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
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.
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
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
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.