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Putting The Black In The Union Jack

Well, that was the London Olympics that was – what was initially greeted with mass cynicism ended up captivating the nation, engendering a new sense of identity that would have been unthinkable just two and a half weeks ago.

It’s only a year since there were riots on the streets of England, and people were talking about, depending on their perspective, a feral or disenfranchised youth. Things were looking bleak, and Britain broken, but all of a sudden there’s a fresh wave of hope and national pride and, despite the ongoing effects of the recession, the Olympics have undoubtedly brought the feelgood factor back to the UK.

The performance of the competitors in winning 65 medals, GB’s biggest haul in 100 years, has, of course, been key to this, but the tone was set by Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, which was a major triumph in the way it served to re-define what Britishness, here in the year 2012, is. What Boyle did, as well as highlight the traditional British heritage of Kings, Queens and castles, the Industrial Revolution, Empire and World Wars, was to bring a further legacy sharply into focus – a new wave of British history sparked by The Beatles’ first release almost 50 years ago, and resulting in the country’s new found role at the vanguard of popular culture.

This modern heritage has been underpinned, as in any cultural shift, by open-mindedness. Had bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and all those other 60’s luminaries not embraced black American music, bringing the Blues and Rhythm & Blues to wider attention, British pop music would have, as in the 50’s, continued to imitate rather than innovate. It was this cultural fusion that created the alchemy from which so much artistic endeavour was possible – the open-mindedness of not accepting that this black music was only for black people, as the segregated US radio and record charts of the time would have had you believe.

Then, in the 70’s and 80’s, as the black community here gained strength and confidence, Britain’s youth  embraced Reggae, Funk, Dub, Disco, Jazz-Funk, Electro, Hip Hop, House and Techno, building on those 60’s foundations that the Mods had set in place with their love of Soul and Ska. This has, obviously, informed the continued development of popular music in the UK, which is now celebrated as one of this country’s greatest exports, providing a centre-piece for Boyle’s opening ceremonials.

With a half century of music providing the soundscape, the participants in this global pageant reflected a new Britain, a multicultural melting pot of black, white, and all shades in-between. This is the greatness of Britain – the very thing this country needs to embrace in order to move forward. The eyes of the world were on London, and their first impression would have been a racially inclusive society. Although it’s never that straightforward, and we know that, under the surface, racism still very much exists here, the Olympics provided a powerful statement of intent with regards to the future, the racist agenda now a marginal relic of a bygone Britain. Things were very different a generation ago when there was a much quoted phrase within the black community that perfectly summed up their disillusionment with the country in which they lived, where the colour of their skin was a constant handicap. ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ they used to say.

Whilst the opening ceremony had its subversive aspects, Kim Gavin’s closing ceremony was much more conformist in tone, pretty much a pop concert with added frills - a ‘disco at the end of a wedding’, as Gavin had described it himself. He’d boasted it would be the ‘playlist to beat all playlists’, but it fell a long way short for me, and many others it seems, failing to stir that sense of legacy that Danny Boyle had evoked. Going by the hyperbole of the news reports that followed, backed-up by interviews with people coming out of the stadium, you’d have thought it was the equal of the opening ceremony, when, as far as I’m concerned, it left a lot to be desired. It’s ‘highlight’ was the return of the Spice Girls, with their phony brand of ‘girl power’ – all a bit outmoded when we’d witnessed true girl power, not the ‘zigazig ah’ variety, during the games. Although it did have its moments, overall I saw the closing ceremony as a timely reminder that, despite all the cultural riches Britain has unearthed in the past half century, we’re currently at the arse-end of a cycle where, as I lamented in a previous blog post, mediocrity is celebrated:
http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2010/12/celebration-of-the-mediocre/

This outbreak of national pride hasn’t been welcomed by everyone, with some suspecting a more sinister political agenda at play. Ex-Smiths frontman, Morrissey, a famous anti-royalist, attempted to rain on the parade, slamming the ‘blustering jingoism that drenches the event’, and asking ‘has England ever been quite so foul with patriotism?’ before likening it to ‘the spirit of 1939 Germany.’  However, although those with a vested interest in public opinion will always look to manipulate the situation for personal gain, what happened in London in the past few weeks is bigger than just politics – it goes right to the heart of society, embedding itself into our collective psyche. I don’t think that this can be put down to media manipulation alone, I believe greater forces were at work, with the wheels set in motion decades ago.

