Category Archives: England

I almost can’t look at the papers at the moment. Today, DC is on the front pages doing some kind of ‘I told you so’ dance, telling off the Eurozone for dragging the world into the mire. We’ll say nothing of the USA, the faltering Chinese economy, the massive Japanese debt, daily alerts about Greece, austerity budgets in France.

I said yesterday in relation to another matter that people should get their own house in order before pointing the finger. He who lives in glass houses and all that… but there’s a huge issue in England at the moment that is really stuck in my craw at the moment.

PFI schemes. You won’t know what these are maybe, or how ludicrous they are but when I tell you, you’ll be dumbfounded that anyone could have agreed to them. Put it this way, you might as well have given all your money to Kerry Katona and seen it go up her nose. At least it would have been more entertaining and done less damage.

Here’s the thing. Set up in 1992 under John Major, they snowballed under Brown. Just to get that straight. Conservative idea. Labour misuse. Pigeons come home to roost under Con-Lib government. Nobody is absolved from blame over this.

When you know what PFI schemes are, that’s important, because each and every one of our politicians contributed to the problem, worsened the problem and then we, the people, will suffer.

Basically, the idea is this: in order to build new public buildings when the Treasury coffers are empty, you contract out the buildings. You offer the contracts to developers and building businesses. They build a new hospital or school with their own money, and then they lease it to the people who will be using it. In the case of hospitals, health care trusts. In the case of schools, local authorities on the whole. Thus, you get a shiny new hospital or school for nothing. Yeah, right.

The leases run a bit like mortgages, in principle. The hospitals and schools pay the developer interest and a lease fee and then after 25 years, they get the building. In theory, should things go wrong, it’s like renting: it’s not your problem to fix.

In reality, it’s possibly the world’s most stupid idea. It’s stupid because the lease-back fees are exhorbitant. The interest rates would make loan sharks blush. The pay-back terms aren’t just over 25 years, but sometimes over 60. Things were built that just didn’t need building. I know there’s no reason hospitals and schools shouldn’t have a wonderful atrium and modern art and lots of glass and look totally unlike schools or hospitals.

Lots of studies agree that the very appearance of schools and hospitals puts people off what they’re supposed to be doing there. But when you’re on a budget, you don’t deck your house out in Farrow and Ball, or buy a conservatory. You build a shed and paint with B&Q budget paint. Sure, it doesn’t look as good, but it does what it needs to. More importantly, it doesn’t saddle you with debt for needless changes.

Some people will point to the benefits of PFI schemes like how they have modernised or streamlined things. But at what cost? And couldn’t those benefits have come just from building the same buildings with public funding – always cheaper – than private funding? All we’ve done is lined the pockets of the developers. Sure, we have shiny hospitals and schools and so on, but at what cost?

The cost, of course, was initially soaked up by the people who were paying for the leases – the hospitals themselves. So what happens when you have a high mortgage or repayment rate? You cut other things. You stop having your daily can of coca-cola or you stop paying a man to cut your grass.

This – on a grander scale – is what happened in the PFI hospitals. They cut other things. And the majority of expense is always staff. In a school, about 80% of the budget is staff. I guess it’s a little different in hospitals because of the costs of machinery and so on. But staff are easy to cut. It’s easier to get rid of a nurse – or just fail to reappoint when they move on – and fill their shoes with an auxiliary. Services get stretched thin. Staff get stressed. Terms for repayment get renegotiated and you’re the loser again. You need to find more funds.

You’ve got two choices. You stop paying and default, with all the consequences, or you go cap in hand and ask for more money from the Treasury. Central and local government put you in this position, but they’re now slapping your hands as if you’ve been willingly messing about with your budget. They give you more. But unfortunately, they don’t have bottomless pockets, so that means somewhere else, a cut has to be made.

And guess what? All the hospitals who have been putting up with shit buildings, decrepit units, MRSA-discos-in-the-making, those hospitals and Trusts who’ve been frugal – the Government take from them to give to you. The government robbing the ants to give to the grasshoppers.

Imagine it this way. Your neighbour bought a shiny new car. He bought it on ridiculous finance. You told him other ways to borrow the money, and actually even advised him to save up until he had enough to pay for it, but he ignored you. He bought it on a credit card with 21.9% APR with a 10 year term. It was affordable. They’d pick up the costs if things broke. It seemed sensible, even though he’d be paying thousands of pounds more than it was worth, and thousands of pounds more than he’d have had to pay if he’d have bargained with another credit company, or even if he’d saved up.

Soon, he lost his job and had to downsize. You watched him struggle. Unfortunately, if he defaulted, he’d have legal proceedings to face. He went to the finance company to say ‘take it back’ but they can’t or won’t. They force him to keep paying. In fact, they pass him on to a ‘debt consolidation unit’ who allow him to pay 20% APR over 20 years. It feels less, but it’s much, much more.

But the economy turns for the worse again. Now he can’t afford those payments either. He’s already eating beans on toast every night and now he can’t buy new shoes for his children, so he goes cap in hand to the dole office.

The dole office do this. They see that you’ve got £5,000 saved up. You’ve been putting it aside because you worried something like this would happen. You were saving for your retirement, as you’d been advised to do. You only have debit cards and you never buy anything you can’t pay for outright. You’ve been driving an old banger because you were saving up to buy a new one, and you’ve been making-do and mending as long as you’ve been a grown-up. You do everything right.

The dole office take your £5,000 to pay off some of your neighbour’s new car.

This is in essence what has happened with the health care trusts and the schools. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

This would never be legal on a personal level. You couldn’t just raid your neighbour’s bank account if you were stupid enough to sign up for one of those 1279% APR loans. But this is what the government are doing. Plundering the pockets of the ants who have saved and stored and made-do in order to pay for the shiny atrium in the grasshopper’s house.

It’s so disgusting, I’m personally surprised Bono and Sir Bob aren’t involved in it and we haven’t got Midge Ure trying to get everyone together to raise money and awareness.

And this is what your leaders do whilst you try your best to follow their advice about debt.

“The price tag for repaying PFI firms will reach £8.6 billion next year alone, with the taxpayer owing a total of £121.4 billion on public projects which are worth only £52.9 billion.”

In a way, I don’t blame the organisations like Innisfree who profit from these schemes. I think that they should renegotiate. I think they are unconscionably greedy if they don’t. I think they should do the right and the honest thing. But you can’t blame them for having rock-solid contracts that allow them to double their profits. They’re a business. That’s what businesses do. At least businesses and banks are honest, if not always transparent, in their motivation. Their aim is to make money. Nothing more. Nothing less. They will do so in the ways that make the most, and that means cutting costs, cutting corners, being barely legal. Don’t ever expect more from a business. They are dependable and forthright in their aims. We know what they’re about.

No, it is the government that allowed this to happen. Businesses only exist where there is a need. And businesses should not be above the law and above governance. We’ve got this bizarre system where banks and businesses operate outside the law and are ungovernable. The only way it can work is if they are limited by all governments. For if we don’t limit them in England, they’ll go somewhere like Macau where they can.

But then, who’d want the governments to be in charge of stuff when they’re the idiots who signed us up to this in the first place??! Would we really want these idiots to be in charge of stuff when they can’t see Ponzi schemes for what they are and when they’re too stupid to realise that if you rob Peter to pay Paul, you’re never going to make ends meet. Sooner or later, you’re going to run out of people to rob.

