I wrote and performed this poem for the BBC World Service Weekend programme, and it was broadcast on the last Saturday of the Olympic Games. I thought I would post the text here.
What it means to be British –
To take part in a race,
Hoping to win –
But expecting a last-place finish.
Yes, this is British –
To make it all the way to a tie-break
And then brick it.
We are the world’s biggest optimists
Hidden inside the most hostile of cynics.
The glass in our crystal balls
But maybe this has changed.
Maybe British now means –
Hoy, Rutherford and Farah –
Jones, Murray, Ennis, Adams!
Maybe British is beating anyone – everyone –
We should calm down.
With the exception of these two weeks,
It’s not every day that we’ll win a world crown.
But I hope that this next image will always be British –
We throw that house party that anyone can visit,
With guests from far and wide
Bringing any number of different dishes:
And when we’ve eaten, we stand awkwardly against the wall,
Until our guests tug us, smiling, into the middle of the floor.
Yesterday was one of the greatest days in the history of British sport, and I didn’t watch a single second of it. Great Britain won six gold medals, and meanwhile I was spending six hours on a round-trip via coach to Birmingham, where I was performing at a poetry festival. What’s more, at about half-six that evening, I was offered a ticket to the Olympic boxing: which would have been fine, but for the fact that I was over a hundred miles away at the time. Timing, eh.
It was a tiring day of travel, and so I fell asleep on the crowded bus home, my novel untouched in the bag beside me. I woke to the news on my Twitter feed that, in the space of one glorious evening, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford had won gold for Great Britain. Somewhat saddened that I had not seen these victories in real time, I walked into Victoria train station, where I saw dozens of Union flags hanging from the ceiling of the concourse. And then the funniest thing happened. I broke into the widest possible smile.
This was a big thing for me. Maybe even huge. To be diplomatic, I have an awkward relationship with the Union flag. It’s all those years in my teens when I saw it draped outside pubs as a warning for my sort to steer clear. It’s all those times I saw it emblazoned across flyers for the British National Party, which every now and then found their way through my letterbox. But there I was, grinning at those fluttering flags like a friend I’d not seen in years.
The Union flag had been kidnapped some time ago by the BNP. But last night, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford snatched it back. For me, Britishness – if it means anything – has always meant a sense of belonging to a greater whole, despite our disparate backgrounds. In a society that is still so riven by class division and economic inequality, this is perhaps an aspiration rather than a reality, but that night in Victoria station it felt gloriously possible. I have our wonderful gold medallists to thank for that. And now, I think, it is time to go and watch their highlights.