William Blake’s Jerusalem: Imperial Artefact18 minute read

The original text for William Blake’s poem was found as a preface in one of four known copies of the epic poem Milton, believed to date back to 1804, first published in 1808 towards the end of the British industrial revolution (Cox, 2004). It wasn’t until 1916, when Sir Charles Parry set the words to music, did the popularity of the poem rise. Parry’s “And did those feet in ancient time” (later referred to simply as “Jerusalem”) was first performed in London at a rally organised by ‘Fight for Right’, a campaign founded to counteract German propaganda, which was believed to be a threat to the British Empire’s War Effort (Gilroy, 2004).

The poem’s idealistic theme was used by The Labour Party’s 1945 manifesto, with Attlee vowing to “build a new Jerusalem” (Craig, 1975) in Post War Britain, holding out the prospect of a new social order that would ensure better housing, medical services and employment for all. Through this, Attlee’s pledges of Jerusalem contributed to the first absolute majority victory for the Labour Party in the House of Commons, allowing an introduction of widespread social and economic reform that provided the basis for a political consensus lasting over thirty years (Fielding 1992).

After the General Election, Labour constructed the Welfare State, striving for “Countenance Divine” (Blake, 1804), through adopting many of the ideas proposed in the 1942 Beveridge Report, leading to a radical contemporary change in politics such as establishment of the NHS in 1946. In replacing the pre-war healthcare system, the state was committed to treat people regardless of their condition, cementing the NHS as a cornerstone of London and national life, allowing support from ‘Cradle to Grave’ (Rivett, 1998). Rivett’s novel traces the major developments and achievements in medicine and healthcare achieved through the NHS until 1998. The NHS was seen as the high point of the post-war Labour Administration, with 97% of the public registering with General Practitioners in the first years of introduction (Rivett, 1998).

Figure 2. King, M., 2012
Figure 2. King, M., 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony [Photograph] At: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2180814/London-2012-Olympics-opening-ceremony-How-magic-moments.html (Accessed on 08.12.15)
With the NHS being financed through taxation, the government predicted demand would decline as illnesses were cured, leading to reduced spending following 1946. However, an ageing population and expensive new technology and medicine created new financial pressures. This prompted new experiments in clinical budgeting and a demand for improved health service information. It wasn’t until the 1980s when the first fundamental structural changes were implemented such as clinical audits introduced by the Conservative Party under Thatcher. The level of acute hospital services likely to be available in London in the future was examined by the London Health Planning Consortium.  Money was to be moved from London into Northern under-resourced areas such as mental illness and the elderly, meaning acute services would have to be cut in central London.  Merging of hospitals and medical schools in London began in the 1980’s, such as the shutting down of The National Temperance Hospital in Euston in 1990(Rivett, 1998). The building itself has been abandoned ever since, and is due for demolishing to make way for the HS2 rail-link construction.

This tends to the notion of one government’s visions of Jerusalem implemented into policies being replaced by another’s. The most spectacular transformations of British cities in history were due to “extraordinary leaps of the imagination which combined unique hybrids of idealised pasts and speculative futures” (Jacob & Vanstiphout, 2014). Through Blake’s words one can realise imaginative planning, to have ideas about the living environment drawn from all corners of society and debated, as London’s built environment is the ultimate embodiment of democracy (Jacob & Vanstiphout, 2014). 

In the final stanza, Blake argues for planning and policies to use the same imagination to build a contemporary new Jerusalem, where Jerusalem is a utopia envisaged by the planner, and debated by the policy maker. What is this future London is creating, with old imaginations of Jerusalem replaced by futuristic imaginations through projects such as HS2? HS2 will be a “window to the rural landscape” with an eye to “preserving England’s green and pleasant land” (Crawford, 2015) through environmental regeneration and economic reintegration of old disused stations such as Old Oak Common in Acton.

