The Mythology of a London Olympics
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.’