Tuesday, July 24, 2012
In centuries past Londoners fled the city in summer months to escape the plague. This year grumpy Londoners are fleeing to escape the chaos of the Olympics. Complaining is Londoners’ favorite pastime and the Olympics is supplying plenty of material. The crowds, the traffic disruptions, the security excesses – missiles on top of apartment buildings! – and worst, the abomination of a ban on food vendors selling the iconic British food, chips, because McDonalds has a monopoly on “french fries.” Even the weather, a reliable staple of London grumbling, is proving worse than usual. As I have learned from several Londoners recently, instead of enjoying the opportunity to host the premier international sports event with pride, they are leaving town for the duration.
I must admit as a former Londoner I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the Olympics myself. That was until I learned that the theme of the opening ceremony, Isle of Wonders, is inspired by English literature, specifically the pastoral literature of England’s rural past. Directed by Danny Boyle, the ceremony will begin with the ringing of a 27 ton bell inscribed with Caliban’s words from The Tempest: “Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises.” Twelve horses, three cows, two goats, ten chickens, ten ducks, nine geese, seventy sheep and three sheepdogs will participate in the spectacle. So now the noises we hear are the complaints of animal lovers afeard that the experience will cause undue stress to the animals. The entire ceremony has become a focus of complaint and controversy before it has even been staged, just another topic for London grumbling.
Reading all about it at The Guardian I was inspired to recall some of my favorite books and writers of rural England. The classic works of Thomas Hardy and George Eliot evoke English country life as it was in the 19th century, both a rural idyll and a place of hardship and tragedy. My own personal favorites are Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and Eliot’s Adam Bede. The Guardian article mentions the poetry of John Clare and Edward Thomas as specific inspirations for the Olympic ceremony. Both can be read in any good English poetry anthology. Check the library shelves in Dewey Decimal number 821. John Clare is the subject of a recent novel short-listed for the Booker Prize, The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds. Set in rural Essex, it is based on the true story of Clare’s descent into madness and the time he spent in an experimental lunatic asylum. The author, also a poet, lyrically evokes the surrounding natural world that inspired Clare’s writing.
In a lighter vein, the classic comedy Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is always a delight to return to. Set in the Sussex countryside in the 1930’s, the novel satirizes the doom and gloom genre of rural fiction epitomized by Wuthering Heights and a host of lesser imitators. Hilarity ensues when Flora Poste, a young London socialite, is orphaned and goes to live with her farming relatives, the eccentric Starkadder clan. Rachel Cusk delivers a more recent satire of the genre in The Country Life, winner of the Whitbread Prize. Here a modern Jane Eyre desiring to “exist in a state of no complexity whatever” leaves London for a job as a nanny on a Sussex farm. Needless to say her expectations prove far from the reality in this very funny novel. In non-fiction who can resist James Herriot’s books about a country vet based on his own experiences in the Yorkshire Dales. A less well-known book about contemporary rural life is David Kennard’s A Shepherd’s Watch, a memoir about life on a Devon farm with the author’s working sheepdogs.
For insight into just why Londoners might be curmudgeonly about the upcoming ceremonies check out this new book about the London character, Londoners: the Days and Nights of London Now by Craig Taylor. The subtitle says it all: “as told by those who love it, hate it, live it, left it, and long for it.” As one who left it and sometimes longs for it I shall be sitting in front of the television for the Olympic opening ceremony to see just how the director of Slumdog Millionaire interprets rural England for our times.