Howard Jacobson: They've turned Britain into Butlins in their determination to make us enjoy ourselves

The beach volleyball became - lest our concentration falter - a musical


This is the way the world will end – not with a bang but McCartney. I've nothing against McCartney. He has added to the world's stock of innocent pleasures. But life isn't an idle interval between Beatles songs. Or the songs of anyone else, come to that. Popular music is merely one pleasure among many. Ditto dancing. So I ask – are we capable, as a nation, of doing anything that doesn't begin with singing and dancing, isn't crowned by singing and dancing, indeed doesn't have singing and dancing at its core?

"It's a party, for God's sake" was how my first, exploratory response to Danny Boyle's opening ceremony was greeted by those in whose company I watched it on television. I knew it was a party. My point was that all parties didn't have to be the same.

So what would I have done differently, my friends – in so far as they felt friendly to me any longer – wanted to know. Well, much of it, I conceded, I wouldn't have done differently at all. The chimneys going up, turning east London into Danny Boyle's (and my) industrial north, I loved. Ditto the winged cyclists. And James Bond parachuting into the stadium with the Queen? Yes, good joke. Though a shame that our culture, when we put it on show for foreign consumers, never gets much beyond James Bond.

I was reminded that there'd been Shakespeare earlier. Those lovely melancholy, meditative lines of Caliban's, proclaimed, for some impenetrable reason, by the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. (Was Boyle's point that Caliban might have become an engineer himself had the colonialist Prospero not enchained him? Or that the industrial revolution was a slave insurrection by another name?). I conceded the Shakespeare, anyway, but didn't accept it justified J K Rowling, Mary Poppins, and whatever other references to children's literature I missed. James Bond and Harry Potter, for God's sake! Is that all, in the way of literature, we have to sell?

One person asked me to leave. That person was my wife. Another, who obviously hadn't seen Twenty Twelve, reminded me that these Games were about "legacy", and therefore for our children. That was easy to refute. "That which we should want to leave to our children," I maintained, "is not a perpetuation of the childish state. It behoves us to show them what being grown up will be like, that's if we can f**king remember." I was requested not to swear. There were children sleeping.

I apologised in time to see Rowan Atkinson being Mr Bean. I always love the first sight of Rowan Atkinson's face. I am reminded of his reading out the class register – "Nancyboy-Possum, Nibble... come on, settle down... Orifice, Plectrum". Will it be possible, ever again, to see the word plectrum and not be reminded of Rowan Atkinson's sublime expression of distaste? But Mr Bean! Heaven save us from Mr Bean.

"I've had this," I said, pouring myself more wine. "Why are we celebrating the worst of us instead of the best? The worst writing, the worst music, the worst comedy."

This was too much for one of our party – my wife again – who wondered whether I thought a chorus line of Leavisites would be more entertaining. Since only the women were awake – it was long past bedtime for the men – I seized upon the current shaming weak spot in women's self-esteem. Fifty Shades of You Know What. "A chorus line of Leavisites might not be your idea of fun," I snorted, "but I'd rather that, any day, than a chorus line of shop assistants from the Tunbridge Wells branch of Ann Summers demonstrating the jiggle ball." That pretty well finished off the evening in time for Paul McCartney.

But here's my point. We have turned our country into a sort of giant Butlins. "Wonder" was a key concept in the Olympics opening ceremony, but we aren't short of wonder in the gawping at spectacle, singing and dancing sense: reader, we are pigged out on it. Half the theatres in the West End of London are showcases for our singers and our dancers. Wonder? The greatest wonder would be a moratorium on wonder.

Here I am, anyway, watching beach volleyball on Horse Guards Parade. I am not, you see, an Olympic party pooper. The getting in was easier than predicted. The soldiers and volunteers are charm and helpfulness themselves. The setting is wonderful: the oddly Bavarian spires of Whitehall behind, the London Eye spitting colour, the imported beach illuminated, the evening balmy, the spectators in high spirits. To be frank, it is hard to imagine a more glorious place to be.

There is, of course, a comic element to it all. Beach volleyball – an Olympic event! Well, if the women dressed differently we might take a different attitude to their sport, for it is exacting and athletic enough, and you and I could not wander on to a beach and do at once what they do.

We have, anyway, come to watch and applaud and therefore to accede to the game's principles and demands. So what do the organisers do? They send out a Redcoat to tell us to "make some noise"; they initiate a Mexican wave; they play jokey music before and after each event and provide a dancing troupe to keep us occupied during. The players have only to change ends or towel down and a dancing girl appears in a Forties beach ensemble. It has become, in other words, lest our concentration falter, a musical.

Sport does not contain, as Seb Coe fatuously claimed, "all that matters in life", but it has its sacraments and deserves better than to be turned into an excuse for yet another trivialising knees-up.

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