“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises. Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”
Fifteen minutes into the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (played by Kenneth Branagh) took the stage, donning a top hat and quoting Shakespeare’s The Tempest over the orchestra’s rendition of Elgar's “Nimrod”. Below him in the stadium was a countryside setting, a scene of excitable people in Victorian costumes prancing round maypoles, playing cricket, and partaking in other twee activities associated with the UK.
Surrounding Brunel on all sides was a stadium audience of 80,000 and a worldwide audience of 1 billion all probably asking the same thing:
“What the actual fuck is going on?”
I was at a mate’s flat in east London watching the ceremony on what I remember to be the world’s smallest television. So many of us were crammed in front of it that we all had to sit further back, making the screen seem smaller still. The room’s opinion of the ceremony thus far was generally drunk and cynical. My mate Martin, in dramatic fashion, took the opportunity to shout: “WHAT A LOAD OF SHIT.” If you knew Martin you would know that he has a tendency to shout like that.
Once Brunel's speech was over, there was polite British applause from the audience and then silence.
Then came the drums.
Rhythmic eruptions broke out from all sides, until all you could hear was drums.
You couldn’t see where it was coming from at first, but then they invaded the stage: thousands of people in Victorian factory clothing came from every side of the stadium, pausing only to bellow “AAAARRRGHGGHGHGHGHGH” at the top of their lungs.
At the same time, an army of miserable-looking Victorian workers emerged from beneath a tree, wearing torn and worn-out clothes, smothered in dirt, as if they were from the Industrial Revolution.
And these people started to rip that countryside below to fucking bits.
They rolled up the grass, pulled down fences, dragged trees, evicted The Archers, and slowly but surely revealed an industrialised hellscape of progress and industry. Then the centrepiece came into view: tall, smoking factory towers rising from the ground.
I can’t remember anyone in the room uttering a word. I'd never seen so many people squeezed round a television.
I was captivated. To me, this sequence of ripping up the green and pleasant land wasn’t just a history lesson on our country from the Industrial Revolution to the present day. We were literally ripping apart every stereotype our country had been narrowed down to. Our green and pleasant land. Quaint Poldark dramas. Our humble cottage in the countryside. Our delightful and timid demeanour. Our adorable accents.
Here we were, ripping it all apart. Saying FUCK THAT.
And then, the chaos stopped. All that anger, all that action came to a grinding halt. The drums dissolved and one clear noise broke the sudden silence: six notes from a single whistle.
In an instant, everyone put their tools down and stood completely still, commemorating those who had lost their lives in war.
At first I thought that was all it was – one moment of remembrance – but the whistle rang loud and clear throughout the ceremony, in moments of celebration and sadness alike. It was almost as if the whistle was a reflection of the country’s mood. It was our theme tune.
When that pause ended, the construction kicked back into gear. By then I thought I had this whole section of the opening ceremony figured out, but that was not the case at all.
Midway through the Industrial Revolution, a crowd of people in Beatles costumes began marching into the stadium, and my head spun trying to figure out what it represented. Directly after came volunteers representing the West Indian immigrants who’d arrived on the Empire Windrush, and Pearly Kings and Queens of London – all marching out at the same time as an army of Chelsea Pensioners.
In east London, still glued to the world’s smallest television, I started to cry. I tried to hold it in, but I don’t think anyone else in the room could have pulled themselves away from the screen to notice. I didn’t understand why at first, but then I got it.
Everyone in this country has a part to play. This scene, this segment of the ceremony, reflected everyone. Engineers, cooks, cleaners, writers, shop workers, immigrants, pensioners, celebrities, factory workers, the unemployed, the educated, the uneducated. They all mattered. They all have influenced the country we live in. Everyone in all parts of our country had made this moment.
The scene that followed saw a team of smelters in the middle of the stadium making what appeared to be a giant steel ring. A team of guys with hammers then came in, and before you knew it, all the Victorian workers had joined in. The ring then started to rise, joining with four others to form the Olympic logo.
Four years on, I still think about that moment.
Until a year ago when I moved in with my partner, I lived in Stratford, near the stadium. And truthfully, one of the main reasons I moved there was because of that scene. It encouraged me. When I saw the stadium I thought about that scene. Whenever I experienced sadness or a bit of depression, I’d watch that scene or listen to the soundtrack – “And I Will Kiss” or “Caliban’s Dream” – and think of it. It helped.
The Olympics that followed reflected the warm and fuzzy feelings I got from watching the opening ceremony. We celebrated every win, regardless of what medal and who the athletes were. Everything from the gold medals we won on Super Saturday to that “horse dancing” (also known as “dressage”). There was a feeling that this was the beginning of something. That these feelings of optimism were something new and would stay with us.
Although the Olympics made our country so united at the time, it doesn’t feel that way now. We’re not as united any more. We’re not as inclusive as we should be. In recent years we’ve gone from celebrating diversity in all of its forms to endlessly debating about immigration. We’ve gone from showcasing the hard work and perseverance of our country to arguing about who deserves to stay and who should leave. Articles and accusations that some people aren’t pulling their weight are thrown about on newspaper front pages on a daily basis. And as a country, we don’t necessarily know where we’re going next or if the United Kingdom even be together in the next 10 years. This country is swirling in anxiety and it’s awkward as hell.
But still, a whistle plays in my head – the theme we all heard constantly throughout the opening sequence, during the memorial, and during the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. It’s a reminder to myself to carry on and power through like they did in that sequence. A reminder to keep going. To try to do something for those who follow you, just like the ones who came before you did.
It’s a hope that one day Great Britain can be absolutely fucking great again, like it was especially that one warm July day in 2012.
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises.”