JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 27.6.14.
TO PITLOCHRY, on Wednesday afternoon, to see a new production of Stephen Greenhorn’s play Passing Places, about two young neds from Motherwell on the run from their native central belt, gradually learning – on the long road to Thurso – to recognise the many different faces of the country they call home. Greenhorn’s play contains a brilliant passage in which one of the boys, Alex, is invited by a new-age woman he meets along the way to describe the West Highland scenery as”beautiful”; but he just can’t do it. “It’s not,” he says, “a word in my language.”
And I thought of young Alex again, on Wednesday night, as I watched the strange, funny, tangled, contradictory, embarrassing, touching and thriling thing that was the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow; for although the word “beautiful” is probably now heard more often in Scotland than it was 20 years ago, the ceremony suggested that Scotland’s relationship with the thing itself – beauty – is still a complicated work-in-progress. It took exactly two hours and ten minutes for something unambiguously beautiful to appear at Parkhead on Wednesday night; and to judge by the buzz on social media, I wasn’t the only one to notice something shift and intensify in the air around Celtic Park and across Scotland, at the moment just after 11 o’clock when Nicola Benedetti appeared on stage, and began to play an inspired and exquisite violin arrangement of the Bonnie, Bonnie Banks Of Loch Lomond.
Before that, there had been the long, joyful, noisy parade of the nations, complete with wee scottie-dogs in team jackets, wild cheering, and huge light-shows sweeping across the stadium’s giant screen. And in the first hour of the ceremony, there was that mind-blowing Glasgow explosion of wild cultural self-mockery, open-hearted welcome, sheer generosity of spirit, and eye-popping visual garishness, that left mouths agape across the planet with its combination of shouting celebrities, dancing Tunnocks Tea Cakes, miniaturised scale models of the Forth Bridge and the Finnieston Crane, and hundreds of ordinary Glaswegians – old and young, fat and slim, black and white – bopping and twirling around the stadium in dazzling playschool colours, in a pattern of simple but tightly-choreographed movement.
That some aspects of this sequence worked bette than others almost goes without saying. The generosity of the ceremony’s fund-raising link-up with UNICEF was inspired, and made space for some serious information about the problems faced by children in many parts of the Commonwealth. The celebs – live and filmed – by and large performed well, with John Barrowman striking a blow for gay rights across the Commonwealth by planting a kiss full on the lips of a young male dancer, Ewan MacGregor fronting the UNICEF appeal in fine style, and Billy Connolly remembering the great moment when Nelson Mandela came to Glasgow to receive the Freedom Of The City; although the heavy dependence on expat celebrities like Rod Stewart to headline the event suggested that Scotland’s cultural cringe may still be alive and well in some quarters. And the idea of including ordinary citizens in the ceremony often worked well; there were moments, both in the stadium and on film, that did capture a sense that “people make Glasgow,” that this is a city of and for ordinary people, not smooth and well-groomed elites.
Yet until that moment when Nicola Benedetti finally appeared on stage – raising the game, intensifying the effort, aspiring to something a little beyond open-hearted fun – the ceremony strkingly lacked beauty, or indeed any sense of stillness and grace; it looked busy, energetic, slightly frenzied, and – in its palette of sound and imagery – often quite Disneyfied and child-like, a wide-eyed mix of nursery colours, cute cultural icons, and lovable little dogs. Speaking to a Commonwealth-related business conference in Glasgow on Tuesday, the First Minister promised a games free of explicit politics around the current referendum campaign; and it’s easy to guess how well any explicit yes-no campaigning would have gone down with the crowd at Parkhead on Wednesday night.
Yet the ceremony itself came as a sharp reminder of how closely culture and politics are entwined, and how every cultural representation we create of ourselves – as nations, as cities, as men or women, or as members of this or that minority or interest-group – carries profound political messages about who we think we are, and who we would like to be. What Wednesday’s opening ceremony said to the world was that Glasgow – and Scotland – is a place with a sense of humour, that knows how not to take itself too seriously; that it’s a tolerant place, a warm-hearted place, and a place plugged into the tropes and images global popular culture, like everywhere else.
It also, though, risked making Glasgow look – quite wrongly – like a place with no discrimination and no taste, desperately vulnerable to any heavily-marketed tat that global culture-makers may choose to throw at it. And it wasn’t untl the final half-hour of the ceremony- when Nicola played, and Billy Connolly spoke, and the wonderful South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza sang a sweet and powerful version of Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye – that we began to glimpse the real creative strength behind the big smiles and fluorescent colours, the sheer weight of creative endeavour that has helped to change and deepen Scotland’s collective life over the last two generations, and the popular passion for great art presented with unsurpassed skill that has made Glasgow such a vital centre both for the visual arts, and the home of almost all of Scotland’s great performing companies, from Scottish Opera and the RSNO to the National Of Theatre Of Scotland.
It is impossible, in other words, entirely to disentangle politics from art; art speaks to communities of people about themselves and their shared life, and politics reflects that same life in different ways. If artists are to fulfil their true creative role, though, they have to be free to pursue what is difficult, and complex, and grown-up, and beautiful, in their art-form; they have to be free to change and silence people with their work, and to create new points of balance and joy never imagined before.
And as the opening ceremony so vividly demonstrated, for both better and worse, the main danger stalking our culture in the west now has less to do with politicians demanding support for specific policies; and more to do with pervasive and often patronising marketing-led assumptions that associate popular culture with the obvious, the crass, the childish and the garish. In the Glasgow I know, the tradition has always been subtly different from that; it’s about a city of rebellious thinkers and discerning amateurs, which has always insisted that the best is for everyone, whether it’s the Mahabharata at the Tramway, or Pavarotti singing at the SECC, or the magnificent musicianship of Nicola Benedetti. On Wednesday night, the messages were memorably mixed, sometimes even confusing. Yet they were complex enough to allow for hope that Glasgow will continue to change and flourish, not least by never giving up on the demanding quest for the beauty that is truth, and that finally sets everyone free.