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'Isles of Wonder'? - some thoughts on the 'Little World' of the London Olympics

Danny Boyle's recently unveiled prototype for the London 2012 Opening Ceremony is centred around a nostalgic image of British countryside. But what do this model's myriad influences suggest about power, history and national identities across the UK? 

This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.

“An illusion can become a half-truth, a mask can alter the expression of a face.” (George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941 397)

I once heard Peter Ackroyd, who had recently sold his house in Dorset, describe mud as “disgusting”.  I also think of William Hazlitt, who long ago defended London against accusations advanced by William Wordsworth. In his essay “On Londoners and Country People” (1823), Hazlitt admitted that the Londoner may well know nothing of his immediate neighbours and be both distracted and isolated by the “buzz and glare and noise” about him. Yet the “Cockney” also moved in “the stream of human life”, and could hardly fail to understand himself as part of that “vast denomination, the people”.

 

Danny Boyle unveils his plans
for the Olympic Opening Ceremony

No such idea of the “public” was to be found in the countryside: only individuals forced together in a grim hierarchy of deference and contempt. If country people were inherently royalist, so Hazlitt asserted long before Marx condemned the “idiocy” of rural life, this was because the king was the biggest individual of all, and that was the only measure known to rustics. In our time, or so we are now told, almost everybody in the British Isles declares themselves proud of the countryside. But isn’t asking an unspecified sample of people whether they like the countryside rather like asking them whether they disapprove of murder? You worry about the mental health of those who disagree. Whether this majority stands at 95% or 98%, it remains a meaningless statistic unless you quickly move on to consider other questions. Which people, and, indeed, which countryside? A Scottish nationalist might look at the ruins of a cleared Highland village in a way that has nothing in common with the glance a prosperous East Anglian farmer casts over a vast field of oilseed rape. And what does the view of Kinder Scout as it appears in the eye of a rambler from Manchester or Leeds share with that of a banker surveying parkland around the Sussex mansion he’s just bought with his bonus?  If we overlook such differences, we end up with nothing but a large bowl of green mush.  

That, it seems, is what Danny Boyle is threatening to offer the world as the set for his £27 million Olympic opener, “Isles of Wonder”. Announced as “a traditional and idyllic view of the British countryside,” this is certainly a provocative vision to land on East London. An archaic myth of origins, served up in a place that has long been defined by mobility, mixture and migration. A pastoral bomb dropped on an area that has actually proved full of toxic and polluted land, and where the Olympics juggernaut has already flattened various forms of community land use – football pitches, allotments and other more or less traditional amenities that find their elegy in Emma-Louise Williams’ and Michael Rosen’s film  “Under the Cranes”.    

The boosted rhetoric of “Isles of Wonder” may remind older viewers of the water privatisation adverts of 1989, which used the slogan “Imagine a Kingdom” as they set out to convince viewers that flogging off the public water supply would make it start spurting out of the national landscape as pure and bubbly mineral water. It is promised that the mud and grass will be authentic, and that “real” British rain will fall from one of Boyle’s artificial clouds. Animal rights groups have already objected to the fact that the livestock is going to be just that. Yet these are all spectacular effects, and Boyle’s scene riggers are not substantially bothered by the present actualities of rural life. With its nods to Shakespeare and poor William Blake, theirs is a literary fantasy more or less attuned to our thoroughly urbanized sense of retrospect (Hazlitt described the Londoner’s nostalgia for simpler childhood scenes as “the long vista, at one bright loop-hole, leading out of the thorny mazes of the world into the clear morning light”). 

Boyle’s Olympian extravaganza is really a visual contribution to the collection of lists with which various commentators over the decades have attempted to capture the essence of British identity: inventories, of what George Orwell, drawing up his own most famous example while writing The Lion and the Unicorn in 1940, described as “characteristic fragments”…  Orwell’s list was no rustic idyll. Concerned to discover an inclusive and popular patriotism that might motivate both Britain and the empire to pursue the war against Nazism, Orwell gathered in his images from town as well as country, north as well as south, and from the lower reaches of the class system too. Given the dire threat then looming across the English Channel, he was only slightly apologetic for treating England and Britain as if they were the same thing.

