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Black Sky Thinking

2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony: Why Subversive Gestures Are Not Enough
John Doran , July 30th, 2012 03:52

The author would like to thank Rory Gibb, Petra Davis, John Tatlock, Kris Stewart, Purves Grundy and Tom Davies for moral and technical support

On Friday night I was preparing to beat a hasty retreat from the Hackney Wick office that the Quietus shares with our big sister paper The Stool Pigeon. Some of our crew were handing round cheap bottles of vodka and settling down for the night to watch the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony just a few hundred metres from the actual event.

Attitudes ranged from, "Fuck this, I want no part in this colossal waste of money, I’m going home to sulk with the TV switched off" [me], to "Calm down dear, it’s only an Olympics Opening Ceremony – might as well watch it and have a laugh."

Even though we were all coming from different perspectives on the event, everyone laughed when someone suggested that if the Tories wanted to bury bad news then they were never going to get a better chance than this in 2012.

Of course the sad truth is, when it comes to what’s happened to the NHS the Tories haven’t needed to indulge in subterfuge. They pretty much passed the Health & Social Care Act in March of this year as they intimated they were going to well before the general election. They did this with minimal fuss despite enthusiastic and well organized opposition from small public and political groups.

The Bill, which will abolish all NHS Primary Care Trusts and Strategic Health Authorities, has gained royal assent and can now only be stopped by repeal. This has, to all intents and purposes, broken the back of the NHS.

Since becoming a dad, shamefully I’ve found that I don’t have time to read the news every day, so ironically the opening ceremony gave me the rare opportunity to catch up with what else had been going on in the world. It was then that I came across news that the Newmarket Hospital had signed a contract meaning it was set to become a private business.

The Suffolk Hospital has been handed over to Serco – a regular name in the pages of Private Eye and the company responsible for running several UK immigration centres that have been criticized by Amnesty International and have been the location of two suicides, not to mention the illegal detention of 150 children in shockingly unsuitable conditions. So the ideal people to be running one of our hospitals then.

Paul Forden, Serco’s managing director of acute care, said: “[This] paves the way for an exciting new delivery model which will place the patient at the heart of the service while empowering clinicians to spend more time caring. By working closely with partners from across the NHS, voluntary and private sector, we believe we can deliver a truly exemplary service which will bring real benefits to the county’s 600,000 patients.”

It’s a funny word “exciting” – so many subtly different ways of using it. I’m not sure how much patients want excitement as opposed to dependable expert care delivered quickly and for no cost at the point of use, no matter what their class, financial background or geographical location.

A colleague and friend was on the receiving end of some exciting health care solutions himself recently after getting diagnosed with gallstones 18 months ago. At the start of this year the number of attacks he was suffering meant he had to take action. In March, when the ink was drying on the Health and Social Care Act, he had several severe attacks followed by an acute infection and was taken to hospital where he spent two days on IV antibiotics for two nights before being discharged and ordered to spend two weeks at home resting. He was also told that he needed to have an operation and that it would be organized for him as quickly as possible.

By mid-June, he began to feel ill again so started making inquiries of his own, having not been offered a date for surgery, and told the hepatobiliary surgical bookings that he would take any date available. His doctor put him on antibiotics and later that day he was offered a surgical cancellation only to be told he couldn’t take it because of the antibiotics. He was offered a replacement operation two weeks later. That evening he had an extremely severe attack and was rushed to A&E by ambulance leading to a three night stay in hospital on yet more antibiotics for an acute infection, followed by another week off work recuperating.

Then it started to go a bit Groundhog Day. He was then told it was not safe for him to have the originally scheduled op because he was too ill. After another appointment he was told that he essentially couldn’t have the surgery he needed without going through the entire scanning process again, and they arranged an appointment for a month's time to discuss the operation.

He says: “I was getting concerned as I was ill and losing weight. It was affecting my life and work. I heard a show on Radio 4 where they were discussing how care trusts around the country were being forced to cancel what they deemed non-essential surgeries, using gall bladder procedures as a specific example to highlight recent cuts and changes to the system.

“I made a complaint to PALS (NHS Patient Advisory & Liaison Service) and within two days got a phone call offering me an operation a week later (July 2) with no mention of the previous surgical registrar telling me I needed to go through the whole procedure again to check everything.

“Then it was straight forward. I had an ultrasound scan two days before the operation for a new readout for the surgeons. I had the surgery and was discharged the following day.”

While this was not necessarily the case here, it has been reported that in some areas care trusts have been forced to change the guidelines in cases similar to his, so that people with gallstones have to be hospitalised twice with acute attacks before they qualify for surgery. Having patients going in and out of hospital, waiting for them to become acutely ill before agreeing to give them the surgery – which is necessary all along - is not only a waste of NHS resources but is dangerous. One of the risks of this strategy is the patient developing the extremely painful pancreatitis, or other serious complications.

And this is just the story of one person. We’re all going to have to get used to hearing stories like this on a more frequent basis; and unfortunately - especially if the person involved is elderly, not forthright in dealing with bureaucracy or is in anyway marginalised - some of these tales will have much less happy outcomes than his case.

Feature continues after photograph

Aiiieeee! Run! Subversive political dance routines!

While I was reading about the Newmarket Hospital, exciting scenes were unfolding on the TV in front of an estimated audience of one billion worldwide with a peak of 27 million viewers and 82% of the TV audience share in the UK alone. Danny Boyle’s creation was deemed a massive success. No less than 300 motorized beds and 600 actual NHS staff were rolling and dancing their way across the floor of the Olympic Stadium in a nine minute, heartfelt tribute to the history of our health service, concentrating specifically on Great Ormond Street by cleverly roping in characters from children's literature such as Peter Pan and the Harry Potter books. This culminated in a battle in which good, represented by numerous Mary Poppins, vanquished bad, represented by The Child Catcher, Lord Voldemort, Captain Hook, Cruella de Vil and the Queen of Hearts.

