WHO ARE YOu?

During  the recent World Cup, I was amused by the oddities of some of the National Anthems.

Ours of course are as odd and peculiar as any. We must be one of the few nations whose National Anthem is a divisive, and not a unifying, force. (Scots can hardly be expected to sing with enthusiasm a song which includes the line ‘rebellious Scots to crush…)

But some countries’ anthems don’t appear to have any words at all. Some go on and on endlessly like a symphony, and you’re just thinking, thank god that’s over , when the wretched orchestra starts up again, as if the audience hasn’t been paying enough attention.

Some teams sing lustily; some do not sing at all, and some like ours have singers and non-singers. Some adopt a special stance (hand on heart etc) and others just shuffle about.

But I do hope everyone finds an anthem for their country that they find at least tolerable. I could listen to O Flower of Scotland the livelong day, and sing it too!

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ROMAN RUIN

ROMAN RUIN

We’ve done a recent tour of France and we visited some Roman ruins.   There was the Amphitheatre at Arles; the Pont du Gard at Nimes; the Theatre at Orange and its Amphitheatre; the House of the Dolphin at Vaison la Romaine; and somewhere or other a Temple of Diana.

When we first wandered through France all those decades ago, you would just sort of stumble into some of these wonders as you bumbled along and be entranced by their beauty (le Pont du Gard), or impressed by their design and efficiency (the Amphitheatres.) But now, they’re all Grands Sites de France, ‘visitorised’, explained, tamed, made profitable. Of course the artefacts should be protected, but the magic is gone.

There is a ridiculous statue of the Emperor Hadrian (he who had to build a wall to keep out marauding Scots) in a museum in Vaison la Romaine. As it was inside the museum, I had to resist the temptation to spit at his feet. But with his naked god-like body (which you can bet your Caligula boots he had not had in reality), he looks – well, rather silly.   Then a statue of Augustus at Orange which remains more or less extant largely because it was placed too high on the wall to be easily defaced.

The accompanying French explanation to these monuments enthuses about the civilising cleverness of the Romans, and praises their engineering and architectural skills- and indeed these must be acknowledged – the buildings still stand. But I can never forget that the lovely amphitheatre which so impresses us was designed and constructed in order to carry out atrocities for the entertainment of the masses.

Rome never absorbed Scotland (or Ireland) into it’s obliterating empire so perhaps we’re less tainted by their blood and less sympathetic to their values . I watched some Time Team (or similar) programme some time ago and was fascinated for all the wrong reasons. They had clear documentary evidence (I think including a street plan) that a settlement of some size and prosperity had existed on a site north of the Thames of which not a trace remained. They brought all their sophisticated equipment to bear and were perplexed and confused to find no evidence of a settlement – not a tile, not a coin: just a thin layer of charcoal which was roughly of the same period as when the armies were recalled to Rome and abandoned Britain. While they puzzled over this – they couldn’t understand why the natives left behind did not choose to continue to occupy the ‘superior’ Roman buildings, the matter looked simple enough to us. The Britons who occupied these buildings with the Romans had been, in the eyes of other tribes, traitors and collaborators who had sold their freedom (or been unable to defend it) for a more comfortable lifestyle. When Rome withdrew, these peoples, who had been biding their time, had fallen upon that settlement and razed it to the ground. They had not left one stone standing on another. Who knows what happened to the people who had lived there? But certainly all traces of the existence of that town of Roman overlords and their supporters was expunged from the landscape. The archeologists were regretful. I had sympathy with the native people.

I think perhaps I’ve had enough of Roman ruin for the time being!

So I think the French – and we ourselves and any nation with Roman remains – should temper our admiration for them, and be sceptical as to whether they brought civilisation and culture to the world. There can never be civilisation where there is slavery. Perhaps the statement on any Roman monument should end:

Remember as you gaze on these wonders, that Rome was a corrupt, greedy and war-mongering nation, who profited from the misery of the nations they enslaved.

TOUJOURS LA FRANCE

TOUJOURS LA FRANCE

I’m generally not sentimental or nostalgic. I don’t think it would have been fun – at all – to have lived in previous ages. Now is always the best time – and if you think about it, it is the only time we have. Yet this summer, I found myself thinking, France isn’t what it used to be.

One of the most annoying things about France used to be their resistance to change, yet in their stubborn conviction that their way was of course right, lay a great protection for all things delightfully French. Vive la difference!

When we first explored France with our children, 25 years ago, we had not travelled very much at all, so it was a great adventure to go down through France. At that time you could set off from Calais with no bookings and just turn up at hotel or campsite and be assured of a place. We would wander along and just kind of stumble across wonderful things. Carnac just a field of stones without even a fence to protect it; the beautiful Pont du Gard, where John and Rory walked on the very top of the aquaduct.

No-one spoke anything but French (why would they?). You could only eat proper meals at 12 noon and 8 pm. In every restaurant of calibre the owner or his wife would act as maitre d’. and would be ensconced in some strategic position viewing all, and local diners would greet and kiss this notable on arrival and departure as if seeking permission to eat at their illustrious table. We found if we shook hands on departure and praised the food (which was uniformly excellent), when we next patronised the establishment we too would be greeted by Madame like a long lost relative and escorted by her in person to a table.

John who was working in France some of that time leading a team that was changing each country’s locally designed computer system to a standard one none of them wanted, came across the French attitude –  ( I’ve been to the Sorbonne therefore my intellect is superior and my decisions are correct and should not be challenged), – and could terminate ‘side’ discussions with his phrase: “The business of this meeting will be conducted in English,” had one or two run ins with French bureaucrat types on holiday. He found one bank clerk singularly unhelpful, refusing to understand his less than perfect French, but also declining any other language. “Then find me some educated person who does speak English,” said he and saw at once by the bank clerk’s deeply offended manner that he did indeed speak English perfectly well and knew that he’d been insulted.

But France has changed. You really must book hotel room and campsite ’emplacement’, even in May and June – not strictly the ‘high’ tourist season. No restaurant can afford a maitre d’ who does no other work. The majority of people speak quite reasonable English and are perfectly obliging. I suspect (my ear is not good enough to establish) that as in the UK, many of the waiting staff are not French. You can get a snack at any time of day. Ancient wonders are fenced off, charged for; rendered profitable and infested with tourists.

In many ways it’s easier, more convenient, more up to date – but it’s less French.

So France has changed. But then, so have we. We’re probably not what we used to be either!

Here’s the grey cat of an earlier blog, (photographed by John and set free from imprisonment in the computer by Robert!) cleaning his whiskers after enjoying our fish.

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