Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder: Paradise Lost?

I enjoyed Danny Boyle’s ‘Isles of Wonder’ Olympic opening ceremony, pleasantly surprised to see a vision of Britain as a social democratic, caring, inclusive and tolerant place, the result of struggles by trade unions, suffragettes, CND protestors and those who campaigned for a welfare state smuggled in under the noses of corporate sponsors and a right-wing government bent on destroying much of what was being celebrated in the extravaganza.

And there lies the rub: as Polly Toynbee writes in today’s Guardian, this presentation of Britain’s social history obscures the truth of what has happened in the last 30 years from the vision portrayed by Danny Boyle and writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce:

Boyle gave us a tear-jerkingly optimistic sense of the inevitability of progress. Here was social history as taught to my generation and Danny Boyle’s, where we learned how – from Factory Act to Tolpuddle martyrs, from Chartists and Reform Act to the Butler Education Act – power was gradually wrenched from a small elite. See how the Voldemort tendency is still trounced by the people’s enduring affection for the collective good of the NHS and the BBC.

That’s the romantic history, the struggle retold in most of literature and art, where ragged-trousered heroes are pitted against villainous landed aristos and satanic mill owners. (Blake’s song is so strangely purloined by Tories who plainly never listen to the words or understand the spirit behind them.)

However deep the Tory blue in his blood, David Cameron knew our modern island story has become social democratic, more Windrush than empire, not hideously monocultural or culturally prim. That’s why before the election he pretended to support the Danny Boyle Britain with those beguiling but bogus cameos staged on Arctic snow sledge or in grim estates, promising to abolish poverty and embrace equality. Even so, despite all that cleansing, the smell of his Conservatism was still too pungent to give him victory against a Labour party on its knees. And by now voters are thoroughly undeceived.

Here’s the catch to the Boyle vision. Since the days of those confident history textbooks charting milestones of social advance, so much has gone into reverse. Imagining ourselves social democratic doesn’t easily make us so, when economic forces are stronger than the power of mere votes. Our postwar founding myth as social democrats is in danger of becoming as unreal as the prewar empire-building story. We can no longer count on the march of progress.

The welfare state, painstakingly built over many decades, is shrivelling. The civil service, with its long memory and high-calibre intake, is being dismantled, its functions contracted out to the KPMGs and PwCs who drive the marketising of everything. Locally and nationally those who know how to manage public services are branded useless bureaucrats and parasitic pen-pushers.

Michael Gove is turning back the clock to O-levels and grammar schools. His back-to-the future is sheep-and-goats elitism: fewer into university, a diminishing proportion of 16-year-olds in full-time education, free Bibles yet fewer eligible for free school meals, no education maintenance allowance and no need for teachers to be trained. Adults have lost their second chance at education, unable to afford high charges for courses; for first chances, nearly 300 Sure Starts are closed, many of the rest drained of professional staff. Libraries and swimming pools close, the post office is to be sold off shortly, canals and waterways have been already.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, the writer behind ‘Isles of Wonder’, wrote a piece for The Observer on Sunday in which he explained that a major inspiration for the event was Humphrey Jennings’ Pandaemonium.  He wrote:

We shared the things we loved about Britain – the Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution, the NHS, pop music, children’s literature, genius engineers. I bought Danny a copy of Humphrey Jennings’s astonishing book Pandemonium for Christmas and soon everyone seemed to have it. The show’s opening section ended up named ‘Pandemonium’.

That first section, ‘Pandaemonium’, showed the march of industrial society over the green and pleasant land, and the changes in society that the process unwittingly led to – women’s suffrage, Jarrow marchers, the Empire Windrush, the Beatles. In the second section, villains of children’s literature, pitted against the forces of collective good, represented by the NHS and hosts of Mary Poppinses, defeated the forces of Mammon.

