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French provincial towns are the stuffiest, most stultifying provincial towns in the world.

Or so one would gather from a crash course in French literature and cinema.

The one word- bourgeois- says it all. We don't have an English equivalent.

I just watched Chabrol's Les Noces Rouges. God, but these people are dim; they commit two unnecessary murders because they can't imagine moving out of the ugly little town that accords them status.

We English have a different attitude. Cranford, Middlemarch, Barchester are well-loved places; quite lively really; no-one is stifled by them the way Emma Bovary is stifled.

I put it down to France being such a big country. English towns are all squashed up close together; escape is easier. French towns are cut off from one another by miles and miles of prairie.

Physical isolation breeds cultural isolation.

No English town is as deaf and blind to London as any French town is deaf and blind to Paris.


Jun. 30th, 2005 09:16 am
poliphilo: (Default)
OK, so I was sounding off about Trafalgar the other day and last night I was watching one of those improving cultural history programmes the BBC does so well. This one was about the history of science and it majored on the work of the 18th century astronomer William Herschel.

I came away wondering why this stuff isn't taught in schools. Herschel invented the reflecting telescope, discovered Uranus (no snarky comments please), mapped the Milky Way and was the first person to form a true estimate of the ginormous size of the universe. If these achievements don't make him a greater man than Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (I nearly wrote Hornblower) I'll eat my (gold-trimmed, three-cornered) hat.


Jun. 28th, 2005 10:21 am
poliphilo: (Default)
We are celebrating Trafalagar. Well, I'm not, but the British nation is. And what I want to know is why?

Two hundred years ago the British fleet under Horatio Nelson smashed the French and Spanish fleet. I guess the long term effect was that Britannia ruled the waves without serious challenge for the next century and a bit.

But the British Empire has gone now. The Royal Navy is a geopolitical irrelevance. The French and Spanish are our partners in a Europe where war between member states is all but unthinkable. The world of Tralalgar has disappeared. The work that Trafalgar accomplished has been undone.

And lets not forget that Tralalgar was a battle not a football match. Something like 7000 people were killed. We're doing this tribal dance of ours on a whole bunch of graves.

So what's left? The memory of a time when we were briefly "top nation"? Hooray.

"A British tar is a soaring soul,
As free as a mountain bird,
His energetic fist should be ready to resist
A dictatorial word."

Et cetera....

And now lets get over ourselves and move on.


Jun. 21st, 2005 09:16 am
poliphilo: (Default)
This was my first trip out of England for ten years. A number of things surprised me.

When I was a kid you took it for granted that mainland Europe was dirty. You braced yourself for public toilets that were nothing but holes in the ground. You expected bidets. Now the standards on the Continent are as high if not higher than at home. The showers in all the hotels where we stayed were much more efficient than the showers in London. In Spain the public toilets are immaculate and smell like churches (really they do- I'm not making this up- I guess it's the disinfectant they use.) And the bidets have vanished.

The last hotel we stayed- in Lille- you could see a ghostly mark on the bathroom floor where the bidet had once stood. What's this about? Why have the French stopped making a big deal out of washing their genitals? Is it all down to globalization?

Talking about globalization, everyone everywhere pretty much speaks English. In the past they used to expect you to struggle with their language; now they take the initiative and struggle with yours.

And the supermarkets look just like our supermarkets and sell much the same products. And the golden arches have sprung up everywhere......

And here's something else. Bugs. An astonishing thing about Spain is that there aren't any. We went armed with all sorts of insect-repelling products- including a device that emits a high-pitched squeal which supposedly freaks mosquitos- and we just didn't need them. I got a couple of bites from walking in the woods after sunset (as all the trendy people do in Catalonia) but that was it. The hotel and town were insect-free zones. Then we come home and there are mosquitos and bluebottles all over.

Abroad is less foreign than it was. You can get CNN and the BBC on the hotel TV. You can buy the Daily Mail at the newsagents (and it's today's edition not yesterday's.) National borders have all but disappeared. You slow the vehicle down and most of the time they just wave you through. There's more fuss involved in going through the barriers at the start and finish of the (very excellent) toll roads.

It's no longer the world I was born into 54 years ago. I like it.
poliphilo: (Default)
Judy and I were talking about the Marx Brothers and how a friend of hers had probably never heard of them. I was incredulous. Yeah, she continued, the Marxes are largely forgotten in America.

Hey, people, tell me it ain't so!

In Britain you're never more than five minutes away from the nearest Marx Brothers movie. We run them all the time. In 1940 we were kept going by Churchill's speechifying and Churchill was kept going by watching Marx Brothers movies in his bunker. Why, the Marxes more or less won the war for us.

And the Marxes begat Spike Milligan and Spike Milligan begat John Cleese and John Cleese begat Eddie Izzard.

Some Frenchman toured England in the 1920s and took stock of all the war memorials and concluded that the religion of the English was the worship of dead soldiers. He was wrong. The religion of the English is the worship of dead comedians.

Living ones too.

We don't know the ten commandments or the words to the national anthem, but every English person with an ounce of pride can recite The Dead Parrot Sketch.

When Norman Wisdom (slightly funny film comedian of the 1950s) announced his retirement at the age of 92 the news media reacted like the Queen Mother had died again.

