Charity Shop Britain – Cultural Validation and Olympic Celebration

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Jul 312012

London Captivates the World

If you are of a certain age then Danny Boyle’s celebrated opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics is going to have a very specific effect on you. Never before has the culture of a whole generation of Brits been so comprehensively endorsed and played-out on such a grand, world stage. Boyle’s ceremony was unashamedly defined by the experiences of those who started making their way in the world in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s. If your personal tapestry was woven from British television, British films and British pop music, this was the event, not just for you, but about you.

While many might have expected the ceremony, which is estimated to have had a world-wide audience of one billion people, to stick close to the script of English parochial nationalism. What we got instead was a totally bonkers theatrical event that confound everyone by shifting through a series large-scale tableau representing the great sweep and tide of British history. But just before this vast canvas could explode with its own self importance, it was then brought down to earth by the everyday, the mundane and the personal. Pitched perfectly in the lived experience of shopping-centre Britain. This was spectacle driven by a pounding electronic soundtrack of familiar and aspirational anthems.

There was no need for Boyle and his team to attempt to create a new mythology of contemporary British life. That route has been well-worn in the past. Rather, this was the equivalent of walking into a typical British high-street charity shop and grabbing what is laying close at hand. This was an Olympic ceremony created from found icons, sounds and images that most Brits are likely to discard and abandon. What Boyle understood so perfectly was that there is no need to create any kind of myth around modern British life, of a nation new-born, as host nations for the Olympics are always tempted to do. Britain, according to Boyle, is what it is. Divergent, fragmented, inventive, creative, full of struggle and fiercely prepared to confound the myth that holds in the mind of the rest of the world. Ancient images of empire overlords don’t define this generation of Brits. Instead, we respect our past, have in mind the sins of our forefathers, cherish their redeeming sacrifices against tyranny, then, add a huge dollop of self-deprecation. Who needs to genuflect to a nostalgic image of Britain held in aspic?

Charity Shop Media Mash-Up

What Boyle recognised so brilliantly is that Britain is really a nation that ought to cherish more of the things that it has at hand. Indeed, Boyle’s message was that we should value the things that we are tempted to easily overlook and discard. All those DVDs, CDs, books and clothes that regularly end-up in the charity shop. These are the building blocks of British culture. This is the stuff that we are uniquely made of. It’s just that we don’t have the confidence to value them. The biscuit-tin jigsaws, the teapots, the second-hand detective novels, the boxes of videos of re-run television programmes. This is the bricolage that accumulates at the edges, sitting on the precipice between the archive and the recycle bin.

It would not be difficult to argue that this mashed-up styling, that jumps between epoch and theme, author and reference point, medium and performance style, was able to offer anything like a coherent narrative expectation. Who could? Look at the source material. Britain is a place of enormous contradiction, inequality, and division. So instead, and rather like browsing around your average high street charity shop, Boyle’s opening ceremony was an ad-hoc mix of literature, film, fashion, pop culture clichés, homilies, icons, and the many other baseline reference points that form, or indeed condense, into the British psyche. And the better it was for all of that.

This was a ceremony that avoided wrapping Britishness into a single, tangible or concrete certainty, as some would have us believe is possible. These nostalgia merchants want us to preserve a sense of uniquely unchanging identity. They want to stick to ‘brand’ Britain, when in reality that is an ideal that never existed, and is only now seen through the mists of timeless nostalgia. This is the nostalgia rooted in a Britain over a century ago. The nostalgia merchants are forever trying to recreate the age of empire; when Britain led the world.

Instead, this was a re-imagining of Britain, played out as a series of rapid-fire images, mediations and remixes. This is Britain as the master storyteller, a community of dreamers, a land of people who are capable of great leaps of imagination and creative ingenuity. From Isambard Kingdom Brunel to Tim Berners-Lee, via the NHS, Peter Pan, Harry Potter, pop counter-culture and a massive dose of popular television.

This was the people’s opening ceremony. Anti-elitist and social democratic. Boyle’s vision speaks of a Britain in which individuals succeed on merit, innovation, hard work and collective effort. But it is also a country in which the struggles of minorities and oppressed individuals who want to overcome prejudice are increasingly acknowledged in the collective narrative. No more is the British tapestry just about great kings and queens. Modern Britain, according to Boyle’s theatricalisation, is a country in which we are defined by our tolerance and diversity – despite the mad, bonkers maelstrom of our experience. Tolerance and creativity are our new unifying virtues. There is little space in this Britain for reckless gambling, rent collecting, naked prejudice and the avoidance of collective responsibility. Patriotism is defined here by our common experience and the creative talent that we are allowed to express.

