The Mythology of a London Olympics

Great Britain, London, Media

My friend Jan writes to remind me of a point about the siting of the Olympics that I should have picked up on, as I come from that area. She says;

‘When you think of the history of that particular site – it is essentially Bow Back rivers and its environs – you probably remember that very nearby in Bow Creek 40 people died upon the launch of one of the new iron ships (I am pretty certain it was a Brunel ship), the victims of a ship launch gone wrong. The Thames, although good for wooden ship building, could not really cope with the iron ship era. The riverwas too narrow. I think a large skilled artisan population could have made a difference to the East End; You just have to look at Carlisle to see that.

Remember also that Britain’s largest shipping fleet (one of the largest in Europe) ran out of Barking using ice from the essex fields near the river to preserve the fish caught in winter. If you go to Barking Abbey there are still lots of interesting facts about the shipping fleet to be found around the town. Subsequently shipmaking stopped on the Thames and moved out to Carlisle, Liverpool and continued up at the North East, Belfast and Scotland. How different a town would London have been with a sophisticated shipbuilding industry requiring skilled artisans in the East?’

She also points out the largely mythic and zodiacal basis of the show, and mentions the discovery of ‘a bronze age burial site where the aquatic centre has been created. The best known of these Zodiacs is at Glastonbury, the tor providing the inspiration for the centrepiece of the ceremony where the national flags were planted and the flame was positioned.’ Of course, with sun and moon and maypole, fire, earth and water, it was pretty Pagan, too.

I was just listening to the music from the Olympics (‘Isles of Wonder’ is now available on iTunes) and you make many more mythic connections. Danny Boyle has always had superbly eclectic music tastes, although I personally think Michael Nyman’s ‘London Bells’ and that peculiar bucolic song from Penguin Cafe Orchestra should have been in that mix rather than the Arctic Monkeys – but to each his own.

Music is a crucial part of life in the UK, and adds its own mythologies. But what was Danny Boyle trying to achieve? The idea, in his own words, was this:

‘At some point in their histories, most nations experience a revolution that changes everything about them. The United Kingdom had a revolution that changed the whole of human existence.

In 1709 Abraham Darby smelted iron in a blast furnace, using coke. And so began the Industrial Revolution. Out of Abraham’s Shropshire furnace flowed molten metal. Out of his genius flowed the mills, looms, engines, weapons, railways, ships, cities, conflicts and prosperity that built the world we live in.

It was a revolution that filled the world with noise, smoke, prosperity, pain and possibility.

In November 1990 another Briton sparked another revolution – equally far-reaching – a revolution we’re still living through. Tim Berners – Lee invented the World Wide Web, and built the world’s first website. He took no money for his invention. This, he said, is for everyone.
Just like the Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution is turning the world upside down, taking music, books, shopping, conversation, information to places that they never went before.

But flickering in the smoke and noise and excitement, you can sometimes glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring nation that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication.’

11 comments on “The Mythology of a London Olympics”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Caption for the above: “We’ll drum down the castle, if you don’t give Fowler a ten book contract for Bryant & May! Can you hear us now?! We’ll…”
    Warmer. Thursday is getting warmer.

  2. Jez Winship says:

    I was surprised to hear the music of the F*%$ Buttons being used so prominently, although given the title of the track in question, Olympians, and its generally uplifting, anthemic nature, perhaps it wasn’t so surprising after all.
    Would the Penguin Cafe Orchestra song by Music for a Found Harmonium? Anything by The North Sea Radio Orchestra (not dissimilar to the PCO)would have been good, too. They’ve written some lovely settings of English poetry, as well as arranging some of Vernon Elliot’s music for Ivor the Engine and The Clangers. And you can’t get more English (and Welsh) than that.
    Mike Oldfield was an odd choice, particularly as the Tubular Bells opening theme has become so indelibly associated with The Exorcist. Mind you, the subsequent appearance of nightmarish visions around a child’s bed suggests that such associations might have been deliberate. Still not entirely sure why, though.
    I was delighted to see a clip from A Matter of Life and Death, with David Niven’s character Peter talking to radio operator June as he believes he’s plunging to death in his shot down plane. It sums up the hopes for an egalitarian post-war world, and always brings a lump to my throat. Definitely a vision of a new Jerusalem – with the planned, rational cities of Heaven blending with the technicolor romanticism of Britain below.

  3. snowy says:

    Are you thinking of the 1898 HMS Albion disaster? 38 dead most buried in a communal grave in the East London Cemetary, marked with a anchor.

    A very strange story, and surprisingly given the date it was recorded on film. There are plenty of sources (of variable quality and credibility) online for the curious.

  4. Adam says:

    The sinking features in the most excellent book ‘secrets of the Lazarus club’ by Tony Pollard. An excellent read!

  5. Adam says:

    …excuse my poor sentence construction; typing and watching the Olympics at the same time!

  6. glasgow1975 says:

    Agree with Adam, an excellent read!

  7. John Howard says:

    I think the ship Jan was referring to was ‘The Great Eastern’.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Not the Great Eastern. It took three attempts to launch her (sideways due to her length) because they had to get hydraulic rams powerful enough but no one was injured. On her maiden voyage, just past Hastings there was an explosion in which three stokers died and a fourth was seriously injured but that was not during her launch.
    Albion’s launch certainly was tragic with most of the 34 drowned being women and children. I wonder if the film they made is accessible or if it was suppressed due to the tragic stage collapse.

  9. snowy says:

    [scratches head]

    The Great Eastern was launched from the SE end of the Isle of Dogs, the remains of the slipway is still there. Which is about two miles away from the Bow Basin (Leamouth).

    One man was killed during the initial launch attempt, struck by a spinning brake handle, others were injured. But by the time it was finally launched on the fourth attempt, the public were largely bored by the whole process.

    It garnered a reputation as an unlucky ship, and suffered many problems in it’s relatively short life. A story grew up about the bodies of dead workers trapped between the inner and outer skins of the hull. And this was blamed for the vessels ill fortune.

    [Helen's post popped up, after I typed the first part, so what follows is a post script.]

    The film of the launch of HMS Albion is available online, via the Tube that is You, it’s about a minute long.

    For a fuller description of the events of the day, search for the East Ham Echo + HMS Albion, and you’ll find a full contemporary account, including the lengthy rescue attempts.

  10. snowy says:

    Sorry SW end of the Isle of Dogs, mind you it’s only 2km wide in any event.

    Thanks to Jan for starting this off, it has lead me in a very round about way to some (for me) very exciting news. I remembered there was an (Oscar winning) animated film about Brunel by Bob Godfrey, I looked about but it was not available anywhere. But there looks to be a plan in the works to release a lot of his work in about a months time.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Ah! My son was home sick one day back in the 70′s and the CBC ran a film called Isembard Kingdom Brunel: the small, small man in the tall, tall hat (or vice versa) which we both enjoyed to the extent that the title has stuck ever since. It would have been a half hour or 22min. probably, but I don’t think it was animated. It used that photo of him standing by the coil of cable on the deck of the Great Eastern. (There was an extremely funny radio program out of St. John’s Nfld called The Great Eastern.)

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