Answers on a Postcard: British Enthusiasm and the Olympic Dismount
By Lytton SmithJanuary 24, 2013
IN THE YEAR leading up to the Olympics, BBC2 screened a typically deadpan British comedy series called Twenty Twelve. Set in the offices of a fictionalized version of Locog, the organizing committee for London 2012, the show anticipated and satirized the incompetence and mayhem we all knew would be the hallmark of the London Olympics. We watched episodes as we packed escape kits and prepared to flee to the countryside. We considered stealing the Team GB canoes to row out to France, Spain, Ireland — anywhere we couldn’t be caught up in the Games, couldn’t be blamed when it all went wrong.
We surprised ourselves by turning out in droves to see the Torch on its route around Britain. But when some of the first American and Australian athletes to arrive were put onto buses that promptly got lost in London (perhaps for as long as four hours) we knew our fears were being confirmed. Safe in our seaside hideouts, we tutted, sighed, and returned to our mugs of tea. In Twenty Twelve, a fictional driver had taken fictional athletes to Stratford-upon-Avon (of Shakespeare fame) instead of Stratford, East London (the Olympic Village). Life, we reasoned, did not have to try too hard to imitate art; we can’t, as the saying goes, organize a drinking session in a brewery.
What community we could muster came from taking shared umbrage at visiting politicians who dared offer their two cents where they weren’t wanted, where we hadn’t offered tuppence for their thoughts. Mitt Romney mused about “a few things that were disconcerting: the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, [the] supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials.” We worried he might be right, but we alone had the right to criticize the preparations: these were our Games, and that was part of our fear. What if it all went wrong, as it usually does?
As the hockey opened with a blunder worthy of a sitcom, the South Korean flag shown to introduce the North Korean team, we suspected the farce had only just begun.
Just before the opening ceremony, the Royal Mail announces a reward for British athletes who win gold medals. For every gold won, Royal Mail will print a limited edition set of stamps, ready for 9 a.m. the morning after the triumph.
On August 1, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning win the women’s coxless pair rowing and Bradley Wiggins wins the men’s time trial cycling. I consider going out to buy the respective stamps. Through the rest of the Games, I could collect the set, what would probably amount to 5-10 presentational envelopes showing the smiling mugs of the successful athletes. I have a mild case of Olympic fever: it’s been five days hoping for a gold, and the rush that comes with “us” winning not just one, but two, leaves me a little loopy.
I don’t get round to it, though. I am busy running errands.
As Luke Campbell wins Team GB its 28th and penultimate gold, I wonder whether I could even have afforded the complete 29. What cost enthusiasm?
I sate in the open sun,
And from the rubbish gathered up a stone,
And pocketed the relic, in the guise
Of an enthusiast.
— William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 9.68-71
When Wordsworth, wound-up with revolutionary fervor, found himself before the Bastille, he could only describe himself as a pretend zealot. He was, he felt, merely disguised as an enthusiast: “I looked for something that I could not find, / affecting more emotion than I felt.”
Wordsworth’s lack of powerful feeling likely had less to do with quantity and everything to do with quality: we British are not known for enthusiasm. We hide our passions safe in our homes, which, as the proverb has it, are also our castles. Occasionally, probably when we are three sheets to the wind, something approaching ardor threatens to reveal itself. We catch ourselves before it's too late, avoiding each other’s gazes, muttering into our pints a question about whose round it is. As my American wife points out, we live in the land of litotes: if Archimedes had been taking a British bath, "Eureka!" would have instead been, “That’s not a bad idea.”
Emerson once described this island as a place where “no enthusiasm is permitted except at the opera.” To be English, he reasoned, “requires a tone of voice that excites no attention in the room” (the Welsh will rightly disagree, citing their eisteddfodau). That tone of voice lets we English keep to the privacy of our gardens, unheard on the other side of the hedge, lest our neighbors might discover and be disturbed by our worst passions. By contrast, what makes American literature American is its enthusiasm, critic David Herd argues in his book Enthusiast! Essays on Modern American Literature.
What does it mean, though, that it takes a British critic to notice the enthusiastic roots of American literature? When Romney ridicules our readiness to host the 30th Olympiad — “Do they come together and celebrate the Olympic moment?” — it’s we who inject the word “enthusiasm” into the debate.
