Philip Hensher: Danny Boyle and the myth of country life

 

Share

Round our way, there's an excellent annual event in a Brixton park called the Lambeth Country Show. All sorts of country practices are rounded up and brought to civilisation for the day – there's Hold an Owl, some Morris dancing and a Rare Breeds tent.

At that one, I once saw an angelic-looking small boy transfixed by a foul-smelling goat. He tugged on his mother's arm. "'Ere, Ma," he said. "What the f***'s that, then?" The mother glanced over and gave him a glancing blow about the head. "It's a f***ing dog, innit," she said.

I must admit to being nearly as ignorant about the countryside as these neighbours of mine. I could tell the difference between a field of mustard and one of wheat, an owl and a hawk, a rabbit and a sheep. That's about as far as it goes. I don't mind the countryside, so long as you can be home from it in time for dinner.

Even if the wildest landscape we habitually see is the municipal park round the corner, however, we as English people do have a tendency to define ourselves against the background of the countryside. The film director Danny Boyle this week unveiled the initial set for the Olympic opening ceremony, and, to everyone's surprise, it proves to be a pastoral vision, including farm animals, a model of Glastonbury Tor and (if necessary) artificial rainclouds to dampen the spirits.

That isn't going to be the whole of it, of course, but it's striking that, even now, we tend to define our Englishness as exhibited primarily in a rural context. This country was the first to embrace industry, and to build great cities on foundations of filth and fire. Still we hold an image of ourselves as country folk, and often long to retire to green fields as soon as possible. This is the case even though our families have almost certainly not moved from an agricultural to an urban existence within living memory – most English townsfolk have been townsfolk for generations.

It is strange, considering how urban our lives have long been, that our fantasies about an ideal existence remain rural. Our dreams of the perfect house resulting from a lottery win will encompass the country manor, not (as in most of Europe) a magnificent townhouse. If a Parisian or a New Yorker heard anyone discussing how easy it was to get out of their cities into rural life, they would stare in amazement. It's often the first thing that English people will say about their city – it's very easy to get out into the country, as if that was much of a recommendation for the place in which they live.

These fantasies about rural life – the construction of vistas from country houses, the ideal images of country-house portraits, the strange social event described as a "country supper" in Rebekah Brooks's emails to the Prime Minister, the Tellytubbies landscapes of Mr Boyle's reconstructed England – play to an urban audience. They always have. Only a minority of English people live in a large city. There is no other English city anywhere near as big as London. But they are, surely, the audience for pastoral imagery.

In the real world, people who live in the country have to put up with struggling retail businesses – five rural post offices a week were closing under Blair's government – as well as, often, closed and oppressive social attitudes and a failing farming business. They don't know about "country suppers". It's just supper. They will look at what, no doubt, will be a charming fantasy by Mr Boyle, and not recognise much of it. All the same, they don't entertain reciprocal fantasies about giving up their muddy existence for a comfortable house in a stucco terrace in Notting Hill. They know they are living in the middle of the English dream. For the rest of us, Mr Boyle's pageant is likely to be a striking and memorable fantasy, and about as much of the countryside as we can probably take in one go. Whether the countryside itself will benefit from the vast sums of public money being poured into a fortnight of minor sports, I can't tell you.

On Friday, William Boyd was writing in another newspaper about a rock band he's got to know. I reached the end of the first paragraph, and there it was – "But the case of Keane and I is different." William Boyd! One of the best novelists of his generation!

The spread of "A friend has invited my wife and I to dinner" is excruciating. You hear it much more than even 10 years ago, and even now it would be humiliating for the perpetrator if only some people cared or would point out the horrible blunder. It's not an informal or vivid way of speaking; it's a revolting and prissy attempt to bring a phrase or clause into a world of elegance and politeness, and, incidentally, getting the whole thing wrong.

At a certain point, we do admit with grammatical shifts that there is not much more we can do. But, for the moment, let's go on believing that "me" is not a less posh way of saying "I", but one with its own correct place in grammar. The case of Keane and me, please, in future.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Seven per cent of young men have recently stopped using deodorant  

‘Sweaty-gate’ leaves a bad smell for PRs and journalists

Danny Rogers
Alison Parker and Adam Ward: best remembered before tragedy  

The only way is ethics: Graphic portraits of TV killings would upset many, not just our readers in the US

Will Gore
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory