Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening extravaganza was many things, but one thing it was not was a history lesson. If you were looking for any acknowledgement of the place of empire in the British national narrative, you would have had to concentrate quite ferociously during the hauntingly beautiful Abide With Me section, sung by Emeli Sandé, to see Akram Khan’s dance troupe mime the whipping of slaves (1:21:04 into the BBC’s coverage of the event). It’s possible that I simply imagined this because I was looking so hard. Anachronistically, moments before, Empire Windrush had arrived on stage, without context, like a Caribbean cruise ship blown off course (Columbus revenge). Two moments that you would have missed if you’d blinked, leaving you mystified about how the opening ceremony, Team GB, and indeed Britain itself had become such a multiracial spectacle.
In the reams of mostly laudatory commentary that has followed the ceremony, some have suggested that it might not have been appropriate to stage imperial conquest and plunder on an occasion that was meant to welcome the world to London. The insinuation that opening ceremonies should be mind-numbingly ‘fun’ is belied precisely by what made this one meaningful. Boyle deserves credit for trying to do history—any history at all, however potted—and indeed what makes his exclusions telling and problematic was precisely the emotional depth and maturity with which he was able to stage historical trauma (the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars, 7/7) and individual vulnerability (children in hospital, the references to children’s literature evoking the darkness of growing up) without detracting from the spirit of celebration. Yet some traumas are clearly easier to commemorate, some dead easier to remember, than others. Boyle’s history was curiously blinkered, resolutely domestic, almost wilfully blind to anything that happened outside this ‘green and pleasant land’. (An alternative potted history entitled ‘How to Keep Your Land Green and Pleasant’ might read ‘Step 1: export surplus population, preferably of the lower orders, preferably to places quite far away; Step 2: export dirty industries; Step 3: repeat step 2 for as long as you are able to.) The problem may have begun with the title—Isles of Wonder—that foreshadowed the geographically circumscribed view of history with which we were presented. Indeed the extraordinary, infuriating and continuing dilemma of British identity is that only the cultural right does geographical justice to Britain’s role in forging the modern world, albeit in registers of racism and supremacism. If Boyle’s historical imagination is anything to go by, the left, it would seem, prefers amnesia.
Let’s put aside the grumbling of cranky postcolonials for a moment who, after all, constitute only 8% of the population as per the 2001 census (more on why I am such an expert on the 2001 census later, but just a bit more on that statistic: if you change the geographical frame of reference, we are 29% of the population of London and 42% of the population of the East London Olympics hosting boroughs; everyday life here is proudly ‘leftie, multicultural crap’). The statistics by themselves don’t make an argument for why anyone outside of this demographic should care about any of this, so let me try a different tack. Boyle’s historical amnesia leaves utterly inexplicable the very phenomenon of the modern Olympics. Anthropologists tell us that games are a universal feature of human life, but one of the ways games get turned into sports is through the standardization of their rules. As Louis Menand points out in a brilliant piece in the Aug 6, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, ‘The place where most modern sports were standardized was nineteenth-century Britain.’ The majority of the 26 sports in which medals are being awarded in these games originated, in their modern form, in Britain (archery, athletics (track and field), boxing, badminton, field hockey, football, rowing, sailing, swimming, water polo, table tennis, and tennis). Britain is also the birthplace of lots of non-Olympic sports (curling, cross-country, cricket, croquet, golf, squash, rugby). Only three Olympic sports originated in the US (basketball, volleyball, and the triathlon) and two in Germany (handball and gymnastics). As Menand writes, before the nineteenth century, school games were local phenomena mostly played by their own idiosyncratic rules. A major impetus behind the movement to standardize was the desire of schoolboys to continue to play the games they had enjoyed in school when they went to university and, indeed, abroad. Menand again:
Everywhere Englishmen went, they took their games along and taught them to the locals. The British brought modern tennis to the French. Table tennis, a sport now commonly associated with East Asia, is supposed to have started when British officials shaved the corks of their champagne bottles into balls and played the game on the dinner table. It is because of Britain that West Indians play cricket, South Africans play rugby, and Pakistanis play squash. It is because of Britain that the world plays soccer.
There’s more. The man usually credited with reviving the Olympics in the modern era—the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin—took his inspiration not only from ancient Greece, but also from Victorian Britain. Around 1890, he heard about an event in the town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire, called the Wenlock Olympian Games (hence the 2012 mascot) that had been established by a physician named William Penny Brookes in 1850 and had been conducted annually ever since. Convinced that it was the British culture of sport that accounted for its imperial success and deeply invested in the project of recovering French prestige after the defeat suffered in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Coubertin worked to launch the modern Olympics as a means, partly, of reviving France’s flagging martial spirit. If sport enabled empire in the view of men like Brookes and Coubertin, empire also enabled international sport. The modern Games could be international from the start because the British had spread standardized versions of most of the Olympic sports around the world. Menand’s conclusion is categorical: ‘In 1896, the European imperial powers governed a large portion of the planet, and the Games were a tribute to their success in spreading their way of life—from the idea that life is essentially competition right down to the unit of measurement—throughout the world.’