For anyone growing-up in the 1990s, then, the effect of seeing this display writ large is nothing short of transformational. A jump-start to the confidence levels and a huge moment of validation that suggests that no matter how hard it has been to get here, it has all been worth it. This is one of those shared moments, like England winning the World Cup in 1966, that define a generation. This is the point where Britain says that it is okay to be personally defined by and through popular culture. A genuinely shared and common experience, in the familiar, and in the every day. When is the sequel coming out, we all want to know what happens next?

BBC 5Live’s Olympic Joie de Vivre

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Jul 292012

The London Olympics are probably the biggest event that the United Kingdom will host for many decades to come. So how our broadcasters perform is incredibly important. Not only are the Olympics a chance to show off our national sporting prowess, they are also an opportunity to demonstrate our national proficiency in broadcasting. Leading the way for radio is BBC 5Live’s coverage across three radio channels, one on the usual medium-wave and the other two channels on DAB. BBC 5Live is doing us proud with coverage stuffed with joie de vivre, passion and an honest joy for sporting and national success.

The advantage of radio is that you can get on with other things as you listen of the events being commented on. The vast number of live events, types of sport and categories of athlete have the potential to lead to an over-flow of news and opinion, so the commentary has to be sharp, well informed and directly connected to the listener. BBC 5Live, by any standard has put together an operation that is a marvel of interconnected broadcasting, personality, facts, information and the thousands of stories that make-up the biggest show on Earth.

Drawing on a rich team of presenters and personalities, this is broadcasting on a huge scale. Peter Allen and Collin Murray, Victoria Derbyshire and March Chapman, Nicky Campbell and Rachel Burden, all form the backbone of the daytime coverage. This is fluent, knowledgable and effective broadcasting. There is a real sense that the whole of the station and the BBC Sport team are working together to make this feel easy, based, no doubt, on a huge collective effort behind the scenes.

Presenters interact with each other fluently, from multiple locations, across different venues, both from the official broadcasting studios but also down at the poolside and at street level. Radio is better than television at really getting into the heart of events. Radio is unobtrusive and connects with the general members of the public in a direct and informal way. This is great radio and we are only two days in to the whole thing. How much more exciting can it get?

Olympic Radio Mahem!

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Jul 232012

BBC 5 Live Olympic Coverage

BBC 5 Live is running trails that claim that with the BBC you won’t miss a moment of the London Olympics. With the launch of BBC 5 Live Olympic Extra to supplement the main BBC 5 Live station and 5 Live Extra – as well as all the online content that the BBC is churning out – this is going to be a huge chance for radio to do what it does best. Radio and sports coverage go hand-in-hand, and can often be more exciting than sitting about watching the television pictures, or even sitting in the crowd. It’s all in the commentary, the sense of occasion and the excitement that the presentation teams deliver.

At this Olympics communication and broadcasting technology has moved on. The development of mobile communication links, often via mobile phones, is going to be brought to the fore like never before. Reporters and presenters will be able to link to more events and get into hidden-away places more easily than television can. At large events like this radio’s ability to bring live feeds directly and unobtrusively from the track-side is unrivalled. Plus, you can listen to the radio while you are doing other things. The big screen might be seductive, but you can’t go walking or driving with a television on your back.

I’m going to listen to as much of the Olympics as I can on my portable DAB radio. I’m going to keep some notes about what stands out in this coverage and what lessons we can learn for Radio Production at De Montfort University. After all, this is not only a showcase of great sporting talent, it’s a showcase of broadcasting talent as well. If you have ambitions to be a broadcaster, then I’d recommend that this is a great opportunity to listen and learn.

We Are All In This Together

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Jul 012012

All in it together?

As the frenzy surrounding the Jubilee celebrations dies down, and the inevitable hype of the European Cup has evaporated, we are only left with the Olympics to console us as a national distraction from our economic woes. Not that the Olympics will distract us for long mind, as the enforced and coerced straightjacket of global-corporate branding will give island Britain very little opportunity to express the wide and diverse range of its authentic voices. The Olympic message is pre-packaged, pre-heated and, quite frankly, nothing but naked totalitarianism.

Under the ideology of brand-management, the individual freedom of British communities to express themselves has been squashed. The Olympic Torch passes through Melton Mowbray on 3rd July, but what difference can a small market town like Melton make when the story is tightly controlled and managed by LOCOG? The organisers of the London Olympics wont dare let anyone deflect these local events away from the centrally defined message. This is a chance for London to share in the power of global super-brands alongside global corporate organisations. These organisations claim to be on our side, but don’t play any meaningful role in our communities. Coca Cola and MacDonald’s bring us better lives, they say, but once the torch has moved on, so will the super-brands.

