By Tania Carver
As I’m sure you’re aware – unless you’ve been living in a cave or recently crashed down on Mars – the Olympics have been on. And not just any old Olympics, the LONDON Olympics. Now, I realise this is a blog about crime writing and not sport but bear with me because I want to write about the Olympics. (And not just because watching them has taken the place of crime writing for the last fortnight. Honest. I’ve been working. Really.)
Now I’m not normally a fan of athletics, or much sport really, with the exception of football (or soccer as it’s incorrectly known in the colonies) and have a lifelong, if somewhat misplaced, passion for my hometown team Newcastle United. But I now live in (or rather near) London and this was something else. This was going to be a huge event in my adoptive hometown. Having said that, as it drew nearer I found myself getting less and less excited about the games. It seemed like it was going to be one huge corporate free for all, all branding and tax-avoidance, with the actual spirit of it ignored and forgotten. Plus construction costs were spiralling. The games bankrupted Greece and it looked like it was going to do the same for us. Then I decided I wanted to be on holiday when the games were on. Or at least just get out of London and stay out. I’d gone from being enthusiastic to indifferent to adversarial.
And then I saw the opening ceremony.
Danny Boyle, a film director who I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about, was in charge, along with writer Frank Cottrell Boyce. And they managed to do something that was both a spectacular and awesome spectacle and a personal, heart-warming and life-affirming performance piece. And it made me feel something else. Something I have never, ever felt. Proud of being British.
As I said, I’m from Newcastle. It’s a city on the border of England and Scotland and often feels like it belongs to neither one country nor the other. The major roads stop a hundred miles south and don’t start up again until they’re over the border. Growing up there in the seventies as I did made you feel very isolated and disenfranchised from the rest of the country which is totally London-centric. And that’s why the popular concept of being English or being British never seemed to reach Newcastle.
I should add that all of this was, in hindsight, great for the formation of a writer. The perpetual outsider, the observer, the non-participant. Brilliant. But not at the time. Not when you have to grow up and experience that.
But now I live just outside London (interestingly, with that observer perspective again – near it but not of it) and that’s where the Olympics were being held. And that opening ceremony – which I watched under duress, expecting a huge, embarrassing car crash of an event – was wonderful. Cynicism just dropped away – and that is a hell of an admission for me, steeped in the stuff, to make – and I loved it. Because as I said, it made me proud to be British.
So why – and how – did it do that? I’ve been thinking a lot about this. And I’ve reached the conclusion that the ceremony represented the kind of Britain I believe in. That I recognised and want to be – and hope I am – part of. It spoke of the things that our country should be most proud of – children’s literature and literature in general, the fantastic popular culture we have, especially the musical diversity, our multicultural make up. The trades unions who fought for the rights of working people. The sufferagettes. And our NHS, the best free health service in the world. It was an unashamedly liberal, left wing ceremony and it was fantastic.
There were dissenting voices, all from the right. The Daily Mail, a far-right tabloid (in fact the only British paper to have supported Hitler) wrote a hideously racist piece denouncing one section of the ceremony showing a white woman married to a black man and their mixed race children as unbelievable, saying no intelligent, middle aged white woman would do that. The fact that Jessica Ennis, a British athlete of mixed race parentage won gold in the heptathlon flung their remarks right back in their faces. It was described as ‘multicultural crap’ by one Conservative MP. When Mo Farah, a Somalian asylum seeker who settled in our country and is now a UK citizen won two golds and spoke of his pride at being British the Conservative MP retreated.
So yes. Proud at being British. Or at least proud to identify myself as standing for the same things that the ceremony portrayed. And, judging by the hugely positive response and the viewing figures, I wasn’t alone in thinking that. I took to Twitter straight after the ceremony to see what others thought. And everyone – with the exception of those previously mentioned dissenters – were as positive and uncynical as me. The interesting thing was the response from my friends in America. Nobody, even friends that I thought I was so similar to, got it. And that made me, perversely, even more proud and even a bit unique.
I tried to find the opening ceremony online but could only find this. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. And yes, it really is her:
And then the games started. As I said earlier, I’m not that interested in sports that don’t involve a football. But I got drawn in, watching the cycling, then the running then . . . everything. Even things I didn’t understand like dressage, which seems to involve making a horse dance mincingly to music, or tae kwon do which largely consists of one person trying to kick another one in the face. On Saturday night, I sat with family and friends cheering at the TV as Mo Farar (my new hero) won gold for Britain in the 5,000 metres. Yes, cheering.
And after all the events I would watch the interviews with both the winners and losers. And, being a writer, I was trying to find some kind of similarity or common ground with the process of competing with the process of writing. At first I didn’t think there was any. Or at least nothing I could find. But that didn’t stop me looking. And gradually some similarities began to emerge.
As writers, we sit in a room and write. Yes, I know, most of that time is spent staring at the wall, or making coffee, or on Twitter, but essentially we are writing. Athletes are training to compete against others and against themselves. To be the best they can. Writers should be doing the same in their own way. We have to better our last effort. We have to be constantly moving forward. We should never be happy with what we have achieved (or at least not for very long) and we should always be striving to do better.
Another comparable thing I found was that the camaraderie among athletes seems to be very similar to that among crime writers. One of us does well, it reflects well on all of us. One of us wins something, the rest respond by trying to raise their game. They seem to genuinely like each other and whatever rivalry exists, even between citizens of different countries, is a healthy one.
The one glaring difference is with the idea of competition. Athletes are there to win. And they do that by finishing first. Writing is very different in that respect. To quote from Trevor Griffiths in his play ‘Comedians’ (one of my favourite plays of all time), ‘We work through applause, not for it.’ And also, ‘There’s nothing wrong with being famous. But be good first. Because you can never be good later.’ Those lines are like my mission statement as a writer.
Last year at this time, London was being torn apart by riots. Whether you believed the rioters had a point or not, we saw, in the carnage, destruction, assault and even murder humanity at its worse and most base. We saw kids disenfranchised and disillusioned hitting out with undirected rage and anger. For the last two weeks we have seen kids, a lot of them from the same backgrounds as the rioters of a year ago, being given an outlet, a focus. A goal. And a chance to be the best they can be.
So by the time you read this, the Olympics will be over. What the legacy will be, I don’t know. Whether it has bankrupted the country I couldn’t say either. Will we all be fitter, more positive people as a result? Or will we go back to the same cynical state we were in before? I don’t know. But for two weeks in August 2012, there was a palpable, but rare, sense of hope. Of belief. Let’s hope we haven’t seen the last of it.
If you want to read more, Tim Adams in The Guardian says it a lot more eloquently than me.