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The London Olympics and the Pastoral Myth

Wait, that’s not an Olympic sport! Photo courtesy UK Department of Culture, Media, and Sport

Texted, tweeted, teasing browsers of a hundred “sneak preview” slideshows ─ in short, serving as the centerpiece of endless international speculation for weeks prior to its debut ─ the verdant green fields on which the curtain of the 2012 Olympics lifted may remain their opening ceremony’s most salient image. Director Danny Boyle’s show brought this rural idyll to life with braying livestock, maypole dancers, and tunic-swaddled peasants playing pickup games of cricket, their hushed reverie set to the hymn of Sir Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem,” the scored version of William Blake’s famous poem (often called by the same name) rung in by childrens’ choirs from several equally emerald-hued corners of the UK.

Boyle’s opening was a tear-jerking, if hushed, sonata of nationalist sentimentalism ─ and as such, better received in England than elsewhere. Where, the rest of the world impatiently wondered, was the mass, masked extravaganza of drumbeats and leotards that would be the West’s answer to the chest-beating martial pageantry intimidatingly performed four years earlier in Beijing?

Danny Boyle’s “Dark Satanic Mills”. Photo by Shimelle Laine.

Olympic ceremonies typically affect pomposity meant to impress the billion-member international audiences they attract. But London 2012 faced its most skeptical reception closest to home. The intimate, provincial tableau with which he began made clear that Boyle was preoccupied with cutting short this crisis from the beginning: to flatter the country with coded symbolism, to allow Britons to feel that the Games were being staged for them, first and foremost, and not as an alienating global spectacle bound up in their government’s pretensions.

Just as crucial to this effort were the contrasts that followed. Soot-spotted workers emerged, uprooting the stage’s saccharine storyland to install the billowing smokestacks and fiery forges of a steampunk industrial complex. To the beat of thundering drums (meant “to frighten people,” according to musicians who scored the segment), those hoping for a mass spectacle were mollified at last; the Arcadian Albion of placid pastureland had been displaced by a Dickensian dystopia.

Boyle was playing with symbolism planted deeply in Britain’s national consciousness. The sets suggested contrasts not unlike those of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, where the Hobbits’ verdant Shire gives way to Mordor’s overflowing volcanoes. The show’s program revealed higher-pedigree predecessors. Boyle called the ceremony’s opening act “Green and Pleasant Land” ─ the hypothetical “new Jerusalem” Blake’s poem had juxtaposed with the Industrial Revolution’s “dark satanic mills”. For his factory segment, though, Boyle chose an even darker moniker than Blake’s: “Pandemonium,” the name John Milton used, in Paradise Lost ─ another poem preoccupied with the Fall of Man ─ to signify Hell’s capital.

But the show wasn’t just meant to reprise familiar tropes and local themes. Blake’s Jerusalem was undoubtedly glorious, he suggested, but it was consigned to the prop closet of history. Only centuries of tumult eventually made the next best thing ─ the similarly peaceful, playful Olympics ─ possible (his factory set eventually forges the Olympic rings). The perfect, he helped make clear, could not be the enemy of the good. And yet, summoning this mythologized past couldn’t help but spark debate over whether or how Britain ever was such an Eden (or Inferno), begging the question: what really was Boyle’s Golden Age?

Photo courtesy UK Department of Culture, Media, and Sport

At first, this timeless rural utopia was mistaken as a lamentation for a time when ironclad tradition (and the landed aristocracy that enforced it) reigned. But despite moving CNN’s Piers Morgan to declare, with characteristic thoughtlessness, that “we need to be an Empire again,” despite the BBC’s unironic commentary cheerleading Britain’s “island race,” the ceremony was hardly a paean to conservativism, as Tory MP Aidan Burley assured his Twitter followers when he complained that it was all “leftie multicultural crap”.

After all, the ceremony was freighted with leftist symbolism, including, of course, a lengthy tribute to the National Health Service (“a celebration of all the things the Tories hate, paid for by a Tory government,” another Twitter user chirped). Labour Party politicians praised Boyle for “smuggling in wonderfully progressive socialist sentiments.” “Well done, comrade Boyle!” squealed one Welsh minister. “I bet [Prime Minister] Dave [Cameron] is wriggling.”

