Along with an estimated 27 million viewers in the UK and, according to Reuters, almost one billion people around the world, I sat down with my wife last night to watch the opening ceremony of the London Olympics 2012. After an interminable period waiting for the damn torch to finally make its way through what felt like every hamlet in the country, the initial ceremony was quite a spectacle. Putting to one side the temptation to engage in Debordesque observations on the role of such spectacle, I had to admit that I also enjoyed it greatly, and was particularly intrigued by the fact that the setting of the Olympic Stadium converted into a meadow complete with Tor, cottage and idyllic participants was entitled “Green and Pleasant Land”. Although the subsequent transformation into and industrial landscape was actually called the Age of Industry, it is inevitable that commentators this morning have not been able to resist another Blakean allusion to “dark, Satanic mills”.
Unsurprisingly, this morning the British media abounds with reflections on what it means to be British and the nature of patriotism, with the Daily Mail headlining that “Britain fires up the world” and the BBC remarking, somewhat ambiguously, that this was “A Britain as never seen before”, though I had to agree with the comment: “What no-one expected was that it would be quite so gloriously daft, so cynicism-squashingly charming and – well, so much pinch-yourself fun.” Frankly, after the interrogations of ministers over the GS4 debacle and the chilling stories of surface-to-air missiles being sited on a tower block in Leytonestone, as well as the fear that the UK would be washed away in the worst July flooding for years before a single athlete arrived, I was simply relieved to be British. The opening ceremony was a hotch-potch of frequently kitsch, sometimes bizarre, and often amusing references – whether NHS nurses, James Bond or Mister Bean – but it was also executed flawlessly. (Wasn’t charming incompetence meant to be a particularly British – well, at least, English – national characteristic?)
And of course, what is significant here is that within the hotch-potch of national characteristics a particular vision of Blake is now considered to be part of the British – or is that the English? – DNA. Having written considerably on the Blake-Parry hymn “Jerusalem” over the past two years, frequently in relation to the appropriation of the song by the far right, it was refreshing and entirely expected to hear it within the context of a sporting event, it having attained the status of the unofficial national anthem over the past decade and a half. Of course, it is usually the English national anthem: whatever the faults of the rather dirge-like “God Save the Queen”, at least that has the political nous not to restrict itself to England’s green and pleasant land. But then the schizophrenia that underlies an event where Team GB is also allowed to divide up into its constituent four nations is evidence of an entity that, 800 years after the first forcible act of union between England and Wales, still cannot decide what it really is. (I am deliberately ignoring the amused disgust expressed by some that Cornwall was not identified as a fifth nation at the event.)
It is particularly fascinating to me that in a global arena such as this, there are two writers who stand out as offering something quintessentially English (or should that be British?) in contrast to music, which was extremely well-represented by an array of diverse talent from Paul McCartney to Dizzee Rascal that, in the words of an MSN article, reminded the world “how brilliant we are at music“. Blake featured twice musically – via “Jerusalem”, of course, in a beautiful solo performance, but also indirectly as part of Vangelis’s “Chariots of Fire”. “Chariots of fire”, “green and pleasant land”, “dark Satanic mills” – only Shakespeare (whose line, “Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises”, fromThe Tempest was inscribed on the bell that opened the ceremony) took a greater pride of place. The Warwickshire playwright who was frequently neglected (or at least rewritten) in his own country until the German Romantics rediscovered him is, of course, a pinnacle of that other great cultural export alongside British music: English literature.
If Shakespeare is frequently caricatured as the epitome of English conservatism (or a British act of union when it suits us), so the ghost of Blake may be an equally caricatured appeal to the radical roots of the this isle full of noises. In an interesting blog post by the triathlete Helen Russell, who is competing for Great Britain, she asks whether the opening ceremony was social allegory or just sentimentalism. Of course it is both, and she employs the time-honoured get-out clause that the ceremony, ” just like The Tempest and Jerusalem… is open to a number of different interpretations”. Actually the ceremony is sentimental social allegory, and the dichotomy is ultimately a false one. Nonetheless, just for an evening, I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle because, in Debord’s words, “the spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification.”
According to the Situationists, everything can be recuperated (although there is also the endless possibility of détournement – just don’t expect it to last). And so Blake has very definitely been made part of a British Establishment that his writings satirise, revolt against and castigate repeatedly. And yet this statement misses the mark: it is a spectacle of Blake, as real as his ghost of a flea, an image of him that however “once directly lived has moved away into representation” (to impishly cite Debord again). Actually, I have a very strong suspicion that he would have been punching the air in sheer joy at the recognition of his work, but of course the “Jerusalem” that lives on is but a spectre of his work, as it is a spectre of Hubert Parry’s musical career, and the caricature of Shakespeare sketched out above is the shallowest portrayal of the dramatist.
If my Blakespotting notes here betray a sour undercurrent, it is for one particular reason which has affected me about the Olympics as a whole. And no, I am not simply against the Olympics in order to be contrarian: the rivalry between Seb Coe and Steve Ovett in Moscow in 1980 gripped me and even inspired me to run as an athlete for a while (a fact that generally tickles those who now know me as one of the least sporting people on the planet). However, while searching for a link to a video of the version of “Jerusalem” sung last night, I encounter again and again messages that it has been removed from sites such as YouTube or DailyMotion. This is the iron fist in the green, velvet glove that is London 2012 – whether it is the logo (parodied time and time again – and those parodies efficiently removed, I also note this morning) or the interminable rules surrounding the sponsors of the games who ensure that only MacDonalds French fries can be served in the Olympic grounds. The IOC may claim its Olympic values to consist of excellence, respect and friendship, but as has been well noted enforcement of its corporate franchise has been particularly ruthless and often bizarre.
And so, while I enjoy the spectacle, and feel relieved if not proud to be British – or is that English? – there is still much that resists this particular recuperation of Blake into the modern Olympic spirit. While most commentators always believe the “dark Satanic mills” must be the factories of the industrial revolution, in Milton and Jerusalem, Satan the Miller is a much more enigmatic figure. As Blake writes in Jerusalem:
The English are scatterd over the face of the Nations: are these
Jerusalems children? Hark! hear the Giants of Albion cry at night
We smell the blood of the English! we delight in their blood on our Altars!
The living & the dead shall be ground in our rumbling Mills
For bread of the Sons of Albion: of the Giants Hand & Scofield
Scofeld & Kox are let loose upon my Saxons! they accumulate
A World in which Man is by his Nature the Enemy of Man,
In pride of Selfhood unwieldy stretching out into Non Entity
Generalizing Art & Science till Art & Science is lost. (Jerusalem 38.46-54, E185)
The Blake brand, as I have observed elsewhere, may be used by marketers and advertisers the world over, but – bless him – if there is one thing I love about Blake it is that as a writer he is just so difficult to assimilate to a corporate view. When I hear someone singing of England’s green and pleasant land, it is lines such as the above – troubling, provocative, disturbing – that are as likely to be called to my mind. The Sons and Daughters of Albion may be running for gold, but Blake would have surely been angered by the grinding down of Jerusalem’s children into the bread of a sponsorship burger.