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Whipping up a tempest over a five-ring circus

ALTHOUGH everyone else is glued to the peloton (whatever that is), the handball, the fencing, the synchronised diving and other sports with rules which about 35 people in the country understand, I have not changed my view on the Olympics, nor my determination not to view any of them.

I'm planning to catch up on some reading instead.

Because I'm more interested in stories than in sport I did, however, watch some of the Opening Ceremony on Friday night, which was as brilliantly put together as one might expect from a director of Danny Boyle's talent. The story he told – which bore all his hallmarks of inventiveness, sentimentality, spectacle, humour, loud pop music and mild lunacy – was, as is inevitable in the post-structuralist world, not the only one with which people concerned themselves.

Even as the show was still going on, folk began to disagree about what it all meant. Aidan Burley, the Tory MP for Cannock, was first off the blocks with his view that it was "leftie multi-cultural crap", an opinion he unwisely expressed on Twitter, whose users, mostly liberal, came down on him like a ton of bricks. The journalist Andrew Gilligan, by contrast, thought the Left had been taken in by touchy-feely references to the NHS, the trades unions and CND, and were now ignoring the Games' evil capitalist sponsors.

Not to be outdone in finding a hidden agenda and a political slant to what was, when all's said and done, a show, the Better Together campaign and politicians such as Douglas Alexander and Murdo Fraser declared that it had done the pro-Union cause a world of good.

The First Minister, to no-one's astonishment, characterised this as a "puerile attempt" to turn the ceremony into a threat to independence. Other Nationalist supporters on social media sites made equally predictable complaints about the under-representation of Scotland. A complaint was even made about the use of Shakespeare "written before Scotland was part of Britain".

That last charge, at any rate, isn't as black and white as all that. My own belief that Shakespeare, though he was not Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford, was almost certainly of Scottish descent – I base this theory on the ability of the man, surely evidence enough – is, I admit, a minority one in scholarly circles. But The Tempest was definitely written after the Union of the Crowns, in 1611.

It may be instructive to think about that speech, delivered by Sir Kenneth Branagh (not an Englishman) in the guise of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, using the words Shakespeare gives to Caliban in Act Three of The Tempest. That strange play, set on an enchanted island, is filled with ambiguities, but amongst other things it is pre-occupied with the nature of stories, theatrical illusion, the clash between magic and reason, and the means by which control of a territory is maintained, and renounced.

Many modern scholars have also taken an interest in the figure of Caliban from a post-colonial perspective. Just before the speech, Caliban has been complaining to Stephano and Trinculo that Prospero has cheated him out of his island. Mr Burley would presumably hate all that.

Oscar Wilde, in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, likened the 19th century's hatred of Realism to "the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass" and its dislike of Romanticism to "the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass". Since this section of the ceremony depicted Britain's transformation during that century from something like Tolkien's Shire to an industrial inferno reminiscent of Isengard under Saruman, one imagines that Mr Boyle and his scriptwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce, who also dragged in references to Milton and Blake, were alert to these themes.

Those who could see only Left-wing bias must have been ignoring all the bits that you'd expect them to approve of, like Elgar and Parry and Churchill. Mr Burley's complaint wasn't, I think, intrinsically racist or wildly Right-wing, but it did make it sound as if he hates almost everything that has happened in Britain during his own lifetime. Even those of us with some sympathy for this position – I could have done with less pop music, though I regard Commonwealth immigration as almost entirely beneficial – wouldn't regard it as a profitable one for someone hoping to drum up political support.

As for the claims that the ceremony will help the pro-UK cause in the run-up to the referendum, I'm not sure. Certainly, there was much to remind us of what the four home nations have achieved together. It's not surprising that the opening of a London games should be rather Anglo-centric, but Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland received more recognition than regions of England like Cornwall. And the major examples chosen as tableaux in the ceremony – the Industrial Revolution, the world wars, the NHS, children's literature and other contributions to the arts, the rise of both entrepreneurial ingenuity and the organisation of the working classes – are, if anything, areas in which Scotland was pre-eminent.

If Brunel was central here, it was not as an Englishman, but as an example of Victorian inventors and engineers. And, given the familiarity of his appearance to British audiences (even if American commentators thought he was Abraham Lincoln) an easy one to pick. You'd have to be insanely parochial to see it as a snub to Alexander Bain or James Clerk Maxwell. Besides, if the other nations of the United Kingdom were to complain that the Commonwealth Games – only 723 days to go – make passing mention of the fact that they are being held in Glasgow, I imagine we'd take a dim view of their priorities.

I've argued that the overall political narrative of Nationalism and of Unionism matter much more to most people than the minutiae of marginal tax rates or which politicians fill which committees. But as Mr Boyle's splendid show demonstrates, even the same stories are read in different ways by different people, and mean different things at different times. All the same, I'm not going to read Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology during the Olympics, but the novels of Sir Walter Scott.

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