Viewed in this context, the earliest segments of the show could also be seen to fit a leftist mold. The displacement of a feudal, agrarian economy by industrial capital lies at the heart of Karl Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism: the transition brings both wealth and social agitation over it, eventually (in Marx’s projection) fomenting revolution. And, to be sure, the ceremony did take note of the social agitation spawned by industry’s rise, including suffragettes to Depression-era Jarrow Marchers picketing poverty and unemployment.

Still, the left has its own tendency to idealize the agrarian. The sense that humanity’s original, equal, ideal state lay in close communion with nature made its deprivation by the tenement-packed capitalist city seem so reprobate, and inspired a thousand housing projects that included acres of endless (and often useless) greenspace, from the Garden City suburbs of the interwar period to the towers-in-the-park that define public housing in Britain, the U.S., and the former Eastern Bloc to this day. In a way, these developments were the physical manifestation of dialectical materialism: the idea that we could reclaim the state of nature by spreading out enough that most people could enjoy a pastoral landscape without losing the comforts of the modern world.

If any ideology ran through the Opening Ceremony, then, it’s one that’s far from easily distinguishable as a shibboleth of the left or right. It might take a special sort of polemicist to diagnose, like the late, somewhat lapsed Marxist, Raymond Williams. The literary critic’s 1973 opus, The Country and the City, chronicles, in detail, the myth of the pastoral ─ the sense that, not too long ago, the pleasant idyll of British country life was dramatically despoiled by human development, giving rise to a considerable contrast between rural and urban life in which the former is always presented as the healthier ─ and happier ─ of the two.

Williams points out that writers had been lamenting a despoiled countryside for so long ─ since at least the 16th century ─ that the charge had essentially become baseless: one generation’s past idyll had been another’s fallen landscape. Nor was the juxtaposition between country and city ever so pronounced as many lamentations averred. In reality, Williams observed, the countryside had hardly been left unmolested by man; the mountain mines and coalfields of his childhood Wales were proof.

By contrast, Boyle’s sets reinvested in the myth (Pandemonium, after all, was a city). As did his closing ceremony, rendering London as a papier-maché pastiche of tourist attractions swimming in a sea of chaos ─ the proverbial nice place to visit, if not to live. These were curious choices for a Games that in many respects had taken pains to become interwoven with its host city: its venues were spread across London’s neighborhoods; organizers urged spectators to use public transportation. As the Prime Minister rapierly quipped, when Mitt Romney critiqued Britain’s Olympic preparations, the Games were being held in the heart of a world capital, not ─ like Romney’s Salt Lake ─ the “middle of nowhere”.

In fact, before Boyle’s opening bash made their attempt to tie the event to the nation-state, these Games were always meant to be more about city than country. London 2012 was sold as a regeneration scheme for the city’s East End, as if the entire city weren’t a cash-flush investment haven for Russian oligarchs and Gulfi sheikhs looking for places to dump their money and if Stratford, site of the Olympic Park ─ which is bordered by increasingly pricey neighborhoods like Hackney and Bethnal Green ─ needed serious assistance to become gentrified.

Whether the Games have or will be in any way beneficial to Stratford’s current residents is still a matter for open debate. There’s more than enough (mostly negative) commentary to go around, from Owen Heatherly’s scathing Guernica essay to Iain Sinclair’s book-length treatment (its subtitle indicting the “future ruins of London”).

Yet, for all its opponents’ ire, Stratford’s physical transformation is a fact. And if its first phases are anything to go by, the redevelopment may include as many tributes to Britain’s imagined pastoral past than Boyle’s romantic overture. Critics of London’s Olympic plans were incensed that the city’s “last great wilderness” would be displaced for the Games (part of the site consisted of a nature reserve). But the Olympics’ landscape architects have arguably rendered the area more bucolic than it appeared when they began. The Olympic Park’s austerity-era architecture ─ its cheap, plasticky stadium and erector-set landmark sculpture, the ArcelorMittal Orbit ─ is entirely outclassed by its setting, a tribute to the last activity at which Britain remains an unrivaled world power: gardening.

