Editor-At-Large: Fake Britain at the heart of Olympics

 

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I love the British countryside and spend every minute I can walking in it in all weathers, so it's encouraging that Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust, thinks huge swathes should be listed in order to ensure it receives the same protection as wonderful buildings.

Let's be honest, though, much of rural England (in particular) has undergone a slow but systematic degradation over the past two decades, with the building of wider motorways, unnecessary roads funded by the EU in "deprived" areas, lines of pylons, wind farms on prominent hilltops and out-of-town retail superstores on greenfield sites. To prevent further erosion by developers determined to exploit our planning laws and build suburban sprawls rather than infilling brownfield sites, listing is an obvious way forward. I have campaigned myself for green lanes and drovers' roads to be listed, because they are a vital historical record, exactly like cathedrals. Many in our national parks and areas of outstanding national beauty are being destroyed by off-road vehicles.

Meanwhile, Danny Boyle's plans for the Olympics opening ceremony fill me with dread. He's created a fake bucolic version of Britain – a place of sheep, maypoles, cotton-wool clouds and daffodils, with a model Glastonbury Tor thrown in for good measure. The real countryside is a war zone between farmers (who want to build huge sheds to stick cattle in seven months of the year and who bung solar panels on beautiful stone buildings rendering them hideous), and incomers who prefer their countryside manicured and smell-free (no anaerobic digesters, please) – in short, a bit like Mr Boyle's sanitised version. Olympic Britain is as fake as the horrible double-decker bus and Carnaby Street spectacle we dished up in Beijing four years ago.

Obviously, no one wants to sit in a stadium and look at pylons and wind farms, but Mr Boyle has missed a trick. When critics point out he's created a Teletubbie land, they are right. So why didn't he people his landscape with the real Teletubbies? They are a perfect symbol of everything that is great about modern Britain. We are world leaders in the creative industries, and the Teletubbies are a global brand that's earned this country millions, exactly like Wallace and Gromit, Thomas the Tank engine, and Fungus the Bogeyman. Where is Damien Hirst, the world's most successful artist, in Mr Boyle's weirdly retro vision? There's a lie at the centre of this extravaganza.

A victory for free speech?

Nine-year old Martha Payne goes to school in Lochgilphead, Argyll, and wants to be a journalist. She started a blog (neverseconds. blogspot.co.uk), posting daily pictures of her school dinners, with ratings for health and yumminess. Soon, Martha's record of what passes for "meals" went viral, and her support for a Scottish charity, Mary's Meals, which feeds children in the developing world, led to fans all over the world raising more than £2,000 for the cause.

Sadly, the powers that be then decided that Martha and her charming comments posed a threat which must be silenced. Last Thursday's posting was headlined simply "Goodbye". Her father told radio listeners that the decision to ban his daughter from photographing her meals – thankfully now lifted – came not from the school itself but the local council, Argyll and Bute. He said she had started the blog to entertain friends and relatives but ended up with more than two million hits. Give that girl a job!

Swindon resurgent

In spite of getting regularly trashed by David Brent in The Office (sample put-down: "I heard they dropped an atomic bomb on Swindon ... and did about £15 worth of damage"), Swindon is fighting back with a new opera based on life in the unlovely place.

Back in 2010, James Corden was rumoured to be writing a sitcom for the BBC set in Swindon, but now he's won a Tony award for his stunning performance in One Man, Two Guvnors on Broadway, that could be on the back burner for a while.

Now, a lottery-funded project is set to project a more positive image for the place. Swindon: the Opera, which charts the town's history between the Queen's coronation and today, will open at Steam, the Museum of the Great Western Railway, on 7 July, with a libretto by Matt Fox and music by Betty Roe. The soprano Polly Leech will play the late Diana Dors (inset top), Swindon's most glamorous star, who will narrate the action and keep a panel of carping cynics under control.

This is one jubilee project that sounds innovative and fresh – and doesn't feature sheep or maypoles. Operas with a contemporary setting are all the rage. I can't wait to see John Adams's Nixon in China in this year's Proms in September.

Blind spot

I wonder what Madonna – a famously strict mum who bans her kids from watching TV, doesn't give Christmas presents and doesn't allow sweets – would feel about her 11-year-old son, Rocco, attending a pop concert in which a 53-year-old woman exposes her breasts and pulls down her trousers to reveal a thong and fishnet tights? Or does she think that children under 16 shouldn't attend pop concerts, even though they buy millions of her records? It would be interesting to hear what Rocco's father, Guy Ritchie, thinks about the sight of his ex-wife resorting to desperate measures to publicise her tour, which arrives in this country next month.

We complain about the sexualisation of children, but Madonna seems blind to the impact her behaviour might have. I wouldn't like to have been Rocco at school the day after Mum flashed her boob in Istanbul.

Shared hatred

Ann Widdecombe might have retired from politics, but she's busy writing novels, making telly shows about girl gangs, appearing in panto and even making a guest appearance in La fille du régiment at the Royal Opera House.

Last week, she took part in a live webchat on Gransnet and revealed she thinks she probably won't be remembered politically "at all". Can this self-effacing Ann Widdecombe be the same person I encountered on Loose Women recently, so certain of her opinions, who brooks no interruption in her verbal flow? (Don't email and say that sounds like pot and kettle, please.) Ann emphatically told Gransnetters she still believes in the death penalty, still thinks there's no place for women priests in the church, declares positive discrimination "an insult to women", reckons virginity is "underrated" and states that Maggie Thatcher was a far greater prime minister than David Cameron will ever be.

Ann is a year younger than me, but we are poles apart on almost every issue except one. She hates Twitter and Facebook. She says, "I did once try Facebook and I once twittered for a television programme, but abandoned both at the earliest opportunity." It still doesn't make me warm to her.

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