Coincidentally, in the same week as the opening ceremony, I received another lesson in British identity as a result of having to study for the Life in the UK test, now a required component of applications for Indefinite Leave to Remain (why I’ve decided to apply is a decision that itself requires political and psychological unpacking, but I’ll save that bit of navel-gazing for another day). Happily, all the mysteries of living in the UK are answered in a single book published with the permission of the Home Office on behalf of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (the fine print says that the views in the book are those of the Advisory Group on Life in the United Kingdom and not necessarily those of HMG, but one could safely read it, I would suggest, as the Official British View of Society (OBVS). Predictably enough, the book begins with a chapter on British history. My parents, who have lived in India all their lives, would have whizzed through this section in a jiffy, but having gone to school at a time when the syllabus had been more thoroughly decolonized, I really had to study this stuff. To make this easier for myself, I divided a page into two columns labelled ‘Invaders’ and ‘Local Heroes’, only to find that this wasn’t very useful because almost everyone of consequence in early British history seems to have been an invader (the Romans, the Jutes, the Angles, the Saxons, the missionaries of St. Augustine, the Vikings, the Normans and William of 1066 fame) leaving only the Scots, Boudicca, Alfred, Harold and the legendary King Arthur—the legendary King Arthur FFS—in the ‘local heroes’ column. Thankfully, things became more familiar as I moved through the medieval and modern periods (thank you Hilary Mantel).
To its credit, OBVS tells the story of the Industrial Revolution with frequent reference to empire, mentioning trade, migration and, importantly, slavery—the last described as the ‘evil side to this commercial expansion and prosperity’ but also, candidly, as the engine of prosperity for a number of cities in the UK such as Liverpool and Bristol. (The cranky postcolonial in me wonders whether it has become possible to insert slavery into the national narrative because some credit can immediately be squeezed out of Abolition. Wilberforce-like metropolitan saviour figures are harder to find in relation to other forms of imperial oppression.) Still, in discussing the British empire, OBVS is able to tell it as it was: that British emigration to what eventually became the White Dominions (13 million between 1853 and 1913) vastly exceeded immigration into the Isles of Wonder, that vast numbers of imperial subjects (more than 1 million Indians amongst many others) fought on behalf of the UK during the First World War, that it was British governments from the 1940s onwards that encouraged immigration from the former colonies of the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean as a way of dealing with labour shortages, and so on and so forth. Just when I was beginning to think that OBVS might actually make quite good reading for members of the BNP, EDL and such like, I chanced upon more fine print in the Preface (who reads the Preface?) that clarified that I would not be tested on the history in chapter 1 at all, but only on chapters 2-6. (This might change, following recent reports that Home Secretary Theresa May proposes to change the test so that it will require less knowledge of the practicalities of daily living in Britain and more of British history and achievement. The report suggested, more insidiously, that sections of the test dealing with claiming benefits and the Human Rights Act would be scrapped (there may of course be little for those sections to deal with once this government is through). Whatever one’s preferred view of the appropriate content of citizenship education, there are genuine dilemmas here: What should national narratives contain? What mix of the banal and the lofty? Aren’t all narratives doomed to exclude, to distort, and, ultimately, to fail, insofar as they claim to represent collectivities? Why produce authorised narratives at all?
I would have failed the damn test if I had spent time contemplating these profound questions. Over the next few days, my stress levels peaked as I tried to remember that children took national tests at the ages of 7, 11 and 14 in England, but only at 14 in Wales and not at all in Scotland (chapter 2). I was required to transform myself into a professional demographer (chapter 3), so that I could reel off population growth rates, racial statistics, levels of religious observance, dates of patron saint festivals. I invented nursery rhymes that would help me remember that Westminster had 646 members, the Scottish Parliament 129, the Northern Ireland Assembly 108 and the Welsh Assembly only 60 (chapter 4). I woke up in cold sweats wondering who was entitled to free dental care in Wales (people under 25 and over 60, unlike the rest of the country where you have to pay through your nose for your teeth between the ages of 18 and 60). Of course secondary education in Scotland had to begin at 12 rather than 11, as in the rest of the country, if for no other reason than to make my life difficult (chapter 5). I vowed never to employ anyone below the age of 16 as I struggled to master the rules governing work below that age: not more than four hours without a one hour break; not more than two hours on a school day or a Sunday; not more than five hours for 13-14 year olds or eight hours for 15-16 year olds on Saturdays or weekdays during school holidays; I’m not done yet, but you get my drift (chapter 6). On the morning of the test as we waited in a queue (OBVS) at the test centre waiting to take our seats, I turned to the woman behind me and asked ‘How many Buddhists live in this country?’ A look of sheer terror crossed her face as she lowered her voice and whispered ‘In England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland?’