Really, they need me to be in charge and to rip up contracts and say “‘that was a ridiculous, unconscionable deal and we’re not honouring it. You’ve been lucky to have what you’ve had. We’ll pay you 2% above inflation and that’s a good profit. Now fuck off.”

After all, who are they going to complain to?

After the riots…

There have been lots of clean-ups and things seem almost back to normal. Politicians are bickering about who caused this… Thatcher with her community smash-and-grabs, Labour with their reign of throwing money at problems, Police who were ‘too timid’… everyone else is to blame.

However, as I saw yesterday, a reminder of a little something:

“They steal from the every day person on the street. They do so and excuse their behaviour as if theft is acceptable. They steal because ‘everyone else does’. They try to say it’s poverty that’s made them steal. They moralise and say there’s nothing wrong with what they’ve done. They seriously don’t expect to go to prison. They outraged every single person in Middle England. Their values seem so far adrift from ours that it’s almost ludicrous. They seem like another species whose moral values about theft are so far removed from real Middle England life that it’s almost shocking to wonder how it got this way. They take advantage. They use every excuse in the book. They don’t own up.”

Politicians, that is.

How ironic the expenses scandal came first. We see their behaviour modelling something endemic in British life. Now, I’m in no way excusing what has happened as if Johnny Hoodie on the street smashed Currys windows because David Chaytor had provided a terrible example. But it’s endemic. It’s systemic. I’ll just remind you that Chaytor stole £13,000 from the English public – that we know about – and some of these muppets on trial for theft have stolen things as trivial as a £7.99 bottle of wine. Hazel Blears, oh she of the ‘failure to pay Capital Gains Tax’ – paid over £13,000 back. Because it’s acceptable our politicians should say ‘Can I pay it back then?’ having got away with theft for a long time. It’s not acceptable that Johnny Hoodie should be able to say ‘Can I get off if I give back what I stole?’

Not that this is a moral argument about theft. We all do it. Whether it’s surfing the net on work time, it’s taking a roll of sellotape for your child’s art project, it’s robbing two million from your bosses or it’s robbing the public. Theft is something we do. Nobody is honest nowadays. And that includes me.

Really, what we need to do – and what some people have said that we are doing – is change our ways. We need it to bring communities back together. We’ve seen the photos of the clean-up. We’ve seen Sikhs protecting their temple, the mosque, the church. We’ve seen white people going out to stop EDL movements. We’ve seen Muslim men fill the streets. If anything, this had the potential to make all those ‘immigrants’ we’ve seen as troublesome feel part of the community. Polish girls jumping from burning buildings, Malaysian students robbed in broad daylight, Muslim men killed as they protect their community. If anything, these riots proved it wasn’t about race any more. I saw a white ‘mum’ in Salford (and I use the term incredibly loosely in that she’d squeezed out her progeny in the same way even crocodiles are capable of doing) saying she was doing it because of Mark Duggan’s shooting.

Just to put white Salford women in perspective for you… a few years ago, I had a delightful Sri Lankan student. He was 5 years into the asylum process. His father had been killed by Tamil activists because his father was a politician. His mother was a lawyer, but she wasn’t allowed to practise over here. He had seen more violence than you or I will ever witness. Just after they were granted asylum, they were then moved from the pleasant-ish house they’d been in into a council house in the shadow of Salford Shopping City.

I drove to see him a couple of days after his move. The street was filled with people sitting outside. It did look like a scene from The Wire. They were drinking cheap lager at 3 in the afternoon, smoking weed in the street. I walked up and banged on the door – fearing that my car would be vandalised or robbed within the hour. The 5 young white men (again, I use the term loosely – I want to say rats, but even rats aren’t so small-minded) who were in the garden next door smoking huge joints – obviously on benefits, obviously not working, obviously dealing drugs as well as smoking them, were interested in my arrival.

“Who are you?”

“I’m a teacher.”

“I thought you was a solicitor.”

“No. Just a teacher.”

“What do you want with that immigrant scum?”

“I teach the boy.”

“Do they pay you?”

“Of course.”

“Fuckin’ bunch of immigrant nigger scum. As soon as they got here, we smashed their back window. Teach them immigrants to come here.”

“Oh, I bet that scared them…”

“Yeah… you don’t see them now, do you?”

“Just so you know… that young boy’s dad… he was shot in front of the boy. He was 11. He’s seen more guns and violence than you could ever show him. When someone kills your dad in front of you, a bunch of thick shit white niggers from Salford aren’t going to scare you. Dickheads!”

I walked off, quickly.

By the time I’d got to the bottom of the street and got in my car, they’d roused themselves out of incredulity and were coming to see me off. I found out my student and his family had gone to stay with family elsewhere. This wasn’t asylum, it was torture.

Anyway, that’s a small, atypical bit of Salford for you. And when you see Waynetta Slob defending a black guy shot in London, then you know maybe this isn’t about race so much any more.

The riots could have done many wonderful things; but I suspect people will just go back to the same ways. The people who came out on the streets to clean up will soon forget about their community and what it means to them. The scars are very superficial. Some commentators have said it’ll bring out a Blitz mentality which will unite us. It won’t. World War II was 6 years. The Blitz itself was months upon months of nightly terror. The riots are too insignificant to bring about the lasting sense of community that’s emerged in the last two or three days. It was nice to see Muslim standing next to African-Caribbean standing next to Sikh standing next to white. This is how England should be. But it won’t be long before we all go back to watching the news, blaming immigration and each other because the one thing we need can only be inspired when we’re under siege. Pride in community should be so strong, yet it only comes out at times of trial – that’s a shame.

Individuals make up communities. Communities make a nation. And that’s how we make England strong.

Just in case you haven’t seen the wonderful ‘mum’ in question, she’s here, along with another great Salford man blaming the Polish. I suspect the Polish have taken his job because he can’t read too well. But that, of course, is not his fault. That’s your fault. Somehow. Yours and the Polish people’s fault.

Whilst this video embarrasses me a great deal, I think it shows a lot about how far people’s moral compass is out of kilter. I also wonder if the BBC didn’t have a hidden agenda, since so many of the BBC workers are reluctant to move to Media City – i.e. Salford. Well, if you were a well-to-do media luvvie from London, would you want to move to live next door to people like this??

It seems France is in the news again…

Yesterday, a law came into being that has been reported across Europe. The law of October 12th 2010 says that it is forbidden to wear in public any of the following items: a hijab, a burqa, a hood or balaclava or a mask. Before you think of the absurdity of banning masks when it’s Hallowe’en or Carnival in Venice, I should also add that these are allowed for sporting events, festivals or artistic or cultural demonstrations, including religious processions. This law applies to everyone, including muslim tourists. You cannot wear these items in public places, on public transport, on the beach (because I wanted to wear a balaclava on the beach!) in public gardens, in shops, in businesses, restaurants, banks, stations, airports, town halls, tribunals, prefectures, hospitals, museums or libraries.

