I’m not much of an Olympics spectator. As someone with an aversion to sport and to grand displays of nationhood, I’m not primed to be an audience for them. My parents enjoy them. They are also retired and might otherwise not know which day of the week it was. As Canadians, we tend to pay considerably more attention to the Winter Olympics, regarding it as a chance to alleviate our country’s inferiority complex for a few weeks. No one knows who our prime minister is, but we own hockey. Because this past summer’s Olympic Games were in London, I became marginally more interested. At the very least, I was getting to gaze longingly at shots of London cityscapes and busy streets during primetime television. The BBC also added more London-specific documentaries and “cultural Olympiad” programming to their schedule, including more than I ever needed to know about Shakespeare. Admittedly, I’m nerd enough to have enjoyed the documentary on London’s bridges.
Being the anglophile that I am, I took more than a passing interest in the controversy over Olympic construction in the East End, the mounting costs in the face of a double-dip recession, the kinks of the lottery ticket system, and the security debacle. And I was mildly curious about what Danny Boyle would come up with for the kick-off. I can’t remember if I have ever watched a full opening ceremony before, including that of my home country for the last Winter Olympics; however, this time I was actually sat at home during the live broadcast, which aired in the mid-afternoon where I live, because I was off my head on painkillers two days after my bottom wisdom teeth were extracted. I couldn’t be bothered to move, nor focus on anything more stimulating, so I had time to watch and then think drug-addled thoughts about national identity over the course of the three-hour global show.
To be fair, organizing the opening ceremony is an unenviable position; you have to take account of what the rest of world knows of your country, what you think the rest of the world knows of your country, and what people of your country know and/or believe of themselves. And somehow you have to make that into a spectacular, positive experience for all of them. Spectaculars don’t really tend to work in more than one dimension. Bearing that in mind, I think Boyle was pretty ambitious, and he did make some interesting choices, showcasing a film director’s sense of storytelling alongside the various facets of the English national myth, and to some degree, London mythology itself. The manic film presentation that raced from the arcane source of the Thames to the cheeky aerial view referencing East Enders was an apt introduction to the themes that followed. Through a series of vignettes, Boyle took in aspects of national identity, high and low, serious and ridiculous. You got choreographed entertainment that had a go at synthesizing an overwhelming amount of ideas about England: the island mentality confronted with immigration; the dichotomy of arcadia and industrialization; blitz-proof stoicism; the inexplicably resilient, nostalgic token that is the monarchy; the hardy pliability of the English language, made richer by The Bard; the significance of cultural exports, including England’s pop music legacy; and the swinging 60s, that urban utopia that just won’t die. Even the fairly weak attempt to include all countries of the realm via choir ensembles said something quite telling about margins and centres, and British identity and its fraught relationship with the power of the capital. I could have done without Mr. Bean (where’s Blackadder when you need him?), and the James Bond/Queen scenario, the latter evoking an awkward drama exercise with an octogenarian android. The reveal of Tim Berners-Lee from beneath that house was somehow even weirder.
Perhaps one of the most interesting and noted events of the opening ceremony was the celebration of the National Health Service, which featured a dancing number of actual NHS employees and hospital beds full of children. The conflation of children and the fantasy stories written for them with the socialist ideal of universal healthcare was actually quite savvy. With the army of Mary Poppins swooping in to save the children representing Great Ormond Street Hospital from the fantastical villains of English kiddie lit, I can’t help but see the satirizing of the conservative disdain for a “nanny state.” As other lefties have argued, this gesture isn’t actually going to produce a revolution on its own, but as a bit of subversion in front of a massive audience, it was at least as good as some political sentiment slipped into a pop chart hit. In equating the vulnerability intrinsic to the Victorian conception of “the child” with the more recent vulnerability of the NHS under the coalition government, Boyle made a connection that also seemed to echo even larger themes of English identity. The cultural invention of what childhood should be—Edenic, thus natural, innocent, and good—is a trope found throughout English culture since the threat of industrialization. It is manifest in the children’s literature, including the likes of The Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan, sometimes descending into downright barmy and creepy regression; it is present in the antiquarian fetish for collecting and recording the past; it runs all the way through the tradition of folk, pastoral, and psychedelic music and their outdoor festivals (read Rob Young’s beautifully researched Electric Eden for more information about this last point). As an ancient nation, England appears to rely on heritage both to relive past imagined glories and to stay forever young through rebirth, or more cynically, regeneration.
