I scrammed out of London a few days before the Olympics began, but after getting an earful on what the locals make of it. On the whole, the residents of that great city would rather the honor of hosting the world’s most disruptive sporting event had gone to some joint that needs the publicity more — Alma Ata, or Ouagadougou, or Oakland. In 21st-century London, traffic moves at fewer miles per hour than it did before the internal-combustion engine was invented without the added complication of fleets of Third World thug bureaucrats and the permanent floating crap game of transnationalist freeloaders being dumped on its medieval street plan. Nevertheless, having drawn the short straw of hosting the games, Londoners felt it a point of honor that the city be able to demonstrate the ability to ferry minor globalist hangers-on from their favorite whorehouse in Mayfair to the Olympic Village in the unfashionable East End in time for the quarter-finals of the flatwater taekwondo.
The psychology of the traffic cop enters into the opening ceremony, too. One becomes inordinately fearful that the giant Middle Earth trash compactor will not arise on cue, or the dry-ice machine will fail to blow smoke up Voldemort’s skirt, or one of the massed ranks of top-hatted mutton-whiskered extras recreating the Industrial Revolution in hip-hop will miss a stomp. And you’re so grateful to have dodged these calamities that it never occurs to you to wonder whether taking 40 minutes to do the Industrial Revolution in interpretive dance was a good idea in the first place. Britons seem unusually touchy on the subject, touchier than they’ve been since the week of the Princess of Wales’s death, when the prudent pedestrian on the streets of Kensington avoided catching the eye of the natives, lest they club one to a pulp for being insufficiently maudlin and lachrymose. A Conservative member of parliament who made the mistake of tweeting his thoughts without running them by the party’s focus groups was disowned by his colleagues and forced into groveling public recantation. It seems his now-disowned tweet that the whole thing was a load of codswallop was an unfortunate typing error and that what he’d actually meant to say was that the highlight of the evening, Government Health Care: The Musical, was far too riveting to be confined to a mere two and a half hours.
I would be intrigued to know what the Queen made of it, once safely back at the Palace with a stiff drink. The last time Her Majesty opened an Olympics, in Montreal in 1976, she did a quick bienvenue and left it at that. This time round she was inveigled into participating in a kind of upmarket variety-show sketch in which James Bond (Daniel Craig) called at Buckingham Palace to escort her to the stadium. Very droll — although one felt a little queasy watching it, as if this was one of those late-night ideas kicked around by producers and directors (“Wouldn’t it be great if we could get the Queen to do a bit with Daniel?”) that might have been better left on the fantasy wish list.
Turning the Queen into her own Queen impersonator (as Commentary’s John Podhoretz put it) underlined that vague unsettling feeling you get walking around Central London that these days it’s the theme park of a great capital rather than an actual one. The iconic red telephone boxes, for example, are currently the home of eccentric “artwork” — in Covent Garden, a statue of a giraffe busts through the roof of one and nibbles the leaves overhead. Meanwhile, the red boxes without giraffes have non-working phones, stink of urine, and are plastered with prostitutes’ business cards — though even these have a quaintly dated, semi-parodic quality about them: In the one round the corner from the Houses of Parliament, a Russian lady promises clients “the ultimate Soviet Union.” Like the Queen’s, it’s a 007 gag, but from the Roger Moore era.
Yes, yes, London is doing a better job than most Olympic hosts of subverting the Games’ totalitarian aesthetic — deflating the synthesized bombast of the Chariots of Fire theme through the presence of Mr. Bean suggested a rare sense of proportion about the whole circus. “Do you like the way we’re not deliberately winning all the medals?” my old friend Boris Johnson, now and somewhat improbably the mayor of London (and even more incredibly Britain’s prime minister–in–waiting), said to a reporter from the Irish Times the other day. But where was that much-vaunted British sense of irony on opening night? The overhead camera settled on robotic formations of grateful apple-cheeked urchins in a giant children’s ward spelling out the letters N-H-S like a Busby Berkeley chorus in Gold Diggers of 1935 — and, horrifyingly, they seemed to mean it. Had the pageant been truer to life, the patients would have left their hospital beds riddled with C. difficile, MRSA, septicemia, and the other parting gifts that attend a stay in an NHS hospital. But no; when the state religion of government medicine comes up, the dark irony of Danny Boyle, the epitome of Blair-era Cool Britannia, withers and dies like a geriatric waiting for her hip replacement. And all this in the week that the nation’s doctors are going on strike.
The lack of basic awareness is remarkable. To that ever-dwindling band of Americans who believe in truly private health care, the NHS is a byword for disease and degradation. On the other hand, to Continentals who believe in clean, efficient universal health care, the NHS is a byword for disease and degradation. Yet the British delusion that the NHS is “the envy of the world” is indestructible. Years ago, in London’s Daily Telegraph, I carelessly remarked that, while one might be able to find a Bhutanese yak farmer somewhere upcountry who envied Britons the NHS, nobody else on the planet did. A couple of days later, the paper printed a letter from Mr. Sonam Chhoki, a Bhutanese gentleman who, while not a yak farmer himself, came from generations of sturdy yak-farming stock. He reported that his British in-laws were still waiting for their operations after two years, and that based on his experience Bhutan’s health service was superior. Whether or not Danny Boyle’s NHS musical will run longer than Cats, the waiting list already does. Yet there they were, dozens of Mary Poppins figures descending into the Olympic Stadium on unfurled umbrellas, like British paratroopers behind German lines on D-day. When everywhere’s a nanny state, inventing the great iconic nanny is a source of national pride.
Britain may not be able to match the Continentals at music and art, but it gave us the language of global business, of global culture, of law and democracy, the language of liberty, of the modern world. And yet, aside from a perfunctory bit of the Bard, words were oddly avoided, save from the finale when the audience joined Sir Paul McCartney in a mass singalong of the universal message:
“Na na na, na-na, na na, na-na na na . . . ”
Hmm. What can Americans learn from the Olympics spectacle? According to the IMF, China will succeed America as the dominant economic power in the course of the next presidential term, so Howard Fineman, editorial director of the Huffington Post and MSNBC mainstay, was anxious to pick up tips. “Brits long ago lost their empire,” he tweeted, “but overall show us how to lose global power gracefully.”
So there’s that.
Na-na na na.