August 3, 2012 7:59 pm

The real Team GB

The Olympic opening ceremony omitted too much British greatness. Where were all the reasons why the UK is the mother of sport in the first place?
An allotment on the Olympic site in east London, before development began©Chris Steele­Perkins/Magnum Photo

An allotment on the Olympic site in east London, before development began

After a week of hype here is one Olympic statement which gardeners will thankfully endorse. “The Olympics,” Danny Boyle has assured us, “could never be held in the country.” As the creator of an “opening ceremony like no other”, he ought to know. I dedicate this article to the allotment-holders whose cherished allotments have had to be destroyed by the Olympic park and to the thousands of friends of Greenwich Park who have seen it ruined in order to create an equestrian obstacle course when Britain already has the finest equestrian courses in the world outside the Olympic envelope.

Why is the opening ceremony being obsequiously praised as “quirky” “irreverent” and an affectionate presentation of Britain to the world? It was nothing of the sort. It was £27m of piffle almost from start to finish. It was also tendentious and blinkered. For those abroad who could follow it, its one abiding message is that the Brits are mad. Actually we are nothing of the sort.

Thankfully I admit to missing the first five minutes and the hymning of our “Jerusalem” as a once-green and pleasant land. I had predicted milkmaids but I gather there were sheep and the sort of geese that looked like escapees from Spielberg’s film of War Horse. I joined the “ceremony” when the warning sounds were thumping in a cacophony of drumming. To the sound of the tom-toms, roll upon roll of turf was being torn up and written off as quickly as it had been laid. The message appeared to be that the countryside had had its day. It was swept away by toffs in waistcoats, led by an entrepreneur with a cigar. Up soared smoking chimneys as if on invisible Viagra and the sheafs of mock-wheat were carried away. The toffs began to beat their breasts in a gesture I last saw from devoted mourners lamenting their slain leader Ali under a chilly sky in Iran.

So far from ruining the rural idyll the industrial era did much to reinforce it. Owners poured money into it and nowadays they conserve it. All over the world a dominant image of Britain is its continuing, enviable landscape, a tamed creation of man. There are no wildernesses in Britain. The beauty of the place owes so much to the very classes who advanced, invested in and profited from industrialisation. The British dream is still overwhelmingly one of its green landscape on a sunny day.

Why worry, you might think, as the ceremony is only a fleeting prelude to a fleeting contest in which athletes will fail to set new records except, perhaps, in cycling with no hands? But what else about Britain is watched worldwide by a billion people who thereby absorb an image of the place? When in doubt, thrash around on drums and let a fortune off in fireworks.

Charles Darwin©Getty

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Then, spend a sum which makes “austerity” seem a hollow joke. The total Olympian cost of £9.3bn could build at least 30 new hospitals or nearly 500 schools or fund three universities in perpetuity with endowments as big as Oxford.

Here are some of the missed tricks. Why was there not a hint of Charles Darwin, the British mastermind who has changed the world? My ceremony would have had Darwin watching its themes as if we were evolving. Why no Charles Dickens, especially in this bicentenary year? He is one of an entire class who went missing, the English authors who are read by adults and loved and bought all over the globe.

Why ever were we asked to reflect on that disreputable icon, the movies’ James Bond? The one error in this Jubilee year has been to get the Queen mixed up in his mindless cult. He is not disreputable just because he does not know to bow to her. He is also murderous, sexist and philistine, so what sort of an image of Britain is he? Did 007 ever think nostalgically of nine-tenths of Britain’s inhabited land or so much as pine for the day when he might smell a rose or grow a tomato to squeeze into one of his over-shaken cocktails?

Marie Stopes©Alamy

Marie Stopes, birth control pioneer

Where were all the reasons why Britain is the mother of sport in the first place? We invented most of the games that make life worth living all over the world. Tennis, cricket, soccer, rugger, skiing, card games like bridge and the inimitable lawn croquet: if only we had patented the lot of them we would be living off the royalties and have a health service which is truly great. Generously I am prepared to leave the Dutch with the credit for something resembling golf. They can celebrate it if the Olympics ever come to Rotterdam. Until they do, it is we who have made horse racing the beloved spectacle for crowds the world over, from Kentucky to Kuwait. We even have the Hollywood film clips to prove it, when My Fair Lady goes to Ascot’s opening day.

Why was there not a hint of the heart-rending British songs from wartime or a trumpeter’s Last Post? Music did not only begin in the 1960s and dancing has a fascinating history before people began to thrash the air with their hands like bellringers. By all means show a hospital and nurses but where on the ward were the British geniuses who have changed many trillions of lives, Marie Stopes and her birth control, Fleming and penicillin, Crick and Watson and their DNA and Cicely Saunders and her vision of proper pain control and a dignified hospice in which to die? I omit Florence Nightingale because she was so batty.

Alexander Fleming©Getty

Alexander Fleming, the Scottish bacteriologist who identified the antibacterial properties of penicillin

What about the dozens of Britons who have taught the world how to think? Would anyone guess that Britain has remained the land of the world’s supreme philosophers, that its mathematicians are now on a roll and that its historians, linguists and archaeologists have done so much for the understanding of the ancient world in which the Olympics were born that only the Germans can rival them? What do other countries stock in their bookshops? English novelists and English historians who address an educated public. Where do trillions of their young dream of going? Many of them e-text me. To Oxford and Cambridge, known globally for their spires, their teachers and a Boat Race which dons alone could have invented.

Where was due honour for our global export, the theatre, and the supreme line of British actors, from Alec Guinness to Judi Dench? We are not only watchable when we are trying to be funny. We also allow others to say what they think. With vestigial respect to Frankie and June, what matters about Britain is Prime Minister’s Questions, Speakers’ Corner and footage of the likes of Gordon Brown leaving Downing Street gracefully without armed intervention. Those are Britain’s lessons for the world, and my ceremony would have backed them with Darwin refuting a bishop and an Anglican vicar chuckling like the rest of us over the Life of Brian. In Britain atheists are fast-breeding and no fatwa tries to stop them

And in conclusion? A garden, of course, with a couple working and then taking tea among their own runner beans. Britain has not been destroyed by Brunel until all that remains is clubbing and a long range date by mobile phone. When the closing ceremony comes, watch out for a sixth Olympic ring, erupting with fire and fury. It will be my own Robin’s Ring, but in it I am thankful, as ever, that in Britain we have the right to erupt in public, whereas most of the world can only pine for it in vain.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE