Incidentally, I have an early memory of walking home from the paper shop with my dad, dodging the uneven bits of pavement and singing about ‘4000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire’. My musical indoctrination clearly started from an early age.
But anyway. I am currently in the grips of what I think of as a news dilemma. There’s the minor issue of being in France: reading Le Monde for Tour de France updates or international events is fine, but when you start getting bogged down in ‘Aquitaine Aujourd’hui’ or ‘Sud Ouest Ce Soir’ (NB probably not their real names) you start to despair. But far more problematic is attempting to relate to British news. Ah, but the Guardian, you cry. It’s full of lefty righteousness, look, today it has articles about sexism in the workplace and how Jon Snow should be allowed to express his opinion on Gaza on TV. OK, fair enough. it also has a somewhat unhealthy obsession with Ed Miliband (find me a day when there isn’t an opinion piece on him, and I’ll give you a pair of red socks), an irritating tendency to London-centrism (the odd article about the Edinburgh Fringe or disparaging review of Bettys Tearooms doesn’t make you representative of the whole country) and an increasing habit of including an awful lot of not-news. ‘Bake Off series 5: Meet the Contestants’; ‘Should we abandon handshakes in favour of fistbumps’; ‘The eight rules of photobombing – as revealed by celebrities’. A selection of what was on offer for me to read this morning. Nothing like getting your teeth into some cheery types wearing aprons and holding mixing bowls to prove your credentials as a serious left-leaning newspaper.
But if that’s bad, what is infinitely worse is the comments. Not just on the Guardian website (although, really, 99 people had bothered to post statements like ‘I love Bill Murray’, which is clearly proof that they have nothing better to do with their lives. I wouldn’t object to the people who are always tapping away on their phones if they were sussing out strategies for world peace, cures for malaria or writing a sequel to Anna Karenina (OK, that one might be a little tricky because *spoiler alert* she dies at the end. But you get the point.). But if they’re using their data allowance to contribute to lowering the ratio of intelligent observations on the website of a reasonably respected newspaper, well, that’s quite sad, isn’t it?), because in some ways that is a self-selected group. No, in the wider media, things are infinitely worse.
I should know by now not to follow the links on Twitter articles. Because it’s there that I find myself thrust into contact with what can only be described as the casually accepted narrow-minded bigotry of the general population. That is, perhaps, a big statement to make. But then, I ask you, how else do you describe the comments made on this article about England cricketer Moeen Ali being banned from wearing pro-Gaza wristbands? It somehow seems to be taken for granted that expressing support for people suffering the kind of atrocities we cannot even begin to imagine is ‘too political’ and therefore inacceptable, but that an institutionalised support of an organisation supporting people who chose to go to a warzone with the intention of killing, maiming and causing mass destruction, is totally normal, to be expected, even.
I don’t tend to talk about politics, perhaps because I am aware that, unlike most of the British population, I am infinitely more suspicious of members of the British army than I am of Muslims. I wasn’t brought up to be patriotic, and I have no inner conviction that ‘my country’ is superior to all others, or that it is inherently ‘mine’ and therefore to be protected against all outsiders. Partly because the latter attitude is entirely illogical: the entire history of the population and settlement of the British Isles is a story of immigration and the mingling of cultures, so why have we suddenly decided that this is a negative thing, something that we should (and can) prevent? But I am becoming increasingly aware that this is an unusual attitude: when even the leader of the Labour party is saying that immigration needs to be controlled, you realise that there isn’t an awful lot of hope for a rational approach to this question.
It is, of course, an issue of British hypocrisy. Freedom of movement across the EU is something that we take for granted, an inherent right. We just don’t want to reciprocate by receiving people from the other 27 countries. We retire en masse to the Dordogne and the Costa Blanca, using services but without registering as residents and exploiting the tax system. We don’t bother to learn foreign languages, we demand baked beans, bacon and sliced white bread. We are loud and obnoxious and drink too much, and yet maintain that air of not-so-quiet superiority, and we wonder why we aren’t more popular with our neighbours.
I recently read an article in a French magazine about David Cameron’s recent sulk about the EU and promise of a referendum. The French, understandably, are slightly baffled by why anyone would want to leave. After all, there are countries that have been clamouring to join for years. What are the British playing at? I can’t say that I understand the economic logic behind an exit, or not, but what I will say is that I am inherently sceptical of the right-wing press and its screaming protests that ‘Brussels controls us all’ and ‘We’re not even European’. Because, for a start, one quick glance at a map will show the geographical inescapability that yes, in fact, we are. I mean, we even have a train connecting us to France.
There are countries in the world whose geograhical position makes their political or cultural isolation logical. In South America, I was told time and again that children learn English so that they can go to work in the US. No-one speaks French or German because, well, what would be the point? The continent is dominated by Spanish speakers, with Brazil as a Lusophone representative. This is not the case in Britain: budget airlines, a high speed train and some surprisingly efficient ferries link us to what is perhaps the world’s most linguistically and culturally diverse continent. And yet instead of being proud of that, and of our privileged position as a member of this exclusive organisation (and yes, we forget that we had to try pretty hard to get into it in the first place), we continually turn our back on the countries with whom we share centuries of cultural heritage and history.
I don’t really want to end on a negative note, because that’s not my experience of Europe. I am the Englishwoman in France, and as I curl up on the sofa in an Oxford t-shirt to read Cyrano de Bergerac or discuss the odd Gallic fascination with Midsomer Murders (they call it Inspecteur Barnaby, which sounds even more ridiculous than you think in a French accent), debate whether to say ‘Hola’ or ‘Bonjour’ to the woman in the ticket office for the Hendaye-San Sebastian train, or watch an interview with General Pinochet and a documentary on the Sagrada Familia, both subtitled in French, I am thankful to be able to dip a toe into this diversity. Our British identity is formed by contact with and opposition to that which surrounds us, and, lest we ever forget, here is a short reminder…