Paralympics: The Gift That Keeps Giving

Tonight marks the end of London 2012 – and perhaps the start of something else.

I don’t want to overestimate the shift that’s happened, because the disabled community is still facing £2.7b reduction in Disability Living Allowance, and disabled people are over twice as likely to be unemployed at the able-bodied. But something important has changed.

Firstly, we’ve all had a chance to have an extended look at a group of (highly talented and dedicated) disabled people, on our TV screens and draped brilliantly over billboards and buildings. It sounds crass, but you can’t underestimate how valuable this is. Usually, we avert our eyes when we see people who look different. Children are told not to stare, not to ask questions and we drag our eyes away from anything that looks physically unusual. But really, all we’re doing is ensuring that all the different people stay different. They are made ‘other’, and they’re alienated, becoming less human because we don’t include them: we avert our gaze. Looking – and I mean really looking – at a body affected by cerebral palsy or chopped and reformed by illness or accident allows us to see the whole person. By seeing someone, we allow them to be human.

I’m not suggesting we all start a stare-off in the street, because that would be rude, but I’m just saying it’s been really good for us as a population to properly look at these people in their bodies rather than feeling shocked and ignoring them because we don’t know how to manage our own feelings about their bodies.

I’ve got a couple of vested interests in this subject. My dad became a wheelchair user in his 40s thanks to a neurological disorder that effectively stopped his limbs working. He continued working despite regular major surgery and an irresistible physical decline, using his intelligence and natural charm to make people see beyond his disability. Anyone who’s worked or lived with a disabled person will probably have similar stories to tell – but most people don’t live or work with disabled people and haven’t had the chance to learn how to see the person first. The Paralympics have given everyone a chance to get to know a person whose body looks or works differently, and that’s a wonderful thing.

We’ve seen charming and humble Paralympians like Johnny Peacock or Josef Craig but we’ve also seen moody and stroppy athletes, like when Oscar Pistorius threw his toys out of the pram after the T44 100m. It’s incorrect and arrogant to assume that all disabled people are saints (I know from living with my dear departed dad that this is NOT TRUE) or that they deserve our sympathy or admiration. Disabled people are just people with extra challenges in their lives – or at least ones that are external and visible. We’ve all met people who look completely able-bodied but are more ‘disabled’ than the Paralympic athletes in terms of their ability to navigate life and get the best out of it. Some people are just disabled on the inside: I’m sure you can think of your own examples.

I wonder if we’ll end up treating disability similarly to skin tone or ethnicity – something that you just wouldn’t comment on unless it was relevant: just another normal thing in our beautiful melting-pot of a country. This new Britain, which has been actively redefining itself over the past six weeks, as we’ve seen a brilliantly positive version of our reality, could be primed to be a much better place to be atypical.

I wonder, post-booing, whether George Osbourne and friends will realise that times have changed and the Britain that they’re marketing themselves to, the Britain they think will re-elect them regardless of the damage they do to ordinary people, might not exist any more.

Me, I’ll be glued to the screen for the closing ceremony, at the end of an Olympics that has felt like a gift. An expensive gift that we’ll be paying for ongoing, and a gift with contradictory and sometimes unpalatable edges (the snipers on the roof overlooking the entrance to the Olympic Park, Atos sponsoring the games). But a gift nonetheless, and one that I suspect will keep giving.

Theodore Zeldin’s Conversation Dinner, Lewisham

Theodore Zeldin is standing on a stage in the Spiegeltent on Blackheath as part of Lewisham’s Olympic celebrations. He’s bathed in red light from the glass gems studded around the edge of the dome ceiling and he’s holding a microphone, explaining simply and sonorously what this conversation dinner is all about.

It is, he says, about honesty and human interaction. It’s not about gossip or chit chat. It’s just a structured way to talk to a stranger in a way that’s otherwise hard to do. 

It is also, he says, important work. The West has an ageing population and the rest of the world is bubbling with youngsters: we’ll need to find a billion new jobs to deal with the shortfall. What might happen, he wonders, if we used our own experiences and knowledge to offer solutions?

And that was it, before he reminded us that half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, and the the simple meal we’d be served cost less than this. A reminder, he said, that a simple meal can be as satisfying as a complicated one. 

The key thing about the conversation dinners is that Zeldin offers a structured way – a permission, almost – for strangers to talk to each other. The conversation menu is organised into courses. Starters, fish, meat, dessert all have a selection of questions to choose from. One person in the pair selects a question, answers it (“so that you are not interrogating your partner,”) and then hands over the conversational baton. It really works. 

