Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Coleridge at the Olympics

So, it's all over, and we must now come back down from the highs of London 2012 and recommence our usual griping about what David Cameron isn't doing, Ed Miliband says he would never have done, and Nick Clegg says he would have done if only the circumstances had been right and he got what he wanted in return anyway.

I will, genuinely, quite miss the Olympics. I was fully prepared to spend the fortnight indulging in various 'look how we've messed it up today' conversations, and in the event had none. Further than that, I actually spent a large proportion of the Olympics praising the organisers, the volunteers, and the athletes. I must even confess a newly-discovered soft spot for Lord Coe. But I also must confess that I was drawn to the Olympics by an ulterior motive: a quest to see how many Coleridge references made it into the Games.

Probably not what Coleridge had in mind.
Now, of course, literature was set up as a reference point from the earliest moments of the games; the opening ceremony was themed for Blake's 'Jerusalem' and the 'satanic mills' became the Miltonic 'Pandemonium' on Danny Boyle's gloriously frenetic stage. I was already hooked, and engaged on my new Olympic mission, by the time the cameras swept down into the pastoral stadium, though. My post-Coleridge conference euphoria was maintained by the introductory sequence of the opening ceremony, the 'Isles of Wonder'. Starting at the source of the Thames, we follow the river from its source, through the countryside of pre-Industrial England, passing poppy fields, cricket matches and Wind in the Willows characters, into the heart of the City. Coleridge would have, perhaps, been proud to see one his several unfulfilled poetic ideas come to fruition on such an epic stage - and only 178 years and 2 days after his death (I can't imagine why this momentous anniversary wasn't highlighted). In his 1817 sort-of-autobiography, sort-of-social-commentary, sort-of-just-a-general-whine-about-critics-and-other-writers-who-were-more-successful-than-him Biographia Literaria, Coleridge outlined his grand idea for a long poem:
I sought for a subject that should give equal room and freedom for description, incident and impassioned reflections on men, nature and society, yet supply in itself a natural connection to the parts, and unity to the whole. Such a subject I conceived myself to have found in a stream, traced from its source in the hills among the yellow-red moss and conical glass-shaped tufts of bent, to the first break or fall, where its drops became audible, and it begins to form a channel; thence to the peat and turf barn, itself built of the same dark squares as it sheltered; to the sheep-fold; to the first cultivated plot of ground; to the lonely cottage and its bleak garden won from the heath; to the hamlet, the villages, the market-town, the manufactories and the sea-port. My walks, therefore, were almost daily on the top of Quantock and among its sloping coombs. With my pencil and memorandum book in hand I was making studies, as the artists call them, and often moulding my thoughts into verse, with the objects and imagery before my senses.
 Clearly Boyle sympathises with Coleridge's theory; his opening ceremony brought the 'objects and imagery' from a conglomeration of the real (/ideal) and imaginary Thames. It's as apt a metaphor for the vision of London 2012 as it was for Coleridge's subject: the 'parts' - the multitude of sports and nationalities - are brought together and 'unity [given] to the whole' under the flag of the Olympics. So, at least, we're meant to believe, and so it seemed to be throughout the fortnight of the games.

Although my favourite, and perhaps the most poignant, Coleridge Olympics moment, it wasn't the only one. One British cyclist (in the excitement of the pun I forget which) was congratulated on their win in the velodrome under the tagline 'Pleasure Dome' - my sincerest congratulations to whichever BBC tagline writer came up with that one. Kubla Khan's 'stately pleasure-dome' beside the 'sacred river', Alph, becomes Lord Coe's sporting velodrome beside the Thames.

The last I noticed is maybe somewhat tenuous, and we get to Coleridge via Pink Floyd.   During Ed Sheeran, Nick Mason, Mike Rutherford and Richard Jones's performance of Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here', an LED albatross could be seen soaring above the sea around the stadium seating.  It's a dual reference: the albatross recalls that in Pink Floyd's 'Echoes':

Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air
And deep beneath the rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves
The echo of a distant tide
Comes willowing across the sand. 
This static albatross is an ancestor of Coleridge's. London 2012 may have been the albatross around the organisers' necks these last few years, but they can breathe a sigh of relief now that it has passed. Like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, they had to work with a ghostly presence - the largely unseen, but much applauded, volunteers - to get their Olympic ship home safely. Now it passes over the 'wide wide sea' to Rio - but not before the tale is told to unwitting guests around the world. Repeatedly. We've all got our different Olympic stories after all. No Brits will be invited to another wedding for years... just in case.