“I have seen the worst of mankind. And now I have seen the best.”
Are you over it? Do you know what to do with yourself now? Have you cried with joy and, perhaps, grief? For whatever the net gain for Great Britain, we are surely looking at a loss this week – a great sense of something having left. Are those much-recorded moments that everyone says brought us together this unusual summer not really dead, but still living in our head?
It’s hard to get over that quote from gamesmaker Andrew, isn’t it? The doctor quoted by Seb Coe in his speech at the Paralympics closer on Sunday night – because the extreme drama of his words does not, for once, outstrip their truth.
As a medic on duty at 7/7, Andrew had seen first-hand the first-aid reality of the worst of mankind – a calculated terrorist indifference to suffering – just the day after London had celebrated winning the bid to host the Olympics. The shock, the proper horror, the life-changing brutality of those co-ordinated attacks on the British capital that summer created memories for people that are surely, we feared, graphic windows onto reality, of what life is really like on Earth for humans. They threatened our comfort. Our distance from trouble. Didn’t they?
It’s not all of reality, is it? That seems to be what this summer has uproarously said to that one.
All attacks are a challenge. When someone calls me an idiot that clearly hasn’t thought things through properly, for example, I have to pause to consider my response and explain why they’re wrong. Which is why I try not to sit still long enough in a room to give anyone the opportunity of saying this in the first place.
But my guess is that nothing makes you question your values like conflict. Warfare. But the blistering brilliant, staggering reality alongside the worst of human experience is that we also can work together as humans and inspire and encourage each other and surpass our collective expectations in a way more profound and impossible to articulate properly than a modern, cosseted, cynical, uncertain, weary 21st century nation imagined possible.
Isn’t it? It bloody is, isn’t it. ..I mean, who knew?
And there again, our time’s boring predilection for hyperbole is neutered by the sheer drama of the truth. I may be feeling a bit flag-wavey as the autumn starts, I’ll confess, but the truth there is that my emotive words aren’t overcooked. They are just describing fact.
Like, totes amazeballs. Is all I think I can say to that. What about you?
There’s hardly a point in me emoting more, is there? We have recorded this fabulous few months so thoroughly, it is as if we are bunkering down for posterity, planning how to keep going on about this moment in our history for, like evaaah to future generations. Alright already – we know, grandpa.
So I don’t need to record it here much more. You know it. And like me, you can’t quite seem to do it justice when you open your mouth about it, because it just seems to… matter, somehow. Even though your finely-bred instinct for cynicism tells you it’s just sport and nothing will change.
Well, you say that. And so do I, kind of. But the sort of spiritual sense of togetherness as a vaguely embattled-feeling collection of British-branded people this summer was palpable. And pappable – our sniping newspapers were all OVER the joys of it. And a good number fewer copies of them will have been pulped as a result.
What was it? That suddenly worked? That made London a place of relaxed joy and cordiality. That, as Borris put it, made people on the Tube actually talk to each other, for crying out loud?
I think it was simply a kind of therapy session for the UK – we held a mirror up to ourselves and discovered that if we actually get out of bed and shave and comb our hair a bit beforehand, we scrub up okay.
Well, get over it – we do. As a nation of pageantry AND an innate sense of fair play, we feel forever awkward about waving our flag. A flag itself built on unresolved injustices in many ways, but which represents such confidence. Such blatant self-aware identity. Purpose. Which we Brits wish we still had. But feel bad for it. Because of all the killing and that. And the not being able to talk about sex. And the weird anachronism of monarchy. And the gorgeousness of the Dutchess of Cambridge. And the guilt of Dianna. And the stark modern inequality. And the poverty. And the racial fears. And the cultural divides. And the bloody bankers. And the kids who can’t bloody read who are too fat. And all the closures on every high street. And the inability to ever seem to do something truly visionary any more. Something that isn’t crap. Something just single-mindedly f***ing amazing. ..Something aiming a bit higher than secretly being pleased we can say fuck on TV a lot more these days.
..And then we did. It. The amazing thing. And we are stunned by what it might mean. That Team GB is really all of us and we can do much better than we think if we all just GO FOR IT!
Which is where we will give up straight away, and for healthy reasons. Because one of our core cultural strengths is that we rightly mistrust the exclamation mark. Let’s go to the pub.
The truth is, the cultural atmosphere in the British Isles is one that reacts badly to anything fake. Anything fake that isn’t shamelessly parading its fakeness but actually trying to pass itself off as something it isn’t. Which is a laudable instinct, don’t you think? Not the parading bit, the listening out for truth bit.
And a nation that prides itself on dealing with drama with the unsurpassably withering contempt of humour, is not going to take most things at face value. Again, thankfully.
But what we saw in the mirror of the Olympic opening ceremony was an honestly brutal and poetic portrait of a nation of poets and engineers and builders and articulators and… dreamers? That was the shocker. We are still dreamers.
And look at how we get on and build those dreams. Resoundingly, these games have been about our whole culture, not just about competition. Music and art and lyricism and ideas flow out of the British Isles today like a rainbow font of creativity. In four Olympic ceremonies, we STILL didn’t mine every seem of British pop and science and literary culture – we’re up to our necks in modern iconography here. Here at this crossroads of ideas in the north Atlantic.
And as the paralympians then took us all to school, what they showed us was that our flag really is a crossroads – an iconic meeting place of different ways of seeing, where we can none the less agree that together we’re stronger. Bigger. Better. Funner. And we already trying to do it.
It feels like these are universal human values, demonstrated to everyone here in our grubby, industrious capital city. That’s why it seems to matter. We’re saying: the attitude of the Taliban, or of Islamists in northern Mali, or of anyone who hides in a mental cave and won’t come out to play can go fuck itself. Because that attitude is death for us all. Here, we want to do better. Here we have a MUCH bigger vision, mate.
Here we think it’s bloody brilliant that a young man who stepped up to serve his country and paid for it with part of his body can stand next to a person born with Cerebral Palsy and next to an old musician and next to a superstar and next to a mum cleaning the local caff and all can cheer each other on and, in very British fashion, lose themselves in a social loop of “No, after you” “No after YOU” “No, YOU’re brilliant” “No it’s YOU” “Well I think we’re both idiots” “So do I! Brilliant really, eh?” “Yes, but calm down” “Give me a hug you stupid bastard…”
Brings a tear to the eye, doesn’t it?
I shouted and cheered and stood beside myself at Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. Suddenly loving that Union Flag’s explosive, colourful crossroads. But however fun the pop culture here, I think there is one serious challenge we are all left with. One that sounds hyperbolous but is one, really, of our very survival, if GB is to be open for business.
We need to do all we can in everyday life to be a nation of champions.
Yep. Understanding the essential strength of diversity so well that each of us feels the responsibility to champion the needs of others enjoying less equality than maybe we do. And ignoring all pretense, aiming as high as we personally can; to push our personal limits and lead by example.
That’s our challenge, gang. Aim to work hard and push yourself and overcome the worst that happens to you, whether people watch or not.
Because when you do that, they ultimately will be. We all will be. Cheering you on, you down to earth legend.
Closure? I hope never.
Thankyou, London. Thankyou, UK. X