We take our sense of humour terribly seriously. Secretly (in fact, not so secretly) we believe it's what makes us top nation. We are constantly having polls to discover our favourite comedian/sitcom/funny movie. And once a year we have this huge televised charity thing called Comic Relief where everybody puts on red plastic noses and does embarrassing things to raise money for starving Africans.

Another thing Judy said is that she'd never seen Sergeant Bilko. You what! Over here every sink comes fitted with three taps. One for hot and one for cold and one for the Phil Silvers Show.
poliphilo: (Default)
I haven't been following the Olympics. I don't see why I should take an interest once every four years in sporting events that otherwise interest me not a jot.

Today Britain won a gold in some sort of bicycling dash. Great, fine, let the good times roll.

And the nationalism gets under my skin. Maybe I'm becoming a bore on this subject, but I've always been hostile to those whom Kipling (of all people) called "jelly-bellied flag-flappers". And "God Save the Queen" is such a bloody awful song.

I want us to calm down. I want us to forget the tunes of glory-or at least relegate them to the past- and relax into being a cool, unimportant, unaggressive European nation like Holland. OK, once upon a time we ruled the waves, but that's all over now. If we must brag of national achievement lets brag about the things that endure- like Shakespeare and Stilton cheese.
poliphilo: (Default)
Keith, my bro-in-law, was showing us pictures from their holiday in the Dordogne. They were staying with English friends in their house in a dirt-poor medieval town where, judging from the pictures, there are no French people whatsoever.

The French flee their countryside for the city, leaving the field wide open for middle-class English people to come in and gobble-up property at ridiculous prices. If this trend continues, rural France will be populated entirely by the English and we'll be well on track towards re-establishing the glorious Angevin Empire.

In the reign of Henry II (remember him from the Lion in Winter?) the Kings of England (who were Frenchmen really) controlled a coastal strip that ran all the way from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees. It was a geographical unit that made as much sense as most modern nations. I want it back. I want it back NOW!
poliphilo: (Default)
Watching Tim Henman at Wimbledon- and studying his parents sitting in their box- his dad like Rameses II with a little more flesh on the bones- and I realize why I dislike the guy so much: he represents that snooty, repressed, public school stiff-upper-lippedness that I had to struggle so hard against in myself. He's what I was- an emotional retard, a child of empire.

So watch out, you Americans. This is what running an empire does to you. It drains out the vital juices. It makes you as brittle and ghostly as rice paper. It turns you into Celia fucking Johnson.
poliphilo: (Default)
This weekend has been taken over by memories of D Day. I know I've got to tread a fine line here, but I hate these establishment bun fights. I'm all for veterans returning to the beaches to quietly remember, but the sight of Prince Charles, who was never in any war, striding around with a chest-full of medals, receiving the homage of the crowd, just brings out the anarchist brat in me.

Britain is blinded to itself by the myth of WWII. I expect the same is true (to a lesser extent) of America. "The Finest Hour", "The Greatest Generation". We slather on the self-righteousness like sun block. Yes, our grandfathers behaved very courageously on the Normandy beaches, but it doesn't do our souls any good to keep going on about it.

40% of British school children have little idea what D Day was about. The tabloids were shocked, but I'm not. D Day is recent history, but in terms of what Britian now is- a post-imperial, multi-cultural nation on the edge of a united Europe- it is as ancient and irrelevant as Mafeking or Waterloo. WWII was the end of All That. By running up the flags and parading the troops and pinning the medals to Prince Charles's chest we are prolonging a fantasy.

But it's a fantasy which still drives British foreign policy. We are history's heroes. We are the world's policemen. We are the cat who "gallops about doing good." Listen to Blair. And look at Blair's record. The Iraqi adventure was dressed up- absurdly- as though it were some sort of moral replay of WWII. Saddam was a bad as Hitler, opponents of the war were guilty of appeasement, the invasion was a liberation.

World War II killed off the British Empire, but reinforced the imperial myth of British superiority- moral, military, cultural. British politicians have traded upon that myth for the last 60 years- but with ever-diminishing returns. Maybe Iraq is the last hurrah. Time to mothball the uniforms and put the medals in a museum display case and go play at something else.
poliphilo: (Default)

The streets are full of the Cross of St George (the English flag- red cross on a white ground.) It's plastered up in windows and it's flying from cars. I'm told this is because of some football thingy that's happening in Europe.  [livejournal.com profile] craftyailz  and I were saying how it made us feel uncomfortable because up until a few years back the Cross of St George was only flown by churches and far-right  groups like the National Front and The British National Party.  

I guess it's good that footie fans have wrenched the English  flag from the hands of the fascists. But to tell the truth any flag waving makes me nervous.  It's infantile;  it's divisive; it has no place in civilian life.  Flags belong on battlefields.

poliphilo: (Default)
Nationhood is a modern idea. No older than the 16th century. But already it's out-of-date. In a world of cultural fluidity and mass migration and cheap travel and the internet it makes no sense to give your loyalty to some more or less arbitrarily designed geographical entity. I'm English. But what is England? I have tried (very hard) to define Englishness for myself- and it always seems to come down to Morris dancing and cream teas. And Shakespeare. Never forget Shakespeare. But Shakespeare belongs to the world, no-one wants our Morris-men and cream teas are disgusting. The best things about any nation get taken up world-wide and only the silliest, most trivial things are left behind to define it. In reality the English are a people who eat curry and watch American movies. Nationhood is a idea that holds us back, that makes us timid, and it's time we outgrew it.


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