Of course, the media’s first reaction (especially in England) was one of ‘ban the burqa’. This is ridiculous. Firstly, the integral burqa is worn by very few women – the hijab is far more popular. Secondly, it fails to take account of the (perhaps token) statements about balaclavas (cagoules – at first I thought they were banning the nifty showerproof overcoat thing worn by trainspotters, planespotters and other fetishistic ne’er-do-wells, which smacked of ‘fashion police’ rather than ‘gendarmes’)

The over-reaction involves the fact that people seem to think they will be ripped off women’s heads. Not so. The wearers of any face-obscuring item will first be asked to remove it. This enables identity checks and every other Big Brother process about being who you say you are. Then, if you don’t, you might be carted off to a police station and fined 150€. So, should an IT-girl on French slopes decide she doesn’t want to remove her ski-mask and balaclava, she would be treated in the same way as a muslim woman who refuses to remove her veil.

Of course, the populist press only want to hear ‘ban the burqa’ and it was alarming to see in British newspapers that the two arrests in Paris yesterday were for ‘wearing a veil’ when in fact they were for demonstrating in a public place without permission. Quite a difference. But that’s not news, is it? The women arrested at Greenham Common in the 80s were arrested for similar things. Protesting is fine as long as it’s organised. With rights come responsibilities. But this mis-reporting has incited the British and the English MPs.

Theresa May, the MP not the dodgy ‘adult’ movie star said that no such ban would happen in England and this has brought out two different sides of the camp.

The first are those who think it is a good idea. They see the veil as a living tomb, the citizens within them as ‘non-citizens’. They see it as a symbol of repression. They point to the fact that you cannot kiss on Dubai beaches as a matter of public decency and that we abide by muslim rules when we are in muslim countries. And they are right. In Morocco, I got a really great insight into what I would say is a fairly progressive muslim society. Bear in mind the predominant culture is bedouin and that the ‘Arabs’ were just as much an invader in Morocco as they were in Spain. The djellaba is de rigeur.

Djellabas are pretty neat items. You put them on over whatever you’re wearing – like jeans. Some have a hood, jedi-style. I even saw a camouflage djellaba. Colourful djellabas are fine, and many of them were beautifully adorned with embroidery and amazing detail.

It’s impossible to see these as religious oppression. On the whole, they are practical to keep sand out of your inner regions, voluminous enough to keep a breeze circulating and I had a really good chat with a woman on a train about them – and she made me realise that it’s as much about respect as anything else. Not covering up so men can’t see you – because the men wear djellabas too – but that it’s a premise that you don’t go around flaunting your wealth, you have a little more dignity than the desire to show bling. It’s anti-bling. The houses, most of which are windowless high walls, open onto beautiful courtyards. This is the same. It’s a private beauty, not ostentatious beauty. France is quite like that anyway. You don’t see bling or show, fancy BMW X5s, Manolos or Jimmy Choos. It’s anti-commercialism.

Not only that, Morocco has a wide range of bedouin outfits, western outfits, muslim outfits – and people are sensible. It’s based on respect.

Now, the other side of the argument holds with free-will and that in a democratic country we should have freedom. And this is also true. This is something very dear to me.

But personally, and this has been forgotten in all of this, we dress appropriately. We use our discretion, because with rights come responsibilities. So, just because some suffragettes chained themselves to fences and fell under horses to get me a vote as a woman, and just because some bra-burners in the seventies made it illegal (in law, if not in practice) to pay women differently or to sack pregnant women, or to ask about intentions towards pregnancy doesn’t mean that I should now use this equality and freedom, liberation, to do as I goddamn please. It’s INAPPROPRIATE to wear certain things in school – so I was always suited and booted – I didn’t display tattoos. I didn’t wear jeans. I didn’t wear too-short skirts or silly revealing tops. Mainly this is because I was working with teenage boys, and having seen Leroy Parker’s eyes on stalks when a trainee teacher bent over and reveal a whale-tail thong sticking out of the top of her too-tight trousers was precisely why. I don’t want teenage boys perving over a flash of thong. I don’t want to do anything that distracts from the central purpose of the classroom: learning. I did once wear a ball gown, but that was for learning.

Likewise, it is INAPPROPRIATE of me to:

1. Go naked in the streets, unless I am my good friend David and I’d quite like to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, or unless I am an animal when fur is de riguer.

2. Go to a Manchester City vs Liverpool match wearing a Manchester United shirt.

3. Go to a Pakistan-Bangladesh cricket match wearing an Indian team shirt

4. Turn up at a South Africa/Australia match in an England shirt

5. Wander around Dubai’s streets in a bikini

6. Go to Iran wearing a mini-skirt and boob tube

7. Go into a mosque wearing a swimming costume

8. Wear a Ginger-Spice-inspired Union Jack dress in the middle of Bradford

9. Dress up as John Lydon if I’m going to meet the Queen

10. Wear lederhosen and slap my thighs in a science classroom

11. Put on a Nazi costume and go wandering around the streets.

12. Wear a ballet tutu to work in a packing factory

I’d be a provocative idiot if I did these things. Just because I can doesn’t mean I should.

And so it’s all very well to say we should or shouldn’t be allowed to wear particular clothing (or none at all) but there’s also a degree of provocation in wearing it. “It’s my right” is offensive to many other people. It’s my right to erect a huge Union Jack on my driveway in Bolton, but I don’t. It’s my right not to wear a bra, but I don’t take advantage of that. I can wear a bikini in M&S if I like, but I don’t. “It’s my religion!” is another argument altogether. It’s not in the Qu’ran to wear a veil, only to be dressed modestly. If it were, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Morocco would all be wearing a burqa. “My husband makes me!” is not an answer at all, and terrifies me.

What is important to remember though is that whilst France has the largest Islamic population in Europe, it also has only between 350-2000 (estimate by Le Figaro) veil-wearers. Why is it then that so many of my formerly free-faced Bolton neighbours feel the need to wear the veil? 15 years ago, veil wearers were not so frequent. Now most of my neighbours and clients wear one.

There is, to me, an issue about integration. My veil-wearing clients often were not English speakers and would ask their children to call me. Some of them were just members of mosques where it was the habit and it was the habit for me. My other Muslim clients who didn’t wear a veil included a very intelligent second-generation Pakistani girl who had three older sisters – a doctor, a lawyer and an accountant. None of them wore a veil at all, although their mother wore a headscarf.

What’s more concerning is that so many of the women who wear one are young, independent and ‘English’ who don’t feel integrated enough into ‘English’ customs not to wear one. And that’s an issue.

Maybe France is wrong to be secular – but I uphold its values. Having worked in a Catholic school where you cannot teach sensible sex education (because sex is only allowed in marriage!) and you cannot advise them to be careful or avoid disease means that religion comes before education. If you cannot teach evolution, then something is wrong. I like that religion falls outside French state schools. Of course, you can elect to send your child to a private school where religion is allowed, but there’s a distinction. And someone in this modern world has to say religion has no business in politics or education. After all, America, our great ‘secular’ nation whose dollar bill proclaims, ironically, ‘In God We Trust’ and in which four states are prohibited from teaching evolution, so my personal thoughts are that religion has no place in law or in education. And I applaud France for being secular.

