How much Brexit bull can a proud Brummie take? | Stewart Lee

How much Brexit bull can a proud Brummie take?

The Commonwealth Games opening ceremony tried to gloss over what a rotten country this has become. It only confirmed it

Illustration of a mechanical bull, with the European flag in one eye and a union jack in the other

The admirable Brighton art rock band British Sea Power are now known simply as Sea Power, “due to a rise in a certain kind of nationalism in this world – an isolationist, antagonistic nationalism that we don’t want to run any risk of being confused with”. Rumour suggests that the British Cheese Board, the official voice of British cheese formed in 1995 to promote homegrown cheeses, has expressed similar anxieties and is soon to be renamed simply the Cheese Board, a move expected to cause some confusion on search engines and in kitchenware stores. Meanwhile, the neo-Nazi organisation the British Movement is expected to double down on the new associations of Britishness, rechristening itself the British British Movement.

Am I even allowed to make this joke without being branded a terrorist? Last week, the increasingly desperate Tory leadership candidate and pretend Kia driver Rishi Sunak announced his intention to widen the definition of “extremism” to include people who “vilify Britain” while being photographed in a flattering light at the taxpayer’s expense. Well, raise high the gallows, carpenters, and tighten the noose around my fat 54-year-old neck, because I think that modern, racist, anti-intellectual, internationally embarrassing, untrustworthy, corrupt, isolationist Brexit Britain is a grade-A bag o’ shite! And I am prepared to be put on a Prevent watchlist for my right to say so. No! Not the face! Not the face! Arrrgh! But last month, the Birmingham Commonwealth Games’ extravagant opening ceremony looked for the best in Brexit Britain. And here’s how it went.

First, the internationally acclaimed City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra accompanied a rousing rendition of God Save the Queen, though its chief executive has explained how Brexit could make European touring “so tricky as to become unviable”. Then Nobel peace prize laureate Malala Yousafzai stressed the importance of education, while elsewhere arts courses are cut and conscientious teachers make breakfast for kids too hungry to learn. We welcomed the world, but in reality former Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom stands atop the white cliffs of Dover waving a rolled up newspaper and shouting: “Go back to Bongo Bongo Land!”

Next, an armoured mechanical bull entered the fray, inspired presumably by the nine-tonne bull sculptures cast by Trewin Copplestone to adorn the Bull Ring shopping centre in 1963, but mysteriously somehow “lost” during the 21st-century redesign, as good a metaphor as any for our actual attitude to our cultural inheritance. Monetise it or melt it down! At the end of the bull sequence, BBC presenters Andrew Cotter and Hazel Irvine mechanically declared that “the bull’s armour is lifted away and he is revealed as a symbol of light and love”. But where’s the armour gone? I hope someone was keeping track of it. To lose two Birmingham bulls may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two Birmingham bulls and another Birmingham bull’s special armour looks like carelessness.

Diving’s Tom Daley was accompanied by a parade of LGBTQ+ flag-wavers, a powerful gesture as homosexuality remains illegal in more than half of the competing Commonwealth countries. But Elena Bunbury of the Conservative LGBT+ group has expressed anxiety about the leadership candidates’ culture-war weaponising of anti-LGBTQ+ feeling in their campaigns; and Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, caving in diplomatically to the conservative Christians of the global south, just reaffirmed that gay sex is a sin, a move that would set Jesus, as Justin knows full well, spinning in his grave, if Christ hadn’t taken the precaution of busting out of it after three days in a pre-emptive attempt to avoid mandatory posthumous subterranean rotation. Which Britain does this ceremony reflect, exactly?

I was in Birmingham on the day, for the Covid-delayed Midlands Arts Centre premiere of King Rocker, a documentary I made with Michael Cumming (Brass Eye, Toast of…) about Birmingham post-punk band the Nightingales and featuring the Nicholas Monro pop-art statue of King Kong that briefly bestrode the Bull Ring in 1972, before being abandoned, predictably, by the city. Bigging up my home town, I took my kids to see the world-beating pre-Raphaelite collection at the city’s art gallery, but all the art is in storage until 2024. In the museum, I proudly showed them Cold War Steve’s vibrant collage of Birmingham cultural figures, which includes me and Nightingales singer Robert Lloyd bottom right, looking on at Black Sabbath, Lady Leshurr and Benny from Crossroads. But, as my son drily observed, we are the only people not identified in the accompanying list of names, even though there is a 2in empty space that could easily have accommodated us. Bah! Prophets without honour! I hate Birmingham!

While the opening ceremony’s fatuous cavalcade of hypocrisy uncoiled across town I enjoyed King Rocker on the big screen in an alternative celebration of alternative Birmingham. In the two years since King Rocker’s Covid-softened release, the Nightingales have played to the biggest audiences in their four-decade-plus career, and, in a turn of events not unrelated to the film’s modest impact, a new version of Monro’s Kong has been erected with its back to the B4100 in the Jewellery Quarter, its massive monkey arse stopping traffic on Constitution Hill.

As I left Cannon Hill Park, I saw celebratory fireworks burst over the city and heard the distant drums of Duran Duran, whose John Taylor was lent his first amp by Nightingales guitarist Alan Apperley, and who declared Robert Lloyd a genius and an intellectual in the film. Much as I love Duran Duran, I know where I would rather have been that night. The problem is, any official attempt to celebrate the virtues of Brexit-era Britain is fundamentally incompatible with the corrupt, reactionary hellhole the Conservative party are turning it into. And so, the Birmingham Commonwealth Games opening ceremony was a just a great big Bull Ring full of bullshit.