De Retour

I’m back in France after the longest time spent in England since I left twenty five years ago. My two and a half months in the motherland has left me dazed and confused and as far as this blog is concerned, mute for weeks on end. In writing about my understanding of France, I have come to realise how little I understand of my own culture.

Like many long-term ex-pats, I imagine, I am afflicted with nostalgia for a place that has ceased to exist. A place of the imagination, distilled from childhood memories of 1970s London and the intense, adolescence experience of hating Margaret Thatcher and what she had planned for the nation. Leaving in 1984, at that particular moment in history – when the class system was breaking down and social mobility dawning, when feminism was finally reaping its rewards, when Channel Four was leading the way to cultural democratisation and race riots paving the way for multi-culturalism – I carried off a snapshot of a society in transition and full of hope.

When I returned I saw all the unwanted concomitants of Thatcher’s revolution: class war, gender war, mass ignorance encouraged and condoned by a rampant and omnipotent media, a pusillanimous state that seems to roll back its own powers with one hand and the personal liberty of its citizens with another.

But then I noticed the dissent. Not of the petulant French variety, but the quiet and determined, free-thinking kind. You find it in pockets in Britain, like desert dew and when you find it you relish every drop.

I’d like to apologize in advance for posting a little less regularly over the next few months. I’m starting my next book, an aching, heart-wrenching, coming-of-age comedy set in a small village in the South of France in the 1970s. Talk about escapist.

15 thoughts on “De Retour

  1. To be honest, this post feels incomplete or at least uncharacteristically ungrounded Lucy

    I can well understand the shock of encountering real-life UK but i can’t let your comments pass without some notes from a native son.

    Class war… I really don’t see much of this about any more – certainly not when compared to the 80s when class was actively used as a delineator of personal identity (eg by Sloanes). Where it is most evident at the moment in is in the hatred of bankers, but this is a very specific issue grounded in grossly disproportionate reward scales. Broader attitudes to wealth are much more tolerant now – and very few people even invoke class much in my experience any more.

    Gender war… again, not in my world. I work in the world of communications and media which is now a huge employer of women. Culturally it has created organisations which are totally mixed and the better for it. One of my clients is a massive UK bank and their culture is extraordinarily supportive of women (via flexibility policies etc). So as a society I feel we have made huge strides here.

    Mass ignorance driven by an omnipotent media… I don’t buy this for a second. The medium in which this conversation is taking place is slowly forcing a revolution in accountability – witness the G20 protests and MPs expenses scandal. And never has it been easier to switch off mainstream media and find information elsewhere. Right now London is playing host to the 4th Climate Change camp – a great example of people essentially creating their own information network outside of the mainstream. There’s lots of this about. So it would be good to know what is it that you think people are ignorant of… it’s entirely possible that I’m missing the point.

    Overall i think you need to come back soon…

  2. Hmmm. Insufficiently processed may be right but also poorly expressed. What do I mean by class war? Not war on the wealthy. Certainly, wealth has been well and truly rehabilitated since Blair. I mean war on the knobs, the toffs, the privileged. It’s a covert war, of course, like the gender war that does not exist. A war of attrition fuelled by sporadic witch hunts and endless TV programmes about ‘how the other half live’. (I notice that people are still not over that teenage habit of dissimulating their posh accent.) As for gender, it’s a weeping wound in our country and this in spite of or because of women acceding to power. Perhaps if you’re in it you don’t notice it but it’s there.

    Of course you’re right about new media and the opportunities for a real counter power against mainstream media but mainstream media is still immensely powerful and unabashedly low-brow.

  3. “The medium in which this conversation is taking place is slowly forcing a revolution in accountability… ” Hmmmmmm… ahhhhhh…. hmmmmm…

    Lucy, I am more in agreement with your original sentiment. The ability to discern the difference between quality and quantity (whether in information or in banking) is a pretty good test of someone’s thinking. All of the tweeting/blogging/facebooking etc. in the world is just a deeper setting of the hooks of control into the cheeks of the masses.

