Philip Hensher: Danny Boyle and the myth of country life


Click to follow
The Independent Online

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.