I also strongly believe that it is your responsibility to integrate into democracy and equality, never making yourself ‘more equal’ than someone else. If you are allowed to wear a hijab and I am not allowed to wear a cross, then you are more equal and the respecting of your rights violates mine. And that’s wrong. Either everything is allowed – whereby people will take advantage of that, teachers will end up dressing like prostitutes, ‘sexy’ t-shirts will be on sale for 7 year olds along with push-up bras and someone somewhere will decide naked is best – or there are limits which people will complain about. Since people are unable to act responsibly and appropriately, liberalism must be a little conservative. And that’s sad.

But not everyone thinks like I do – and that’s why a degree of intervention and restriction is needed. Maybe if we weren’t all so bothered about it, it wouldn’t be as bad as it is. Unfortunately, some people are provoked by the sight of a burqa, and some criminals have used it to disguise their identity and so laws like this will continue to be passed to appease the majority.

Oh England, my England!

There’s a debate in The Sun today about the moves to make St George’s Day a bank holiday. This would be great for several reasons. One is that it’s my bother-in-law’s birthday and he would quite like a bank holiday. Second is that it’s also the accepted date for Shakespeare’s birthday. But third, more importantly than these, is that it would allow people to be ‘English’ for a day.

Now don’t get me wrong: I like being attached to Scotland and Wales. That’s fine. But they have their own patron saint days and everybody, but everybody, celebrates them. Daffodils and Leeks. Thistles or whatever it is Scottish people have. Nobody would be embarrassed to go to Burns’ Nights celebrations. On Anglo-Info, there was a whole thread of people admitting their Welshness in time for St David’s Day. But to wear a red rose on St George’s Day, or – heaven forbid – to sport the England flag, would be seen now as tantamount to racism. Our flag has become a symbol of racists and a symbol of nationalists and every negative quality they stand for. Unfortunately, if I put a flag up, I become a bigot, a person who thinks England should be elite. Or else it’s a major sports season and I’m allowed.

It’s embarrassing to be ‘English’. It’s like admitting to years of enslaving people, colonialism, unscrupulous expansion and brutality. I feel like we should have a badge saying ‘Sorry’ if I admit I’m English. In fact, I can’t even say ‘English’ on my passport. I have to say ‘British’. I feel the weight of history, for the Unionisation between England and Scotland, the ceding of Northern Ireland, tyranny in Ireland… it’s not done to remember amazing British history. It’s not done to be proud of standing up to Fascism and Nazism and how hard we fight for justice and ‘good’.

The thing is, I think in all the Jeremy Kyle type people, the scroungers, the jobs-worths, the ‘entitled’ and disrespectful ‘yoof’ – the Karen Matthews of the world, the mealy-mouthed social workers in Haringey, the miserable pram-faced girls with their assorted offspring from several different fathers, it’s easy to forget the majority. The majority of English people are great. We’re hard-working and we’re honest.

I didn’t vote for David Cameron, but I think he’s gaining power because he seems honest. Seems. He seems sincere. And Nick Clegg? His sincerity seems now as thin as Tony Blair’s. We actually expect people to be honest. Except footballers. We expect them to be dishonest, lying, drug-taking cheats. You know what I think kept people going through the Second World War? The fact that we believe in Good and we believe in Freedom. And mostly, I think that we’re like this.

For example, there are many unscrupulous leaders now being taken by storm by uprisings across the world. Good. But do you know what? This wouldn’t need to happen in England – because we expect our politicians – naively perhaps – to be honest. We might not riot, but Tony Blair, David Chaytor and so on – they all know how the public feel about dishonesty. Americans were cynical about WMD and a lot of Americans I know say they weren’t at all surprised that Saddam didn’t have WMD. I think the English were. I think the first time we went into the Gulf, over Kuwait, it might have been about oil to Americans, but to us, it was about fairness. It’s just not cricket.

And we trusted Blair. Foolishly. As The Jam said, “you choose your leaders and place your trust…” – it’s so true. We really do. And yes, we’re disappointed from time to time. But in all the expenses scandal, we actually had three politicians punished. That’s fair. In Italy, you only have to look at Berlusconi to know that this just wouldn’t happen. You can be as corrupt as you like. In France, Jacques Chirac is in court on corruption charges, but it’s taken 15 years to get here.

In France, you are expected to be, above all, French first. The true meaning of a secular nation. You can be whatever else you like too – French-Algerian, French-Moroccan, French-Muslim, French-African, but you are French. You learn about France in school and have a very Francocentric view of the world. You must speak the language and adhere to 200 year old laws. Religion isn’t taught in state schools, and no one, but no one would think to say that the French flag is a racist thing, despite Marine Le Pen trying to claim the colours as such. Every mairie, every important building, they all have the French flag outside of it and are proud to do so. Where is the England flag on our buildings? Sure we have the bastardised Union Jack, but it’s not English. For one day of the year, it would be nice to reclaim that flag and celebrate a bit of England.

So I’d love it if we could have a day of being English. I’d love it if that didn’t mean nationalism. I’d love it if the 80% of the English public would rise up and be proud of our bad teeth, our regionalisms, our language, our culture, our heritage. We dragged this world kicking and screaming from Feudalism to Industrialism to Commercialism and we should be proud of that. In England, you are free to be what you choose, free to vote, free to say and do what you want. I’m proud of our loyalty, our inherent belief in honesty, our moral stance.

When Rupert Brooke wrote ‘If I should die, think only this of me/that there is a corner of some foreign field that is forever England’, he meant those values we are inherently – never mind the rodenty sub-species that fills our newspapers – we are brave, we are honest, we are upright, we know Good. We love our country.

Now you might think this is a little rich coming from a girl who lives in France. Well, I’m sick of the usual flag-wielders, and I’m sick of the Jeremy Kyle people. I’m sick of the ‘so unfair’ generation who expect the world to owe them a living before they have even fought for their place in it. I love England and being English. I never want to be anything else. I love France too – but if we’d had the weather, the property prices, the space, the houses, I’d still be there. I’m tired of the rain. I think the sun should shine for one day in England, and that it should be St George’s Day, when we kick people like this into touch. If you live in England, it should be England first, everything else second. And shouldn’t we have a day to celebrate that?

St Paddy’s Day is celebrated across the world. On March 17th, Irish green abounds around the globe, wherever there are Irish communities. Sure, it might be more about Guinness than about repelling all the snakes, or whatever he did. But if the Irish are about community and celebration and singing ‘Oh Danny Boy’, then so be it. Nobody is embarrassed to be Irish.

I wish we felt the same about being English. And before you say we do: our Government doesn’t. Otherwise, it’d be a day off for all its loyal subjects. Shame it takes Dr John Sentamu, a British Ugandan, to say that. See. British first.

Le Crissmass Pooddinguh

Yesterday, Jake came home from school with an impromptu request.

“Our teacher wants to know if I can bring some crackers in, because I’m English.”

Crackers, for those of you who don’t know, like the French, are toilet-roll inners wrapped in fancy paper. Inside this is a little bit of card with a tiny bit of powder that ‘cracks’ when you pull them with a partner, to reveal, oh joy of joys, a little plastic ‘Made in China’ gift. Apparently, China are outsourcing to Vietnam now, so it might say ‘Made in Vietnam’. There’s also a terrible joke and a paper hat. It’s compulsory to wear the paper hat if you want to look the part. That is… if the part is looking like a drunken, fashion-less fool. For this privilege, you usually pay about £10 for a box. My brother Al and I have a competition to see how many we can win – we even have a technique and a specific angle.

