We’re heading home, driving north from Oxfordshire to Edinburgh, bypassing the villages, towns and cities of middle England, and every motorway mile mocks the green and pleasant spectacle Danny Boyle plans to conjure up for the opening of the Olympics.
Am I being too cynical? Looking out the window I can see plenty of green and pleasant. Clumps of trees on rounded hills, pylons beaming power over meadows of pink and white campion, kestrels hovering for the kill above verges of daisies and teasels. And haven’t we just been staying in one of those beautiful rural retreats, a bunting-festooned village with more thatched roofs, half-timbered buildings and blooming gardens than any film director could make up.
But Boyle is not the only one making dreams. It’s when we pass ‘Shakespeare’s Stratford’ that it strikes me we are driving through a countryside remixed and regurgitated by the tourism industry. We are constantly being sold an image subtly removed from real life. To be fair, Stratford is a pretty place, and we’ve enjoyed some fine Shakespeare plays there. But for one sacrilegious moment I wonder if the carefully manufactured ‘Shakespeare experience’ – boxing the Bard in biscuit tins – stimulates or stifles creative thought in the place that depends on his name to draw the crowds (3 million of them) every year? Another thought, practically blasphemous, could being a UNESCO City of Literature have the same stranglehold on grassroots culture in Edinburgh?
On and on up the M6, signposts pointing the way to a different kind of Britain, junctions leading to towns and cities that grew from coal, steel and cotton. Factories, shipyards, potteries and mines are part of the past now too, disappearing into a waste-land of buddleia and shopping malls.
But that’s not it either. There’s new life in all these cities. Despite the new depression (and goodness knows there’s more to come if Osborne can’t get any further along the alphabet than Plan A), you find an exciting buzz in cities north of London. Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool – and that’s just the big names on the M6. Never mind for a moment the cities on the east coast or grand urban settlements of Scotland. Great regional cities with a vision for the future as well as a memory of the past. This could be part of a great national renaissance if it wasn’t for the bonkers economic imbalance of the UK weighted so heavily towards the south-east. (This is most definitely not a plea for Scottish independence by the way).
Here’s a crazy thought. Olympics 2012 is supposed to spread a warm glow across the whole nation. Instead of his rural idyll, what if Boyle were to celebrate the great cities of Britain. London can afford to give credit where it is due. Alternatively we might have spent the Olympian budget on something completely different. Creating jobs and building houses maybe?