It’s not every day you see a giant Brussels sprout the size of a Smart car being carried in an enormous red and white chequered sling by a tiny stork. But that’s exactly what I witnessed earlier this month when I visited Belgium on the country’s national day. Adorning the avenues of the Parc de Bruxelles in the centre of the capital were a plethora of brightly coloured sculptures which had previously been scattered across the city. There were three designs, all of which had been interpreted by different artists. We were surrounded by enormous mussels, huge cones of yellow chips, and a majestic flock of the aforementioned oversized Brussels sprouts.
Symbols of national identity have always fascinated me. For the people of Brussels, there seems no shame in celebrating the humble Moules-frites, (with a side of vegetables), as a masterpiece of their nation (no doubt many Belgians would throw in a good beer and some Trappist cheese too). It’s the psychology of it, the need to create it, the desire for an “imagined community”, as international studies expert Benedict Anderson once phrased it. No matter how reductive, outdated, generalising or even patronising these images can be, people still cling to them.
At the closing ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Great Britain was defined by a red double-decker bus (including a free pop-up pop star inside), and a dancing troupe of lollipop ladies. For those outside the UK, these are the people who help the nations under-10s cross the road on their way to school in the morning. They tend to be middle-aged women dressed in luminous yellow macs carrying what are effectively giant fluorescent lollipops which read “STOP” on them. It wasn’t exactly the representation of a rich and varied nation we might have hoped for.
With this in mind, I approached Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony with an air of trepidation. What bizarre or ridiculous incarnations of Great Britain were billions of people across the globe about to see? Would any of them actually make sense? Would there be another unsightly display of hi-vis attire? Was the latest winner of a reality TV singing competition about to protrude from an oversized post box with a union jack painted on it?
There were definitely some moments that were perplexing at best. What seemed like the cast of Oliver kicking off the show made me worryingly conjure the next day’s headlines: “Danny goes off the Boyle. Olympic failure.” But save for one grumpy taxi driver, I haven’t yet spoken to anyone who wasn’t bowled over by Friday night’s spectacle. It’s still what everyone in this city, and this country, are talking about. It was brave, ambitious, imaginative and often breathtaking. It reflected a necessary humour. To coin a British stereotype – it felt appropriate.
And while we all enjoyed the Queen being picked up by James Bond, the multitude of layers and images and references worked as a kind of education in telling us who we are again. It was a reminder that nations don’t have to construct an identity entirely from tired clichés. It was enough to make me, someone who has never considered themselves a patriot, feel a little pride in our islands over here and in the city that’s made these games happen.