Our wars are more distant and Boyle’s is a far lighter vision. Yet he too has had to think about being British rather than just English. So we have Caliban’s speech from The Tempest not John of Gaunt’s lament for “This England” in Richard II. The oak-topped grassy mound may be modelled on Glastonbury Tor but it is also guarded against exclusive ideas of English belonging by the  presence of two “mosh-pits” full of  banner-waving folk who might, for all we know, be festival-goers, historical re-enacters, or a bunch of kettled demonstrators opposing the British National Party. The central building avoids all religious connotations and is definitely not Brideshead or Downton Abbey.  Indeed, it appears to be a single-floored hovel with quite different associations: an IRA den perhaps, that has somehow survived the attention of the Black and Tans; or a Hebridean crofter’s house awaiting conversion into an English incomer’s holiday home. If Boyle were a realist, the hedges would have been grubbed up and the fields both enlarged and straightened. The farmworkers would have been sacked or, at best, rehoused in peripheral estates in a nearby town. The four upright poles would be electricity pylons or wind turbines. Yet they turn out to be national “maypoles”, topped with huge heraldic flowers and promising equality of participation for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. There are limits, too, to Boyle’s archaism. Some reporters detected a cricket match, but there are no red telephone boxes and no sign either of Orwell’s old maids bicycling through the morning mist to Communion: perhaps those tired figures were finally mocked to death after being relaunched in 1993 by John Major, anxious to reassure Tory Eurosceptics that, fifty years hence, Britain would remain “unamendable in all essentials”.

All such “lists” become clichés as they are repeated, but it is, nevertheless, an odd collection of national avatars that Boyle has lined up as the background for his extravaganza, unified less by any inherent quality, than by the much aired promise that something unexpected is going to happen to them. The managers of his spectacle drop knowing hints about the “narrative” Boyle intends to unleash on this knowingly confected scene. They mutter about his interest in Frankenstein and his sense of irony. It has even been suggested that we may see the NHS conjured into existence all over again (although the choreography may not extend to the manoeuvre promoted by the present government as  “Turn Around”).  

* * * * *

Perhaps it is in this anticipation of looming disruption that Danny Boyle’s “Isles of Wonder” intersects most revealingly and, as we must surely hope, playfully with the traditions of nationalist iconography.  Many cultural, as distinct from “civic”, invocations of patriotism in Britain have used historical imagery to create a sense of solidarity at a time of perceived threat. There are various ways of articulating this martial couplet of heritage and danger, and they can take very different forms among the often disputatious nations of our “Isles of Wonder”. In Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the sense of encroaching threat may be presented by the institutions and attitudes of the British state, whether or not the old invader is identified with England.  But what happens when, as some Scottish nationalists have requested, England starts to distinguish itself from that same British state? The commonly expressed fear is that we will end up with “Little Englandism”, an insular parochialism that responsible politicians should treat with extreme caution. This was certainly the attitude taken by Gordon Brown, whose speech-writer (and Justice Minister) Michael Wills, read his Orwell and then emphasized the “golden thread” of “liberty, responsibility and fairness” that Brown repeatedly associated with British history. This invocation of  British tradition was intended to head off the Scottish nationalists, but it was not just for fear of seeing “devolution” go too far that  John Prescott was sent out to bark at wayward patriots, informing them that Englishness was not a recognized nationality and that, give or take a few footling regional assemblies, Britishness was what they had to accept. This may have been a Canute-like position, yet it is not hard to understand. The idea of England has indeed been closely associated with Europhobia and racism.

Yet this  habit of rallying an organic idea of England against perceived threats is by no means confined to right wing perspectives. The idea of “Encroachment” was used against the enclosure of the commons in the early modern period. It was to become a defining feature in the rhetoric of William Cobbett, who rode around the English countryside in the 1820s raging against all the forces he saw disrupting the traditional rural community. A great fulminator, who spread his Radical views far and wide by publishing his own newspapers, Cobbett invoked a host of hated forces of encroachment and, in the process, pioneered a denunciatory style of writing that still flourishes in tabloid journalism today. His enemies included the new capitalism, the modern city with its corrupting influences, the unreformed parliamentary system with its rotten boroughs, the national debt brought on by an autocratic government’s European wars,  the Malthusian (and “Scotch”) thinkers advocating assisted emigration for the allegedly “surplus” rural population, the decadent sophistication encouraging previously plain  farmers to introduce “parlours", fancy mahogany and even “sofas” into their houses. Nobody could doubt the vigour of Cobbett’s stand against the modern developments he bundled up as “the Thing”. We might see nothing more than harmless eccentricity in his hatred of tea-drinking (reviled as an alien practise displacing the English ploughman’s home-brewed beer), but that can’t be said for the frankly anti-Semitic cast of his thought.

