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17 August 2012

by Jonathan Boardman


An Olympian shire

SURELY it cannot have been a co­incidence, the resemblance of the opening scene in the Danny Boyle Olympics spectacular with Tolkien's Shire, and its juxtaposition with the forging of a massive molten ring? The ever-present "green hill" around which were placed the competing nations' standards seemed also as much a reference to Hobbiton as to Blake's "Jerusalem".

I was watching it on a big screen in the terraced garden of the Venerable English College's summer villa, 20 miles outside Rome, high above Lake Albano. Of course, the Olympics have finished, but the memories of that night have stayed with me.

Among the many goose-bump-producing moments for me was the "meeting in the air" of all five gold rings, which, perhaps, moved us to the safe territory of the Twelve Days of Christmas rather than the snares of the Dark Lord. But Boyle's later inclusion of a son of Sauron, Lord Voldemort, underlined his sensitivity to, and appreciation of, that English literary tradition that can be all too easily dismissed as primarily for children.

In the marvellously quirky NHS section of the show, what also became obvious was that, as patients, we are all transported back to child­hood fears, and we are all comforted by a belief in the presence of wonder-working super-adults, such as a sym­pathetic nurse or medic, rather than in Gandalf or Mary Poppins.

I was surprised that negative com­mentary from Tory MPs limited it­self to the charge of "lefty political correctness". Chatting about the show to Oliver Vordemann before the early Sunday mass at which he regularly serves, this half-German half-Northern Irish Roman (born and raised) cited the debt to Fritz Lang in the "pandemonium" section - an allusion totally missed by me - but also questioned the limited part played by the sea in this his­torical visit to the Isles of Wonder.

Yes, children sang their national songs on the Giant's Causeway and a Welsh beach, and the Windrush un­loaded her passengers, but where were our military and our merchant marines? I suggested that the entry of the teams themselves, with so many flags sporting a Union flag in one corner, was surely a nod in that direction - although hardly politic­ally correct, nor, indeed, lefty.

Headgear on parade

AND so to the march-past itself, termed in Italian la sfilata, the same word used for a fashion show. And wasn't it just? As I have long noted at ecumenical Roman gatherings, you are nothing without a hat, and a great variety of headgear was on display: excellent flat caps from Portugal and Bulgaria (spoken like a true northerner, you'll agree); felt crowns from the Himalyan states; turbans; and straw fedoras galore.

My top prize went to the berets sported by the men in the US team. Clean, smart, and hardly French at all. But what of what surely ought to be thought of as uniforms? Variants on national costume have always been expected and welcomed, and, in this category, Austria, Nigeria, and Poly- and Micro-nesian states im­pressed. Mexico and the Netherlands brightened things up, while main­taining the idea that what was worn ought to be recognisable as clothes.

Of course, over many years of watching the ceremony, I, like so many, had come to expect little from Germany as far as taste and style are concerned. We were not dis­appointed: they wore pink and powder-blue shell suits. But who could have predicted that their rivals for tack­iness would have been Team GB itself?

And so to my sartorial gold, which I award to - San Marino. The four men and two women who repre­sented this tiny Appenine republic (population just over 31,000) showed that, as the unique alternative of Italian chic to that presented by Italy herself, they clearly wanted and could afford clothes of the finest cut. Elegantissimi! They would not have been out of place standing next to David Beckham or Daniel Craig.

Cameo role

THE largely Roman Catholic crowd who were gathered at the summer villa with me definitely fell into the category of those with a belief in super-adults.

As the camera swung round to the seat soon to be taken by the Queen after the James Bond spoof, there was a gasp, followed by an univocal cheer: "It's the Archbishop of Can­terbury!" And there he was, in a seat befitting the next-after-the-royal-dukes in the order of precedence.

A Roman appearance on a some­what smaller scale, though still tinged with the vicarious glamour of royalty, was when Dr Williams was spotted in the window of Trastevere's Almost Corner Bookshop as one of the personalities in that recent handi­craft classic Knit Your Own Royal Wedding. Although I questioned the choice of yellow yarn for the chimere (it had to do double duty in also bringing off the Queen's canary costume), the resemblance was strik­ing.

More gonk than Gandalf, this version of the Primate took me back to the late '80s Spitting Image puppet of Archbishop Runcie, and provoked the thought that it is better to be included in popular culture - even in a slightly unbecoming way - than to be excluded from it.

Hymn service

WHO would have thought that there would be so many hymns in it? I counted at least four: "Jerusalem", which gets multiple citations as one of the themes; the National Anthem - with two verses, which makes it, to my mind at least, a proper hymn; a snatch of "Guide me O thou great Jehovah"; and a spine-tingling a cap­pella "Abide with me".

And, yes, it was in that hint of a Bollywood dance-routine to those words and that music that evoke such British obsequies, that I finally wept. A child ran into an adult's arms to be themselves embraced by a com­munity, and all our fears of abuse, decline, and economic crisis were replaced by hope even in the face of death. Olympian, maybe, but cer­tainly of God.

The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints', Rome.

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