I have no doubt that Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony was an amazing piece of entertainment; grand theatre that was funny, provocative, inclusive, heart-warming… all that good stuff. Also, better the director of The Beach and A Life Less Ordinary than some shill hack, right? It’s true that money from the public purse and from corporate sponsorship is always going to get wasted on events like this, so why not rope in someone with balls and vision to do something interesting? And true enough, one glance at the playlist alone shows there were some killer choices of tunes made by musical directors Underworld. Like I said, in some ways, I really wish I’d watched it.

But what really concerns me is the knock on effect of ceremonies like this, the illusory effect that one is actually taking part in the political protest simply by observing something on TV or moaning about it on social media. And talking of which...

After reading the news on my laptop I did a quick sweep of work and personal social media. I could see many, many people in my facebook news feed and on work’s Twitter account praising the supposedly subversive nature of the NHS segment of the opening ceremony. One self-identifying hard left winger called the event pure socialism – “EP Thompson set to music”. Even friends who consider themselves anarchist/collectivist/Marxist were mocking those who’d decided not to watch it. Within hours pro-NHS, opening ceremony photo memes were circulating the internet. It appeared to suddenly be verboten to criticize the Olympics or its opening ceremony in any way shape or form. The memos you can miss when you don’t watch TV!

But the whole idea of broad brushstroke, vaguely political gestures, not anchored to any specific demands, reminded me of morally empty, consciousness raising events such as Live 8, a giant money furnace which only served to dilute and diminish serious public interest in the subject of African debt to the first world. Put simply it wouldn’t have mattered if the giant puppet Lord Voldemort’s mask and cloak fell away to reveal a 200ft tall animatronic David Cameron, scooping up screaming nurses and children into his giant clanking stainless steel, bear trap jaws and chewing them into bloody, ragged chunks of flesh in front of one sixth of the world's entire population. It still wouldn't have been clear what Boyle's actual point was or what his solution is.

Without some kind of context or rock solid agenda, at best the show was just a supremely entertaining spectacle and at worst it was actually threatening to make people feel as if they had contributed to a form of protest when, in fact, they had done nothing.

Seriously, who had their political consciousness raised on Friday night? The old German guy near Camilla Parker Bowles and a guffawing Boris Johnson, giving a Nazi salute? How about NBC Today Show anchors Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira, who thought that the actual Queen was parachuting out of a helicopter into the stadium? £27 million quid. Bish bash bosh. Pure socialism mate. Two fingers up to the Tories and still time for Family Guy before bed.

Let’s leave aside the amount of money the show cost for one second. Yeah, austerity measures mean, among other swingeing cutbacks, we’re having to lose the jobs of 50,000 nurses and doctors even though there is literally no statistical proof that any of these policies are working. In this context £27 million on a giant game of It’s A Knockout might seem in poor taste but let’s still leave that to one side just for a second.

Without anyone harnessing all of this righteous indignation and putting it to good use, the NHS segment might as well not have happened. A word or two of context from Danny Boyle at this very moment would be good for starters. His no doubt gigantic pay cheque will have cleared in the bank by now so there’s nothing stopping him from geeing everyone up a bit with a bit of exposition while he's the world's most talked about man. We had the evil wizard fighting with the supernatural nannies, now it’s time for the grown-ups to discuss what happens next. The opportunity he has, right now, to do some real good is unprecedented for a British film maker. Because without somebody harnessing this, Friday’s ceremony means absolutely nothing and as I’m sure you’ll agree the NHS deserves better than empty gestures, no matter how expensive, how well intentioned and how spectacular.

Practical Things We Can Do To Help The NHS

Join Keep Our NHS Public
Keep Our NHS Public is one of several campaign groups that operates on a local and national level. For your nearest local group click here. They have plenty of practical advice on everything from writing to your MP to organizing local fundraising events.

March and Demonstrate
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much effect any specific march or demo has and hard to know why some campaigns work and others don’t but at their most effective, these forms of peaceful direct action can change government policy. The Health & Social Care Act may have passed but that doesn’t mean that the Coalition’s austerity measures have come to a halt. Large events coming up soon include the Future That Works march.

Support Your Local Health Worker Unions
TQ scribe Petra Davis writes: "Support local health worker unions to resist being contracted over to private health providers. All over the country contracts are going to private providers, and local NHS workers are being asked to TUPE over to the new bosses. Local branches and national committees are organising resistance. Support them and raise the profile of these local struggles, which (surprise!) aren't being covered anywhere near enough in the media. The only story I’ve seen on the subject is this."

Boycott The Big National Players In Health Contracting
Virgin Care recently tried to sue the NHS contractor they were competing against for ‘predatory pricing’, i.e. for providing their service free at the point of use. More on Virgin Care’s Five Main Strategies For Taking Control Of The NHS here.

Don’t Waste The Time Of Doctors And Nurses
This suggestion may raise the hackles of some for being patronising but on speaking to health care professionals it seems that many are of the opinion that the NHS simply could not be painted as an inefficient, wasteful entity, that right wingers portray it as if it wasn’t so catastrophically misused by so many people. The amount of money wasted by so called persistent frequent attenders makes the money for Boyle’s extravagaza seem like small change in comparison. Sobering information here.

Join other groups
Maybe sign up with Health Emergency or take a look at 38 Degrees or UK Uncut.