Sneakily taking the hinges off the doors of perception

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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. SK
    October 6, 2014 @ 12:36 am

    I believe the term is 'oikophobia'.


  2. Alex
    October 6, 2014 @ 2:07 am

    "flicks off the Queen"

    Now that would have been a very different kind of ceremony…


  3. Alan Moore
    October 6, 2014 @ 3:47 am

    'England and America, two countries separated by a common language' indeed. Someone send Phil a copy of Roger's Profanisaurus.


  4. Elizabeth Sandifer
    October 6, 2014 @ 3:48 am

    The ambiguity, though unintended, is too delightful to edit out.


  5. UrsulaL
    October 6, 2014 @ 6:06 am

    The pro-NHS message of the opening ceremony does seem to catch a bit of the zeitgeist. It is following on the heels of the first season of "Call the Midwife", which is about as explicitly pro-NHS as a program can be, as well as being the most powerfully feminist television I can think of.


  6. Champiness
    October 6, 2014 @ 7:03 am

    I've been hoping for this post for awhile. In some ways it's "my" big intersection with British culture – on an obvious level because it was enormous global pop-cultural event, but then I could have very easily avoided watching the prelude to a sporting event I had vanishingly small interest in were it not for the more idiosyncratic motivation of Danny Boyle's commissioning one of my favorite bands, Underworld, to score the event (and, more broadly, making a point of involving various dance acts in the proceedings – this meant a lot in the moments immediately preceding dance music's big cultural takeover). Indeed much of the value I placed on Britain at this point was that dance music was a bit more of an accepted presence there than it was in America – long strings of British towns and place names I only know as the venues for important gigs or from cut-up bits of everyday life in Underworld lyrics. And, importantly, the ceremony gave me that – there was a lot of talk about it being the "rock-and-roll Olympics" afterwards due to the emphasis on Britain's musical achievements – but it also painted a somewhat broader picture. The specifics aren't the important part – I'll confess to being a bit baffled by the NHS segment, though only for lack of familiarity – but I was deeply moved by its depiction of how a nation could be honest about itself and its flaws and still see its way through to a brighter future based on its merits. And importantly, those merits include the fluffy pop-cultural stuff, which Britain is indeed very good at (I think I got a decent facsimile of national pride when the torch lit to the jangly-bell breakdown from Underworld's 2002 single "Two Months Off" – a song it is literally impossible not to feel happy during – and for a moment it became, privately, an affirmation of every musical choice I ever made). I rewatched the thing over and over again wishing there'd some day be as moving a celebration of something I was personally invested in – not an American Olympic ceremony, I'm not an idiot. But a topic closer to home. I got something approaching that at the 56th Grammy Awards, which, due to a confluence of events including 2013 being an excellent year for pop music, a performance-to-awards ratio that landed solidly in the former camp, and some interesting curatorial choices regarding who performed and was nominated, was an event that basically said "okay, yes, this is a cynical, profit-driven spectacle, but let's see if we can make something out of that". And it made something pretty impressive, tracing the thread of what makes pop music special through to what it specifically did in 2013 with a minimum of whitewashing and excuse-making, and capped off with a 70's MOR songwriter who'd long since vanished from the limelight accepting the award for 2013's album of the year, standing next to my absolute favorite band of all time, who made it possible for him to be there. I've gotten a bit off-track here, but suffice it to say: there's a lot that can be accomplished by a refusal to accept the status quo paired with a willingness to see through its deficiencies for a path to a better future.


  7. storiteller
    October 6, 2014 @ 7:13 am

    Fascinating thoughts on being a Brit-loving American. I was in a similar position before I actually went to grad school in the U.K.

    Going there, I expected to feel sort of British, but as it turned out, I never felt more American in my life. The social differences just became so obvious and stark, especially because I was horrified at the thought of being mistaken as a tourist (mainly out of pride). While it was challenging in a lot of ways, it was also energizing to me as an American. Returning to America, I never felt more patriotic in my life, not because I was proud of my country (which I am at times but also absurdly despairing at. others for all the reasons you list), but because I was inspired to help fix those problems more than ever before. A large part of it was because I was hooked into a really effective climate change activist community there and kind of felt like I needed to be an ambassador for that community back home. But I think part of it was feeling, "The U.K. is screwed up too, but they're doing better. We can learn from this."


