Boyd Tonkin: Literature won gold at Stratford – with one creative prophet in the wings
The Week in Books
Saturday 04 August 2012
This country's first Professor of Reading had a bigger audience than usual last Friday night. Screenwriter and children's novelist Frank Cottrell Boyce took up this part-time post at Liverpool Hope University in May, and spoke in his inaugural lecture about pleasure rather than competition as the motivator behind great ideas. A week ago, however, his pleasure principle made the earth move thanks to the competitive spirit. As the writer for Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony, Professor Cottrell Boyce managed to address a billion-strong seminar.
Whatever happens in pool or on track, literary Britain has already reaped its harvest of gold. From Shakespeare through Blake and Milton to Rowling's Voldemort, Fleming's Bond and Travers's Mary Poppins, the imagery devised by Cottrell Boyce and Boyle ensured that – for once – prime-time BBC television couldn't treat our literature with its usual scorn. Romantic, Utopian, wilfully eccentric, the tone of the ceremony baffled those party-line pundits who don't read enough. Booksellers and librarians might even think about devising lists and offers inspired by the show.
The knee-jerk left, unoriginally, dismissed it as nostalgic and sentimental. The knee-jerk right, equally predictably, (t)wittered on about "leftie multicultural crap". Although they overegg the arguments, shrewder commentators have found one key to the narrative in the Lancashire and Merseyside Catholicism of Cottrell Boyce and Boyle.
One other literary inspiration deserves a much larger credit than he has yet received. Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950) was the multi-talented writer, artist and film-director who in the late 1930s, and then during the war, pioneered a style of visionary collage. He folded Surrealist shock-tactics into street-corner realism, dreamy rhapsody into off-the-wall humour. If his wartime poetic documentaries – such as Listen to Britain, Words for Battle and A Diary for Timothy – seemed to underlie the aesthetics of the Stratford extravaganza, then so did his wonderful oddity of a book: Pandaemonium. Published posthumously in 1985, this montage-history of industrialisation and its cultural and psychic impact did more than lend its title to one section of the Olympic party. Cottrell Boyce has written that he bought Boyle a copy of Jennings's "astonishing book" for Christmas, and soon "everyone seemed to have it" on the production team. Read Kevin Jackson's gold-standard biography of Jennings to find out more about this waywardly gifted figure, who has enjoyed a posthumous triumph of quite surreal proportions.
Jennings died in a rock-climbing accident on a Greek island, while researching a film about health-care provision in post-war Europe – another link to the Olympic themes. If a quirky, offbeat patriotism made up one strand of Jennings's creative personality, another took its cue from the internationalist idealism of his time. And Cottrell Boyce has also kept faith with this side of his singular forerunner.
His collaboration with Boyle has prompted him to write an open letter, "The Dangerous Conversation". Updating the principle of the Olympic-period sacred truce throughout Greece (the Ekecheiria), Cottrell Boyce proposes that the Stratford park might become a zone of peace where not only military but also legal combatants could lay down their arms and writs. Grasping the most toxic of nettles, he raises the example of a lawyer-free encounter between Dow Chemical – most contentious of all Games sponsors – and activists for the gas-disaster victims of Bhopal. This inspirational idea matches anything that he scripted for the ceremony itself. If it ever happened, the park would rank as an Isle of Wonder long after the final anthem played.
Give the people what they want: wall-to-wall SM
The Fifty Shades of Grey sales statistics continue to amaze. EL James's trilogy is still shifting around a million copies per week. Like some Michael Phelps of bondage, she has trounced records for velocity and volume alike. If the BBC were to dole out screen time according to genuine popularity with a mass audience, we would now be viewing wall-to-wall sado-masochism instead of the more abstruse Olympic disciplines. On the other hand, after the weightlifting, the gymnastics, the judo – perhaps we already are.
"You'll get more with Gore." We did
Congress's loss was literature's gain. "You'll get more with Gore," exhorted the late Mr Vidal to the voters of a strongly Republican district of New York state when he stood as a Democrat in 1960 (and lost, though polling better than his party predecessors). Indeed we did: 25 novels, starting with his autobiographical story of war at sea, Williwaw, in 1946; a sparkling stream of literary and political essays (collected in United States), and a further half-century of unremitting entertainment, controversy and provocation. I last saw Gore at the Gothenburg book festival in Sweden, being pushed around (no, wheeled – nobody pushed Vidal around) by a strapping young man of Viking looks as he dispensed his bon mots, barbs and blessings with truly imperial aplomb. Vidal didn't believe in any heaven but, if a literary Valhalla awaits authors, the feasting there has just begun.
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