Doreen Lawrence Olympic Flag
Figure 3. Aitkenhead, D., 2012. Doreen Lawrence, bottom right, with the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony. [Photograph: Rex Features] At: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/aug/12/doreen-lawrence-i-got-quite-emotional (Accessed on 04.12.15)
Throughout the 20th Century, “Jerusalem” grew in popularity as an illustration of a romanticised London and England as a whole. As the song’s popularity grew, it moved further away from the original message conveyed by Blake. Blake was a complex individual and his work often layered with multiple interpretations, but one thing Blake was not was a nationalist of any kind, he was a revolutionist. At the heart of the poem is the direct contrast of the romantic, pleasant society against the grave reality of the ever-industrialising world. In the second stanza, the desire is clear to see, to raise up arms in the fight for change, asserting the right to imagine, desire and fight for something better. The images of war are not directed at France itself, but rather against those against those who would seek to prevent a new world being created (Cox, 2004). For Blake, London in 1804 envisaged the “dark Satanic Mills”, the green and pleasant land was but a possible future. This is reinforced through his 1794 poem “London” which divides man from man, brings him into mental and moral bondage, destroys the sources of joy and brings, as its consequence, blindness and death.

Somewhat ironically, Blake’s poem was used as the central theme and focus for Danny Boyle’s ‘Isles of Wonder’, the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics (LOCOG, 2012). Boyle’s aim was to paint a picture of a historical run centred around London elaborating on the myth of Britishness, the important role of Britain in economic, social and cultural history, but more importantly, its role in the quest for a new Jerusalem. The thread of purpose than ran through the ceremony was that of “the idea of Jerusalem, of a better world that can be built though the prosperity of industry, through the caring nation that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication” (LOCOG, 2012).

The Olympics are a ‘mega-event’ in their scale and the interest in them afforded by a global television audience (Horne, 2007). They are also ‘discontinuous’ in that they are neither the culmination nor the start of a longer development and they are unrepeatable in the foreseeable future. The Olympic opening ceremony offers the host nation a one-off opportunity to promote itself to the watching world by putting on an impressive spectacle with an authentic staging at the discretion of the policy makers. For the global elite, the Olympics are an investment—and one with a rapidly growing price tag. At the London Games, the cost of the opening ceremonies was £27million, yet to justify the expenditure, the government quoted Sorrell’s claim that the four ceremonies together will worth up to £5billion in advertising value, as well as hopefully convincing global spectators London 2012 will be “the greatest show on earth” (Kortekaas & Blitz 2011).

The ceremony opened with a ‘green and pleasant land’ (the title of the opening scene) showing depictions of an ‘English’ England and closed with the diversity of Britain best represented by a cosmopolitan London (in Frankie & Jane say thanks Tim scene) (Bryant, 2015). Boyle told a story in the opening ceremony about Britain repeatedly showing the world the way of the future, first through the industrial revolution and the iconic forging of the Olympic rings, then the internet revolution, a revolution “for everyone” (Boyle, 2012). Boyle’s version of a new Jerusalem is consistent with the historic values of the broad left in Britain. It is about the welfare and well-being of all, it enshrines mutualism, it praises individual achievement and collective endeavour, it vows all can and will contribute, and it believes in better. It also treats ethnic diversity as a strength.

This political staging of the ceremony met some critics, Conservative MP Aidan Burley tweeted “the most leftie ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing […] leftie multiculturalist crap” (Brownwell, 2013) This opinion however was unpopular, only 14.6% of a Survation poll asked the following day believed the ceremony ‘too political’ (Bryant, 2015). Rather it gave a convincing argument that Britishness wasn’t about nostalgic yearning for an imperial past, “but something that existed in the present and future” (Soutphommasane, 2012). Cameron elaborated on this idea of London being a catalyst for the nation as a whole, a nation “whose time had come”. The post-Olympic setting is seen as an opportunity to revive his ideas about a big society. What better way to advertise his ambitions of Burkean conservatism than the “little platoons” of volunteer staff at events during the Olympics?

However, due to the strong sense of celebration towards NHS and public sensibilities remaining strongly social democratic, Soutphommasane argued Labour seemed best poised to covert patriotic sentiment into national purpose. Miliband’s cries to “rebuild Britain” through responsible capitalism had echoes of Labour and Attlee’s 1945 manifesto of building Jerusalem.