This way of thinking about “heritage” and “danger” was carried forward by some of Cobbett’s admirers, including G.K. Chesterton, who revived this sense of polarization in the first years of the twentieth century, defending a still rural idea of “little England” against the imperial adventures of the British empire in the Boer War, and also against the reforming state then breing advocated so optimistically by some members of the Fabian Society. It also informed the preservationist campaigns of the inter years, whose  defence of the landscape was advanced in Clough Williams Ellis’s manifestos England and the Octopus (1928) or Britain and the Beast (1937). The habit persisted through the post-war decades too. In the 1960s, Enoch Powell embraced “England” as a venerable oak tree “standing and growing, the sap still rising from her ancient roots to meet the spring”, and then went on crusade against the immigrants he so notoriously condemned as the ‘unassimilated element of our society’. A similarly polarized idea of England shaped other debates in the post-war years – over both Europe and modern architecture as engaged by Prince Charles and his followers, and over the domestic state, the latter still routinely assaulted for corroding the national character with politically correct rules, health and safety regulations, and “multiculturalism” too.

It would indeed be preposterous to use any of this as justification for abandoning “England” as inherently toxic as some around Gordon Brown were apparently inclined to do. But how might we rethink this set of questions as Jon Cruddas has recently set out to do? We might start by recognizing the international basis of much that has been expressed in “little English” form.

In his book All that Is Solid Melts into Air, the American writer Marshall Berman has pointed out that the coming of capitalist and industrial modernity unleashed vast creative energies, but also generated a habit of lamentation and nostalgia. Writing about Goethe’s Faust, he traces the emergence of “little worlds” that seem to glow with heart-rending intensity as they teeter on the brink of extinction. Cobbett’s rural England is like that, and his polemical and polarized way of taking the side of the “little world” against its enemies did not go unchallenged. One of his critics was Karl Marx who in the first volume of Capital pointed out Cobbett’s error in suggesting, far too simply, that the problem facing England was really a matter of the national debt built up during the Napoleonic Wars. Marx was fully aware of the vast upheavals to which Cobbett had reacted. Indeed, he too used the language of encroachment to talk about what industrial capitalism had done to the working day. As he writes in a passage quoted by Berman: “there followed, with the birth of large scale industry in the last third of the eighteenth century, an avalanche of violent and unmeasured encroachments. Every boundary set by morality and nature, age and sex, day and night, was broken down. Even the ideas of day and night, which in the old statutes were of peasant simplicity, became so confused than an English judge, as late as 1860, needed the penetration of an interpreter of the Talmud to explain ‘judicially’ what was day and what was night. Capital was celebrating its orgies.”

It should also be acknowledged that “encroachment” was by no means only an English experience either. A colleague recently referred me to an observation made by David Livingstone in the 1850s. In a passage omitted from the published edition of his Missionary Travels (1857), Livingstone wrote that: “the native population becomes worse and not better from its contact with civilization and a professedly Christian people... the grasping encroachment of the white men from year to year on the native lands is rather an unlikely method of teaching the Kaffirs that honesty is one of the virtues.” As this suggests, the processes of enclosure and transformation that turned the English countryside into a nostalgic image in the mind of an urbanizing population, were also put into practice around the world by the builders of the British empire.  Indeed, in many parts of the world the problem of “encroachment” on common lands remains a live and urgent issue for the poor.   

This pattern, or one continuous with it, continues in our now thoroughly internationalised economy. The gestural theorist Slavoj Zizek has dismissed present interest in localized culture as merely a consolation prize offered by a triumphant neoliberalism. Others, who may not spare too much thought for the fate of residualised so-called “chav” populations, may follow Hardt and Negri in embracing the migrant as the true subject of our time. It would surely be more useful to consider how both trajectories – of settlement as well as mobility - are being shaped and even governed by the thing (if not “The Thing”) that is globalization, which may well be redefining the local, and through this both the regional and the national, and which may thereby also be creating the possibility of new forms of international solidarity. We have yet to discover whether or not Boyle’s “Isles of Wonder” is really a universal “little world” for our time, but there is surely more at stake here than pride in the British countryside. 

This piece was written as a response to this article by Rachael Jolley of British Future. 

About the author

Patrick Wright is Professor of Literature and Visual & Material Culture in the English Department at King's College, London.


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