More than once taken to task by the NME for what they perceived to be his own nationalistic leanings, it all came to a head for the Manchester singer following an infamous gig at London’s Finsbury Park in 1992 where, in draping the Union Jack around his shoulders and, as they viewed it, flirting with fascist and skinhead imagery (skinheads having a reputation of being National Front supporters at the time), he was accused of betraying his sympathies to the far right (the NF having hijacked the flag as a symbol of their particular brand of Britishness). Morrissey denied being racist, but affirmed he was a patriot. These lyrics, taken from his 2004 recording ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’, would seem to contradict his current stance. He wrote; "I've been dreaming of the time when to be English is not to be baneful, to be standing by the flag not feeling shameful, racist, or partial."

I believe that that exact time he dreamt about arrived in the Olympic Stadium on the evening of Saturday 4th August 2012, when ‘Team GB’ won 3 track and field golds in an unprecedented night of success for British athletics. Yes, there was plenty of blustering jingoism on show, but there was something far more poignant taking place. The 3 winners, Jessica Ennis (heptathlon), Greg Rutherford (long jump) and Mo Farah (10,000m) symbolized this new Britain – Ennis is mixed-race (her father Jamaican), Farah was born in Somalia, but immigrated here at a young age, whilst Rutherford looked every inch the Celt, with his red hair and ruddy complexion. The euphoria of this night places it right up there, alongside the 1966 World Cup victory and Roger Bannister’s 4 minute mile in 1954, amongst Britain’s greatest sporting moments, but this outpouring of national pride was only possible because of multiculturalism – had Enoch Powell and, seemingly, the majority of the UK’s population had their way back in 1968, when he made his divisive ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech (see: http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2012/01/confused-misused-and-in-the-dark), only Rutherford would have represented Britain, and this ‘historic sporting night’ would have been simply another medal win rather than emblematic of this new Britain in which we now reside, where white people whose parents or grandparents would have certainly signed up to the ‘blacks out’ clamour, now hero worship the self-same people the previous generations would have had happily shipped out on the next ‘banana boat back to where they belong’.

This, for me, is the triumph of these games. Like many people, I caught the Ennis / Rutherford / Farah hat-trick live on TV, in a hotel room in Hertfordshire, where I was staying ahead of my Standon Calling festival appearance. I’d driven past the Olympic Village earlier in the day, as I’d been appearing at the Eastern Electrics festival in Greenwich. I’d been listening to the Olympic coverage on the radio as I’d travelled down from Merseyside, so I was aware that Jessica Ennis was odds on to win the gold, taking a healthy lead into the final event, the 800m, that evening. The main reason I got off pretty much straight after I’d done my spot was to get to the hotel in time to watch this race. Seeing the ‘poster girl’ of the games handling the massive weight of expectation that had been placed on her shoulders and, to top things off, winning in style, would have been the defining moment of the games from a British perspective. That, in itself, was cause for major jubilation, but the drama that unfolded within that same hour, with Rutherford’s unexpected triumph and Farah’s magnificent victory, sent the nation ballistic in its joyous indulgence. The ‘inspire a generation’ slogan no longer just words, but a real feeling that reverberated throughout the UK .

This feelgood factor was also apparent the following day, with more British golds, including Andy Murray in the tennis. However, it wasn’t a British competitor who caused the greatest excitement, but the fastest man on earth, the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, who won his first of 3 London golds (and 4th of his 6 in total) that evening in the 100m. It occurred to me that this was as close to a home Olympics that Jamaica are likely to compete in, the mass emigration to the ‘mother country’ from the Caribbean in the 50’s and 60’s, making the Jamaican flag, with, of course, the exception of the Union Jack and St George’s Cross, the most visible both inside and outside the stadium (I saw a number hung from buildings as I was driving past).

With Jessica Ennis replacing Cheryl Cole as the new ‘nation’s sweetheart’, it would seem that people might begin to choose their idols more carefully from herein. Cole is a product of the talent show era, a pretty Northern girl who made the grade thanks to her looks more than her ability, whilst Ennis is the product of years of training and dedication, a pretty Northern girl who is the Olympic Champion, who just happens to be also blessed with good looks. Hopefully this will have a knock-on effect in terms of popular music, with originality and innovation valued above the slick marketing of current X Factor generation of pop stars. Rather than simply churning out inferior copies of what’s come before, we need youthful artists who, like the Olympians we cheered, can push back the barriers, taking music into new uncharted realms, drawing from our unique and hard-fought for multicultural identity.

