Three legs bad, four legs good
by Sam North

Le style anglais -c'est un joke, non?


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Two good friends of mine are professors, living and working in France. Catherine teaches youngsters in a village school and Lionel teaches lively media students at a television school. They live and work in Bayonne in south-western France.

Sure there are the usual frustrations of work. Students can be demanding and difficult sometimes; budgets can be squeezed and equipment not replaced when needed, but overall, the kids they teach are bright, intelligent, strongly aware of how important education is to get on and generally have quite a clear idea of what they want to be in life. (The life of a Professor is one many actually aspire to, thus exposing our first clear difference to attitudes in the UK where choosing teaching as a profession is strictly social suicide).

Teaching in France is foremost a profession, it has honour, students in general give teachers respect and they, in turn, live simple, useful and possibly good lives. Alright they start rather early in the day and they are expected to work Saturday mornings, but there are huge compensations. Lunch is just one of them. The student canteens serve good hot food, not only that, the staff get to sit nearby and drink wine. Lunch is relaxed; convivial, colleagues sit with colleagues; they joke with one another. Classes on the other hand are quite serious affairs and go on for quite some time. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, you can stroll to the town, enjoy a coffee or glass of wine and in the case of the media school, if you meet the students in a bar or cafe outside of town, they will engage in conversation and joke with you. It is all rather civilised.

The salaries aren't great, but it's a job where once you have secured it and don't actually pass out drunk in class, is forever and you can plan a life around it. You are part of the community and the town is part of you.

I state all this because professors and, teachers and doctors and lawyers, dustmen et al, seem to be more integrated in France than here. They will actually come face to face in bars and other places and be civil to each other. You can say, well, it's in Bayonne, it's the weather, but the same things occur in northern French towns. Not only that, their towns are attractive and planned.They still follow design orders and ideas laid down by Napoleon. He took the trouble to plan a country, a whole country. Take the view from the Ifle Tower and you get the idea. Baron Hausman planned streets that radiated like a star from the Arc de Triomphe and the city feels as if human life has been organsed to live in some kind of harmony. The same approach was taken in Washington DC. Sadly, a glimpse from London's Flying Eye will only reveal Londons ugly shame beyond Whitehall and behind it, the chaos and shabbiness of Waterloo. In the distance rotting tower blocks complete the picture.

In France the cafes have a certain style and always compete with each other to serve good food, that is attractive to look at. Houses, even poor housing can tend to be colourful and people may get riled over political or economical issues, but as a community they will riot together, then celebrate it in the local bar. (O.K. I admit I have seen Marseilles. The graffiti isn't great (but it is colourful) and the social tensions are terrible, but that is mostly because of rabid far-right politicians like Le Pen, people who deliberately create social distress and probably want a mono-culture France.) I will confess it is even worse in Spain where rioting against African immigrants continues as I write. Perhaps this is the downside of trying to build a fortress Europe and worth discussing elsewhere.

Television is a big part of French lives, but not at the expense of a social life. One of the reasons the internet has been slow to catch on in France is because French kids like to socialise 'outside' and talk. (You can expect the mobile phone to be as big there as in the UK when Wap (Internet) Nokia phones reach there at the right price).

If this all sounds like one bird short of paradise, I'd like to point out that I do acknowledge that the French political system is corrupt. As the scandal around Elf Petroleum reveals, there is hardly a businessman or politico who hasn't accepted a bribe from this former government owned company. Roland Dumas, the former foreign minister had his mistress paid for by Elf with a company credit line of £20,000 a month and housed in a £1.7 million apartment. She wrote a book about it and titled it 'Whore of the Republic'. In France politicians apparently accept bribes to make things happen, it's 'le system', all part of the charm.

I'm outlining all this for a reason. We are living in a UK that is on the cusp of making some very serious errors. The politicians of the right, much like their brethren in Austria and Marseilles, have worked out that by appealing to the xenophobics and racists among us they can build a majority and win an election.

Their mantra is: Evil Europe is the Death Star in the making. The Euro is the currency that will be like a virus in our lives and Brussels is the head-quarters of the Death Star and all that comes from there is poison.

It's an attractive lure to those disaffected with their lives or pathetically clinging to a piece of paper with the Queen's head on it that somehow they believe is so much more pure than a currency that will be in circulation throughout eleven countries with a population of around 200 million prosperous, civilised people.

