Dabbler Diary: Chalk and Cheese

When I was a young lad, just beginning to appreciate the coarser things in life, one of the characters at the local rugby club was a Scotsman who, to a peculiar degree, took on the persona of a Frenchman: Gitanes, vin rouge, Citroen DS, beret. Very much a Francophile, as I hadn’t yet learnt to call such people.

I’m wondering whether this sort of Francophilia is really possible now: there just doesn’t seem to be sufficient difference between us and the frogs – both nations have banned smoking in public places, we both drink lots of wine, Citroens are mostly just like other cars, and you’re as likely to come across an extravagant moustache in Camden as in Clermont.

Alan (or Alain as he probably would have like to been known) had picked up his penchant on rugby tours. And who can blame him? French rugby always used to be compulsively different: dix points for brutality but dix points for artistic impression too. The Latin temperament, see. However, as is demonstrated most Heineken Cup weekends the French professional teams now play the percentages as boringly as everyone.

Our culture has become more European, and countries like France are becoming more familiar. Paradoxically, I don’t think this helps Europhiles: familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it’s very often productive of boredom. The project of bringing Europeans closer has become progressively less inspiring as Europeans have become more uniform. Opposites attract.


The US has always contained a good number of fierce right-wingers. The web means we now get to see them up close.

Such an opportunity presented itself this week when a piece by a British conservative on the state of the world received, as the diplomats say, a very full and frank response from some red-blooded American conservatives.

Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, wrote an editorial noting that 2012 was as good as it’s ever been for the majority of the world’s population. It was linked to by the Drudge Report, a right wing US blog, and rapidly attracted hundreds thousands of hostile commenters who almost without exception sought to hand Mr Nelson’s ‘ass’ back to him for daring to be optimistic (such an attitude couldn’t be countenanced because of the state of the US economy, the threat of Islam, and – not least – the result of the recent presidential election).

How can one not relish the editor of the world’s oldest continuously published magazine, the house journal of the Tory party – who is incidentally one of Britain’s drier conservatives and notably well-mannered to boot – being repeatedly abused as, variously, a mentally ill, crack-smoking, Marxist, ‘Libtard’ in the pay of the current President of the United States, the UN and George Soros? It was rather like watching an old maid bicycling to communion being run into a ditch by Rosco P Coltrane.


The new French socialist government is seeking to squeeze the rich until les pips squeak. I knew this wasn’t popular and that various wealthy French people were moving abroad to avoid the super-tax on earnings over a million euros. Gerard Depardieu is the latest to hit the news.

However, I hadn’t appreciated the lengths to which high-earners would go to escape le fisc. Moving abroad is one thing. But becoming Belgian? It’s difficult to credit. These people are desperate.


To Wye in Kent, where we found ourselves walking on the downs in the winter sun. There’s something primeval about the experience: the downs, we’re told, were the motorways of the Neolithic age; the low-slanting afternoon rays throw strange shadows and reveal unexpected profiles. The Wye Crown, a modern take on the prehistoric practice of cutting shapes in the chalk, reinforced the feeling that the past was close by.

The Crown, a simplified line-drawing of one of those large, velvet-capped jobs worn on the big occasions, was carved by students of Wye College – a part of the University of London specialising in rural and agricultural studies – to mark the coronation of Edward VII. It was re-cut on its centenary in 2002, an event marked by a stone.

Sadly, the site has ended up a memorial for the college itself, which recently closed. Empty academic buildings dot Wye village: lecture halls, research labs, glass houses, dormitories and a lovely old library and administrative building (there had been an educational foundation on the site for over five hundred years); the melancholy remains of an institution that in its day had an international reputation.

What on earth could have so suddenly destroyed this hundred-and-ten-year-old college, and in a period when the supply of tertiary education was booming? It was unfortunate enough to agree to be taken over by its sister college in the University of London, Imperial, under whose management it went, as they don’t say in academic circles, tits up. Its demise coincided with a secretive, protracted but failed attempt by its new owner to build a few thousand houses and a motorway link to the M20 on the college’s research-focused farmland. The best outcome now appears to be for a new ‘free school’ to take over the estate.

To date, at least, the experience has been an unmitigated disaster, for poor old Wye and also for the country’s intellectual capital. Imperial seems well-named – with Wye’s fate being at the indefensible end of colonial experiences. It’s a reminder that not-for-profit institutions can be just as destructive as the worst sort of mercenary, return-maximising asset-stripper.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.
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18 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary: Chalk and Cheese

  1. Worm
    December 21, 2012 at 13:10

    Oh that’s sad to hear about Wye College – I used to organise bits of signage and marketing for them 7 or so years ago. Perhaps their closure is down to me?? Ooer I do hope not!

    I think (relatively) famous fantasy novel ‘Mythago Wood’ is set in a fictional forest near Wye, for precisely that reason, that the landscape there seems connected with a distant past.

    “It was rather like watching an old maid bicycling to communion being run into a ditch by Rosco P Coltrane.” what a phrase! Wonderful stuff

    • Gaw
      December 21, 2012 at 14:31

      I’d never heard of that novel and looked it up on Wikipedia – it sounds very good. It also reckons it’s set in Herefordshire. There is an old and atmospheric wood near Wye called the King’s Wood, which I imagine was a royal hunting ground.