This is straight out of Humphrey Jennings’ Pandaemonium, a book I once possessed, but when I went to the bookshelf to look it up for this post, couldn’t find.  Why does this always happen?  I bought it for less than a fiver when it was finally published posthumously in the 1980s as a Picador paperback.  Now copies are selling on Amazon and Abebooks for upwards of 60 quid. Damn! Maybe, with all the attention it’s getting now, someone will re-publish this tremendous book in which Jennings collected extracts (that, as a film maker, he called ‘images’) from poets, diarists, scientists, industrialists, politicians, novelists and social commentators which documented the enormous changes wrought in British society by the industrial revolution.  Jennings explained the vision behind the book in his introduction (there is no commentary linking the extracts in the main body of the book) as follows:

Pandaemonium is the Palace of All the Devils. Its building began c.1660. It will never be finished – it has to be transformed into Jerusalem. The building of Pandaemonium is the real history of Britain for the last three hundred years.

Jennings began with Milton’s description (written c.1660) of the building of Pandaemonium, an image that no doubt inspired Boyle’s Glastonbury Tor, which burst forth fire as the tree at its top was uprooted, ushering in the industrial revolution:

There stood a Hill not far whose grisly top
Belch’d fire and rowling smoak; the rest entire
Shon with a glossie scurff, undoubted sign
That in his womb was hid metallic Ore,
The work of Sulphur. Thither wing’d with speed
A numerous Brigad hastens. As when bands
Of Pioners with Spade and Pickaxe arm’d
Forerun the Royal Camp, to trench a Field,
Or cast a Rampart. Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erectd Spirit that fell
From heav’n, for eve’n his looks and thoughts
Were always downwards bent, admiring ore
The riches of Heav’ns pavements, trod’n Gold …

John Martin, Pandemonium 1825

For Jennings, Pandaemonium was a prophetic symbol of industrialisation, and so he chose it as the title and the starting point of his project to chronicle ‘the imaginative history of the Industrial Revolution’.  He did this by compiling some 370 texts dating from the 1660’s to the 1880’s – the testimony of a host of witnesses, including scientists, artists, industrialists, and workers. Collectively, these snapshots provide a composite picture of how contemporaries experienced the triumph of the machine, and how industrialisation transformed the circumstances and inner lives of British people across two centuries.

Philip de Loutherbourg: Coalbrookdale by Night, 1801

No commentary: Jennings idea was to allow readers to perceive the patterns of history themselves by cross-referencing ‘images’. So, for example, we could follow Milton’s image of Satanic power by tracing other instances, such as John Evelyn in the 17th century complaining that the smoke overhanging London made it look like ‘the Suburbs of Hell’ or an 18th-century Cornish parson chancing on an experiment with a primitive locomotive one night and deciding that the beast was nothing less than ‘the Evil One’.  A romantic craving for a lost pre-industrial innocence pervades Jenning’s selection, and though he does convey the heroic promise of industrialism, through his choice of images he emphasises the devastation and dehumanisation wrought by the Industrial Revolution.

Jennings book is comparable to another superb work that adopts the same approach: Eduardo Galeano’s brilliant trilogy, Memory of Fire.  Like Jennings, Galeano wove together vignettes from history, journalism, myth and poetry to tell the story of the conquest of the Americas, and specifically of Latin America, though unlike Jennings, Galeano tells the story in his own words:

I’m trying to create a synthesis of all different ways of expressing life and reality…I tried to find a way of recounting history so that the reader would feel that it was happening right now, just around the corner—this immediacy, this intensity, which is the beauty and the reality of history.

Humphrey Jennings is best known as a documentary film maker, recognised perhaps as Britain’s best – a poet among filmmakers – with films such as Listen to Britain (1942), Fires Were Started (1943) and Diary for Timothy (1945) regarded as taking social realism to new artistic heights. In these films, Jennings documented the relevance of the British experience of war to history, art, society and culture.

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6 thoughts on “Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder: Paradise Lost?

  1. An excellent elaboration of Jennings’ Pandaemonium. I tweeted that this must have been the inspiration during the event and gave a link to wikipedia, but this audioboo link is more interesting. http://audioboo.fm/boos/248230-humphrey-jennings-pandaemonium
    I do have Pandaemonium as I use to teach a course in the history of technology. The interest in this as inspiration, and surely Cottrell Boyce used it in exactly the right way by interpreting it for their event, suggest to me that we should create a wiki provide access to the quoted resources with or without commentary?
    Would you be interested?

  2. Just seen this having written my own (short!) comment in a post. I had that Jennings book too and seem to have lost it! I did not see this Observer piece so will catch up with that too.

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