Living on the Smile
When did the island of Great Britain first open its generous Severn mouth, smile beatifically at the New World across the pond and turn its humped East Anglian back to the continent it has recently divorced? Quite possibly around 8,000 years ago in the Mesolithic, when the ice age receded and sea levels rose. The interesting thing is that as the North Sea rushed in and joined up with the Atlantic Ocean via the English Channel, and Britain grinned at North America. Its inhabitants knew nothing of the continent in the west, across the water, but our island land mass smiled happily and is still smiling.
It is the smile that makes Great Britain so wonderfully recognisable; at least, I suppose it is. Frankly, I may be rather insular in my approach to this. After all, I live here, on the smile, and I assume that everyone in the world realises how significant it is. I recall with horror the shock I received on a visit to Caernarvon a quarter of a century since. We stopped to chat to a couple who were visitors, like us. The first question was ‘where do you come from?’ When we answered ‘Somerset, on the Bristol Channel’ they looked completely blank. It took us several minutes to describe roughly where we lived to this lovely Australian couple who responded by merely telling us which continent they called home.
This notion of a smiling Great Britain needs some thought and analysis. What do we understand by the word ‘smile’? Come to that, what do we mean by Great Britain? Does smile make us think of moderate joy, approbation, amusement, or kindliness? Probably these are our first ideas, if we are optimistic, happy, accepting types. But there are other possibilities: we sometimes use a smile to convey amused or supercilious contempt, pity, disdain, hypocritical complaisance, or the like. Perhaps smirk is an interesting substitute to consider. The British, or at least the English, would claim the first set of characteristics for themselves: happy, contented, comfortable, optimistic, accepting and generally helpful. Other nationalities suggest that we are supercilious, pleased with ourselves, pitying of others, disdainful, sarcastic, facetious. So smile versus smirk, I suppose.
The Bristol Channel smile is definitely a happy grin. That is my decision. It is not a smirk or a sneer; it is not tentative; it is assured. A glance at this great smile suggests that at any moment it will metamorphose into an audible laugh. Whether this is a fair comment and whether you agree I don’t know. I suspect that the rest of the world often finds itself holding its breath, waiting for Britain to laugh out loud, to the fury of everyone else.
The expectation of the belly laugh came into being at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Critics from across the globe were forced to acknowledge the humour.
The New York Times: “If the Opening Ceremonies of the London Games sometimes seemed like the world’s biggest inside joke, the message from Britain resonated loud and clear: We may not always be your cup of tea, but you know — and so often love — our culture nonetheless.”
Zhou Libo, a leading comedian and a host on “China’s Got Talent”, the Chinese version of the UK TV show, commented that “2008 Beijing was solemn, 2012 London is humour. Solemnity and stateliness tells the world you are strong. Humour lets the world feel you are strong; it’s about confidence.”
Greeks praised the ceremony as an entertaining show, but criticised what they described as a performance that was “too British” and lacking in messages of the original Olympic spirit. They said it was “too much of a big party” and carried a “sense of exaggerated British national pride and a sense of humour which not the entire world understands.”
Le Parisien said: "So British....an opening ceremony that was magnificent, inventive and offbeat drawing heavily on the roots of British identity".
Die Zeit, the German newspaper, hailed the London ceremony as the perfect “counterweight” to the opening ceremony in Beijing. “The ceremony in London, with its dancing and humour, was much more relaxed. It was creative, it was the Spirit of London,” the paper said.
Several Russian observers seemed bemused by the episode in the Olympic Stadium dedicated to the NHS, in which children jumped on beds in their pyjamas. One said it was “incomprehensible to non-Britons”.
Finally, and most delightfully of all, The Sydney Morning Herald said Danny Boyle displayed artistic genius in a brilliant balancing act. “It was not that Boyle was taking the piss, though that is, like much else he brought to life this night, a time-honoured pastime in England.”
So the smile is infuriating, but irresistible. Great, in fact.