Sunday, 15 May 2016

Small delights of La Republique

Saturday 14th May, 2016

But first, let me share my pain with you, not all of my pain, in fact the merest twinge... The camp site has free wifi (good). From the pitches nearest the reception, where we are, with a favourable breeze it just about wafts as far as the van (good). In order to receive the free wifi, every time you log on you have to watch a short advert (not so good). It seems the connection is designed to time-out after 30 minutes (not very good at all). If you are uploading photos to the blog the connection can cut out at any moment meaning you have to start uploading the photos again from scratch (this is bad). Every time this happens you have to reconnect and watch the advert all over again (this is verging on being terrible). The advert is in French and is very annoying (I am beginning to suffer various psychosomatic symptoms indicating imminent mental breakdown). I have now watched the advert 17 times, in order to maintain my psychological well being and mental equilibrium I have no option but to share this with you. I hope you understand... at least you only have to watch it once...not 17 times...or not at all - you have that choice.. Poof!  There goes the for the 18th time....

Oh good! you are back, as I was saying - about the small delights of La Republique....It's not possible for a British subject to fully understand what it must be like to be a citizen of a Republic. It's little wonder we are a bit confused about things like national identity and sovereignty, because the basis of our system of government is shrouded in mystery and seems to consist of a collection of vague arrangements between the Crown, Commons and Lords based on historical precedent.

If you are French, I presume there is no such confusion, and the basic principles of the state are writ in stone on almost every public building you see. We are staying in Loupian, a village of 2085 souls according to Wikipedia. The main square, Place Charles de Gaulle has a statue of Liberty in one corner - in regulation green, clutching a tablet of gold inscribed with 'Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité'. Below the nearby street sign the words of the General's call to arms broadcast by the BBC on 18th of June 1940 are commemorated on a metal plaque.

It's simply not possible to envisage something similar in Britain. Camberwick Green or Trumpton in the Wash would never have a fifteen foot statue of Britannia in the market square - what would it signify? That we 'never, never, never will be slaves'? Well, we probably won't be, equally though, we are never going to be citizens either, in the sense that the French or Americans are citizens of their republics.

Our imaginary village hub is probably going the have a literal name like ' Market Square' or 'The Green'; 'Churchill Place' would be unusual, and a metal plaque inscribed with the stirring words "We will fight them on the beaches..." that would seem bizarre. I was left speculating perhaps what enslaves us is our reticence, our discomfort at asserting what we mean; we prefer to equivocate rather than assert.

I wonder too, is our discomfort at EU membership linked to innate distrust of Republican principles? Europe has a President; perhaps debates around sovereignty actually are about 'The Sovereign' - the toast 'Queen and Country' puts the land and people after the monarch, almost an afterthought. What you sense in a republic is that the people are central to the political process. I approve of that, and admire France's republican trappings, from statues of Liberty to recent investment in social housing.

In Loupian you get a strong sense of the link between people - the polis - place and land. The French talk of 'patrimonie' we don't really have a similar term, nor for the German, Heimat - a place of belonging. In comparison 'hometown', or 'birthplace' seems lame and facile.

Loupian itself has some lovely ancient streets, old buildings and the fields that surround it at this time of year full of flowers, both commonplace and rare.

It also has a lot of municipal facilities for such a small place. It's Whit weekend and for the past two days the sports ground adjacent to the camp site has been hosting a big sporting event for young people. Lots of football and tennis, and the skate-park is in full-swing. This being France, then no such communal event would be without a soundtrack of pumping Europop and Dance, interrupted mid-track by hyperfast commentary from a crackly pa. system.

The area is cross-crossed by bike trails alongside which is a picnic area, play park and outdoor gym, next to the village allotments. It all looks well maintained and cared for. I can understand why people could feel proud to belong here.

As we pedalled through the village a wedding party approached. Maybe it is a local tradition for the bride and groom to process, and given the Spring holiday, the ancient surroundings, the blue skies and flower strewn waysides, there was something timeless and bucolic about the moment, like a final scene from one of Shakespeare's festive comedies.

However, given that it is Whit Saturday, and you are observing wedding a little after I.00pm, then of course it's not only Shakespeare that comes to mind, but Larkin. So when I returned to the van I had to Google and re-read 'The Whitsun Weddings'.

And it is a great poem, a contender maybe for the finest poem about England from the latter half of the 20th century. What also strikes you is how acerbic and dismissive it is, not just about the lower class antics and fashions of the wedding parties, but the the way mysterious final lines form a quiet anti-climax, that exultant release of potential turns from a shower of arrows into a shower of rain:

and it was nearly done, this frail   
Travelling coincidence; and what it held   
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power   
That being changed can give. We slowed again, 
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled 
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower   
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.
How English all of this is! The acerbic aside, an ironic, detached stance, human potential tinged with disappointment, even a threatened shower of rain.

I don't think we could have coined a phrase like 'joie de vivre' - in England it always depends, joy is never quite unbridled, but conditional. The French have  'Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité', the nearest phrase that encapsulates our national aspiration seems to me the one coined by Tesco - 'Every Little Helps'.

Our reticence about expressing what we want, our need to apologise, our propensity for sarcasm and our ironic observational eye - where do these traits come from? If they were a person we might blame personal insecurity, perhaps poor relationships in childhood, a sense that this person never quite was sure where they fitted in and belonged. Is it too fanciful to suggest that at a collective level as subjects we are obligated, but the citizens of a republic have constitutionally guaranteed rights. 

My concluding thought is that I do think Republics run as social democracies are the most beneficial form of government - at least so far as the majority of the population is concerned. I know I will never be a citizen of one, but I do enjoy being an admiring guest.

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