      • wormstir@gmail.com'
        December 21, 2012 at 16:01

        It is a very good book indeed, especially for a fantasy novel, very well written, and all about our lineage back to Britain’s deep past of woodland dwellers, wicker men and Green Man-style cryptoarchaeology.

        Having not read it for about 20 years I also just checked online and saw that you are absolutely correct, it’s set in Herefordshire, but Im sure one of the books he wrote in the series I read is set in a wood near Wye. Robert Holdstock the author was from Hythe.

  2. bensix@live.co.uk'
    December 21, 2012 at 13:13

    The project of bringing Europeans closer has become progressively less inspiring as Europeans have become more uniform. Opposites attract.

    This is not always true, of course, but I think you have got a point. One of the reasons The Killing, The Bridge and so on have caught on is because the grim landscapes and stolid features of their casts feel somehow otherworldly. Most Britons seem to like their European neighbours; they are just averse to housesharing.

    • Worm
      December 21, 2012 at 13:37

      You thought they were ‘other wordly’? I found their washed out nihilistic ugliness to be an exceptionally familiar derivative of Eastenders, Cracker and Prime Suspect…

      • bensix@live.co.uk'
        December 21, 2012 at 14:17

        Well, otherworldy relative to the “world” of England. Not actually martian!

        But, yes, English drama is characterised by emotional exhibitionism rather than faltering impassivity, and crude loquaciousness rather than guarded concision. It’s true, though, now I’m forced to think about it, that this is something peculiar to modern times – we don’t own the phrase “stiff upper lip” for nothing.

  3. Gaw
    December 21, 2012 at 14:39

    My wife was watching a programme the other evening whilst I was on the laptop. I was half-listening and wondering why I couldn’t make out what this group of Geordies were saying – turned out it was The Killing.

    BTW I wonder whether any trace of the Jutes (from Jutland in Denmark) who settled Kent back in the Dark Ages has survived?

    • bensix@live.co.uk'
      December 21, 2012 at 14:46

      I was half-listening and wondering why I couldn’t make out what this group of Geordies were saying – turned out it was The Killing.

      Hah! That reminded me of this.

      • Gaw
        December 21, 2012 at 14:56


    • wormstir@gmail.com'
      December 21, 2012 at 16:09

      There was a very funny rip off of the killing by Harry Enfield on telly the other week too, unfortunately not on youtube yet!

  4. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    December 21, 2012 at 17:50

    Wot I would like to know is, for a country that gave us Bang and Olufsen, Arena and Arne Jacobsen how come the architecture is so naff. My old friend Tage Botum swore that the Danes were a miserable bunch, he should know, he is one. Thanks to The Killing we now know why.

    Memory lane, up the road from Wye there used to be, in the sixties, one of those roadhouse restaurants with attached motel, at the old Charing Fork, which offered weekend specials, two nights plus dinner and dance. Splendid for dirty weekenders as we, I mean they were known in those pre revolutionary days. One classic weekend we, I mean they booked in using our separate names. The receptionist refused to accept this wanton display of debauchery and we, I mean they had to sign in as a married couple. Man, you young’uns today don’t know the half of it.

    Since you ask, Smith, Jones and seven pounds fifteen shillings per person, drinks extra.

    • Gaw
      December 22, 2012 at 07:35

      I’ve met a few Danes and found their miserabilism has often complemented an excellent downbeat and wry sense of humour. They’re quite English in that way.

  5. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    December 21, 2012 at 21:21

    We gave up on The Killing 3 in the first episode, couldn’t take any more ‘States-Minsters’.

    Regarding Becoming Belgian, I’ve been re-watching old Jonathan Meades shows, and his one on Belgium finally explained the place to me: it’s one big caricature of Britain.

    I like Fraser Nelson – a very balanced Tory – and thought of you Gaw when I read his compelling editorial. The other must-read this week (far less positive) from the conservative press is Peter Oborne’s evisceration of the Tory back benchers.

    • jgslang@gmail.com'
      December 22, 2012 at 10:07

      A caricature of Britain? Up to a bleedin’ point Lord Copper.

      Try Georges Simenon Pedigree, the lightly fictionalized memoirs of his pre-Paris youth in Liège. Or, for more recent thoughts Luc Sante The Factory of Facts. Let me assure you, Toto, this ain’t Kansas.

  6. Gaw
    December 22, 2012 at 08:00

    I haven’t seen the J Meades Belgium show – I must have a watch.

    I was under the impression that Belgium was a second-best version of France. I’ve found that many French really do despise them; they don’t think much of the Quebeckers either, by the way. I think it’s interesting how the French homeland is referred to as ‘La France Métropolitaine’, making everywhere else in the Francophonie axiomatically provincial.

    Fraser Nelson seems a good type, if something of a plagiarist – he could at least have acknowledged The Dabbler’s now longstanding campaign to recognise the world as really quite ok at the present time. Mind you, that might have invited a Drudgean horde to our gates…

    • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
      December 22, 2012 at 11:03

      they don’t think much of the Quebeckers either

      A sentiment enthusiastically returned by Quebecers. Quebec comedy/parody can be brilliant and savage and the French are a favourite theme. I will never forget the tears I shed at a skit tracking the idiocies of a pompous French tourist in Montreal. It started with customs at the airport:

      Bienvenue au Canada. Avez-vous quelque chose a déclarer?”

      Oui! Vive La France!”

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