Turning to a truly younger nation like Canada, we don’t really have the same mentality of child-like arcadia. Perhaps because we still essentially live in the garden of vast wildernesses and seemingly endless space. That’s one of our own myths, mind. The ancient history that we truly have is often ignored because it wasn’t written down and because colonialism tried to destroy it at every turn. We don’t have a lot of broken down abbeys and castles; our ruins are in the people. The difficult, ongoing truth and reconciliation with First Nations peoples is already greatly misunderstood or ignored within our own country, so I suppose I shouldn’t find it surprising that other countries don’t have an inkling of the context. I find myself physically flinching when Stephen Fry off-handedly refers to aboriginal peoples as “Red Indians” on QI. Thankfully, the Vancouver Olympics opening ceremony did, at the very least, acknowledge the First Nations people of the region in a rather respectful way.
I think that the Vancouver Olympics had another particular challenge for their ceremonies because we tend to deny nation and patriotism most of the time. Canadians are hyper-conscious of multiple cultures and identities, an attitude grounded in the complicated, contested concept of multiculturalism; we are everything to everyone and thus a less straightforward spectacle. Between an obnoxious faith in hockey and a brainwashed necessity for Tim Hortons, we’ve developed some sort of innocuous, plastic patina of nationalism. In some ways, I feel safer knowing that. In other ways, it makes for the abysmal segment of the Vancouver closing ceremony that included giant Mounties, beavers, maple leaves, voyageurs, and hockey players. Then again, London’s closing ceremony was also a broader caricature than the opening one.
My own experience of London is still as very much an anglophilic outsider. Last summer I stayed in the capital for an entire week in addition to one day on the way back home, and I feel like I needed another fifty years, if only to feel completely nonchalant on the bus system. Unlike the previous six trips I took to London, I visited a bit longer, and tried to pack in as much as possible this time. Whilst I loved the Tate Britain, Tate Modern, and The British Museum (though the latter also made me feel mortified and uncomfortable to around that much cultural theft), unsurprisingly, I found some of the more valuable, fascinating moments to be outside of the tourist stops. Granted, Laura and I aren’t the type of tourists to zip in and out of cultural institutions to say we’ve seen them; we quite methodically take an entire day to explore any one gallery or museum. However, the flaneur in me got more out of wandering through Hackney, Highgate, Camden Town, Islington, and Vauxhall, most of which I’ve never had the time to get to before. I find myself missing details like the particular sound of the subway trains clacking over the tracks, indie disco nights, Gloucester Old Spot sausages, purchasing my weight in used vinyl at the Music Video Exchange, and marveling at the sheer chaos of the A to Z map book whilst getting repeatedly lost.
It’s that overwhelming unknowability of London that captures my imagination. There are just too many possible routes and too many secret places. I suppose these qualities are what make London a particularly peculiar psychogeographic space, spanning the mysterious occult vibes along the Hawksmoorian ley lines of Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, and Alan Moore, and the equally dark, but surreal urban wastes tread by Will Self and J.G. Ballard. The parochial past haunts even as it is transformed by dreams of sprawling cosmopolitanism.
There are particular songs referencing London that come to mind quite easily and quickly, some of which were used in the Olympic ceremonies: The Clash’s “London Calling,” The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” The Smiths’ “London,” Blur’s “London Loves,” The Jam’s “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” and The Pogues’ “London Lullaby.” I chose to make a compilation for which I had to work a little harder. I hope it’s a little more nuanced than it might have been. Kind of like the London Olympics opening ceremony.
For more London-based songs, visit the comprehensive The London Nobody Sings. If you want slightly different kind of music, visit the London Sound Survey site. Lastly, for a previous mix about London, see my old blog. Of course, it was more of a mix about London-based bands rather than songs about the city specifically.