There’s still some way to go before British pop culture reignites, and strives, as it should always, not for fame and celebrity, but for the type of excellence demonstrated by the athletes of the games. It’s still very much in coast along mode, with the money men, not the artists, controlling the market, but the possibility to reverse this equation is, somehow, greater now than it was less than 3 weeks ago.

2012 Summer Olympics Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Summer_Olympics

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14 Responses to Putting The Black In The Union Jack

  1. David strangeways August 14, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

    Fantastic article Greg.

  2. Derek Kaye August 15, 2012 at 12:20 am #

    Great work and well said G !

  3. Jack Hemingway August 15, 2012 at 9:19 am #

    This is terrific... Completely agree with your sentiment.

    If the last few weeks can't change attitudes and inspire a generation to be the best they can be in life, not just in sport, then as a nation we're buggered.

    The precedent has been set by our remarkable Olympic athletes and the wonderful 'Games Makers'. I hope the Olympic spirit of the last few weeks continues and resonates throughout the creative industries and beyond.

  4. Mr Strutt August 15, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    Well put Greg, completely agree with the parallels you have highlighted.

    Some British artists need to raise their game like our Olympic champs - then we could get away from a cheap throw away fast food bling bling champagne car posing toasting saturated soul music scene that seems to have dominated the main steam in the last few years.

    It would be great to see new groups and artists champion the great 60s and 70s songs pioneered by the legendary artists...

    ... and seeing them in a 45 singles chart in HMV... maybe that is asking too much!

  5. lec August 15, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

    Mr Strutt you made me laugh....i have just picked up a load of albums and singles from my parents house and would LOVE to see singles back in the charts.
    And Greg, wicked blog! x

  6. Jobes August 15, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

    Greg, one of your best and most persuasive articles to date: a medal-winning performance!

    You absolutely nailed it with this piece: weaving together music, sport, culture and national identity with the same positivity and panache as both our Olympic athletes, and Danny Boyle.

    Thanks for such a well-reasoned, balanced and informed read.

  7. liddle t August 15, 2012 at 9:00 pm #

    Great article G.

    Did enjoy closing ceremony for the most part, whacking the tv volume up full blast for 'One day like this' Elbow.
    Only to be told to turn it down by the girls, who said it could be heard in the next street!..
    For me this track is a stonking anthem, and the ceremony should have ended there..
    Tho I did enjoy Fat Boy Slim and the spider emerging from the bus..

    But, in many respects, for me, the true winners of these Olympic Games were the crowds of spectators, wether they attended the free events or parted with their, no doubt, 'hard earned cash', to cheer and support 'all' the athletes, and, to witness a truley great event....

    Team GB's medal tally was in the end something to celebrate, and I'm not saying our athletes would not have prevailed alone, but in almost every event, wether Equestrian, Rowing, Cycling Track, Judo, Taekwando, Sailing, Swimming, Diving, Canoe Sprint, Gymnastics or Track and Field, the crowds took my breath away, and in those eary days of the games, almost certainly lifted our athletes to great heights.

    The 'extra man in the boat' some comentators were calling them.

    Fooking awesome I call them..

  8. Adrian Luvdup August 19, 2012 at 6:52 pm #

    Great post Greg

  9. Steve Bruce August 22, 2012 at 2:15 am #

    Excellent, incisive piece as ever. We really should get you on the radio or have you as some kind of social commentator for the BBC Greg!

  10. Sally Kendall October 3, 2012 at 9:12 am #

    Hi Greg,

    http://sallykendall.com/2012/07/31/mo-farah-portrait-of-the-olympic-runner/

    Fantastic article. Thank you for using my Mo Farah mosaic to illustrate it. Please check out my blog and website http://www.sallykendallmosaics.com Please forward to anyone who maybe interested in commissioning me.

    Thanks Sally

  11. david lowe February 13, 2013 at 10:26 pm #

    i think there should never be black on our flag. its a disgrace. it should stay the same as its always been. im not racist but red white and blue are the colours of britian not black.

  12. greg wilson February 13, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

    Hi david lowe - it's just a saying, not something that should be taken literally, symbolic of a time when most black and mixed race people, although they might be British by birth, felt they had no stake in this country, This is why it's great to see athletes like Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis draped in the Union Jack, their achievements celebrated throughout the nation, when, not that long ago, many people here would have been outraged that they were representing Great Britain in the first place given their African and Caribbean heritage.

    greg

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