The great Doug Pascover posted a hilarious takeoff of Blake’s “And did those feet, in ancient times…” after a post I did over at the Economist, which got me humming the tune of the hymn in the shower, which got me thinking about the opening sequence of “Chariots of Fire” in which that hymn is being sung over an aerial shot of green English fields (as I recall) that zooms in on an Oxford college, which got me reflecting on what an amazing movie “Chariots of Fire” was. The conflict is between the effortless upper-class British guy who trains with an amateur coach, as one does, and the striving Jewish guy who almost gets himself disqualified because (scandalously, for the 1920s or whenever) he hires a pro coach. Apparently he got confused and thought the point was to win. Anyway, the theme is traditional aristocratic amateurism versus upwardly-mobile immigrant commercial professionalism.
What I’d never thought about before was how well-suited that theme was to early-1980s Thatcherite Britain. Labour cast itself as the party of the working class, but if I understand it right, a lot of the energy of Thatcher’s Tories came from upwardly mobile uncouth plebes, many from immigrant backgrounds, who saw the rules and social-services structures that had been put in place by Labourite socialism as a straitjacket rather than a support net. Similarly, the upper-class runner in “Chariots of Fire” thinks of his amateur course as the less moneyed one, but of course in the real world only wealthy upper-class people have the time and connections to compete at the upper levels of sport as amateurs. When the aristocrats complain about the tawdry commercialism of this Jew who’s paying his trainer, they’re obviously also complaining about the threat this poses of upsetting and opening up their social structure. This seems to me to be suffused with themes that were circulating in Thatcher-era politics: which is really more egalitarian, a society of rules for the rich and subsidies for the poor that maintains clear class divisions, or a free-for-all society in which money can buy anything, peerages included, and everyone is constantly sinking or swimming?
The film also teases at a weird duality in Blake’s poem, which is the mixture of Hellenic and Hebraic themes. The “bow of burning gold” and “chariot of fire” Blake wants somebody to bring him seem pretty Hellenic and Apollonian. But the pretext of the poem is an apocryphal/hypothetical visit of the “holy lamb of God” to England and, ultimately, an intent to build Jerusalem there. There’s something very nice about the way this duality recurs in the conflict between the English aristocracy with its Hellenic sporting ideals (resurrecting the Olympics etc.) and the entrance of this Jewish aspirant who upsets the value structure. Historically, the interaction between the Greco-Roman and Hebraic worlds was pretty adversarial (Maccabees, Herod, etc.), but in the long run the fusion of their value systems in a thing called Christianity turned out to be of some significance.
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