Being anti-Europe could become so unstoppable a force that we will accept all the other things that come with it. Being anti-foreigner and little-englanders. But what are we defending? Our way of life? Our jobs? Our laws? Our skins?

Go to any town in England ( I cannot include towns in Scotland or Wales as they are lost to us now). Take Wakefield, or Sheffield, or Redditch or Skegness, Luton or Slough. Now let's talk about lifestyles and communities, town squares with wonderful restaurants, shady trees, kids interested in a career and keen to excel at school. Teachers who love their jobs, architects who are respected, Mayors who make a difference, streets filled with houses of architectural merit, tourists who flock there to eat and stroll the streets to inhale a preserved culture on one hand and modern life on the other.

Skegness in summer stinks of fish and chips and candyfloss. The tide goes out for miles and people dress like gypsies. There are some remnants of sense of style in the hundred year-old buildings, but overall, it is a bleak, noisy, depressing place facing a dirty grey North Sea. Not convinced? Lewisham in South-East London is being sold as they next great place to boom with the Docklands Light-Railroad having opened that connects to the Jubilee Line at Canary Wharf. But whereas from the slopes of Blackheath you can see that it was planned and had grandeur once; it is a great leap of faith to believe that this could become another Kensington. Stroll the street market and see the shoddy goods on sale, see what people are wearing who buy the stuff and you can see that no matter how large the British fashion industry is and how many style magazines we produce, not one scrap of it has made an impression here. Same goes for most town in the UK. Culture might as well be a fake tan in a can for all people understand it.

We do not have style, and if you retort with but just look at Victoria Beckham, she's got style, you have missed the point. The whole place has got to look good before we can claim it to be a destination worth visiting, let alone living in. You might be rubbing your hands with glee that your terrace house or converted flat has tripled in price this last year, but it is still a dump, in a grubby street and no one ever talks to anyone and the supermarkets have forced all the little shops to close and the cafe serves instant coffee and bacon butties all day long.

We are afraid of the Euro and Europe because maybe one day they might pass a law that says England can no longer look like modern Romania, it has to have a sense of style and people respect for each other. Maybe it will pass a law that says we only eat chips on Fridays and must eat fresh vegetables every day. Or another that says not every kid has to wear fake Nike or Adidas shoes and fake label fluffy sweatshirts anymore.

There's one other small issue too. If we did try to tow this little island away from the mainland and go back to the dark ages, what work will we have? The French own our water, our electricity and just this weekend our cement manufacturers. The Germans own most of our heavy industry and car production (except mobile phones) and the Americans own the rest. Our wonderful British shareholders and managers have sold us out to the 'foreigner'. We know we don't have anyone capable of running anything here as we have to import Frenchmen to run the Dome. (Which must be a job from hell.)

Short termism in the UK has been endemic for years. It is a fact that the majority of us actually work for for an overseas company and if you donıt you soon will. Union leaders have already woken up to this fact. We don't actually own our future anymore.

Sure we can run away , but how valuable will our pound be when all we have is empty factories. Where will companies with pile it high cheap North Korean rubbish be when they can no longer afford to import the tinsel and chipboard they sell at cash only stores? Who will buy their two bedroom cheaply converted Victorian flat you bought at £250,000 when the mortgage rate is 15% or higher and the pound is worth less than half a Euro. You think the French will want your double-glazed bay window then? The damp lurking behind the pvc wallpaper? The view of the skip outside in front of the bankrupt engineering works. Get serious pal. We're all going to get stuck holding the parcel when the music stops. And don't you worry about the Euro. It might be down now, but it is the sum of eleven countries and we are just one vulnerable country. It will rise when it is ready. When the winds changes pal, our smiles will look very fixed indeed.

Most of our textile industry has already gone and most of our traditional industries went long ago. We thrive on services and the city and property speculation. All of these are vulnerable to shifts in fashion and currency stability. The money can leave anytime, in a microsecond. We are living in a gamblers economy and like the film 'The Matrix', we are content to believe that this construct is real and permanent.

Johnny Foreigner in his warm house by an azure ocean with his fresh croissants is inferior to a life in the Dog and Ferret and an afternoon in Corals watching the dog races. As long as we have mushy peas we have an England.

Well ask yourself this. If you remove one leg from a chair, is it still a chair? Europe should be our aspiration and inspiration. They are the ones living the life of Reilly, not us. Fight to the last meal of burned toast and baked beans if you like, but they are alive, they do not aspire to be us.

We need Europe, we need four legs. We need lifestyles. In Europe they've known that for years.


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