The portrayal of Attlee’s social reforms as a pillar for British national values was a particularly strong symbol in the context of London 2012, at a time when trade unions, health care organisations and members of the public had been opposing plans by the coalition government to open out the health service to more private competition, the very foundations for Attlee’s “new Jerusalem” (Craig, 1975) were under direct threat. The NHS was portrayed in the ceremony by nurses from Great Ormond Street Hospital fighting fictional villains such as Voldermort, a character created by JK Rowling. Rowling is commonly known for her strong defence of the welfare state (Shapiro, 2014), was Boyle implying the cherished welfare state was under attack from the coalition government?

At its heart, the power to disseminate selective images of the past through distortion and staging of the “authentic” in the name of capital is a dangerous weapon for a policy maker to utilise (Chhabra et al, 2003) especially during a time of major political contestation in the UK regarding the nature of the citizenship ties between the people and the state. Whittaker (2011) arguments echo Boyle’s ceremony as staging the authentic through his projection of London (as Britain) as a “harmonious, diverse city, a middle-class metropolis and space of opportunity”. Emphasis on the 1948 arrival of 492 West Indian immigrants aboard Empire Windrush during the opening ceremony highlighted the role of London being the nation’s pioneer of the post-war multicultural movement (Figure 2).

Whittaker (2011) argues modern London in reality is a city agitated by rising unemployment and rising social insecurity, and is only sustained by the exploitation of migrant bodies who nurture the creative class and the tourist image. Through ‘pride politics’, London is portrayed as a mythical inclusive and multicultural haven that reflects the nation as a whole. These post-industrial selective imaginings of London are in stark contrast to the ‘green and pleasant land’ with a (multi-racial) cast of villagers engaging in pastoral pursuits in a countryside ‘we all believed exist once’ (LOCOG, 2012). Whittaker adds this fantastical geographical utopia is one only sustained by the exploitation of migrants who nurture the creative class and tourist image. London exists in a duality of opportunity and social exclusion, a ‘dirty and pretty city’ (Whittaker, 2011). It is this duality that generates a double imagery of London, a harmonious heterogeneous land of opportunity and a hidden ‘reality’ of inequality that has been integral to the sustained growth of London as a post-war world city.

Central to the Boyle’s ceremony was the notion of multiculturalism that existed within London, as shown by his words “we can build Jerusalem […] it will be for everyone” (Boyle, 2012). A key moment in the development of public policy on London’s multiculturalism was the Macpherson Report (1999) of Stephen Lawrence, a racially motivated murder in South East London. The resulting report challenged the narrative of a homogenous white British identity that underlay state and non-state racism, leading to the conclusion the London Metropolitan Police are “institutionally racist”. The Metropolitan Police commissioner agreed there is “some justification” to the allegations despite efforts to improve relations with ethnic minority communities following the Stephen Lawrence scandal” (Halliday, 2015). Stephen’s mother, Doreen Lawrence was an Olympic flag bearer alongside sporting icons Muhammad her services to community relations (Figure 3). Many flaws to public multiculturalism must be acknowledged, including the conditionality of public acceptance of Islam, the continued evidence of racism by police, and a verbal shift to talk of ‘integration’ and ‘diversity’ rather than the phrase ‘multiculturalism’ following the London 7/7 bombings (Burdsey, 2011).

The 7/7 bombings took place the day after London were awarded the 2012 Games, and were integral to the narratives of Blair, Brown and Cameron of London’s identity alongside the Blitz in the years preceding the Games. The 7/7 bombings were controversially not commemorated directly, although there was a dance segment entitled ‘Abide with Me’, which paid tribute to passed family members of the ceremony organisers which was widely misinterpreted as a tribute to those who died on 7/7. This avoidance raised questions due to the significant difference of a much more triumphant narrative of democracy over extremism much like 9/11 had for the Salt Lake City Games of 2003 (Hogan, 2003). Furthermore, following the 7/7 bombings, the notion of national identity had been strengthened by constant references to the Blitz by national and local politicians. Yet the opening ceremony had no place for the Blitz at all, often seen as one of the fixed points around which a historical narrative of the city, and furthermore the nation, would be built. Through the silencing of heroic war memory, it may have been Boyle’s most radical political message of all.

