealed in blood never to be unsealed.

  22. La Quebecoise La Quebecoise 16 August 2012

    @Sterling Ferguson. I’m not sure that Canada was the first country to institute AA, to give French speakers parity with English speakers. We do have a provision in the Constitution to ensure that all services offered by the Federal Government are offered in French and in English, representative of the two Founding Nations. That is something different.

  23. Cleisthenes Cleisthenes 11 September 2012

    South Africans are just too serious and angry.
    It was an opening ceremony — not a history lesson complete with footnotes.
    Take a chill pill and relax

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