However, they aren’t known in France, and whilst you can buy them from various English shops, they’re three times the price, and since there’s not so many of us here over Christmas, it just didn’t seem worth it. So, no, we didn’t have any crackers.

I went to my dad’s to see if I could find any in his grange. I had a distinct memory of sleeping with a bag full of crackers next to me last Christmas. But we couldn’t find any. Just as we were packing up, my Dad’s neighbour turned up with a stere of wood for my dad’s fire – so we spent a good ten minutes taking them off the trailer and catching up on new dogs and local news.

So… in lieu of that, I decided to crack into a Christmas pudding as a swap. Most of the ingredients are available here, except they don’t really ‘do’ different mixed fruit – just raisins. I’d kind of adapted it and it’s now without glacé cherries. How can France not do glacé cherries? Surely glacé implies ‘iced’? I thought they would be like marrons glacés, but they aren’t available over here, despite how popular they are in England. Neither is crystallised ginger. All of these are missing, but my Christmas pudding seemed right. I shall have to make my own crystallised ginger and glacé cherries next year when the cherry crops are ready. I found the stout and enough dried fruit to sink a ship, so I managed to make three 2-litre puddings. One is for Christmas pudding ice-cream, one is for eating, and one was a spare.

So… I sent Jake with a note saying I was prepared to come in with a Christmas pudding and some custard. The French love custard, like we love crème patisserie. I got an excited phone call ten minutes into school time saying the children would be delighted to sample some Christmas pudding.

Unfortunately, between nine and two, a million things went wrong. I got a flat tyre, my dad’s Clio wasn’t starting, since it’s been out of use for a few weeks, the charger wouldn’t charge, every time we tried to attach it, the alarm kicked in, and Steve called me a chocolate fireguard and made me sit in the van, because all I could think about was 180 euros for two second-hand tyres like last time. That’s nine tyres this year.

So, by the time I got to school, I was a little frazzled. Still, rows of delighted children will cure you of that. They were all extremely excited to taste Le Crissmass pooddinguh and to take the recipes and get the ingredients. I have to say I was giddy, too, as they worked out what was what. Some said it wasn’t for them. Some liked it though it was a bit strange. Several came back for more, though I think they were just hoping for ‘la pièce’  the lucky sixpence. Axel, who’s a bundle of enthusiasm (I wish I had a friend called Axel. It’s a cool name. I wonder if he’s named after the German band who did the tune to Beverley Hills Cop, Axel F, or after W Axl Rose, the rock star who really should have taken early retirement. The cornrows didn’t do it for me like snake hips did in Welcome to the Jungle. Still, Axel is pretty cool anyway) had an English phrase book from way back when, complete with details of pounds, shillings and sixpences, and when he looked up la crème anglaise, it said “The custard” which I thought was quite cute, and actually accurate, except you wouldn’t ask for the bananas with the custard, really, unless you were reading from Axel’s pre-decimal phrase book. There’s a lovely, hyper-intelligent girl, Sara, in the class. One boy was flicking an elastic band at her, so I said “Donnes-moi!” in my teacher voice and put it in my pocket. Jake was horrified by this. He said: “That’s robbery!” and was quite outraged.

I’m sad he didn’t see me in my prime when I routinely confiscated several phones from various little beggars, would stand at the door with a bin and anyone who didn’t spit gum into it and was subsequently found with gum would be found somewhere with lots of gum stuck to the bottom and made to remove it all. If it came out in my classroom, it was considered my property. I considered my classroom as The People’s Republic of Lady Justine – You have no vote and no say. But I was fair, if strict. I had several rules, one of which was ‘you can’t wear more make-up than me’ and ‘you can’t do ‘THAT’ face’… ‘THAT’ face being that ‘I’ve just seen some dog licking vomit off a pile of doggy doo’ combined with the ‘I have no regard for you and I wish you would die a horrid death in a violent way, preferably involving me spitting on you repeatedly to show my scorn’. I patented this face. I have photographic proof. I can do the scornful adolescent sneer so much better than any child I’ve ever come across. So, any imitation of ‘THAT’ face was immediately banned. Much like a young Elvis might have banned all the ancient old impersonators who would come to represent him. I perfected that look. I made it an art form. None of my friends did it. In fact, they all had healthy, wonderful relationships with their family. However, we did do the class ‘scorn-n-sneer’ to teachers who we didn’t like. So… confiscating an elastic band being flicked at a precocious and amazing little girl is fair game.

Steve just said ‘but you’re not a teacher any more’ and has given an explanation as to how he’d have complained. Like Father, like Son. And little does Steve know that if he’d have complained after having had to have an elastic band removed from his personage by a guest of the school because he was aiming it at a sweet little girl, I’d have carted him off to the Maire to be told off and shamed. I’d have insisted on speaking to his parents (That’s you Susan!) to express my outrage and insisted they share my indignation.

I did this with a boy once, who shall be known as Darren. It’s a pseudonym, though why I don’t name and shame is beyond me.

Said boy was lurking in the corridor, trying to pull a few of my sheep-like fifteen-year-old top set kids out of the fold for mischief. I’d appropriately admonished them and pulled them back into the pack, and said to Boy:

“Who are you?!”

“Why?” *why do they ALWAYS ask ‘why?’ – nothing sets my sparks going like that. Especially when they do it with a whiney nasally tone.

“Because I want to know.”

“What have I done?”

“Well, you won’ t tell me who you are.”

“I don’t have to…”

“In fact, dear, you’re right. You don’t. However, like the police I reserve the right to detain you until you do, so to the back of my class, now.” And I prompted said Boy to my classroom door.

“And you can spit your gum out and tuck your shirt in.” *Any English teachers will know this instantly. I don’t know why British education still bothers trying to clothe pupils in what’s essentially a polyester suit, since all they want to do is wear their tie in weird ways and un-tuck their shirts.  I did the same. We wore shirts out to cover rolled up skirts. We had a doughnut ring of skirt around our midriffs. I’m not sure why boys do it, except that if you have your shirt in, you look like a ‘stiff’, as 11 year old me would have said.

“And you can suck my dick…” he said, smirking, thinking the class would laugh. They didn’t. Mouths opened. Jaws dropped. Eyes were on stalks. A bit of tumbleweed blew by.

“Fine… come with me.” I promptly escorted said boy to the headmaster, a portly fellow of great gravitas and dignity, about as prim as you’d want him to be.

“Sir, I’ve brought you a boy….”

Sir looked appropriately worried.

“He’s just asked me to SUCK — HIS — DICK.” I enunciated each word, loudly and clearly, as if the words aren’t common in my mouth. Darren blushed.

The head looked mortified and played along well. He made all the appropriate ‘in front of a lady’ noises, as if this was 1820. I asked for permission to call Darren’s mother. I did the same to her.

“I’m sorry to be calling you, Mrs Jones, but I have some very disturbing things to report. I’m afraid Darren has been incredibly rude. I have to say, as a woman, I’m sure you’ll understand, I felt quite violated by this, but Darren told me to SUCK–HIS–DICK….” I let the words echo. I’ve never seen anyone paler. “I’m sure you’ll understand, if a male teacher said this to a female 15 year old student, how horrific that would be – struck off, possible police investigations and so on.”

