A Beautifying Lie? Culture and Kitsch @ London2012: Whose Story Will Be Told in the Isle of Wonders Fable?

By Cohen, Phil | Soundings, January 2012 | Go to article overview

A Beautifying Lie? Culture and Kitsch @ London2012: Whose Story Will Be Told in the Isle of Wonders Fable?


Cohen, Phil, Soundings


As London struts its stuff for the Olympics and calls to the world to attend its show, what kind of account of who we are, who we were and who we want to be will it celebrate? Danny Boyle's dramatisation for the opening ceremony is planned as a spectacular remake of Britain's 'island story', drawing its inspiration and strap-line from Caliban's famous speech in The Tempest, in which he urges his companions:

  Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises
  Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Boyle's 'Isle of Wonders' seeks to conjure up a vision of Britain as just such an enchanted island, a latter day Illyria, where the descendants of Caliban energetically disport themselves, demonstrating a 'can-do' attitude that enables them to defy gravity, become authors of their own lives, and above all 'live the dream'. And not a Prospero in sight to spoil their fun.

Critics have often read The Tempest as a parable about the all too material dreams of maritime Empire, with Prospero as the coloniser against whom Caliban's voice and vision protest. They would have therefore been somewhat bemused to learn that the Tempest theme encapsulates the 'heritage, diversity, energy, inventiveness, wit and creativity' that defines the post-imperial, multi-national society that Britain has become. Shakespeare certainly gives Caliban some good lines - although Ariel has better and perhaps better represents the spirit of inventiveness, wit and creativity - but the last word about the nature of the play is definitely reserved for Prospero as the author's valedictory messenger.

Much then depends on how Caliban's speech is contextualised by Boyle, now that Prospero, his main adversary, has been written out of the plot. Some at least of Britain's back story has to be told in the opening ceremony, and this must be about roots as well as routes. But how much of the old Churchillian version of the island story could possibly survive its post-colonial translation? Perhaps just enough to satisfy the Tory Party and its cultural establishment that the invented traditions of British-Islishness are still part of the national heritage, if not yet back at the heart of the school curriculum.

So in principle, if not in practice, Boudicca and Hereward the Wake might get to audition for walk-on parts as freedom fighters. There could be a cameo role for Robin Hood (alias that puckish trickster Robin Goodfellow) and his Merrie Green Men as eco-warriors. But to go back to Bede and Beowulf, the Adventus Saxonum, and a history of the English as a chosen people, a lost tribe of Israelites, crossing the channel as if it were the Red Sea and discovering they are back home in Canaan? Surely a bit too Anglo-centric for modern tastes. If you prefer an alternative, Celtic, foundation myth, how about asking Merlin to conjure up the Arthurian legends? It would then be possible to insist, with Geoffrey of Monmouth, that Britons are the descendants of Brutus, the well known ex-Trojan and honorary Celt, grandson o Aeneas, who no sooner discovers 'Albion' as his very own white and promised land, than he re-names it after himself.

If these mythographies seem just too obscure and ethnocentric to be useful for a modern nation-building narrative, what about Magna Carta, 1066 and all that? Surely the legacy of the freeborn Englishman can be made to stretch to include others under the ancient shade of Liberty's tree? But as for King Alfred burning the cakes and Canute trying to hold back the tide of history, Drake, Raleigh, Nelson and the crew of HMS Britannia, not to mention Gloriana, Queen Victoria and all the other folk heroes who used to populate the school history books when the map was still coloured red - they had better resign themselves to the fact that they are surplus to requirements and have been pensioned off.

Dreams and nightmares

The implicit argument in adopting the island as an organising theme is that Britain's story has been about place, not race. …

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