We’re seeking after something, trying on a new guise. If the wind changes, perhaps it’ll stick.
Travel through England today and you might stumble across one of 29 gold post boxes. Royal Mail sited one in the hometown of every gold-medal-winning athlete. For the first time since 1874, post boxes are not automatically red. We, who out of habit look to precedent first and ask questions later, have broken with tradition.
As memorials go, it’s particularly British. These postboxes are only painted gold: not made of gold: we are not ostentatious. Our choice of memorial is functional, quotidian, even. We celebrate things locally, here: the British are the masters of the Best Kept Garden competition, the school fête, the village green preservation society. No World Series or Miss Universe for us; our repeated problems in the football World Cup are in part problems of scale. For all our imperial history and expansionist rhetoric, we’re happiest behind our hedges, in private. The sun never set on the British Empire because we never really thought beyond our little island. These Olympics have gone okay. We shyly paint a few dozen post boxes gold to mark the occasion.
Then things shift.
In Lymington, Hampshire, a man is arrested for painting a post box gold of his own accord. He explains he is upset that sailor Ben Ainslie will have a memorial in Cornwall, where he grew up, not Lymington, where he now lives.
In Bramhope, Yorkshire, an unauthorized gold post box is repainted its rightful red by the Royal Mail; a pensioner living on the same street as British triathletes Alistair and Jonny Brownlee had taken his own initiative, got caught up in the fervor, and been, dare I say it, enthusiastic.
We all become this pensioner. We find ourselves in pubs cheering on Mo Farah for every one of his 5,000 gold-medal-winning metres. Our eyes somersault with Tom Daley diving for bronze, and we don’t even notice that the splash we just felt is a pint sloshing all over our feet. Even before the Games are over, athletes are offering free lessons to those who want to get started, to keep it all going. Someone gets especially zealous and paints a phone box gold. Perhaps if we never have a closing ceremony, we reason, it’ll never really come to an end.
If it’s the winning that counts — we’re a little medal-greedy by now — what the winning counts for is getting the rest of us to take part. We dig out rusty old bikes, stay an extra half hour at the gym, run to work instead of driving. We find out where the next and nearest triathlon will be, mark our calendars.
There’s a heroic narrative to be told about all this, an epic poem in which an island nation that had lost its way and become “broken,” to use the parlance of its politicians, finds the strength to be Team GB — “bound to a universal story,” as David Lammy, MP for the worst hit areas of last year’s riots, puts it. It’s the story the officials would have us believe. These are “the people’s games.”
A warning, via philosopher Étienne Balibar: “Whenever the people is invoked, most often it is state interest that is speaking.”
Just a day after heptathlete Jessica Ennis’s post box goes up in Sheffield, newspapers report it is vandalized, marked with “graffiti.” Within 24 hours of Andy Murray and Kat Copeland’s boxes being painted gold, we learn they’ve been significantly damaged.
August 6, 2012: Medals won by gymnast Beth Tweddle, the Equestrian team, and, in the late light of the afternoon, sprint cyclist Jason Kenny, took Team GB to 48 medals — matching its 2008 Beijing haul — with several days still to go. A man from Leeds called into a BBC Radio Show to enthuse about his visit to the Olympics. “I’m from up north,” he said, “so I don’t even like London — but it was amazing.” As though Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony army of Mary Poppinses had infiltrated the fields and cities of the land, Brits everywhere could be seen smiling. Whistling was heard. London as the world doesn’t commonly see it.
August 6th, 2011: Around dusk, a peaceful protest march gathered outside Tottenham Police Station began to turn restless, upset, violent. The causes were numerous: institutionalized racism, high levels of unemployment, a rumor about police attacking a 16-year-old girl, a group of young men spoiling for a fight. By midnight, the local post office had been burned down. Six days of rioting in the capital and other major city centers had commenced. London as the world doesn’t commonly see it.
Our survey says: 54 percent of Brits think the effect of the Games will be short-lived.
When I say I’m a poet, I mean I spend time placing things adjacent to one another and seeing what results. It’s like making a mosaic without having a fixed image or pattern to follow.
It’s easy to juxtapose the London Riots and London 2012, harder to work out what to make of their proximity.
