Who we are

mumblings

Who are we, the Britons? What do we want to tell other people about ourselves?

I don’t envy Danny Boyle the problem he was facing 7 years ago, I really don’t. For one thing, we are — of course — many people, and all different. There is no ‘national character’ in that sense. However, there are threads that link together attitudes and sentiments we think of as British. We tend to include only the good stuff in there, for understandable reasons: it gives us something to aspire to, if nothing else. I want to talk a bit about the Olympic opening ceremony, something that — quite frankly — I never thought I would be writing about before yesterday. But before I do that, I want to ramble a bit off-piste to talk about The Great British Story: A People’s History.

This programme was screened earlier yesterday evening, and was part of a series presented by Michael Wood. I’ve enjoyed the series because it has focussed on the lives of ordinary people through history, and how they coped with monumental changes imposed by the monarchy, the church and politicians, as well as natural disasters like the Black Death. They unearth local records (accounts, journals, legal documents and so on), and then get members of the public from the local area to read snippets out to camera. It’s a curiously moving device. Time seems to collapse, and you can often see of the faces of the readers the sudden realisation that the writer was someone much like them, with similar hopes and fears and problems.

Yesterday’s episode dealt mostly with the period around the Civil Wars, and the tremendous upheaval they caused in communities. I hadn’t realised that the rivalry (tending towards animosity) between the Black Country and Birmingham actually goes back to the Civil War, when each town was on opposite sides of the conflict. It seems that these things can reach a long way into the future, even after most people have long forgotten the origin of the argument. They also mentioned the various grass-roots rebellions that sprung up at that time, like the Levellers and the Diggers. Just like in the Peasants’ Revolt in the 14th Century, ordinary people spoke up and tried to argue for equality and fairness. They recognised that a person’s circumstances are as much a result of luck as anything. You should care for others with compassion and treat them with dignity because tomorrow it might be your turn to fall on difficult times. There was a very moving extract from the journal of a woman who was reprimanded for caring for a wounded soldier who happened to be on a different side to the one that the town supported. Her response, in essence, was to ask how they could prevent her from treating another person in need as a fellow human, whoever they were.

That, I think, is one of the things we like to think about ourselves as Britons. Somehow, though it gets periodically suppressed, broken or forgotten, we stand up for each other and for fairness. We are a community. From John Ball and Wat Tyler through to the Levellers “Agreement of the People”, from the rich philanthropists of the Victorian period to the Unions and the NHS, from the Suffragettes and the anti-racism movements to Stonewall, it continues to bubble up, and each time it does, it includes more people in the category of those who should be treated fairly. Fairness should mean equal treatment for everyone, not just those we find acceptable or deserving, and we’re not quite there yet, even if we are moving the the right direction.

That brings me neatly to the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics. I was fully prepared to hate it. Even knowing that Danny Boyle was at the helm, I expected it to be pompous, boring and over-corporate — probably all three. I was planning to watch a few minutes of it and then do something more interesting. I ended up going to bed at 1am, still buzzing. I still think that the Olympics (as an organisation, not the athletes taking part) is too involved with money and big corporations to be credible, and I won’t be watching any of the sport, but Danny Boyle did a tremendous job with the Opening Ceremony. I loved nearly every brilliantly bonkers minute of it1.

I think that there were three main themes that seemed to run through the ceremony, things that Danny Boyle wanted to say about us as Britons: this is who we are. The first was the importance of community and of caring for each other. I absolutely loved the fact that they featured Suffragettes, and the roar from the crowd at the end of the NHS piece brought a tear to my eye. It was wonderful that the NHS piece featured real NHS staff too, not actors. It may be under siege from politicians trying to break it, but we treasure it. I’m sure that segment will have completely baffled viewers from other countries, but it put a huge, proud smile on the face of the home crowd. Also, I think we quite like being baffling as a nation (see cricket), so eliciting a “wha?” from viewers overseas can only be a good thing. Actually, I don’t really think that the ceremony was for anyone but us (well, maybe Bond and Mr. Bean, but that’s it). There were so many in-jokes and little snippets of references that only we or a commited anglophile would get: the inflatable pig over Battersea Power Station in the Thames flyby at the start; the snippets from Gregory’s Girl, Kes and A Matter of Life and Death; Michael Fish2; the TARDIS sound smuggled into Bohemian Rhapsody. Well, OK, quite a few people got the latter, judging by the near explosion of simultaneous “TARDIS!!” tweets. I’m still sorry that The Doctor never turned up. The TARDIS could have materialised on Glastonbury Tor, and The Doctor could have brought out Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing to say hello to Sir Tim. But I digress…

The second theme was our interest in the dark and gothic aspects of life as well as the pleasant, comforting ones. I read today that a commentator of the coverage in the US wondered aloud if the giant baby in the middle of the arena at the climax of the ceremony was “cute or creepy?”. The correct answer, of course, is both. So much of British culture (in books and films) celebrates both the cosy and saccharine, but also deals with the darkness that threatens us (from within and without). For example, Dickens’ writing about Little Nell can induce acute hyperglycaemia at 10 paces, but he also wrote unflinchingly about the horror of Bill Sikes murdering Nancy. Tolkien deliberately contrasted the comfort-loving, cosy, cheerful Hobbits with the bleak devastation caused by the Orcs and the creeping evil of Sauron. And there was Gollum to remind us that you can slip very easily from one to the other if you are seduced by power and forget what’s important. We even (perhaps, particularly) do this in children’s fiction, as the representations of Captain Hook, Cruella de Ville, Voldemort and the Childcatcher3 in the Peter Pan/GOSH/NHS segment reminded us. I think that we actively seek out the grim and the scary while we are safe and secure, and enjoy the contrast it creates. Perhaps it’s the closest we get to the Danish notion of “hyggelig”.

Finally, the third theme was another contrast, this time between a kind of bucolic, rural idyll and a productive but grim industrial landscape. In the opening scene of the ceremony, we saw the fields and village greens literally torn up and replaced by smoking chimneys and infernal furnaces, to a soundtrack of some excellent but rather ominous drumming. I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one who found that rather upsetting, despite the presence of the always-awesome Isambard Kingdom Brunel (played by Kenneth Branagh) and his stovepipe hat. I suspect that Danny knew we would feel that way, and that it was deliberate. We’re proud of what we’ve built and achieved, but we also mourn perpetually for what we’ve lost. We might be forced to live in cities, but we still hunger for the countryside and try to recreate it in whatever outside space we have. In retrospect, having Glastonbury Tor with the Glastonbury Thorn on top of it as the focal point of the ceremony was very apt.

To sum up, we are a community who value equality and fairness, we actively seek out the darker side of life while enjoying comfort and security and we are torn between the rural village and the industrial, urban wasteland. Oh, and we also love our music, films and TV, we enjoy self-deprecation4, we’re usually quiet, but we get obnoxiously riotous on occasion, and we like a drink. This is who we are.


  1. As those of you with the misfortune to follow me on Twitter will have found out. Sorry about that. I got a bit over-excited.
  2. The poor guy: every time he thinks that we’ve all forgotten about that forecast, up it pops again, this time shown to an audience of billions.
  3. By the way, was that Noel Fielding playing The Childcatcher?
  4. Though no-one else is allowed to do it for us, Mr. Romney.
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