I was sitting with a lovely lady, let’s call her Jay. She was quite nervous and reticent to talk about herself and I learned very little about the practicalities of her life. I did however, get a strong sense of what kind of person she was in a way that I would never have done in any other circumstance. She had a lovely idea about how to improve relations between countries in the gap between Olympics – that we should extend the torch relay to the whole world, making it a cultural passing-on that allowed participants to share food, music and dance to people who otherwise wouldn’t experience it. 

My favourite part of the conversation came at the end when we selected a question about paradise: what would it be like if we could build it? I described somewhere warm and friendly, where people knew each other and liked each other (basically, I was describing Blackheath in an Olympic glow) and she cut in with the spot-on point that paradise needs to be challenging: otherwise, the fulfilment of all your desires starts to look a lot like hell.  

I went and said thank you to Zeldin afterwards, and he looked me in the eye and said (you must imagine now a white-haired, precise and compassionate nearly-80 year old): “Good. Did you remember that you have half a brain, that you are not a robot? Good.”

As I walked back down towards home I saw the perfect visual post-script for this evening, which fell on the anniversary of the riots (which at the moment seem like they came from another planet): two policewomen in uniform, sitting down with a group of lads, who were having a laugh and passing round their radios. They were talking to each other, not as authoritarians Vs potential criminals but two sets of people demarcated simply by uniform. 

There should be more of this! 

Banned! Music and The Opening Ceremony

You knew that last night’s Olympic Opening Ceremony was going to be musically special when the first minute included Elgar, The Jam, the Eton Boating Song and Fuck Button’s ‘Surf Solar’, as the camera tracked from the source of the Thames down to the Olympic Park.

Fuck Buttons!

This is, by definition, the most mainstream event on the plant, and Fuck Buttons are there, right at the start as a wild and wonderful flag-waving celebration of what is real and wonderful about our world. Not built-by-numbers pop hits, but by a gorgeous, brutal piece of Andrew Weatherall-produced synth noise, a ‘Glider’ for this decade.

Underworld, who masterminded the soundtrack to the ceremony, subverted everything music is supposed to do at a showcase event like the Olympics. Instead of broadcasting pop hits that were built with profit in mind, or that smooth out the rough edges of life into a lowest common denominator average, they took the music not underground, because these were predominantly pieces of music we all know and love, but back to the margins, where all the most interesting things begin.

Along with the aforementioned Fuck Buttons, whose name is censored down to a more acceptable F Buttons on TV and radio, the show also included at least five pieces of music that were either banned at the time of release or that had a controversial relationship with the establishment. There was not just one Sex Pistols track, but two, starting with God Save The Queen and culminating with the pogoing punks with big heads going mental to Pretty Vacant, a song whose chorus is usually sung along to with particular focus on the last two syllables of the final word.

You can only imagine what David Cameron made of it. #savethesurprise? Ho ho, yes!

Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ was intended by ZTT label co-founder Paul Morely as ‘an assault on pop’, an overt recognition of the band’s keystone reference points of sex, war and religion. Let’s not forget that the original ads for the release featured images of Rutherford in a sailor cap and leather vest and were accompanied by the legend ‘All The Nice Boys Love Sea Men’. As well having all the requisite rub points for an AIDS-bombarded youth, it was an awesome piece of pop music that cost producer Trevor Horn a reported £70,000 of studio costs.

Then there’s Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’, the most commercial tip of an iceberg that started with hardcore and rave and their early shows at Dalston’s rave-mine Labyrynth and wheeled through jungle before ending up with the freak-faced hardcore pop of ‘Firestarter’. The video was banned by the BBC on the laughable basis that it might encourage arson.

I could go on, about the brilliant use of Underworld’s ‘Dark and Long’ (also used to soundtrack Renton’s worst hallucination in Trainspotting) or how grime was celebrated and showcased, or about how the athletes walked into the stadium to the sound of The Chemical Brother’s ‘Galvanise’ or about the twitter query that maybe, had the KLF organised the opening ceremony? (answer: there would have been a damn sight more blood and burning if they had) or just the whole, fantastic honesty of the thing. But instead, can I just say a heartfelt thank you to whoever let Danny Boyle and Underworld do whatever they wanted. It was an emotional, political, musical riot.

Just imagine, we could have had Gary Barlow in charge.

Fuck Buttons pic: mehan jayasuriya

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