Britain sprints for the line

We did it.

Yes it was the athletes with their astonishing acts of human endeavour. It was the stories of triumph over adversity. It was the legion of volunteer Gamesmakers who sacrificed time to ensure everything ran smoothly. It was the staff, even the G4S security staff, and the armed forces who as so often stepped into the breach. It was the politicians who aimed high: Tony Blair, Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson, Lord Coe. But it was also something more collective than all that.

We did it. Whether we were spectators in the park, or on our screens. Whether we shone with pride at the wraparound covers on each day’s Times newspaper, or nearly broke down in tears as the final act was played out last night. Great Briton dipped for the line and took the crown.

But it didn’t have to happen this way. There was no guarantee that putting thousands of elite athletes in a corner of East London would provoke such collective euphoria. We could have failed, we could have gambled high and became the laughing stock of the world. We could have been so overcome with cynicism that no matter the achievements on the track we would resent the imposition on our lives. The transport delays, the hiked up prices, the tourists crowding every corner of the place we call home. We even had a sitcom in Twenty Twelve to parody how it would turn out, ready to give us a reference point and a cultural validator when it failed to live up to the hype.

Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony got this perfect. Out of the chaos and melee of ideas, hopes and dreams, emerged something which summed us up. It was self-deprecating in its treatment of our tendency to self-deprecate. It was humble, cautious, loathe to make claims too lofty, reluctant to fuel hopes it could not fulfil.

It was at that point we came together for a summer we will never forget. As if in that moment the cloud of limitation was lifted off us all. Out of chaos came beauty. At the moment when it could have all fallen apart something incredible emerged.

The crowds roared for the favourites and new ones to took up residence in our hearts. On the eve of the Olympics Britain received the shot in its arm to spur us on. How dare Mitt Romney say that we were a little country that never achieved anything? In a master stroke no planner could have dreamt up the country came together.

And together we found our voice. We found who we are.

We did not look on others with envy, wishing the days of the Empire returned. We did not shrink in the shadow of China’s economic growth, America’s military might, or the coming carnival Rio 2016 will bring to the world. We learnt the best is not an imitation of another.

We shrugged off the challenges and sprinted for the line. Achievement can never be taken for granted, but nor is it ever out of reach. Britain learnt this summer that self-deprecation is no alternative to success. We may have a joke at our own expense to mask the fear that we might not make it.

But we made it. Britain, you did good. Very good.

Finding Wonder

Tonight the Olympics begin. And they begin with the spectacle of the opening ceremony grandly titled ‘Isles of Wonder’. From what I’ve heard it’ll be quite a show, around 160 000 people have seen the two rehearsals this week meaning enough has seeped out to wet the appetite, explanations of scenes that can probably only be seen to be appreciated, all no doubt part of a clever marketing strategy. Glimpses of grandeur hidden behind calls to #savethesurprise. A couple of moments, so I’ve been told, that will make the hairs on your arms stand on end.

It’s not only the cold that gives you goose-pimples. My old drama teacher used to refer to that as his measure of whether a performance was hitting the high notes he was looking for. It happens with scenes taut with emotional suspense, it happens when things occur which defy expectations. Or when someone goes above and beyond. The three men who stood in front of their girlfriends as the shooter spewed bullets and death into the Aurora theatre last week. Such goodness defying such madness.


We find it in landscapes that speak of God the great artist. And in constructions and paintings that display his hand behind ours. It’s there in the laws that we use to explain how the universe sits in its fine balance. In the equations that come together out of mind boggling complexity. I once declared that a proof was pretty. My friends mocked my choice of words and my teacher was complicit in their reproof. Beautiful, elegant perhaps, but she had never heard a mathematical proof described as pretty.

My life is too crowded with notifications and appointments, demands and deadlines, responsibilities and expectations. I schedule activity to the most infinitesimal degree, even when I have nothing to do. I plan and scheme and orchestrate. And often I miss these moments of wonder.

But sometimes things go wrong. That’s what lies behind the ‘broken cameras’ part of this blog’s title. I was in Vienna on the second day of a break on my own escaping it all and my camera broke. No more pictures of European cathedrals. No record of my travels across the cities of central Europe.

I didn’t want to break my camera. I generally don’t like it when things go wrong, but it serves the essential purpose of reminding us that we do not live in a perfect world. In short: things go wrong.

A different trip abroad took even less time to go wrong. I had only just picked up the car from the rental agency in Portugal when while fiddling with my wing mirrors I managed to take one off another car. This little adventure underlined the truth of the well worn phrase,’less haste, more speed’. I was just trying to get on my way, but ended up shaken up, with a lighter wallet and it slowed me down.

Ironically that was exactly what I was trying to do.

Escape the rush of life, the busy diaries. The need to feel like I was busy when really I was not. Contrast the guilty pleasure of a quiet day with the faux contentedness of continual nights in. The pressure to seem like your life is full can be quite a draining exercise, leaving room for little else.

And then the real contrast. The village with seven inhabitants. The nearest shop a service station on the motorway that passes by without a sideways glance. The goat bells ringing their very own dawn chorus. The gnarled olive trees that litter the landscape. From the shops on the street corner that simply do not ever close transported to a world where a loaf of bread is unobtainable in the early evening setting sun.

Even on a last minute trip to the Portuguese wilderness there is the temptation to set agendas, daily reading targets, plans for action. So perhaps it was better that I got a bit of trouble early on to remind me that the perfect break is not going to happen quite yet. Each time I have to learn to stop.

And relax.

And watch.

The world go by.

Even if it is the distant hum of traffic or the crickets in the trees.

And watch the sun as it stoops low in the sky before titling below the horizon. The long shadows it cast vanish and all that is left is a gentle hue of colour where the sun once hung. And as the colours turn to dark and the sky lights up with countless stars, those names and unnamed.

Because that”s the other part of this blog’s title. I’m not particularly well versed in art and its appreciation. When I was in Vienna I thought I was going round a grand old house and it turned out to be an art gallery. Being the philistine I thought I might be I set to walk away but I saw it housed a collection by Gustav Klimt so instead pressed on. I stood before ‘The Kiss’ and gazed in wonder. This painting should not work, it is a catastrophic mix of colours and forms, with oils and gold leaf and other materials overlapping in a chaotic collage.

But it is beautiful. Somehow the wonder transcends the mechanical list of compounds. I want to be overcome with wonder more. I want to look at the world and fall to my knees. I want to see in those around me the reflection of the love of God. I want to see in myself the unending grace of God as he finds ways to surprise me.

I’m beginning to think that disruption is at the root of wonder. Only when we break from the normal, stop our routine, step out of the comfortable, do we see the wonder of God that surrounds us.

To close, a poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and from whence comes the title of a book by Eugene Petersen that I’ll be rereading this summer.