Tuesday, 25 September 2012

These Island Stories - John Dougherty

Do you remember the Opening Ceremony? It’s a measure of its impact that I don’t have to say which one, or what it opened. You know what I’m talking about. For days - perhaps weeks - afterwards, the country seemed like a warmer, friendly place.
I don't have permission to use any photos of the Opening Ceremony.  So here instead is a picture of some cake, courtesy of Michael at www.foodimaging.co.uk

Of course, not everyone felt this way. Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens on several occasions derided it as ‘a social worker’s history of Britain’, a phrase which I found revealing in its oddness. Does Mr Hitchens believe that social workers don’t have a right to history, or that their history is somehow inferior to other people’s? Does he think that a person who spends his or her working life looking after the needs of others is somehow less worthy than someone who spends his working life writing opinions for a newspaper with a less than glorious history of bending the truth, not to mention supporting parties with less than pleasant ideologies?

It’s the sort of question that is all too pertinent in these days of Gategate, the scandal of the Government’s Chief Whip apparently calling a police officer a “pleb”. The whole row has that sense of “some people are better than others, not because of who they really are but simply because of their station in life”, which unpleasantly echoes Hitchens’s ‘social worker’ jibe. I’m reminded, as the row unfolds, of how the Opening Ceremony made me feel.

You see, I’m not the only one to have reported unaccustomed feelings of patriotism after watching the Opening Ceremony; and I think I know why. On previous occasions on which I’ve been asked to feel patriotic, the feelings were supposed to be stirred by things that, well, don’t stir me. I quite like the Queen, I suppose, but I don’t feel the country would necessarily be a worse place to live if someone else were our Head of State instead. I never think, “I love being British because we have an army and some big ships!” or “gosh, isn’t it great that we once sent emotionally damaged ex-public schoolboys out all over the world to impose their values on whatever cultures they found there!"

But what Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce did, bless them, was to provide an alternative narrative of which I could feel proud. Free universal healthcare! Black people and white people having babies together and nobody even thinking it comment-worthy until that twerp Aidan Burley and, yes, the Daily Mail point it out! Creativity in writing and music and art! Children’s literature, for goodness‘ sake!

I suppose, really, that what it did for me - and this is hugely significant, considering that I grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles - was to tell me: it’s okay to be British my way, whatever that means to me. If I want to prefer a social worker’s history over a right-wing pundit’s history, I can. It doesn’t make me a “pleb” who needs to ‘learn my place’.

So why am I mentioning this here, so long after it’s all over? Well, I just felt moved to point this out:

Literature, and perhaps particularly writings for children and teens, do this as well. Can you remember, during your childhood, reading something in a book and thinking, “But I do that, too!” or “That’s just how it feels!” or “So it’s not just me!”

I can. And the lesson of the Opening Ceremony is that that’s important. Enormously important. Children’s writers do many things, but one of the best things we do is to say to children: “You know - it’s okay to be you.”

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8 
He will be appearing at the Cheltenham Comedy Festival on November 17th 2012.

His most recent books include:

Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig


jongleuse said...

I totally agree John...much more so than the floaty Jubilee stuff. Loved the shout out for children's literature too. The Mail article is unbelievable...

Joan Lennon said...


Catherine Butler said...

And never let it be forgotten that shortly after the Mail article, of course, Jessica Ennis won the heptathlon, bringing the Mail's comment that “it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up" back to haunt them...

But in one sense Mitchell is quite right: we should know our place. Danny Boyle helped British people to remember their place, and its history, exactly by setting up a narrative counter to the one that's usually trumpeted by the Mail and its readers. People recognized this portrait. Okay, it was a flattering one, but the occasion demanded it, and perhaps it would be more accurate to call it aspirational. They looked at it, and remembered that "Yes, this is who we are! This is what the place is, or could be! And now we know it."

JO said...

Great post. In some ways Danny Boyle gave us permission (not that we should need it) to be proud of the things that really matter - the things that make us who we are today.

As for Mitchell - it is acceptable to use the term 'twerp'?

Sue Purkiss said...

You articulate so clearly what I felt, in a fuzzy confused sort of way, about the opening ceremony.

Mind you, the sheer technical bravura also made it pretty special - the scene with the rivers of steel and the rings! Oh my!

Penny Dolan said...

Excellent reminder of how it felt to be watching that amazing Opening Ceremony, John! Especially welcome now the season of loud party politics has arrived in full spate.

I was so pleased to not be ashamed of what the event was saying about us to the world.

Linda said...

Yes! Hurray!

John Dougherty said...

"I was so pleased to not be ashamed of what the event was saying about us to the world."

Excellent comment, Penny!

And, yes, Cathy, and Jo - that's it, isn't it?

As for Mitchell, 'twerp' is too good for him...

Jane Housham said...

I agree!

Susan Price said...

Excellent as always, John. Makes me wish I'd actually watched the ceremony. (I dodged it precisely because I expected it to be the usual 'patriotic' right-wing crap.)
Thinks: I'll find it on YouTube!

John Dougherty said...

Sue, all the BBC's Olympic coverage is still available on the BBC website! Here's the link to the Opening Ceremony: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/olympics/2012/live-video/p00wm0br

Liz Kessler said...

Beautiful post, John.

BooKa Uhu said...

I took great pleasure in reading over all the comments about it in the other countries - I think the BBC had a link on their website. So many of them were flattering and admiring - that made me feel really proud of that ceremony, to be able to show something to the world other than the usual Empire/War/Posh sterotypes, and for the world to like it!

So much better than the Jubilee, where I spent half my time wondering what on Earth all the fuss was about - her Maj has no connection for me whatsoever, while the Opening Ceremony was about my home.