I laid it on thick and spread it about like a maturing cheese on a cracker.

By the end of it, Darren was excluded temporarily. He had a file like a telephone book and was on his ‘three strikes and you’re out’ last warning – hence why he wouldn’t tell me his name. I’m quite sure a young boy CANNOT be more mortified than when a female teacher repeats to his loving mother exactly what their little darling just said, and then milks it a little. I thought not, at the time.

It turns out, in Catholic schools, the way to get back in is to apologise in person to every member of the governing body. So Dear Darren had to apologise, precisely, using his exact words, to the priest, the head, the deputies, his parents, and finally, me.

So, Cillian with his elastic band, Stephen with his sympathy and Jake with his distress on Cillian’s behalf about robbery can join the queue of people I’ve caused grievance to.

They can find it directly behind Darren. By now, it’s about 200,000 people long.

What they’ve yet to realise is how boys actually need a firm hand. Rules is rules, but when Miss brings you cake and tells you all the rude jokes in Shakespeare, and sometimes lets you have a rest in her office, you’ll pretty much do anything for her. Boys like it strict. Let it be known. And, if they don’t like it strict, they need it strict!


Returning to England…

It is exactly 100 days since I last set foot in my home country. Tomorrow will be my day 101 and I shall be returning via Liverpool to the hub of the North. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. Landing in Liverpool is one thing – us Mancs aren’t well-known for a love of Scousers, and in all honesty, the Scouse accent does nothing for me. In fact, having once spent a holiday in Crete, where I heard one Scouse girl shout across five balconies to another Scouse girl:

“Aayyyyyyyyy, Laurrrrrrrrrrrrra, I’ve gorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaa diseeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaasssssse!”

I can safely say that I categorised all Scousers in a similar manner: easy, loud, cheap and as lovely as an orange fake tan. Sorry to any Scousers who don’t conform to that stereotype; it’s the Manc in me. It’s the ‘rrrrrrrrrrss’. I blame Cilla Black.

This is both ‘pretend’ Cilla (and watching it, I’m reminded actually how lovely she was. Great legs for an old bird!) and the Scousers by Harry Enfield. It shows you the great Scouse style and the ‘Dey do doh, don’t dey doh?’ as well as the ‘Calm Down’ that probably plagued Liverpudlians for a long time.

However, I dislike that the scouse accent has seeped over the borders into Warrington and St Helens, thus giving rise to the ‘Plastic Scouser’. A Plastic Scouser is a wannabe-Scouser. I’m thus reminded of the man a few months ago who cut me up and then put on a fake scouse accent when I was videoing him with my phone as he continued to swerve and drive badly. He’d already spoken to me as he cut me up – cut glass Bolton accent. But, by the time he got out of the car, it was full-on Plastic Scouser. Needless to say, he was not so happy when I challenged him on this. I’m sure he was trying to imply that he was ‘connected’ and that he had Toxteth or Croxteth connections. I did the whole ‘Calm down, Calm down!’ routine and he eventually got back in his car. Seriously, even I could do a better Plastic Scouser accent.

Ironically, having looked for a Scouse video on Youtube, virtually all the videos are posted by (or accused of  being) Mancs and are all quite – how shall I say? – derogatory. Virtually all of them have ‘Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey’ as their soundtrack and I’m reminded how much the Scousers love a bit of Gerry and the Pacemakers. Whilst they may have called their airport ‘John Lennon Airport’, it’s noticeable that the famous Beatle did not remain in Liverpool; neither has Sir Paul McCartney. On that subject, I’d be pretty pissed off if I were Sir Paul; they could have at least named the bus depot after him.

In all seriousness, I think it’s much of a muchness, and it’s a friendly rivalry, not unlike the French and the English – the difficulty of close neighbours with very different habits but with rather more in common than otherwise. We call them ‘bin dippers’ – as if they all go foraging in bins; we joke about their unemployment and their football loyalty. You only have to go to a Manchester City/Liverpool match to hear the worst of the songs come out. I blame all of this on ancient rivalries.

In reality, both cities have more in common than they would like to admit. Unemployment hit both towns badly, as did the 70s and 80s. Both have reinvented themselves. Both are massively proud of working-class roots, and both are fuelled by Irish immigrants.

I know the Scousers get (perhaps rightly) upset about the local ribbing, but there are many more programmes that mock Manchester in much worse ways.

Shameless is one of my favourites… although it’s less comedy and more real life these days!

And a little clip from The Royle Family – another Manchester classic!

Chavs, scallies, Essex girls and the Manc swagger

I’ve been having conversational lessons with a marvellous client and I’ve been briefing him on all things Anglais. It must be said, I’m becoming a bit of a Daily Mail complainant about English life. I need to stop reading British newspapers with their doom, gloom and minute-by-minute analysis of the economy, because it’s making me miserable about my home country.

It confuses me that French newspapers seem not to print pictures or stories that are inflammatory. A fellow forum-user posted some pictures of the riots in Lyon in response to the recent strikes about retirement age, and I have to say I’d seen nothing like them in the press here. Whilst on the one hand, it’s kind of dishonest to ‘hush up’ the extremity of the violence, the riot police, teens up-ending cars and so on, it’s also a little more gentle. England, however, seems to revel in inflammation. If a newspaper can act as a catalyst for emotions in England, it seems to take every opportunity. Today, I was mostly incensed about a man from Bury who hanged his dog from a bridge when he was drunk and has got 10 weeks of a prison sentence. I went through the whole gamut of Daily Mail emotions – anger, frustration, a desire to become a mercenary and go out and do the same thing to him – posted links to Facebook and got myself all upset about a dog which, as Steve says, is probably better off dead than it was with its owner.

I wonder if such things happen in France. Undoubtedly there are cruel people here: France isn’t necessarily renowned for its sentimentality about animals, but they do love a ‘hand-bag’ dog. Perhaps a crime in itself to keep a dog in a handbag or dress it up in little coats, but I never saw a story like this in the French press. There’s been a Tony-Martin-esque story down in Toulouse, but it’s not really ‘national’ news. The news seems much more political, much more intellectual, lots less American and lots less sensational.

And I have to query what this sensationalist news reporting has done to me.

Back to the client, I realised when writing up my vocabulary list after today’s session that I’ve taught him about chavs, painted a picture of England beset by teen thugs, taught him that Britain’s cities are poverty-stricken and violent, taught him about Jeremy Kyle, teenage pregnancies, ‘rainbow’ families, discussed bullying and intimidation and when he asked about Colchester, I informed him about Essex girls and squaddies on drunken rampages. It sounds not unlike a third-world warzone. “The Only Way is Essex” can’t, surely, be how it is in Essex. Yet it’s how I think of it. Blonde WAGs, boob jobs, hair extensions, sunbeds… and all images planted in my mind by the media. The people I know from Essex aren’t like that at all. Admittedly, I only know four people from Essex, but not a one of them conforms to this image. So is this cynicism worsened by the media?

But then he got me on the subject of Manchester. And my love came swimming back. Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Smiths, New Order, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Oasis – the bulk of great English music in the past few years has come out of Manchester. And I love that.

