Bowlers, Berets & Bullfights


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.

9 comments on “Bowlers, Berets & Bullfights”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Very good piece.
    I would add: no BIG city should be turned into a museum. That’s where creative “yeast” is mixed into a country and into its culture, non?
    Having just returned from Germany, I must say history and “historically correct” buildings, particularly in medium and smaller towns, can be quite at home with the new, if done well.
    I urge you to add Germany to your list for a future trip. YOU WOULD LOVE BERLIN – It has fantasic new buildings, aa amazing art scene and theater like none other. If you speak German, you’d find out Germans are funny, especially in Berlin with its snarky jokes. The language gap can be worked around in most cities and there are a lot of English language guides on Amazon. The former East is facinating, not expensive and the food and wine. (I’d mention the amazing green landscapes, but you’re an Urbanite.)
    Don’t think UmPaPa and don’t over stress on WWII. Things have changed. Israelis are moving back to Germany, even the ulta-orthodox.

  2. FabienneT says:

    Great post, although I am amazed at your love for France. I grew up there and it always felt wrong. I went to see my sister in Paris years ago (several times) and it’s a horrible place. When she realised that as a creative and independent woman, she couldn’t go out without getting insulted – or physically attacked- she moved to London and has never looked back. Each time I go to see my parents (once a year…), the country’s gone worse. Old-fashioned and conservative, narrow-minded, no creativity, no dynamism, absolutely not open to the world… That is France for me. Here, it’s the opposite! I agree with Dan, Berlin is great and incredibly intriguing, I should go back! Several bands and artists I like have moved there and it sounds like a lot is happening there!

  3. Helen Martin says:

    All that you hear from France is scary. The young are having trouble getting jobs and see ‘foreigners’, no matter whether they are French born or not, as the enemy. Germany was creating similar stories a few years back. Have they a robust enough economy that the ‘guest workers’ are not the enemy any more?

  4. Alan Morgan says:

    It’s great to hear that Berlin remains wonderful. I was out there a a fair bit not long after the wall came down (my girlfriend at the time was from there, and so we were between London/Berlin for a couple of years). The art and music scene was roaring. Of course having a local guide helps tremendously, is indeed vital – and I’ve got nothing but good memories of the place.

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    I have been reading a wonderful series by a British novelist on Germany by David Downing. Low key and well observed. Set just before,during and after WWII. I think the first is title “Zoo Station” and each book is named for an S-Bahn station in or around Berlin. Used several of the stations while visiting last month and felt that, as my wife said, “special thrill”.

  6. admin says:

    I must admit I’m not crazy about Berlin, but I’ve always been there in midwinter and on business. I got very dismayed by the new bad building, but next time I’ll have to dig deeper. Read ‘Germania’ by Simon Winder.

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    Thanks for pointing me to that book. And you are right. Berlin and Germany are no so good to routinely visit from late fall through late April. Too far north and too rainy, windy, and cold. In fact, I fear you’d find it reminded you then of the London you write about.
    But sitting outdoors at an umbrella table on the cobbles with a large cappuchino and a slice of wildberry pastry or a cold Berliner Kindl Weisse beer with – for me – a dollop of Schwarze Johannisberre syrup… Pricelee, well, affordable.

  8. Dan Terrell says:

    Missed it first time.
    But you have a new photo. You website’s revision must be phasing in. Please remember many want the right-side listing of recent posts kept; it’s how we find follow-up comments. Cheers.

  9. snowy says:

    Just to(shamelessly)hang on Dans coat tails, some sites list the most recently commented upon posts in a sidebar.

    It’s a standard widget for wordpress, Simon will probably know all about it. You can see at a glance which “pots are still bubbling”.

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