Back before we’d even thought of bidding for the Olympics, I worked front-of-house for a West End theater, taking tickets, checking coats, selling ice creams. Most everyone there was a “resting” actor or ballet dancer. Several of them lived in Plaistow, East London, a shot put away from the future site of the Olympic Village. We’d head to someone’s for post-work drinks, an impromptu party. The next morning, we’d be found in the local greasy spoon café, which sold over-fried breakfasts and advertised a "silce" [sic] of cherry pie. Rumor had it the nearby shopping center enjoyed a robbery every hour, every 10 minutes, every minute. Back then, Plaistow was in one of the most deprived boroughs in the UK.
After the Olympics end, work starts turning the Olympic Village into an actual urban village which will supposedly offer affordable and shared equity housing. The developers tout their reclamation of “industrial land” while protesters remind us about the urban allotments cleared for the sake of the Games. Just when, exactly, was this land last industrial, and who is doing the reclaiming? Until late July 2012, there was a graffiti HOF (hall of fame) in Plaistow, a semi-legal space, two walls where artists created and tagged seemingly with impunity. By the time the Olympics began, the two walls had been painted a cold, almost military gray, each extending a hundred feet of gray nothing. A hedge by any another name would conceal as much. Signs warn, “Graffiti is a Criminal Offence.” No enthusiasm is permitted, except at the opera.
In the run-up to the Olympics, the founder of National Poetry Day, William Sieghart, initiated the Winning Words scheme, including a series of poems etched into spaces around the Olympic Park, on stone and in wood. I’ve always enjoyed walking through poems, feeling their lines stretch out through space. London has them in some of its subway tunnels, New York in Battery Park City; St. Paul has poetry on the sidewalk. I can be an impatient reader, liable to rush my lines, so walking among others’ words is an antidote. One of Lemn Sissay’s poems repeats, “Living is in” on beam after beam of wood. What kinds of living, the poem seems to ask, have we found in the Olympic Village?
As it turned out, the “vandalism” done to the winning athletes’ gold post boxes was of the celebratory kind: an enthusiast writing “Go Jess” on one in Sheffield, a set of relic-hunters peeling paint from boxes in Dunblane and Teeside. I can imagine the flecks of gold framed, mounted above mantelpieces, metonymic for some strange euphoria, for the feeling of having been party to a great coming together of all of us.
In the guise of enthusiasm, have we Brits have become adorable miscreants, our minor misdemeanours all in good nature, our crimes not of passion but of enthusiasm?
The readiness with which we reach to name these acts vandalism, the Usain Bolt-like speed with which we oppose the “good” British athletes to the “bad” British rioters, the speed with which we paint over the graffiti, gives me pause for thought. What contributions are we prepared to acknowledge?
Wordsworth took his own relic from the site of the Bastille. In it he found confusion, not certainty, and his extended poem The Prelude was a way to share that confusion with the people who mattered most to him: not the literati, but those who lived in “the noisier world” of city life. It’s easy to quip that he romanticized that world.
Perhaps, though, now that we’re in the aftermath of the after-party, with even the Ashes victory past, we need to take a step back, consider our technique, as it were. We’ve turned Wordsworth into sound bites and slogans: “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” We’ve too often looked to poetry to tell us things when all along it was trying to pose a problem.
As David Herd points out in Enthusiast!, “The enthusiastic life is in revolt against the bureaucratic mindset in all its guises.” We see that revolt when we are with Wordsworth at the Bastille. We see it at the Plaistow HOF. We see it in a post box painted gold against the wishes of the Royal Mail.
If these were “the people’s games,” they will only have been so because of what might happen next: individuals making new things. I hope to see poetry among such makings, not just set in stone and wood, but ad hoc, wherever a poem is least expected. For what the poem brings to enthusiasm is hesitation, the turning of the line back on itself, the entry into the white space of silence, the gap of thought.
Call it, if you will, reflective enthusiasm, or, to take some lines from poet Geoffrey G. O’Brien:
If I were already building something,
were still in the middle of it?
That would be good, I’d like that.
I remember now how dangerous
it is to be there, though,
the swing through a dome, a new life
pretty hard to see in the back.
Lytton Smith is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University. He is the author of a book of poems, The All-Purpose Magical Tent, and two translated novels from the Icelandic.
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