A few days ago the Chinese told David Cameron that if he wanted to encourage Chinese tourism we’ll need to build more cottages with thatched roofs. At the same time, an interesting article came to light in (I think) Paris-Matin, suggesting that French culture was losing its way because of exactly this kind of conservative thinking.
As an Englishman living closer to Paris than I do to Cornwall (and Paris is a bloody sight easier to get to) I’ve had a long love affair with France that began with buying a house there 12 years ago. Despite two thousand years of antipathy between the two countries, the resdients do switch places a lot. London is the second city to Paris for the French, and many English decamp to France during the summer months. There’s a class issue at work, of course; the middle class English took off for Paris and Provence, or if they were old school, for Tuscany (once popularly known as Chiantishire), while the working classes headed for cheap Spanish coastal resorts.
In Spain, nationals had traditionally been content to rent their homes from the grand old Spanish families, but as those members started dying off they began selling their unrestored Franco-era properties. Spain had grown tired of being perceived as a dumping ground for East End gangsters and began renovations. In came new zoning laws that got rid of disgusting chip shops and loud bars. Ports and art galleries were built and prices rose. Modernity was encouraged. Public art sprang up (not all of it good). New wealth came into the restored city centres while the junk-bond English went to new-builds at the edges of towns. Suddenly there was a glut of available housing that outpriced itself and caused the overheated Spanish property market to collapse.
If the renovation of Spanish cities came at a price, it started a creative outpouring that flowed from movie studios to restaurants, from designer shops to art galleries, with new modern twists added to traditional Spanish culture.
But in France the reverse was happening; Paris became preserved in aspic, selling its tourist image harder, like the Woody Allen version of its former chaotic self. Property remained in the same hands. The cultural imperative reduced ethnic influences. Instead, coastal resorts became holiday home ghettoes. Increasingly, conservative values stifled creativity. Great French movies simply vanished. Two-tier towns appeared, one side picture-perfect for the tourists, the other filled with disaffected far-right youths.
I don’t suppose the picture is as simplistic as all this suggests, but having spent time in all three countries this summer I couldn’t help seeing the difference; although unemployment has yet to spiral to Spanish levels, Paris is trading on its past glories. Racism, intolerance and crime feel ever-present, peeking out from behind the accordions. London now has more in common with Madrid, incorporating great changes into old cities instead of pretending that change cannot happen.
With the Olympics approaching I dreaded the dated stereotypes of England being trotted out; but the Jubilee Union Jacks have now been replaced by the flags of the world in Regent Street. London is consciously resisting the ‘quirky English’ image (until we see how Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony goes, that is) and hopefully we can put the bowler-hat image to rest for good. Barcelona has banned bullfights and has become renowned for its new art and design. Paris is sticking to the Eiffel Tower.
No city should be turned into a museum.