Everybody needs good neighbours, and the French are the best, but do we deserve them? Letter from London peers over the fence.
Forget thugs and sharks, one of the scariest places you could ever find yourself is on the top deck of a London bus surrounded by drunk teenage girls. They sing, they rage, they drink, they fight. It used to be the blokes but the times are all changed. Girls are now smarter in school and a lot cooler out, say the stats, though there’s uproar at the way sex is used to sell them everything. No wonder one 7-year old this week got a boob job voucher for her birthday, from her mum the “Human Barbie” Sarah Burge. ‘I can’t wait to be like mummy with big boobs’, said young Poppy.
Few taboos are left, and fewer boundaries. It makes as much sense to be beaten up by a 12-year old girl as anyone else. Kids are being sold the right, are being told it is right, to grow up instantaneously. And yet the world they grow up into is getting stranger by the day.
Last week in France, riot police had their drink ration scrapped. Machine gun-carrying street cops enjoying their beer and wine with lunch, as enshrined in French law for so long, is over. Apparently – there’s always a few – certain officers took things too far by swigging cans while guarding the President and were snapped in the act.
Ah, what has become of France, once the lissom damsel of Europe? Our millennium-long, on-off state of war was officially ended with the “Entente Cordiale” – signed following King Edward VII’s visit to Paris in 1903 – and has been refreshed for the 21st century. Our oldest, nearest enemy is now our newest, bestest ally, and a merry state of harmony exists across the Channel. Indeed, Gordon Brown called for an entente formidable. Now, together, it is we who declare war on others.
To the French, France is of course La France. The France. By which they mean The One and Only Beautiful and Astonishing France of God’s Grace, Home of Civilisation. Really, they do. It is a beautiful country, no question, with ocean beaches and Mediterranean beaches, and snowy mountains and sandy mountains and endless tracts of forests and glens, and Paris, all like something out of a fairy tale. Here, on our island, despite its handful of beauty spots and crags we call lovely, we just can’t compete. Britain. Great Britain. By which we mean, Britain anyhow is better than France.
Ah, let the old names stay. In the new regime, it could be love. We’re much less bashful about admitting we fancy each other. More Britons go to France for their holidays than any other country – I can get to Paris from my front door in three hours by train – and there are more French people living in the UK than anywhere else outside France. London is the fourth largest French-speaking city in the world. Mais oui.
Marks and Spencer’s, UK’s upmarket department store that once had 18 outlets in France before shutting them suddenly ten years ago, has just reopened its flagship store in the Champs Elysée. They will once again present the ordinary delights we know and love but which are mysteries to our Frenchie cousins. As Parisian Agnès Poirier described encountering mince pies for the first time, ‘What? Beef with dried fruits? They must be mad. I stared at my friend in amazement. How exquisitely disgusting!’
Exquisitely disgusting, that’s us all right.
She goes on, ‘But I loved them, and on the bus back home, snaking through old Paris, I swallowed down the tartelettes, cold, one after the other.’
Same bus. Different nationalities. Yet we all know in our post-modern world nationalities are become a thing of the past. There was that recent fright over crateloads of fake Jacob’s Creek wine. Canny UK shoppers could tell because “Australia” was spelled wrong. Crooks from China, they said, and maybe they were right. But good old Jacob’s Creek is owned by Pernod Ricard these days, purveyor of pastis and all things French.
You only know where things come from if they’re right there growing in your front yard. When I was a boy my parents told over and over of the time they first saw a banana. How they laughed at the funny shape and didn’t know how to peel it. I’ve always thought banana is spelled wrong anyway, as if someone gave up trying to make a proper word. It’s enough to make you reach for the crumpets and a reassuring cup of tea.
. . .