  8. Bob Dillon
    October 6, 2014 @ 8:36 am

    Ok I have to ask: what social differences stood out the most for you?


  9. Alex
    October 6, 2014 @ 8:47 am

    "Danny Boyle's commissioning one of my favorite bands, Underworld, to score the event (and, more broadly, making a point of involving various dance acts in the proceedings – this meant a lot in the moments immediately preceding dance music's big cultural takeover). Indeed much of the value I placed on Britain at this point was that dance music was a bit more of an accepted presence there than it was in America"

    In Britain, dance music's 'big cultural takeover' was probably the late 80s – early 90s, with rave culture seeping into the mainstream (though it's worth noting that the main musical genres – house, techno, and later two-step were all imported from America) and dominating the charts for much of my teenagedom. The collision of dance music and hip-hop culture also brought us UK garage which also dominated the latter half of the 90s before splitting into grime and dubstep.

    Much of the background of Trainspotting (both the book and the Danny Boyle-directed film) is about the transition from punk/post-punk into the rave era and of course the film features Underworld's biggest chart hit.

    Underworld are fantastic, by the way. Saw them at Somerset House for an open-air gig a few years back with me dad. Great night.


  10. TheSmilingStallionInn
    October 6, 2014 @ 8:55 am

    I know what you mean about the musical celebration, especially the closing ceremony. Man, that closing ceremony had a lot going for it. I kind of loved the closing ceremony more than the opening ceremony at times, probably because the closing ceremony seemed less focused on presenting a vision or view of Britain and was more fascinated with being an entertaining spectacle with all of these bands or spectres of bands–like the Queen tribute, a bit of Spice Girls, Oasis performing Wonderwall and that closing song from Take That–'Rule the World'.

    Mostly because I was familiar with the song from Stardust and Doctor Who-related fanvids, though now that I think about the title, it's a little ominous there and iffy in regards to an imperial message. But still, it seemed like a great song/performance to cap off the spectacular performances at times.


  11. TheSmilingStallionInn
    October 6, 2014 @ 9:14 am

    I even enjoyed watching some of the sports events, like archery, swimming, equestrian, just lovely settings in amidst all of these events. Sigh. I couldn't even stand watching the Russian Olympic ceremony earlier this year, just didn't like it as much as this one. (All of the controversy in Russia, and then with Ukraine, just seemed to cloud any enjoyment factor.) Now part of me really wishes to see a DVD of both the opening and closing 2012 Olympic ceremonies, although I could probably find that footage online if I wanted to. And I really enjoy the Twenty Twelve Office-type spoof series they made out of that as well, very classic.


  12. Nyq Only
    October 6, 2014 @ 9:22 am

    In itself using public funds for the purpose of art and entertainment is not a bad thing. The opening ceremony was a matter of putting a nice ribbon on a turd but it was a very nice ribbon. It aspired for something better.


  13. Lo-Fi Explosion
    October 6, 2014 @ 9:55 am

    Not storiteller here, but as an ex-pat of a dozen years, I still can't read the British papers without getting really annoyed at the lack of objective journalism. That's one big difference that has been on my mind lately. I know that I will never be able to enjoy that part of the culture, I will always be othered by it.


  14. TheOncomingHurricane
    October 6, 2014 @ 10:23 am

    'And yet somewhere at the edges there scratches an alternative. Something else. Perhaps not the explicit textual promise of the opening ceremony, which is perhaps in the end just another matter of picking what sort of flavor of late capitalist hegemony you want. “Ah, one with a bit more health care and human rights, very well.” Perhaps the one that could never be done, where Danny Boyle walks out into an empty stadium and explains that in his view it would be unethical to spend taxpayer money on bread and circuses when the NHS is underfunded, flicks off the Queen, and walks out. Or better yet, have David Tennant do it in costume.'

    To add to the idea that it could never be done, even the ceremony as it was was condemned by Tory MP Aidan Burley (sacked as a ministerial aide for attending a Nazi-themed stag party, which explains basically everything) as being 'leftie multicultural crap' on Twitter.

