June 22, 2012 7:45 pm

Old MacDonald has a medal

But where has real rural England gone?
An illustration by Lucas Varela©Lucas Varela

The green and pleasant land is back, it seems. Across the towns, metropolitan elites are shuffling off the urban chic and dreaming of the smell of dung on the rolling hills.

Two moments in recent days have captured the zeitgeist. The first was the unveiling of Danny Boyle’s set for the Olympic opening ceremony – a rural idyll replete with sheep, cows, cricket, cottages and maypoles that at one swoop brought the word “bucolic” back into mainstream broadcasting use. The second was the all-too-cosy text from Rebekah Brooks to David Cameron, looking forward to their next “country supper”.

Suddenly we townies can see we are missing out. Where once we looked at the countryside as the place you headed to at weekends but wouldn’t want to be stuck in Monday to Friday, we now understand that it is where it’s happening, baby. This was a hard blow. We’d been reassured by talk of the Notting Hill set that ran the country and by a Viz notion of the countryside as a place of misery, mud, manure and badger culling. But it turns out to be all terribly Last Night of the Proms; a place where salt-of-the-earth types wave flags and slurp cider while Sun execs serve country suppers and offer rides on retired police horses before heading off to be charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice or popping over to Jeremy Clarkson’s to test-drive his new Maybach.

Except, of course, Danny Boyle’s vision is not the real countryside. We know this because he reassured everyone that the live sheep and cows in the show will be well treated – as opposed to being packed for months in pens barely wider than their bellies before being sent off to slaughter. This livestock will be pampered by professional masseuses before being chauffeured home in the traffic lanes reserved for Olympic VIPs and members of the Unite bus drivers’ union.

This is the postcard countryside. Britain as Tolkien’s Shire, a place where sheep may safely graze and prime ministers can safely forget their kids in the pub. Not so much a portrait of England as a party political broadcast by the Greens. It’s Barbour jackets, Hunter wellies and Range Rovers – a townie vision of the English pastoral life. It’s the countryside for those who can afford a London or Edinburgh bolt-hole. All that is missing is the Vicar of Dibley and Sir John Major’s hedgerow incentive scheme.

Where is the true vision of rural England? Surely what we need is a parade of suicidal farmers selling off their homes to weekend incomers. A classical number can depict the flight of the offspring as they bail out to part-time jobs stacking shelves at the new Morrisons supercentre. We can keep the kids dancing round maypoles as long as it is balanced by marauding hunt saboteurs and flat-earthers exercising their god-given right to destroy GM crop sites.

Perhaps it is all a cunning feint by Boyle, and halfway through the show a convoy of JCBs will arrive to dig up the green belt to build wind farms, bypasses and social housing while a troupe of prancing agricultural thieves makes off with farm machinery. But if not, then like so much else in Britain this is so far removed from reality as to be less pastoral than pastiche. It’s all part of the myth that no longer stacks up; the empire without much of an army; the land that rules the waves but has no aircraft carriers; an industrial pioneer that’s now a European hub for outsourced motor manufacturing; a place where even cricket is just not cricket any more, but some fast-food version served up to hold the attention of a population suffering from attention deficit disorder. Chuck in the jubilee festivities and the entire country is turning into one big museum of national heritage.

We may have mocked Tony Blair and his faux-notions of Cool Britannia, but at least it was forward-looking, a vision of a future. Now, with this hark back to a never-existent rural idyll, it’s official that our best days are behind us. The Olympic bid was won on a dream of metropolitan multiculturalism – now it materialises as a rustic fairy-tale. If Beijing 2008 was China’s coming-out party, then London 2012 would seem to be Britain’s winding-down wake.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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