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.