I told him about my friend who had come up from London to work. After a couple of weeks, she told me she was going out with a ‘musician’. I laughed. Virtually every Northerner I know is in a band of a sort, or can play an instrument. I know about 20 bass guitarists, a good load of singers, drummers and guitarists, all of whom are ‘in bands’. If you aren’t kicking a ball about, you are making music in Manchester. You might be 35, live at home with your mum and have never worked a full week in your life, but if you can’t aspire to be the next big thing, you haven’t got any Manchester in your soul. This is Manchester.

It’s a little sad that my client now knows the words ‘chav’ and ‘trailer trash’ and ‘scally’. It’s very sad I told him about Essex girls. I think I need to be more kind to my home country, though it hasn’t always been kind to me. It’s still within me to wax lyrical about the wonders of Manchester. I hope that little bit of wonder doesn’t turn sour!

Coincidentally, I picked up a French book about the top 100 cities in the world. Manchester was in there – alongside London. I looked and it made me feel very proud to be Manc through and through. I might not like the scallies and the chavs, and men who throw dogs off bridges. I definitely don’t like the fact I was mugged by 30 teens and not a single thing happened to those criminals, and I don’t like the fact my car was keyed. I disagree with the quangos and the bureaucracy and the civil servant state. But I still love my Manchester, warts and all.

It’s the little differences…

Recently, some posts from back home, particularly to do with Essa Academy, the school which the muggers attended, have been popping up on my ‘people found your blog who searched for…’ – and recently, Essa Academy Deputy Head, or She-who-is-too-busy-to-deal-with-violent-robbery. It makes me wonder what I’m going back to in November.

There are many ways rural life changes you, and many ways France changes you – here are some of the ways!

1. There isn’t the ever-present McDonald’s everywhere. In fact, one of the McDonald’s in Angouleme shut for lack of business. I don’t have to deal with Jake’s constant requests for a Chicken Select meal every time we drive down the dual carriageway. In fact, fast food is a no-go in general. Sure, I still stick a pizza in, but it’s always home-made. I’m sure Steve used to have takeaway pizza at least once a week. Jake saw a sign for a pizzeria yesterday – see, ‘see-it, want-it’ – it reminds me of that episode of Malcolm in the Middle where Dewey watches an advert with a blue cuddly toy on it which speaks to him personally and was a class satire about the power of advertising on children. He got giddy about pizza and then forgot about it by the time we got to the petrol station. Such is life in France. In England, there’s McDonald’s hovering on the periphery of every child’s consciousness all the time. Here, our nearest McDo is 20 minutes’ drive away, at the back of a car park, and the one time we went, it was so bad that we never bothered again. Now, I’ve got Jake eating some food that’s the same as ours – he’ll happily eat mash and jacket potatoes alongside chips, which he wouldn’t a year ago, unless it was pre-packaged. Bolagnaise, chicken in sweet and sour sauce, meat pie… the boy is a changed man. And no pining for McDo every time you drive past.

2. Pre-packaged stuff in the supermarket looks very plastic. It probably does in England, but here, it looks SOOO unappetising. Like it was deliberately designed to put you off. In the supermarket, we have 4 freezer rows. One has ice-creams and sweet stuff; the second has frozen veg and chips; the other has meat and fish. The final is mostly made up with pizza, a few frozen rice dishes and a few quiches. None of these endless rows of pre-pack, frozen chicken in batter, or fish in batter, or Aunt Bessie’s *though I confess I miss Aunt Bessie’s yorkshire puddings very much*. If you want it, cook it yourself.

3. Things that are oddly missing. Frozen or fresh sweetcorn. Weird. Canned, fine. Fresh, No. Chillis with more punch than an old women’s bitch fight = non-existent. Things that are weirdly expensive: raisins (in this land of grapes!) sultanas, oats. Clothes. You get used to planning to grow your own ‘weird’ veg that nobody wants, or making do without. No flapjacks for us.

4. The sad loss of English cheese. In England, cheese rules. Japanese people think British people smell like sour milk, and it’s probably all the cheese we eat. We have a range of fantastic hard cheeses, crumbly cheeses and soft cheeses – some of which are worth export, beyond cheddar, surely? Red Leicester, for one, perfect melted. Double Gloucester, your perfect cheese-and-tomato-sandwich cheese. Lancashire, acid and flaky. Caerphilly. Stilton. In a British supermarket, you can buy Italian cheese, French and Swiss cheese, Austrian cheese, Spanish cheese – and the full complement of British cheeses to boot. Yes, there’s a lot of Cheddar, but you can buy at least 5 Italian cheeses, Brie, Camembert, Roquefort, Gruyere, Emmenthal, Edam, Jarlsberg… it’s a smorgasbord of cheese. In France, you can buy rows of Camembert and Brie, goat’s cheese, a bit of Comte or Gruyere – and stuff you if you want to buy anything else! You can find a few packets of Italian cheese hidden away, but they just don’t do hard cheese like ours. English supermarkets are a whole lot more cosmopolitan, as are our eating tastes. You have to ‘go French’ if you move here. And mostly that’s not a bad thing, but sometimes, it’s imbecilic that they don’t import the best, most yummy stuff from other countries. National pride in your cuisine is one thing; failing to accept other countries have something to offer is another.

5. The TV is less pride of place than it was. We watch DVDs a lot (having worked our way through series 1-8 of 24) but it’s not constantly on. I don’t miss it. I want to watch French t.v. to learn the language, but other than that, I can’t see I’ll ever be connected.

6. Instant coffee is a big no-no. It’s on a shelf with chicory coffee. It’s almost like it’s not coffee at all. In fact, it makes me wonder, how the hell do they make it so it dissolves??! Weird! It frightens me a bit now I think about it. No Alta Rica to be found here.

7. All French houses have a coffee pot (that I’ve seen, anyway!) or a stove-pot. You have to have proper coffee, with coffee beans, or at least ground coffee. Not instant.

8. Your ‘vie quotidienne’ (daily life) is very different. School being only 4 days gives you a different rhythm to life. It’s like a mini-weekend. Jake is much less tired and seems to enjoy school more. Also, everything other than Leclerc shuts down at lunch. You can’t just nip to the bank or post office in your lunch time. If you aren’t ensconced in a café, you aren’t out. There’s no point. You have to plan ahead more, too, deciding on Friday what you’re eating on Sunday and Monday – since you won’t be getting to the supermarket. Even the giant Casino supermarket shuts on Sundays. And some places are shut on Mondays, too. In fact, plan on stuff being open for a couple of hours a week either side of lunch and you’re about right.

9. Plan to get your petrol or use a credit card (not at the moment, anyway!) since petrol stations shut too, apart from the 24/7 credit card pumps. And they shut for lunch. And a lunch time shut means up to three hours. Right when you might want to go somewhere. I’ve seen people pull in at 12:01 and still be sitting there at 2:59.

