In the end, after sniping and carping and moaning for months about how ghastly the Olympics was going to be, I thought the opening ceremony rather wonderful and therefore felt ashamed of myself for having been so aloof. I had not expected such a breadth of vision, nor such beauty, nor indeed the copious room allowed for a certain self-deprecating humour. I wish I’d been there, with the kids. As it was we allowed our six-year-old daughter to stay up to watch the athletes parade around the stadium with their flags and it may well have been the most instructive two hours she has enjoyed in her life. Huw Edwards would announce the national origin of a tranche of athletes and my daughter would ask, wide-eyed: ‘What’s this country like, daddy?’
And I would reply: ‘It’s an absolutely awful place, darling, full of sand and medieval maniacs.’ And she would then loudly boo the contingent, and shout ribald insults at them — even, on one occasion (Somalia or Sudan, I forget which) throwing potato crisps at the TV screen in suddenly acquired outrage. Then Huw announced the next bunch of athletes and my daughter would say: ‘Do we like these people, daddy?’ And I would reply: ‘Yes, we do, they’re lovely Protestant people who work very hard and eat herring for breakfast.’ And she would cheer.
And so on, through all 204 of the nations, or pseudo-nations. Without that ceremony it would have taken years and years to have inculcated in my child such specific prejudices. All accomplished before the clock struck 12. She awoke on Friday morning a geopolitical naïf, or ingénue — and went to bed that night a thoroughly well-informed bigot.
All this being said, I suppose it was leftie multicultural crap, as the Conservative MP for Cannock Chase, Aidan Burley, observed via the medium of a tweet. Aidan, you may remember, once got into trouble because he was part of a stag party in which members dressed up as Nazis and said jubilantly Hitlerish things to one another, at some restaurant in France. He apologised for this and distanced himself from the antics of his friends, but the suspicion persists nonetheless that he is somewhat to the right of centre and would find any depiction of Britain’s history ‘leftie multicultural crap’ if it strayed very far from Cromwell, Wellington, Churchill and the British Army righteously smiting wogs hither and thither. But still, if you subjected Danny Boyle’s extraordinary vision to analysis it was, by and large, the glib and imbecilic view of British history as subscribed to by the London middle-class liberal elite, a sort of gigantic and very expensive version of the children’s TV programme Balamory — and mindlessly Panglossian to boot. But then that is the view of British history to which we are all enjoined to subscribe these days, and to dissent from it — in the manner of Mr Burley — will bring down upon you all manner of wrath and vituperation from the illiberal liberal absolutists who insist that it is the only version of British history and that all others are not merely wrong but should be against the law. That’s the subtext of the fury poured upon Mr Burley simply for daring to criticise the political view espoused by a bloody film-maker, a fury which has forced the MP into an ungainly apology and of course retraction.
There is a poisonous authoritarianism abroad, a sort of screeching fascism: it is not enough simply to disagree with Mr Burley, he has to be howled down and humiliated, and anyone who agrees with him likewise victimised. Strangely, one of the first to do the howling was Boris Johnson. And yet I have the suspicion that if Boris were still editor of The Spectator, rather than the Mayor of London, he would have been on the phone to me, or another of his columnists, fulminating about the ‘leftie multicultural crap’ and how we ought to give it a bloody good hammering, what, all that drivel. I may be wrong about this, it’s only a guess — and if it’s a wrong guess, then Boris I apologise. But that’s what I think he would have said if he were not Mayor of London.
To tell you the truth, I go along with quite a lot of the leftie crap which Danny Boyle rather gloriously inflicted upon us. I liked the section on the NHS and felt rather proud that several US commentators were mystified by it: we have an NHS, you don’t, Bubba. I suppose it might have been more fun if the arrival of the Windrush had resulted in a pitched battle in the middle of the stadium, but one cannot have everything. The only things which really stuck in my craw were the constant announcements in that singularly self-regarding and internationally obsolescent language, French — and of course the people chosen to carry the Olympic Flag into the arena. The worst was Shami Chakrabarti, holding one corner of the flag and caught on camera moments later telling everyone else what to do in that way she has.
The name of each flag-bearer was announced together with an explanation of why they had been so honoured. In Shami’s case, the Olympic president M. Rogge could have said, with accuracy: ‘And Ms Shami Chakrabarti, for being condescending in a uniquely smug manner on BBC’s Question Time every couple of weeks.’ But he didn’t, he said instead that she was there because she was the founder of the organisation ‘Liberty’. This would have come as a surprise to Ronald Kidd and Sylvia Crowther-Smith, who actually founded the organisation some 80 years ago. But hell, don’t challenge the way people rewrite history, or you’ll be in for it.