    The only “revolution” in the accountability I have seen recently, are those that were created for political purposes, by the same old crowd. Even the French were easily manipulated because they trusted their print media too much, never noticing e. g., Le Point was owned by FT and edited in NY! until right after their boy won the election. All of my French friends seemed like they had been programmed, using the same words (a situation that is the norm here in the states) “it has to change, it has to change”. I would ask them “what has to change?” and their eyes would glaze over and they would just repeat the mantra (anything said three times is by definition true, a pet belief of Reagan). The internets is good for saying things multiple times.

    But your alienation sounds typical for most who live away from home (even within the same country). Maybe one of the fun things in life is to ponder which parts of your identity stay the same and which are on a constant course of change. You are/are not the same person you were…

  4. “Class war… I really don’t see much of this about any more – certainly not when compared to the 80s when class was actively used as a delineator of personal identity (eg by Sloanes)”

    Freddie B.: this may be the case in the London media scene, indeed in London generally, but in rural England what I see is increased class war and it isn’t (I’m afraid Lucy) the huddled masses against the toffs; it’s the toffs fighting against the elevation of the huddled masses to the middle classes whom they speak of – amongst themseleves – with as much prejudice, malice and superiority as white South African Boers pre-Mandela. This is the prevailing meta-crisis of rural England for the toffs. Working class rural people are screwed (and generally increasingly aware of it – listen to a song called Country Life by Show of Hands for a neat illustration of an artist with his finger on this particular pulse) and the middle classes neither respect nor bow down to the rural toffs. That isn’t class warfare as they see it – they just don’t care. But the tofffs, for want of a better generic term – feel this indifference as if it were a direct assault on their dominance of rural England.

    Compare land ownership in the U.K and the small percentage of population owning 80% of it with the same in France and you’ll understand more clearly the substantive differences between these two countries which both use the rural idyll as a cultural touchstone.

    You don’t get to read about it because the toffs who largely run and write for the MSM don’t want to share their distaste for rural class line collapse, and the non-toffs who run the other half of the MSM don’t live in rural Britain (or only at weekends.)

    Gender war: I’m not a woman, nor a new man in the kitchen or childcare departments, snagged nastily on the ‘being-a-man born-in-the-late-1960s-who-went-to-an-all-male-boarding-school’ pike, so I’ll keep my head down on this one.

    MSM: it’s of a pitifully low standard, across the board, with the possible exception of the FT. Any reader of any MSM broadsheet should read the NYT or the Washington Post or the IHT for one month and wake up to the crap you are being fed by the U.K broadsheets. I’m quite happy adding Libe or Le Monde to my list of proposed alternative reading.

    The joy of France, even the United States, compared with the U.K., is that it is no sin to be a public or private intellectual.

  5. So we all see different things – in its own way, I guess, this could be taken as validation of Lucy’s original observations about a riven society.

    But what looks like a deeply divided society to one man is merely a diverse and dynamic one to another. I’m trying to figure out where the UK really exists on this sliding scale.

    Certainly I still don’t buy the pervading negativity of this thread. It smacks too much of (forgive me) the Daily Wail and its habit of magnifying small fissures into major faultlines.

    So while I can well understand that country folk might not be happy folk, they’re not representative enough of our largely urban society to skew the picture so greatly. I will however button it on this front as I don’t pretend to be expert – I write from the urban perspective (a well documented fault of the MSM, of course).

    But I still don’t want to let these comments about the media stand, as i find them too stereotypically snobbish. It’s too easy to decry the mainstream media for its low-brow tendencies – as if the days of Reith could come again – but much harder to describe the true complexity of the modern media landscape. One of its complexities is the way in which it is fragmenting to deliver radically different kinds of content to radically different social groupings.

    So while it’s perfectly fair to observe that there is a large audience for ‘pitifully low standard’ fare (presumably you mean reality TV, soaps etc) you should also acknowledge that there is a significant audience for serious documentary, literary based content (witness the rise of the Hay festival, audiobooks etc), high quality drama and, of course, Radio 4.