Boyle’s grandeurs of building Jerusalem were clear to see in the opening ceremony, yet during the Olympics, around the newly developed Park, ticket holding visitors were funnelled onto prescribed walkways through Stratford. Straying was ‘vigorously discouraged’ (Gibbons & Wolff 2012) to ensure visitors were confined in the sanitised and sterile temple of consumption, bypassing the (physically) hidden ‘reality’ of inequality (Whittaker, 2011). A shimmering wall of fish, the ‘Stratford Shoal’ (Figure 4) was erected to hide the existing entrance to Stratford’s shopping centre, to hide the pocket of Stratford not subject to material gentrification and thus not ‘conductive to either the tourist gaze’ or global consumption (Gibbons & Wolff 2012).

Olympic gamesmakers ‘patrolled’ these routes, advising visitors they’d be more ‘comfortable’ on the prescribed routes. This policing of the boundary between the legitimate London and the ‘native other’ that remained hidden behind the façade buffered neighbouring communities from the Olympic Zone, barring Boyle’s notion of an Olympics, and ultimately Jerusalem, for all.

The Stratford Shoal
Figure 4. Fairs, M., 2012 Stratford Shoal covering Stratford Centre’s entrance [Photograph] At: http://www.dezeen.com/2012/06/12/the-stratford-shoal-by-studio-egret-west/ (Accessed on 05.12.15)
To further mark the distinction between consumers and the ‘other’, Westfield Stratford was closed to anyone other than ticket holders on busy Games days (Hall, 2012). Similar to the American gated communities of suburban white America, the architecture in London 2012 exemplified the splitting of resident communities through the ‘purification’ of space by discouraging interaction between visitors’ spending and the local ‘other’ (Hall, 2012). The post-Olympic landscape of East London paints a similar picture. Within the designated festival space, high-end rents for luxury apartments and Ikea and Tesco ‘towns’ dominate the spatial legacy. Such spatial development and concentrated regenerative investment contributes to a social and cultural sense of urban neglect and exclusion from collective human experiences for the local ‘other’.

Through this spatial development apartheid, London 2012 distanced itself from the Jerusalem utopia, and instead contributed to the on-going processes through which urban populations, spaces, and national citizenship became fragmented in ‘scary cities’ (England & Simon 2010). Boyle’s ‘Isles of Wonder’ furthered this, by providing insight into the hierarchies of belonging. Those not represented in defining the British ‘way of life’ were made to feel less national given their social and cultural styles weren’t represented in the national capital. Boyle’s selective historical noises resembled that of the majority, maintaining the privileged political or symbolic positions of ethnicities that were dominant in the first place (Silk, 2014). The Opening Ceremony, as part of a larger narrative, positioned minority communities within new hierarchies of belonging that replay spatialised aspects of colonial racism. This replaying suits London’s postcolonial situation, where ‘black, Asian and Bengali presence is tolerated as long as it does not challenge the terms of the hierarchy itself’ (Back et al., 2012). Boyle’s performance asserted an ethnic majority whose position remains ‘beyond question’ and who recreate a ‘common sense’ view of the world as it is and should be, ‘others’ become marked against such a category (Silk, 2014).

On the surface, Boyle’s depiction of modern London and Britain was that of a unified cultural community. Yet, it is a Britain with terms of inclusion, where multiple identities are accepted, only if they remain loyal to the nation (Back et al., 2012). In the ‘recovery of national greatness in the imagination’ racism, and for that matter, class antagonisms and gender politics are rendered as dead, yet the echoes of colonial racism are in the ‘limit points of multiculturalism’ that immigration, identities and minorities in Britain such as migrants having to undergo a British culture test. Boyle’s “Jerusalem for all” founded upon Blake’s principals allow entry to all, and Theresa May’s culture test completely contradicts the ease in which migrants can enter this proposed Jerusalem. This paints an all too familiar and highly troublesome picture of post-Olympic Britishness that is all too suggestive of ‘neo-imperial hierarchies of belonging that corrode the quality of our social interactions and the possibility of humanity’ (Back et al., 2012). Since Blake’s visions of 1794 London, Britain has arguably made significant strides towards a new Jerusalem built on the foundations of Attlee’s Labour, yet policies focused around the 2012 Olympics aimed at global consumerism and selling London as a global commodity have led to spatial development at the extent of the local, feared ‘other’, distant from Blake’s Jerusalem.