    And though it's been said already, the presence of flick in that context conjures up imagery both horrifying and hilarious.


  15. storiteller
    October 6, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

    On a day-to-day basis, it was the language issues, not just the vocabulary but the very act of speaking. I had to constantly make sure I was using the right words because there are so many differences than the few that Americans are familiar with. (I particularly hated using the word "toilet" instead of "bathroom." Just ugh weird.) I'm kind of loud, so I tried really hard to talk more quietly, especially in stores. I was very, very aware of my American accent, as I knew that people knew I was different as soon as I opened my mouth.

    On a broader cultural basis, the treatment of class in the U.K. At the time in the U.S., we pretended we didn't have an economic class problem and we certainly didn't talk about it. The idea of economic mutability and being able to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" is engrained in the American story. As a "logical" counterpart, if you don't do that, then clearly you are lazy and don't deserve basic human rights like health care. In contrast, the difference in classes was talked about much more honestly in the U.K., with no one really believing in the bootstraps nonsense and certainly no one saying poor people didn't deserve food or health care. I think this is one area that's actually changed quite a bit since then, as I came back about six months before the recession. The recession and the Occupy movement have really forced America to have a conversation about class that I had never heard up until that point.

    As for the lack of objective journalism, I actually didn't mind it too much, even as someone who once aspired to be a journalist. American papers have their own subjectivities, most of them revolving around a desperate attempt to not go out of business. At least the British papers were honest about it.


  16. sleepyscholar
    October 7, 2014 @ 3:47 am

    I use this ceremony as the "text" for a one-semester class in British, er, culture or something (the name of the class is in Japanese), for students at the university I teach at here in Japan. It gives a bit of entertainment, and makes it surprisingly easy to construct a very brief overview of the UK that has a large dose of criticism to counter the dominant images here. Simple images like the Industrial Revolution serve as a useful peg on which to hang discussion of how society transformed and how the class structure of the 20th century took root. The military presence enables a look at Empire and that sort of thing.

    And, since I'm with Champiness on Underworld, the opportunity to have them (and so much other good stuff like the Pistols) striking a blow against J-Pop is too much to resist…

    I think Danny Boyle's achievement is that even thought the ceremony is a celebration of positive things about Britain, it isn't afraid to allow the presence of cracks and hints of critique. Maybe that's why the only thing I really liked about the Russian Winter opening ceremony was the snowflake ring that went wrong (and the way they incorporated it into the closing ceremony).


  17. elvwood
    October 7, 2014 @ 5:36 am

    Being intensely anti-Olympic (although I inconsistently cheered the news of Yorkshire's successes), I've never actually seen this. Maybe I should.


  18. Alan Moore
    October 7, 2014 @ 7:08 am

    As an English ex-pat who's been in the US for 5 years, before which my American wife lived with me in the UK for 7 years, I think it's safe to say that there's a shorter list of similarities than differences.

    Years of the UK consuming American pop culture, and the US cherry-picking Theme Park Britain artifacts (which we are happy to provide) have lead citizens of both countries to feel like we're similar with only a few differences, when in fact the UK is as different to the US as it is to countries like Spain and France.

    @storiteller – definitely a more limited and consistent vocabulary in the US. Back home I could travel from the Northwest to Birmingham and have the residents not know what a 'bacon butty' is. Regional variations confound even the locals at times.

    I also don't find the journalism to be objective in the US at all, and really can't see the difference, other than the US press tries to pretend it's not biased, whereas the UK press seems proud of their bias. US news is all like an episode of The Day Today to me.

    As for the volume thing – after five years in the US, I still find the general volume in public places like restaurants to be intolerable at times. In the UK, we lived in a town popular with tourists. I can still remember an occasion when my wife and I were in a restaurant and at another table were a group of Americans, oblivious that they were talking at twice the volume of the English patrons.

    They were taking it in turns to loudly announce what they felt was stupid about the country. My wife was cringing in her seat, and turned to me and said 'That's what I have to convince everybody I'm not'.

    I have the opposite problems here: I talk quietly and sometimes have to repeat myself. People who haven;t spent any time in the UK also can't spot sarcasm delivered po-faced to save their lives. I have had to inform people that just because I say something with a straight face, it does not mean it's true or I believe it.


