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.