Simon Kelner: The army of uniformed agents are everywhere

Kelner's view

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The Independent Online

I've taken quite a lot of stick this week for going against the patriotic grain and suggesting that our pride in Britain's excellent performance at the Olympic Games has occasionally veered into a rather unworthy strain of jingoism. I have said before that being on Twitter can sometimes feel as if you've walked into a bar where everyone is wearing a mask while hurling insults at you. Some of my correspondents, as you would expect from the classy people who read i, have made persuasive arguments, pointing out that I have confused patriotism and nationalism, or that I should get over myself and just enjoy some outstanding sport.

I have generally ignored the abusive tweets, but they do reveal a worrying trend that, in public discourse these days, there is a quasi-totalitarian imperative to follow popular opinion, and anyone who offers an alternative view is summarily tied to the stocks. When I think about it, this was at the root of my objection to the hype which has attended British triumphs. I am afraid I am conditioned to resist being told how to feel, and with every exhortation to bask in national pride, I find my heart becomes more hardened to the idea.

There is a disconcerting one-party corporatism about the Games themselves, as anyone who has visited the Olympic Park will surely have noticed. As I walked with my friend Andrew through the ExCel centre the other day after the table tennis final, we both remarked that this might be what it feels like in Pyongyang. A uniformed army of agents of the State was telling us where to go, and we all did as we were instructed.

I was told off for going the wrong way down a flight of stairs, and I uncomplainingly fell into line. As we walked through this vast, impersonal space, we were fed constant messages about how happy we were, and invited to eat from anonymous, generic food bars. There was no branding – the State doesn't approve of that – and the outlets were called "Deli" or "Fish and Chips" or "Chinese". "They might as well just be called 'Food'," said Andrew.

Once we got into this groove, it was easy to imagine that we were being watched, and that the volunteers were in fact secret policemen. "Have a nice time," a smiling young lady said to us as we headed for the exit. By this point, even she was treated with suspicion. What did she mean? Hadn't we just had our nice time? We were puzzled and disconcerted by this existentially-framed sentiment, but we weren't going to question it.

We needed to find the Jubilee line, so Andrew approached a volunteer for directions, which were cheerfully given and received. That's the trouble with you, I said to him, you rail against the power of the mighty State, but as soon as you're in trouble, it's the State you turn to! Before I incur the wrath of the tweeting classes, I'm not being entirely serious, and the table tennis was a captivating and thrilling experience. Just a shame there were no Brits in the final. (Only joking!)