Back, L. and Sinha, S., 2012. New hierarchies of belonging. European Journal of Cultural Studies15(2), pp.139-154.

Beveridge, W.H.B.B., 1942. Social Insurance and Allied Services: Beveridge Report. HM Stationery Office.

Boyle, D., 2012. Isles of Wonder. Media Guide: London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.

Brownell, S., 2013. The Olympic Public Sphere: The London and Beijing Opening Ceremonies as Representative of Political Systems. The International Journal of the History of Sport30(11), pp.1315-1327.

Bryant, C.G., 2015. National art and Britain made real: the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. National Identities, (ahead-of-print), pp.1-14.

Burdsey, D., 2011. The techicolor Olympics? Race, representation and the 2012 London Games.

Chhabra, D., Healy, R. and Sills, E., 2003. Staged authenticity and heritage tourism. Annals of tourism research30(3), pp.702-719.

Cox, M., 2004. The concise Oxford chronology of English literature. Oxford University Press.

Craig, F.W., 1975. British general election manifestos, 1900-1974. Macmillan Press.

Crawford, C., 2015. Preserving England’s green and pleasant land. Rail Magazine, pp.31-32. Accessed: http://www.lda-design.co.uk/

Elgenius, G., 2011. The politics of recognition: symbols, nation building and rival nationalisms. Nations and Nationalism17(2), pp.396-418.

England, M.R. and Simon, S., 2010. Scary cities: urban geographies of fear, difference and belonging: Editorial. Social & Cultural Geography11(3), pp.201-207.

Fielding, S., 1992. What did ‘the people’want?: the meaning of the 1945 general election. The Historical Journal35(03), pp.623-639.

Gibbons, A. and Wolff, N., 2012. Games Monitor: Undermining the hype of the London Olympics. City16(4), pp.468-473.

Gilroy, A., 2004. Green and pleasant land: English culture and the Romantic countryside (Vol. 8). Peeters Publishers.

Hall, C.M., 2012. Sustainable mega-events: Beyond the myth of balanced approaches to mega-event sustainability. Event Management16(2), pp.119-131.

Halliday, J., 2015. Met chief admits institutional racism claims have ‘some justification’. The Guardian. Accessed: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jun/05/met-chief-admits-institutional-racism-claims-have-some-justification

Hogan, J., 2003. Staging The Nation Gendered and Ethnicized Discourses of National Identity in Olympic Opening Ceremonies. Journal of Sport & Social Issues27(2), pp.100-123.

Horne, J., 2007. The four ‘knowns’ of sports mega‐events. Leisure studies,26(1), pp.81-96.

Jacob, S. and Vanstiphout, W., 2014. What now? Building A New Jerusalem. The Architect’s Journal. Accessed: http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/what-now-building-a-new-jerusalem/8663565.article

Kortekaas, V. and Blitz, R. 2011 Cameron doubles budget for Olympic ceremonies. Financial Times. London

LOCOG., 2012. The London 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony media guide

Macpherson, S.W., 1999. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: report of an inquiry. TSO.

Rivett, G., 1998. From cradle to grave: fifty years of the NHS. London: King’s Fund.

Shapiro, M., 2014. JK Rowling: the wizard behind Harry Potter. St. Martin’s Griffin.

Silk, M., 2014. ‘Isles of Wonder’: performing the mythopoeia of utopic multi-ethnic Britain. Media, Culture & Society

Soutphommasane, T., 2012. The virtuous citizen: Patriotism in a multicultural society. Cambridge University Press.

Whittaker, T., 2011. Between the dirty and the pretty Bodies in utopia in Dirty Pretty Things. International Journal of Cultural Studies14(2), pp.121-132.


Figure 1. (header image) Blake, W., 1804. Preface to Milton: Book the First. W. Blake. [Photograph] At: http://goo.gl/FZRp3G (Accessed on 24.11.15)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.