(Do shepherds dream of idyllic sheep?)
A few weeks ago, when the design for at least part of the Olympic opening ceremony was revealed, I was nothing short of appalled. You see, I grew up in a small village surrounded by farmland, and I have little time for the romantic longing for the countryside. Radio 4’s endless pastoral idyll, the Archers fills me with horror, and the idea of presenting a world audience of potentially four billion with grazing sheep and village cricket strikes me as perfectly ghastly. Did I see correctly that the set even includes a figure ploughing a field with a team of horses? Nineteenth century nostalgia madness, I say.
Is this really the best way of celebrating one of the most exciting, urbane, multi-cultural, creative cities? It looks like an image of imagined English countryside, as stuck in c. 1880 or thereabouts, at least as the 1880s might look in the nostalgic mind of somebody like Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, complete with the lovely tint of the evening light and some decorative (but neither too hard working nor too dirty) peasants in the distant background.
But on second thought, this might actually be uniquely appropriate for London of all places. Because the pastoral idyll, this impossible longing for a fantasy countryside, is a unique phenomenon of the megacity, and in Europe at least, London has one of the longest histories of a large population almost entirely separated from the countryside and therefore prone to conceiving romanticised notions of it.
The idea of writing about a countryside unencumbered by the many complications of sophisticated life seems to have taken off, for the first time, in ancient Greece. But it was not Athens which gave us this particular genre, but Alexandria, the new, impossibly large mega-city founded by Alexander, populated, within two generations, with hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. For the first time in the Greek world, there was a city where most citizens did not farm, and where walking out into the countryside would no longer be so easy as to be part of normal life.
Theocritus, a poet probably working at the court of the Ptolemies, the Macedonian/Greek kings of Egypt, first hit upon the idea of setting his poems among lovelorn, simple shepherds (for example, look at Idylls 1, 3 and 4). Wealthy, educated inhabitants of these big cities enjoyed to imagine life in Theocritus’ fantasy version of the Sicilian countryside or in an idealised Arcadia. Later, similar themes became fashionable in Rome, yet another cosmopolitan city with hundreds of
thousands of inhabitants: once Rome had become large and urban enough, Vergil’s Eclogues (example: Eclogue VII) appropriately allowed them to return to yet another idealised Arcadian shepherds’ world. Early modern Europe rediscovered the fascination with the genre once city life yet again became the focus of the sophisticated classes: 18th century aristocrats enjoyed playing at being shepherds in carefully stage-managed faux rural landscapes.
And what about real Arcadians? The people who lived in the mountains of the central Peloponnese did indeed base much of their wealth (as far as it went) on mountain pastures. When they had a chance, c. 370 BC, the first thing they did was to combine the population of many small villages into a city which they ambitiously named Megalopolis. Shepherds are more likely to dream of the big city, and would hardly recognise townies’ vision of the romantic countryside.
Thus, however counter-intuitive it may seem – Danny Boyle’s recreation of a rural idyll may be the most urban creation the Olympics have ever seen.