The contrast between this summer’s two uber-spectaculars – the diamond jubilee concert and the Olympics opening ceremony – couldn’t be starker. At the former, Gary Barlow produced a musical vision for austerity Britain where geriatric crooners rubbed shoulders with talent-show alumni at the end of the Mall. Madness were the risky prospect.
At the latter, something far more radical happened. The floor of the Olympic stadium was torn asunder to the sound of thundering techno and the Queen watched as the union flag was hoisted to a record by one half of Fuck Buttons.
Two hundred years from today, a master bell-maker will set out from Whitechapel, with instructions to retune the great Olympic Bell. The bell-maker has never seen the bell, but she knows it will still be there.
There are some objects that history tiptoes round, and leaves undisturbed, rocks in the river of change. The bell-maker will stroll through leafy London. The mad roads and high-density housing are gone now, all overgrown. London 2212 is mostly trees.
No one really builds things any more, not since we learnt to manipulate vegetable DNA. Why build a house when you can grow one? A house that grows as your family grows. A house you can prune when it gets too big. A house that grows food on the kitchen wall. A house that breathes oxygen. The biggest breakthrough came when we learnt to grow computers – computers that climb up from the patio and pull information down from the cloud like sunshine.
The bell-maker, for instance, is following a trail of smartleaves that rustle directions as she strolls through the Forest of Bow. There, in a clearing, its wooden gantry covered in creepers, she’ll find the bell. The size of it surprises her. She had no idea it would be this big. It takes all her strength to get the clapper to swing hard enough to strike a note from the huge metal dome. And what a note – vast, rich and complex. Its tones and overtones and half tones unfolding like petals as it breezes through the forest. Every cell in her body vibrates.
When the sound passes through the cloud, it will activate all the memories that were stored there on the day the bell was first rung – the ancient Facebook likes and recommends, the digital photo, blog entries, texts – and these will be downloaded to the bell-maker’s memory in a shower of smartpollen. When she breathes in, she’ll inhale the rhythm of drums, the flash of fireworks, the happy screams of children, the waves of the athletes and the lyrics of songs. But what will she make of those lyrics? Will she wonder who, apart from tigers, had tiger feet? Was it a good thing? And what is tiger light? Does it burn bright in the forests of the night?
Will she try to figure out what exactly that Starman was waiting for in the sky? Will scholars try to work out who Scaramouche was and whether he ever did do the fandango? And what Galileo and Figaro have to do with it? And why everyone was shouting about it? Or will she already know that the best pop lyrics are often nonsense. Even the lyrics of the greatest, and the most important pop songs. ‘Wopbopaloobop a whop bam boo’ for instance. Or ‘Na, na, na, na-na-na naaaa’. ‘Hey Jude’ – possibly the Beatles’ biggest-selling single – ends with almost four minutes of ‘na na nas’. Anyone who has ever stood in a vast crowd and na na na’d along with it, knows that meaning doesn’t matter. The important thing is the way that chorus allows us to karaoke ourselves into the moment. It binds us together, both as members of the crowd and as part of the ongoing reverberation of that summer afternoon in Twickenham in 1968 when four young men first recorded it.
Because the lyrics are a handle – a way of holding onto the song, keeping it in your memory, bedding it into your hard drive. In a way, the more meaningless they are, the more power the song has. The less it said, the less there is to disagree with. Clever people have often tried to prove that pop music is important by showing us how deep and meaningful the lyrics can be. But we don’t want meaning from a pop song really. Pop isn’t important for what it says. It’s important for what it does. Or what it lets us do. It lets us play and when we play we do amazing things.
Popular music and technological innovation are brother and sister. The first computer programmes were the cards which bell ringers made to help them remember the order of ringing. Ever since then music and computers have walked together. Bands like Pink Floyd and musicians like Mike Oldfield and Brian Eno searching for new sounds and new ways to create music had a massive impact on the development of computers.
File sharing and downloading were the catalysts of social networking. And in recent years – in the Arab Spring, for instance – they’ve been agents for social change. Like the bells that first inspired them, they are part of the story of liberty. What’s the point of playing if you don’t share? We play best when we’re together. Maybe that’s what we really want from all public art – not insight or knowledge but an excuse to get together in a state of pleasant perplexity, to be part of each other’s lives. Because, in the end, what matters most to us is each other.
Frank Cottrell Boyce, London 2212
Second to the right, and straight on till morning. Peter Pan, JM Barry.Almost all the volunteer dancers in this segment work for the National Health Service. They include doctors, pharmacists, managers, nurses, radiographers, midwives and social workers.
The National Health Service is the institution which more than any other unites our nation. It was founded just after the Second World War on Aneurin Bevan’s famous principle, ‘No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.’
One of its most-loved hospitals is Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, to which JM Barrie bequeathed all the royalties from his masterpiece, Peter Pan.
British writers of children’s books have created characters who are known and loved all over the world. But the roots of their stories are every bit as global as their current success.
They draw on fairy stories from the Black Forest, Norse myths, Chinese and African folk tales. In cinemas and bestsellers they return to the world the gift that was given by word of mouth for a thousand generations.
As they said on Twitter, ‘people will watch the Olympic ceremony and go “what the fuck?” and the British will say “This. This is the fuck.”’