02 August 2012
O Thou who changest not
by Jennie Pollock
Did you watch that? On Friday, the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. Did you watch?
It was incredible, amazing, superb, outstanding.
It was the most fantastic outpouring of British creativity, humour, pride and joy.
It made me cry, at several moments. This is the land I love. This is my home. This, warts and all, is part of me.
And it was 'warts and all'. There wasn't so much a thread of sadness running through it, but a great, wide river of sadness. The 'green and pleasant land' filled with children dancing and men playing cricket was ripped away to reveal a dark, menacing, industrial landscape. Though Brunel (Kenneth Branagh) gazed on it with pride and hope, and though it was part of forging Britain's greatness, the point was not lost that it cost many their livelihoods and changed us all forever.
The joyous celebration of our literary heritage was also a celebration of the NHS and a famous children's hospital – and thus also a reminder of disease and suffering. Even the description of Neverland read by JK Rowling emphasised its threatening dark shadows rather than its joyous possibilities and magical beauty.
There was a memorial to the World Wars, and a moment to remember the loved ones of many in the stadium who have passed away, and there was Mohammed Ali.
The voiceover said he was there to represent strength and determination, but actually what he represented to me was the decay of greatness. This man who had been feted, idolised and adored, who had been at the very top of his field could no longer stand unaided, could not reach out to touch the proffered Olympic flag, could not even respond to his wife's repeated instruction: "Wave, Mohammed, wave."
In his programme notes, Danny Boyle, the creative genius behind the spectacular show, said that the "golden thread of purpose" running through it all was the "belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone". Yet what his own ceremony showed was that despite all the progress we have made, we are still dogged by decay at every turn. Everything continues to change. We're no longer world leaders in industry. Mohammed Ali can no longer float like a butterfly. Paul McCartney can no longer sing. The things and the people we love pass away and we are powerless to prevent it.
Neither the Queen, James Bond, nor our 541 Olympic athletes can deliver the future he longs for.
Yet all is not lost, for in the midst of the ceremony came a hymn. A hymn which pointed every man, woman and child who cared to listen in the direction of the One who can deliver this dream, who has promised to do so and who has opened the offer to all who choose to accept it.
The hymn was Abide with Me, sung in full to a hushed stadium, accompanied by a flowing and beautiful dance. I can think of little that would better answer the yearning expressed through this opening ceremony than this hymn and, in particular, this verse:
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Danny Boyle, well done. You created a ceremony to make your nation proud. Your creativity, style and humour shone through and reminded us of the many reasons we have to celebrate this country. And above all you – albeit unwittingly – pointed us to the only One who can make sense of it all, sustain us in life and renew us in death.