DJ Taylor: Pro or anti? What the Games say about us

Opinion about London 2012 can be divided into three camps, but the moaners have history on their side. Plus, Mr Meat fails to use his Loaf

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The Independent Online

With a scant five days to go until the opening ceremony, public feeling towards the Olympic Games seems to have divided into three broad camps. First there is the relatively small number of people who are genuinely interested in some of the sport and who will feel themselves momentarily exalted if Usain Bolt manages to run his 200-metres heat in 19.75 seconds rather than 19.82. Then there is a far larger group which is generally in favour of the Games and happy to bask in the lavishness of its spectacles. Finally, there is a substantial minority of ingrates who resent the pervading stink of corporatism, suspect that the event will do little to benefit the parts of the capital which it ornaments and deplore the Government's aim of using London 2012 not to encourage mass participation in sport but to ginger up the export trade.

Looking for a point of comparison in our recent national history, the social commentator would find it not in the 1948 Games – run on a shoestring and christened the "Austerity Olympics" – but in the 1951 Festival of Britain. This, too, though billed as an "inclusive" event, which would unite the nation in a cloud of communal post-war purpose, was criticised on grounds of expense and underlying motive. Evelyn Waugh maintained that "there was little popular exuberance among the straitened people", while The Daily Telegraph, desperate to snub the Labour government, likened it to "a moderately successful party, but one held on the wrong day and at far too great a cost".

There is one significant difference in these responses. The Festival of Britain, it is fair to say, split opinion on party lines. Conservative nay-sayers noted that the Festival committee was almost entirely drawn from a herbivore pool of middle-class radicals; the spirit of "uplift" was in the air. Here in 2012, on the other hand, the complaints are about the favours done to big business, official high-handedness (such as the inhabitants of Weymouth being more or less denied a view of their own coastline because of the yachting competition proceeding alongside) and, of course, incompetence. Ominously, Waugh noted of the 1951 jamboree that "dollar bearing tourists curtailed their visits and sped to countries of the Continent where, however precarious their position, they ordered things better".

Tuesday's release of the population statistics produced exactly the same kind of variegated response. From the angle of the leftish-liberal commentator nothing was apparently more desirable for this right little, tight little island of ours than a soaring birth-rate and mass immigration. This, one optimist declared, was a mark of our "success". From the right, alternatively, came jeremiads about the concreting-over of England's greensward, the strain likely to be placed on the country's infrastructure and the social disadvantages of living cheek by jowl in the thronged housing conditions necessary to accommodate so many extra bodies.

Like Europe and possibly the criminal justice system, immigration is an area in which the gap between bien pensant opinion and the feeling of the average high street widens into a chasm. Opinion polls, for example, regularly show majorities in favour of a ban on immigration of any kind, tempered by a somewhat paradoxical suspicion that many of the foreign workers coming here to "take our jobs" are, alas, better skilled, better educated and better motivated than large parts of the indigenous populace. Naturally, one can't avoid framing the population statistics in the context of last week's suggestion that the country needed more foreign help to claw its way out of the economic downturn and that in the absence of all this imported vim and vigour we should simply fall asleep over our lathes.

Whatever the country's economic needs, this strikes me as about as thoroughly illiberal a measure as it could be possible to conceive: a kind of reverse apartheid, which cherry-picks talent from abroad while writing off large sections of the home-grown population as economically worthless, while exacerbating what are already some profound social divisions along the way. On the other hand, as a reminder to Michael Gove that his plans for state education still have a long way to go, it could hardly be bettered.

Arts world story of the week was undoubtedly the news that the US rock singer Meat Loaf (real name Michael Aday) is suing his own tribute act. Dean Torkington, who has been staging a show entitled To Hell and Back: A Tribute to Meat Loaf for the past 16 years, suggests that the root of this disagreement lies in the release of his album The Bat Strikes Back. "Could the reason be it got a better review than Bat Out of Hell 3 in Classic Rock?" he not unjustifiably enquired. Mr Torkington will be performing at the Crown Paints Social Club in Darwen on Saturday evening.

All this offers a brisk little parable about the chagrin experienced by a creative artist when he discovers that there are people out there whose grasp of his stylistic tics and idiosyncrasies is sometimes more convincing than the genuine article. Inevitably, the principle applies to literature. Philip Larkin once noted that the young Anthony Thwaite was producing better versions of Larkinesque than he was himself. Graham Greene, entering under a pseudonym a New Statesman competition for a pastiche extract from a Graham Greene novel, came a disappointing second.