When Mo Farah won his 10,000m gold medal, he was joined on the track by his pregnant wife, Tania and his step-daughter, Rihanna. Elsewhere in the stadium Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford were celebrating their own victories. These three athletes made up a triumvirate of British success that made this the best night for athletics in this country.
The next day I was surprised not to see the picture that I had assumed the press photographers would be clamouring for. I had expected to see the Farahs, Ennis and Rutherford, together, flanked by union flags, above a story about British multiculturalism. Mo Farah was born in Somalia and came to the UK at the age of 8. His wife and step-daughter are mixed-race, and his unborn twin babies will be an impressive mixture of ethnicities when they put in an appearance in the near future. Jessica Ennis is also mixed-race, while the longjumper, Greg Rutherford, has the classic, celtic, red-haired, fair-skinned colouring.
I thought the media had missed a fantastic opportunity to showcase the strength and diversity of the people of Britain. This country has a long, long history of immigration, dating back thousands of years. My own recent ancestry includes a Latvian immigrant who made a home in South Shields, a town renowned for the matter-of-fact welcome afforded to the many communities of overseas settlers.
Yes, immigration brings its difficulties.
Yes, it is something which needs to be carefully handled.
But it is part and parcel of what makes us British.
It took me a little while to realise that the lack of what I thought would be an iconic image of these games was in itself a tribute to the established nature of diversity of this country. The reporting of Mo Farah’s win gave relatively few column inches to his Somalian background. He was consistently described simply as “British”. Now where the broadsheets are concerned this probably isn’t so surprising, but
the tabloids other more niche corners
of the media tend to jump gleefully upon anything with an immigration or racial
angle, with great public interest stories such as “Muslims stole our Christmas
tree” or “Immigrants responsible for global warming, the state of the economy
and the last ice age.”
But the tabloids, like all the media, have an instinct for what the public want at any given time. When things are bad, people want someone to blame. The media is there, serving up immigrants, people on benefits, single mothers and any other corner of society that can be given the tabloid treatment. The middle-market media, to a great extent, thrives on conflict. You just have to look at the popularity of Jeremy Kyle to see that people love feeling self-righteous about another section of society. Gender conflict sells. Conflict with authority sells. And racial conflict sells. Especially if it can be coupled with a good dose of indignation about “the authorities” siding with “them” against “us”.
But during the Olympics, the national mood has been a bit different. There has been a great hunger for stories, not of conflict, but of courage and determination and success against the odds. People haven’t wanted anything to take the gloss off Britain’s remarkable achievements in these games. They’ve wanted to stand behind the union flag and sing God Save the Queen. They’ve wanted to be part of the greatest show on earth. They've wanted to be a unified, united Britain.
Perhaps it will be transient. Perhaps anyone who has ever moaned about “bloody immigrants coming over here and taking our jobs” will immediately revert to form as soon as the Olympic torch is extinguished. Perhaps it will be “Bloody immigrants. Coming over here and taking our gold medals.”
I hope not.
Because whatever our troubles, whatever our conflicts, we British are at heart a glorious, eclectic mish-mash of genes and cultures and colours. We’re black and white and every shade of pink, brown and indescribable, unreproducable-by-Farrow-and-Ball yellowish-peach in between. We’ve spent tens of thousands of years bleaching the memory of the African sun from our skin beneath the unreliable British skies. Tens of thousands of summers no doubt spent moaning about the weather and wishing we could afford to go abroad like Bob and Mavis from the cave next door. And tens of thousands of years of welcoming wave after wave of travellers and nomads and immigrants from the places we left behind in our distant past.
Staffordshire MP, Aidan Burley misjudged the public feeling and caused outrage by describing the opening ceremony as “leftie multicultural crap”. He claims to have been misunderstood. There certainly has been some misunderstanding going on, but I think it is Mr Burley who has failed to grasp something pretty important.
We are multicultural.
It would be as impossible to take multicultural influences out of any story of Britain as it would be to pretend that 1066 was just another year, or that the two world wars had no impact upon our population.
So to refer to the multicultural elements of the opening ceremony as “crap” is pretty much the same as saying “Hey. We’re British and we’re crap”. Aidan Burley’s comments say a lot about the way he looks at the world around him. He looked at Danny Boyle’s vision and saw “multicultural crap” while most of us just saw “Britain”.
If I was one of the organisers of the closing ceremony, I would thinking, right, just to piss off Aidan Burley and those who agree with him, let’s have more multi-culturalism. Lots more multi-culturalism. All the multi-culturalism we can get. Calling all those with even a hint of multi-culturalism in your background. Your country needs you!
We thought we didn’t need to be heavy-handed about celebrating our diversity, but if Aidan Burley and his supporters want to ridicule it then let’s go all out and have a massive, multi-cultural, diversity party.
Let’s have morris dancers with bells and daft hats. Let’s have kilts and grass skirts and saris and kimonos. Let’s have bagpipes and Rolf Harris. Let’s have stiff upper lips and carnivals. Let’s Not Mention the War while simultaneously letting it be firmly known that we are Not Mentioning the War.
Let’s carry Mo Farah through the streets in a triumphal sedan chair made from an Ikea Tullsta armchair and a couple of Billy bookcases.
In short, let’s show that we understand what it is to be British, and let’s hope that we can take that understanding forward when the games are over and the euphoria begins to fade.
I can probably pull off a little bit of mini-multiculturalism myself with my Manx and Latvian ancestry. I shall dress up as Mark Cavendish and go stand outside Aidan Burley’s house shouting my most fluent bit of Latvian.
Es runaju mazliet latviski bet mana izruna et mana grammatical es nau pareizas.
With a bit of luck he won’t have access to a Latvian dictionary and will assume I have come up with something slightly more profound than “I speak a little bit of Latvian but my grammar and my pronunciation really aren’t very good.”
If he figures it out then he could probably be justified in calling my multiculturalism crap.
[decides to leave it to the closing ceremony organisers]