10. You have to get used to not only French numbers, which for me are a hundred times more difficult than actual words. I can learn words. I can remember fosse septique and plinthes and portail. I can say je voudrais deposer deux cheques, s’il vous plait, but it took me an awful long time to learn my postcode (seize cent dix) and I’m still a long way off with our phone number. I can do the zero-cinq quatre-cinq easily enough, but then I get mixed up. And why would 16110 be sixteen-a hundred and ten? Why is it four-five in my phone number, and then sixty-five? Why not forty-five, sixty-five, or four-five-six-five? What’s with mixing the tens with the units?! And how do you know until someone says?! I still can’t remember my birth date (quinze – always escapes me) and you don’t say ‘the fifteenth of December’ you say, ‘fifteen December’ literally speaking. What’s with that?! I’m yet to master my year of birth. We do nice ‘nineteen-sixty’ tens blocks. In France, it just as well might be one-nine hundred-and-sixty, or a-hundred-and-ninety-six-zero or something weird. 2010 is easy enough – deux mille dix, but numbers before the millennium scare me. As do times. The 24 hour clock is in full swing here, and it’s bad enough not being able to remember what falls between douze and dix-huit when pushed, but when you then have to deal with ‘is quatorze heures’ two o’clock? I instantly think 14 must be four o’clock. The man in the bank looked alarmed when he said three o’clock and I wrote down five o’clock. Bloody numbers!!!

It’s the little differences, as Vincent Vega would say.

L’Hiver le chasseur aiguise son couteau

It’s definitely the advent of Winter – I think Autumn definitely started with the fall of the aspen leaves at the tail-end of August – and now, two months on, the fire is on and there is a definite nip in the air. It’s the kind of weather that makes you need hats, scarves and gloves. I’ve got several immediate projects to get on the go – a draught excluder and some curtains to go across the archway, as there’s a mighty strong gale that blows under the door way!

Steve’s mum and step-dad have now gone back to the UK – and sadly missed! – although Keith needs to bone up on his science knowledge as it seems to have melded into science fiction. If the truth be told, I like the small yet heated debates – it reminds me of my Gramps and my Uncle Paul – both of whom debate(d) endlessly with me over trivialities. Now ‘normal’ life will resume until I have to come back to England mid-November, and which I’m not looking forward to. I am glad I’ll get to see friends and family, but not so glad that I have to be back in England. Mind you, France right now has several English bits about it, beyond the nip in the air.

The country is on strike tomorrow (including Jake’s school, which is a rarity) and there are petrol blockades set up. There was mass panic yesterday when I realised L’Eclerc had switched their pumps off (well, considering they are credit card ones, it’s not a bad idea to stop people filling up jerry cans!) and worried I wouldn’t be able to get petrol tomorrow – you live through petrol concerns once (2000) and you realise what a chaos it can create. Of course, in England, the petrol blockades were announced on a Friday morning, so the great and the good of the retired world saw fit to panic buy and fill up their cars with 40 litres of petrol each, and by the time the offices kicked their workers out, there were mile-long queues and pumps running out. I still remember driving over to Clitheroe at a snail’s pace trying to conserve petrol, the roads empty and half the kids not in school. Luckily, a week in, the UK had had enough, and I wonder if France will feel the same. There’s a certain amount of inconvenience you’ll put up with whilst you’re standing up for your rights, but once you start worrying about how you’re going to get your shopping in, then it stops being a matter of principle and starts being a real concern. If it goes anything like England, the things you’re campaigning about might be held off for the moment (the £1.00 for a litre of petrol) but they’ll soon sneak in the back door virtually as fast as if you hadn’t bothered at all. I wonder if the country will bring itself to its knees without Sarkozy blinking. However, seeing as he’s got an emergency council in place and the press start talking about martial order, you realise they think it’s a bigger problem than they might be letting on.

It’s funny, because this is the first time I feel touched by French politics. I see the problems on both sides and it’s difficult to know what the solution is. I guess, sensibly, top-up pensions for those who want to retire early, though that’s incredibly undemocratic, since some of the hardest professions are some of the least well-paid, and some of the rich fat cats who can afford the top-ups would be able to work until they were 80, desk jockeys as they may be.

We’d planned on going to Aubeterre, but with the pumps being out of commission, it ended up being Montbron. Lovely, but not quite the same.

This reminded me, cobbles in England are being outlawed. Even ancient setts are being removed because councils are so scared of litigious citizens wrapped up in the compensation culture. So sad.

Jumelage: Angouleme-Bury

We haven’t really paid that much attention to Angouleme, our adopted region’s ‘capital’. It’s a place to go to the outskirts for Brico-Depot and Darty and all the big chains we don’t have in La Rochefoucauld. At about 20 km away, it’s a little further than Manchester was from Bury, but in all honesty, our focus hasn’t been on Angouleme at all.

Angouleme Way in Bury is a tribute to its French ‘twin’. Likewise, there’s a Boulevard de Bury here. Apparently. Apart from names on a by-pass, I was first introduced to Angouleme via a twin exchange here when I was about 13. It was quite hideous. The girl I stayed with, Severine, a very charentais name, came to stay with us first. I’d broken my leg (during!?!) her stay by randomly throwing myself off the top of Holcombe Hill and I remember very little of the rest of the trip, suffice to say there were days out around the region.

On our return to Angouleme, I realised I was one of the youngest on the trip: there were girls in the 5th year at our school – I was still a second-year. Not only that, but my French must have been crap. I remember the house distinctly – one of the modern pavilion types, and I remember being impressed by the size of it, and the lack of personal property. I was shocked Madame made her husband stay outside, disgusted by the vegetables I was made to eat, upset when Madame disinfected the mattress after my stay and impressed by the downstairs games room where Severine had a table-tennis table and a computer. I remember a day trip to Royan and finding it difficult to wee on one of those ‘squat’ toilets – the last time I saw one – especially difficult to wee when you have a plaster cast on your leg. I remember a trip to Brantome, but very little of it other than sitting in the park.

So, twinning hadn’t meant very much to me at all. An unpleasant exchange, a name on a by-pass… I hadn’t given much thought to Angouleme.

So for our first proper wandering about yesterday, to enjoy the Circuit Des Remparts, I was shocked, yes shocked, by the differences between the two and wondered how on earth the two ended up connected.

The town hall, perched on the highest part of the hill upon which Angouleme sits, is magnificent. Think more Manchester Town Hall than Bury Town Hall.

Hotel de Ville

It’s surrounded by lush gardens and flowers, not unlike the park at the back of the Town Hall in Bury, just ten times more lovely. Then there’s the cathedral. It overlooks the city, surrounded by its ramparts, topped with a marvellous Italianesque tower… Bury Parish Church, eat your heart out.

Not that I’m a Bury whinger. I think the end of the Rock, where the Parish Church is, is quite lovely. Millgate’s okay too. I appreciate the market is quite good (if not ‘World Famous’ as they repute to be) I’ve not been to The New Rock, but it looks quite good, except for the jobsworths going round stopping pensioners taking photos.

But Angouleme is quite magnificent. It has a shopping arcade, rows of lovely shops, a square with cafes, fantastic views, amazing architecture, cobbled streets in places, tree-lined boulevards (albeit lined with a few men clearly smoking weed – not perhaps the best idea when you’re right outside the ‘Maison d’Arret’ – the jail. Hmmmm.) and a quite stunning town hall and cathedral. I’m not convinced there’s anything in Bury that’s remotely comparable. Poor Bury.

The Circuit des Ramparts is a great event: thousands of cars turn up to show off, take part in races and generally draw the attention of the local populace. It wasn’t over-crowded, just pleasantly so, and the weather, as usual, was beautiful. It was lovely to walk around our adopted departement capital and see it in its splendour.

Old Jags and New Murals