The power of executive management, branding and global corporate organisations have defined Britain for some time now. Small elites of super-connected individuals have been able to ‘executively manage’ Britain with impunity. Spending and wasting billions on half-baked projects that have no meaningful checks and balances in place to provide accountability and stability. Since the 1980s British political life has been about how a tightknit clique of people can get to the top of the centralised state and exert executive control over the machine of government. To make it do what they believe should be in the interests of themselves and people like them. This was the model that the Labour Party accepted with New Labour in the 1990s, and which the Tories initially struggled to re-brand in the 2000’s.

The present attempts by Britain’s governing coalition of Conservative and Liberal Democrats to maintain this model of governance are looking shaky and increasingly fragile. This particular brand of politician wants to be treated like CEO’s for some international conglomerate. A conglomerate that is recognised for its brand identity only, but which is otherwise faceless and shadowy. The decision making process they use is opaque. While the rhetoric extols the heroic nature of ‘crucial decisions’ and ‘doing whatever it takes’, these are nothing but power-plays that boost the image of each politician’s individual prowess and executive autonomy. Their aim might not be sky-high salaries while in government, but they are likely to earn millions when they leave office. Their grip on power is justified, however, along the same terms as the CEO of many international corporations, in the name of the market and of ‘talent’. There can be no independent corroboration of their abilities, and we are told that there is no way to test if the two are not mutually exclusive.

Britain has been governed since the 1980s, off-and-on, by so-called strong leaders who have sought to express themselves through simple slogans. ‘The lady is not for turning’, ‘New Labour, New Britain’, ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, and more recently ‘We are all in it together’. As the economy hovers, however, on the edge of a meltdown even worse than the great depression of the 1930s, it would be appropriate for us to reflect on what has brought us to this place. Particularly, it is time to start thinking about our self-delusions, those things that brought us to the point of self-imposed, reckless austerity being seen as the only answer to our economic problem. When in fact, all of the evidence is suggesting that austerity is leading us nowhere. In this maelstrom of self-delusion one phrase resonates and cuts-through more than any other. ‘We are all in it together’. And yet, recent events and news about the crisis in banking practices have convinced us that this is far from the truth.

George Osborne’s empty soundbite and slogan has been found out for what it is. It is a vapid and narrow papering. A veneer over the ideological dismantling of the British state and the imposition of the rule of one class over another – in perpetuity and without a single shot being fired. George Osborne minted this sound bite in order to justify the most extreme fiscal contraction the British economy has seen for many generations. The aim was to bind the British people into a neo-liberal drive towards a smaller state that would be founded on low taxes, individual reliance and hand-bag economics that equates good governance with simple moralism. Cameron, Clegg and Osborne banged on about how the country had ‘maxed-out’ its credit card, how we were next in line to be trashed by the financial markets, and how private companies would ride to our rescue and rush in to fill the gap that was being cleared for them with the dismantling of the state.

Never has so sudden an economic turn-around been imposed with such scant evidence. As Nick Cohen argues in today’s Observer, “Although it is easy to damn David Cameron, Nick Clegg and, above all, George Osborne, as boys doing men’s jobs, it is not true that they are incapable of taking bold decisions. In 2010, they took the audacious step of stopping Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling’s Keynesian efforts to nurse Britain out of the crash.”

So what is the starting point for getting us out of this mess? Actually there is a simple approach that can make effective headway almost immediately. Adopting, turning and using the slogan ‘We are all in it together’ as the battle-cry of a coalition of patriots, progressives and radicals. Cheering this slogan back at George Osborne and his clique would drown-out the message of the neo-liberals, who so plainly don’t want us to all be in this together. Adopting this slogan to challenge the powerful elites and corporate executives jetting around the world with impunity would serve as a reminder that corporate capitalism has a single purpose, and that is to serve society, and not the other way around. ‘We are all in this together’ resonates as an ideal that is clear, heartfelt and something that can be taken up by diverse communities of different backgrounds and different expectations, but who all recognise that the extreme individualism of the past should be consigned to the past.

There are calls for a debate about how we renew social capitalism as an essential part of our social democracy, our civic society and the moral fabric of our nation. To be sustainable this re-evaluation of our economic sustainability has to find wide-based agreement and support founded on a moral and ethical democracy that is transparent and fair. If we are all in it together, then bankers will face prison for their crimes alongside rioters. The powerful will have to negotiate and agree their freedoms along with the powerless. The global will have to negotiate with the local to agree their freedom of action. The short-term needs of industry will have to be negotiated with the long-term sustainability of the eco-system. And the Olympic ideal of peaceful competition without the burden of politics, religion, or racism might be achieved – only now we might want to include ‘corporate might’ within the core of these ideals as we wake up to the dangers of executive dominance and self-serving rip-off capitalism.