The Olympics are usually staged in grandiose, monumental settings: Beijing’s Olympic Park evokes a larger, somehow even more oppressive version of Tiananmen Square, while Athens’ starchitect-pedigree peristyles have ─ lending credence to Sinclair ─ already begun the process of joining the country’s catalog of ruins. Sydney styled itself the first “green games,” but the park that replaced its Olympian plazas failed to materialize until years later.

But, much like its opening ceremony, London’s Olympic grounds ─ those that had been segregated from the surrounding city ─ were different. Visitors to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park found its stadia enmeshed in lush vegetation and carefully-planted flowers; any given day during the Games witnessed huge crowds basking in the fields along the Lea River, which flows through the site, watching the games on a massive screen that rises from thoughtful arrangements of reeds.

The Olympic Park. Photos by Flickr user d g.

The obsession with greenery extends to the Olympic Village, which will somehow be sold off as family apartments after thousands of notoriously-frisky Olympians have finished inaugurating it. Gaze at the village from above and it’s clear open space was a priority ─ wide, grassy fields separate several of the blocks from one another. Post-Olympic plans call for more of the same on surrounding sites.

Though the village is densely built ─ much more so than surrounding neighborhoods ─ this, combined with the envisioned, excess greenspace, resurrects many elements of the last failed attempt to marry the conveniences of urban life with the romance of country fields: the tower-in-the-park developments favored by midcentury urban planners. The impression isn’t helped by their monotonous architecture. There are still plenty of these failed urban experiments looming over Stratford today, many awaiting demolition as developers prepare to repeat their mistakes.

Beyond the Olympic Park, Stratford’s redevelopment has embraced another longtime adversary of traditional urbanism: a vast, indoor mall. The Westfield Stratford City complex has been criticized for lending a commercial air to the games ─ to reach the park’s main entrance, it’s necessary to pass through it ─ and for harming local merchants. Many were promised the moon by Games officials but were “betrayed” by them when a rearrangement of transit lines made it prohibitive to visit them from the park’s main access points.

The depopulation of local streets, the emphasis on parkland, the shunting of commerce indoors: none of this reads like a revitalization of Stratford as an urban neighborhood. It suggests, instead, its suburbanization ─ in spirit if not entirely in form, by attempting to import a version of Boyle’s idealized rural Britain into the heart of London. Reprising the age-old dream of fusing country and city, it will blend parts of each into a hybrid whole that leaves a yearning for neither fully satisfied.

At the same time, the ideological reinforcement of the pastoral myth presented in Boyle’s ceremonies, and in the luxuriantly planted fields of the Olympic Park, sends the same kind of message that, in the past, has instilled a longing for the rural life that inevitably sought unsuccessful satiation in sprawl. This was even somewhat anticipated by Boyle’s opening ceremony, which sets a dance sequence in a landscape of detached, single-family homes: something closer to the American dream than much of Britain has ever believed was financially or ecologically wise to pursue.

But sure as the generations catalogued in Williams’ book, the persistence of the pastoral myth means the next will disparage what their ancestors built and seek Jerusalem elsewhere. The same stories that drove people to the suburbs brought them back to gentrify urban neighborhoods by demonizing their former hometowns’ strip malls and parking lots. Whatever its form, people will flock to Stratford, and leave again.

And in each case, the prophecy that our present environment is fallen and that utopia is just over the next pasture-laden hillock may not be as illusory as it is self-fulfilling: we leave behind only our problems, often in landscapes least equipped to deal with them. Increasingly, urbanists are arguing that tower-in-the-park housing developments didn’t fail because of their design alone as much as the fact that they came to warehouse and isolate the poor. The same is rapidly coming true in American suburbs abandoned to the foreclosure crisis. It may also become true of the greenswards left behind by the Olympic games, or the landscapes inspired by them. What appeared to be sunny pastures by day are dark, lonely, and dangerous by night.

Back behind the Olympic Village. Photo by Flickr user d g.

From Urban Photo. Follow Szabla on Twitter.

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