Olympics: A Britain not too cool to be proud

Candy Gourlay
'Here was the Britain I had come to know in the 24 years I’ve lived here. Buttoned up but with an unexpected funny bone, and behind the famous upper lip, emotions that run deep and strong.'

LONDON, United Kingdom – I bought my big Philippine flag ages ago, figuring that surely there would be an occasion sometime soon in London when I could display it proudly.

But the Brits don’t really do flag-waving unless it’s ironic, iconic, football-oriented or the Queen’s birthday.

Patriotism is not the done thing on these islands: “Proud to be British” does not trip easily off the native tongue – at least, not the way we Filipinos declare ourselves “Proud to be Filipino” at the drop of a hat (or the wave of a flag).

So this was going to be my flag’s first outing.

I invited a horde of friends over to watch the Olympic opening ceremony, thus having the excuse to hang the Philippine flag side by side with the Union Jack.

Between us, our affiliations included Bangladesh, Canada, Denmark, England, Ghana, Hungary, Iraq, Italy, Jamaica, the Netherlands, the Philippines of course, Scotland, South Africa and Tanzania…but that’s North London for you.

I tried to get my guests to bring their own flags to hang around the room but no, only this Filipino-Brit happened to have some flags handy. One dad did turn up in a massive Union Jack T-shirt (see, it’s got to be ironic to be cool) but it wouldn’t have been kind to hang him up on the wall.

TWO FLAGS. Writer Candy Quimpo Gourlay stands proud with the Philippine and British flags.

All day, Facebook had been awash with “Wait till you see it” status updates from those who’d managed to get tickets to the dress rehearsal on Wednesday. Amazingly, they managed to keep the secret – even if they couldn’t stop gloating.

We set up two TVs on both ends of the living room but the show was COLOSSAL – how could the scale of this enterprise be captured properly by flickering electronic screens? But it’s the spirit of the thing that counts, isn’t it?

And the spirit certainly was there in our little party with the children on the floor slurping away at their ice lollies and us good neighbors cheering and clapping and overlaying witty banter over all the goings-on.

British Humor

To be honest I was a bit worried when Danny Boyle unveiled a mini model of the project a few weeks ago, I was a bit worried that the Green and Pleasant Land would be too pretty.  

I didn’t want the rest of the world to think that my adopted home was, for want of a less perfect English word, twee.

But, no Mr Boyle may have opened with cows and sheep but within minutes of the show’s start, he had torn into his Green and Pleasantscape with the fuming drama of the industrial revolution, complete with thrusting Satanic mills with tiny figures rappelling down their heights.

And what about the humor? My crowd erupted when the Queen turned to face Daniel Craig. Surely, that’s a look-alike, not the Queen herself? But that was her and those were her Corgies. I wondered whether the two other London Olympic openings in 1908 and 1948 exhibited the same humor, the same fearless self-mockery.

And I couldn’t help wondering what the rest of the world made of the quirky bits, the bits that were not mass market familiar like Mister Bean, James Bond and “Chariots of Fire.” The bit featuring iconic (to Brits) radio soap, “The Archers” or the bit celebrating the National Health Service. The columnist Matthew Engel, writing in the Financial Times, described the show as “full of very British in-jokes.”

It’s the I-don’t-care-if-you-don’t-get-it character that was so truly British about the whole evening. That individuality and independence that would be such a cultural leap for us Asians, so herd-minded, and so careful not to lose face. 

Philippines as host?

If we ever were to host the games in the Philippines, would we display our own idiosyncracies to the world with such panache? Those cultural traits that run deep, that make us great and not great at the same time? 

How would we demonstrate utang na loob to the world, our innumerate penchant for repaying a debt without end? And what about our tendency towards a familial loyalty so deathless it leads us constantly into temptation? And what about our hospitality that does not count the cost?

(On the bright side, our showbiz mentality, born of our 50 years of colonization by Hollywood probably guarantees a good show. Now “Dat’s Entertainment!”)

We cheered every team that marched into that stadium – and what a mighty shout when the Philippine team finally emerged in their native hats! (FYI our events are swimming, boxing, BMX cycling, weightlifting, athletics, judo, skeet shooting and archery).

‘We are the Olympics’

Though the International Olympic Committee declined to observe a moment of silence for the Israelis killed by Palestinian gunmen in 1972, this British Opening didn’t shirk from paying tribute to the Londoners murdered by terrorists the day after the city learned it would host the games. (Controversially the American network NBC cut the tribute from its coverage.)

It was an emotional interlude in the midst of all the superlatives. Here, I thought, was the Britain I had come to know in the 24 years I’ve lived here. Buttoned up but with an unexpected funny bone, and behind the famous upper lip, emotions that run deep and strong.

Then, near the end of the show, a lump-in-throat moment as a selection of significant world figures carried the Olympic flag to center stage. A campaigning mother of a murdered teenager, a Brazilian environmentalist, a volunteer in Bosnia and Kosovo, the leader of the Liberian women’s peace movement, a musician who brings youth from opposing political backgrounds together and the director of Liberty, the British civil liberties organization. Plus Mohammed Ali of course.

The flag carriers were a political choice – but of a politics that unites rather than divides. To top the evening off, instead of a celebrity lighting the Olympic cauldron, 7 young athletes underlined the night’s message: it’s about people. It’s about us. We are the Olympics. We are London.

The next day, scanning the Internet and the papers for coverage of the Opening, I found myself moved by the spectacle of a Britain suddenly not too cool to be proud.

The games will be here in London for only 16 days. I think I’ll keep my flags up for the duration. – Rappler.com

Candy Gourlay is a journalist and writer who has been living in London for the past 24 years. She is also the author of the award-winning children’s book, Tall Story. Candy just won the National Children’s Book Award given by the Philippine Board of Books for Young People and the National Book Development Board.