    And sometimes these audiences overlap. Consider ‘The Wire’ – a huge mainstream success with all the moral and social complexity of a George Eliot novel. Or the massive success the loathesome Richard Dawkins enjoys with his books.

    What I am trying to say – in a somewhat rushed post i admit – is that if you apply the old rules / standards to the new, the new always comes out ‘worse’. To my eyes it is simply ‘different’, sometimes excitingly so, sometimes depressingly so. So let’s have a more balanced assessment of the UK please.

  6. Socially gauche, the English ‘rub along together’ reasonably well, providing they can fall back on tried and trusted support ploys. Alcohol is one but double-edged. Otherwise, there is cheerfulness, a bright smile, and a merry quip: a shared sense of the ridiculous coupled with and an ironical take on arrogance, pretention and taking ‘things’ too seriously. ‘Cheer up, mi (sic) duck, (it) might never happen!’ and the lugubrious rejoinder, ‘It already has’. The ironical sense is all enveloping. Glumness is a solecism. As for ‘public or private intellectuals’, you’ve gotta be kiddin’, lad.

    Perhaps you’ve always been something of a ‘metro chick’, Lucy (forgive my boldness). Do denizens of ‘The Smoke’ self-exclude from the category ‘real English’, I wonder? In my own provincial depths, ‘clever booger’ and ‘Londoner’ are sides of a single coin. Could you have been doing a ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ this summer and, traumatised, have suddenly had to come to grips with that previously half-glimpsed, odd-shaped thing that passes for life ‘out in the sticks’?

    That said, your comments have a certain currency. The ‘make-over’, ‘property’ and all who sink or sail in her, ‘buy-to-let’, ‘night clubs’ and ‘concerts’… that aren’t really, ‘gastro-pubs’, Jamie – Nigella – Gordon – somebody Carter-Bowles – and Rachel, MSM, the Heritage industry, ‘engagé’ folk music, football as a middle-class spectator sport, wearing appropriate kit… Ugh! But it’s not the ‘vulgar’ I mind so much as the upwardly-mobile vulgar.

    As for the genus common or garden Anglo in natural environment , down to earth, plain speaking, plain dealing, ‘nothing fancy, mind’, why it’s a privilege to share the street with him or her…

    Look at the faces in a French street. Then look at the faces in an English street. The French take themselves seriously, so damn seriously, it’s written there on their faces… For all IAN’s rural dystopia, your English somehow contrive to muddle along. Come what may. Whereas, ‘[T]he French are the biggest consumers of psychotropic drugs in the world’ and approximately 17 French people per hundred-thousand take their own lives annually, compared with 7 Brits.

    Much that Freddie B has written is so sane. Sorry, Ian, but most of us are quite happy to see ‘intellectuals’ where they belong, on the other side of the Channel – where it is considered ‘dégueulasse’ for businesses to make workers redundant; where the response is to boss-nap or lay public buildings waste and then, after sentence has been passed, bitterly complain at getting off with a suspended sentence. Wet or sopping? Strewth!

  7. No worries, mate.

    And you’re right, I am indeed a ‘metro chick’ but have been living in the Cevennes for almost 2 years now – as back of beyond as France gets. No. Rural life suits me fine at this point. It’s not that. It’s, as Peter-the-other (above) suggests, a classic alienation brought on by a state of exile from where you’re from. I’m not complaining, mind. How can I? It seems to be the position from which I make my living.

  8. Jonathan Miller, you sound like a sad sort of chap: ‘Plague Island’ may reveal more about you than you appear to realise.

  9. I think ‘Plague Island’ was a dull, unkind, possibly arrogant thing to write. If saying so makes me ‘awfully clever’, rest assured Jonathan that I will wear this, your mantle, with becoming modesty.

  10. I found this very interesting, and enjoyed reading the comments which followed. Will you be using Twitter again any time soon?

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