Big Issue vendor: "I took part in the Opening Ceremony"
On Friday, I took part in the Olympics Opening Ceremony – a hugely significant and historic event – certainly one of the most memorable of my life. Danny Boyle conjured a truly unique and magical celebration of this Isle of Wonder.
I gladly, willingly, spent hours and days – valuable time I might otherwise have spent earning money or being with my family – to take part in this ceremony and would do it again in the morning. But the experience was not without irony.
I played as a member of Nostalgia – the oldest steel band in Britain, which participated in the very first Notting Hill Carnival parade. Were it not for being in the band, I should have to settle for the view shared by everybody else in my street in Stratford: 14-foot high electrified razor wire topped fences and a heavily guarded no-mans land reminiscent of the Berlin Wall.
I would have had to look across the site to which the 40-year-old Clays Lane Traveller community was forcibly moved for the sake of this international jamboree of running and jumping. I would have had to bid for lotteries for tickets that few locals can realistically afford – many are unemployed, hobbling from payday loan to loan and living hand to mouth. Perhaps a ticket might fall like manna from heaven from the beneficent hands of some corporation or Newham Council bestowing tickets on locals deemed deserving.
For days before the ceremony we watched the Olympic torch negotiate rain, streakers and – according to the Daily Mail – 'tearfully enthusiastic crowds of patriotic well-wishers', on its painstaking journey to the Olympic Stadium. Where this stolen fire of the gods now radiates vibes of goodwill to mankind, honouring sporting honour, universal brotherly love and best endeavour; the missile-protected Olympic flame burning in a sacred cauldron carved out in an otherwise largely neglected jungle of urban deprivation.
When I asked Danny Boyle what he was trying to evoke, he said he was trying to show, "what it's like to be us". He clearly put his heart and soul into it: insisting on retaining as many volunteers as possible and speeding up the show, rather than agreeing to discard cast members, as the organisers had nagged him to do when they felt it was all a bit too long.
He is also a hero for bravely sticking with the themes of his show – some of them controversial – and for his stunning tribute to our National Health Service. He would even have given a nod to The Big Issue had it not been for the sponsors’ restrictive contracts.
Danny’s choice of themes included a section celebrating what he felt was a seminal moment in British history: when workers from the West Indies stepped off the Empire Windrush; and celebrating what is now the second largest street carnival in the world – Notting Hill.
Again, hats off to Danny that here, in this alternative environment, this enclave of ostentation secluded from austerity Britain, a nod should be made to the annual two-day liberation of now posh Notting Hill. The area is the most sacred ground of West Indian Britain in this respect, and Carnival is enjoyed by an ethnic, social and cultural rainbow of revellers, in the teeth of constant official hostility and an increasingly militarised police presence.
Year after year there are calls to ban our Behemoth of a carnival to which rich and poor of all colours and creeds are welcome, and which, in comparative terms, costs almost nothing to the taxpayer – since more than enough money to compensate floods into London's economy.
Despite all its troubles, this free expression of human brotherhood, risen like a beautiful Afro-European phoenix from the flames of burning cane stalks on the slave plantations of Trinidad, says more about London and Britain than any amount of epic stagecraft, however brilliantly presented.
I take this Windrush/Carnival section of the parade to have been a kind of tribute to all of the immigrant communities – there simply wasn’t time or space to include everybody.
The Windrush passengers paid their own – expensive – fares, and we Nostalgia members paid for our own costumes; we were told the near £30 million Ceremony budget didn't stretch to a few pairs of sneakers and a couple of T-shirts for the band (although we did get pre-paid Oyster travel cards for the rehearsals.)
From newspapers like the Daily Mail, you would get the impression that migrants from the West Indies in their day, and migrants now, are somehow chauffeur driven to London and accommodated like visiting dignitaries. Nothing could be further from the truth: migrants to Britain have always typically worked very hard, often in menial, thankless jobs – ask any of the cleaners in the Olympic Park – and almost universally live in overpriced slum conditions.
As the multi-billion pound Olympics rolls on, and corporate sponsors glide past along their Zil lanes, the helicopters buzz overhead and I gaze through the razor wire at the soon to be largely redundant Olympic Park, and the Stadium where I performed – it will cost £10 even to get into the Park after the Olympics.
Still, it gives me satisfaction to have taken part – to have contributed to the spectacle at great personal cost in terms of precious time and unearned money. To be able to say: "I was there." And I am eternally thankful to Danny Boyle for his dogged determination to be true to himself and his vision: “Be not affeared!”
By André Rostant