  19. Matthew Blanchette
    October 7, 2014 @ 7:47 am

    You should!


  20. Nyq Only
    October 7, 2014 @ 9:01 am

    'People who haven;t spent any time in the UK also can't spot sarcasm delivered po-faced to save their lives.'

    I think Australians are pretty good at that.


  21. Whittso
    October 7, 2014 @ 11:57 am

    Ambiguity? There's a sense this can be understood that doesn't mean show her the middle finger? If so, it's lost on me…


  22. Alex
    October 7, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

    I know Phil isn't a fan of the League of Gentlemen, but:

    You’re welcome!

    You do realise what this means, don’t you, Pauline?

    I do, Ross. Back on the dole, getting up at dinnertime and…flicking myself off to “Trisha”.


  23. Whittso
    October 7, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

    Ah, I see… was going in quite the wrong direction entirely


  24. Ozy Jones
    October 7, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

    Nyq, I agree there; when it comes to po-faced sarcasm, us Aussies have it down to a fine art…. much to our detriment when travelling overseas or dealing with other nationalities in business.

    I've lived in the UK for two years (in Northampton), back in the mid to late 90's and then spent a year traipsing across the US and Canada straight after. Australians for generations have been raised on TV and Cinema from the UK and the US, and we stood as a virtual mid-point culture of the old and the new, with our own self-deprecating and humorous take layered over the top, although this is changing as our cultural mix changes.

    At no time did I feel out of place in either country, but understood most of the general nuances of culture and language, even down to many regional variations; from New York in the East (Friends, Seinfield, Mad About You) to LA in the West (Brady Bunch & Californication) and from London (Minder & Secret Diary of a Call girl) to the endless variations of Mummerset (yes, I know it's a fiction) we could converse and understand… but not always be understood.

    Ah, the challenges of an accent that conjured up Crocodile Dundee (everywhere) and Neighbours, Kylie and Clive James in the UK and Nicole Kidman and Paul Hogan tourist ads in the US at the time.

    Sarcasm was easily understood and engaged in in the UK, but caused endless trouble in most of the US… is this down to the ability of a nation to be able to laugh at itself?


  25. Alex
    October 7, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

    Well you were right, in a way…


  26. storiteller
    October 7, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

    I think the sarcasm issue is that Americans tend to heavily lampshade their sarcasm when we use it, rather than say things straight faced. Even when we're being sarcastic, we want people to know we're being sarcastic. Americans often don't handle ambiguity well in communication. Although America having more of an ability to laugh at itself would help a lot of issues, with sarcasm probably being the least of them.

    Personally, I didn't find this an issue at all because I had a good friend in H.S. and college who would say the most outrageous things with an absolute poker face, so I was already used to it.

    As for cringing when people say things loudly, the thing that annoyed me the most was my mom saying everything was "so cute" very loudly when we were in little villages. I know she meant it as a complement, but it was the height of Theme Park Britishism and so patronizing.


  27. Daru
    October 8, 2014 @ 1:22 am

    I've never seen it either being intensely anti-sport. Didn't watch even one second of the Olympics. Will go and watch it!


  28. Tom
    October 8, 2014 @ 7:04 am

    I think it was Russell Davies (no T) who pointed out that the Opening Ceremony was a kind of generational handover in British pop culture – the moment the generation who'd grown up listening to punk and rave and British indie became (or were acknowledged as becoming) the dominant force within the UK cultural establishment, taking over from the generation who'd grown up on the Beatles, Pink Floyd, et al. Davies put it succinctly: "We won", but of course any statement of victory like that is implicitly trailed with a "Now what?" – the punk and indie generation has defined itself for so long as against the establishment, even as the political content of this "against"-ness dwindled and dwindled and eventually ended up at zero when David Cameron quite credibly declared himself a Smiths fan. So accepting that they were no longer the alternative wouldn't come easy. I loved the Opening Ceremony as statement and spectacle because it seemed a positive acceptance of this status, a willingness to take the twenty years from the Sex Pistols to Trainspotting and turn it into something that could thrive in (so to speak) government not opposition. Since then of course it's been wall to wall Britpop retrospectives: this generation (which is also mine) is fundamentally cowardly, I sometimes think.


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