I was born in London, in a country called England, in a union called the United Kingdom, in a landmass known as Europe. Yet despite this preponderance of possible identities, the first 30 years of my life were characterised by affinity with none of them. Sure, there were moments I cheered England on in the football, or sang the anthem to tease my parents. But they were teenage experiments with identity. I spoke a humanist, internationalist, multicultural language that was uneasy with the notion of nationhood. Nationality felt a dangerous allegiance that could be manipulated for nefarious means and offered only a means of controlling populations.
The songs I loved as an impressionable teenager were those that ridiculed nationality: With God On Our Side among many by Bob Dylan, and Imagine by John Lennon particularly. When I got to university it was the theories of Benedict Anderson that struck a closest chord. In his seminal work, 'Imagined Communities', he argued that nations were best explained not as geographies where people shared a natural affinity, but communities socially constructed, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. The problem, I started to realise, was not nationalism per se, but that the stories that my country told about itself were not ones that I valued or identified with. Monarchy, tradition, military, green rolling fields, progress, and all those other tales wrapped up in Empire. None of this struck a chime with me and never will. The United Kingdom is not a homogeneous community, and these aren't the only stories that have been told by people who live here. But these are the stories that generally receive national sanction.
Yet this Olympic and Paralympic summer I have, for the first time, started to hear stories told on a mass scale about the country I live in, with which I feel affinity. The sport was always going to be amazing. Put great athletes together and sport will provide drama and human tales of courage and determination that you can barely believe are possible. Sport is objective in a way little else in life is, but in the pursuit of those objectives it is full of narrative and characterisation and space for the viewer to imagine how things might turn out.
What I didn't expect was for art to provide pitch-perfect context for these sporting stories to be told in. Inclusion, human rights, equality, trust in each other, belief in the inherent goodness of people, the National Health Service, libraries, knowledge, self-criticism. These stories and more have been told through the opening and closing ceremonies. Similarly, Channel Four's Paralympics adverts and shows have presented a fresh view of disability as enabling.
In the Paralympic Opening Ceremony, Sir Ian McKellen described books as "the engines of change, windows on the world, lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, guardians of the treasures of the mind." I agree. But more than this, I believe it is stories that are the engines of change and windows on the world.
I haven't changed my feelings about nationalism or internationalism. I still value humans over nations. But I have learnt that imagining our communities can be an act of creation and idealism. I've loved this Olympic summer for many reasons, and I hope the legacies last long.
You may say I'm a dreamer. But this summer, I've learnt for the first time, that I'm not the only one.