Joyce McMillan: Culture triumphs over kitsch

Until Benedetti appeared, the ceremony lacked beauty, or any sense of stillness and grace. Picture: Getty
Until Benedetti appeared, the ceremony lacked beauty, or any sense of stillness and grace. Picture: Getty
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The Glasgow Commonwealth Games opening ceremony saved the best till last, when art finally triumphed over garishness, says Joyce McMillan

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 and thrilling thing that was the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow; for although the word “beautiful” is probably now heard in Scotland more often 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 alone in noticing something shift and intensify in the air around Celtic Park, at the moment when Nicola Benedetti appeared, 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. And in the first hour of the ceremony, there was a truly mind-blowing Glasgow explosion of wild cultural self-mockery, open-hearted welcome and eye-popping garishness, that left mouths agape across the planet with its combination of shouting celebrities, dancing Tunnock’s Tea Cakes, miniaturised models of the Forth Bridge and the Finnieston Crane, and hundreds of ordinary Glaswegians – old and young, fat and slim – bopping and twirling around the stadium in dazzling playschool colours, in patterns of simple but tightly-choreographed movement.

That some aspects of this sequence worked better 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 Commonwealth countries. 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. And 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 Benedetti finally appeared on stage, the ceremony strikingly lacked beauty, or indeed any sense of stillness and grace; it looked busy, energetic, 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 dogs.

The ceremony came, in other words, as a sharp reminder of how every cultural representation we create of ourselves – as nations, as cities, as men or women, or as members of this or that interest-group – carries profound political messages about who we think we are, and who we would like to be. 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. The Chancellor, George Osborne, hastened to agree; and it’s easy to guess how badly any explicit Yes-No campaigning would have gone down with the crowd at Parkhead on Wednesday night.

Yet the opening ceremony had plenty to say the world about Glasgow and Scotland, their capacity and their confidence. It said that this is a place with a sense of humour, that knows how not to take itself too seriously; a tolerant place, a warm-hearted place, a place plugged into the tropes of global popular culture, like everywhere else.

It also, though, risked making Glasgow look – quite wrongly – like a place with no maturity or taste, desperately vulnerable to any kitsch-laden nonsense 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 about Nelson Mandela’s visit to Glasgow, and the wonderful South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza sang 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 artistic 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 for almost all of Scotland’s great performing companies.

What the opening ceremony vividly demonstrated, in other words, is that the main danger stalking our culture has less to do with politicians like Alex Salmond or George Osborne demanding support for specific policies and more to do with a pervasive, reductive and often patronising marketing-led culture that increasingly has both local and national government in its “branding” grip, and that often associates success with the obvious, the crass, the childish and the garish. In the Glasgow I know, the tradition of popular culture 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 Pavarotti singing at the SECC or the magnificent musicianship of Nicola Benedetti; a city well aware that if artists are to fulfil their true role, they have to be free to pursue what is difficult, complex and beautiful, and sometimes to challenge and silence us with their work.

Although on Wednesday night the messages about Glasgow’s culture were memorably mixed – not to say confused – in the end they were complex enough to allow for hope that Glasgow will continue to change and flourish; not least by never giving up on that hard, demanding quest for the beauty which is so closely related to truth, and that finally sets us free.