My friends and family know that I am a rabid Francophile. It has reached the point where I hesitate before talking about France because it empties a room faster than one of Time Traveller Boy II’s curry-fuelled bottom burps.
But when I’ve successfully barred all the escape routes, I will eulogise France’s space, its café culture, the beauty of its gorges, the principle of terroir, the Loire villages, the savagery of the Auvergne, red Bordeaux wines, the Picasso museum in plane-lined Ceret, the Millau viaduct, French cheeses, the great rivers, French movies and the general old-world decency and civility of the French people. And despite an aversion to cities, I will even eulogise Paris – which is more than the average non-Parisien Frenchman will do.
As with all love affairs, perfection is an unrealistic ideal and there two downsides to France: with the commendable exceptions of Breton folk music and metropolitan jazz, France’s musical culture is verging on moribund, remaining largely defined by Serge Gainsbourg, Edith Piaf and the ubiquitous Johnny Halliday. The first two are charming (in a past tense sort of way) but not to my taste; the latter is just not to my taste. The other downside is andouillette (warning: if you need to look this up, do so on an empty stomach) but provided that you know of its various noms de plume, it is more easily avoided than Johnny Halliday. (Mrs Time Traveller has forbidden me to mention her downsides. In fact, an injunction obliges me to tell you that she has none).
So, not surprisingly, my love for my favoured country is defined in terms of its traditions, its landscape, its people and its culture. The chances are that anybody with a love for a foreign country will describe their own choice in comparable, stereotypical terms because it is these that factors that make a country unique enough to qualify as a love object.
Do other nationalities view Britain any differently? It seems unlikely. We have wonderfully bleak moorland, the gorgeous Dales, the Lake and Peak Districts, British eccentrics, the Highlands, clotted cream, chalk streams running through southern water-meadows, bagpipes,Tower Bridge, Cornish pasties, and an enviable and vibrant arts tradition. Its these and other stereotypical qualities that we export via our enviable television output so that foreigners come in their droves to enjoy the heritage and traditions unique to Britain.
And when thinking of England (snigger) what could be more quintessentially English than a creamed tea in one of our honey-stoned thatched villages set in in the rolling green landscape?
There’s just one thing that I can think of and that’s a creamed tea in one of our honey-stoned thatched villages set in in the rolling green landscape whilst in the company of numerous, eccentric, homicidal maniacs with a penchant for killing people in the most bizarre manner possible and for the most bizarre of motives.
I came out several years ago to confess my attraction for Midsomer Murders. It is the most preposterous, unbelievable tosh but has been compulsive TV viewing, if only to ponder the seemingly endless interests of Joyce Barnaby. Surprisingly given French parochialism, it is regularly shown on French television where it is known as ‘Inspecteur Barnaby’ and, in total, it is exported to 231 territories around the world.
When asked to explain its success, the programme’s creator, Brian True-May said, “When I talk to people and other nations they love John Nettles, but they also love the premise of the show. They love the perceived English genteel eccentricity. It’s not British. It’s very English. We are a cosmopolitan society in this country, but if you watch Midsomer you wouldn’t think so. I’ve never been picked up on that, but quite honestly I wouldn’t want to change it.” When pressed on what he meant by cosmopolitan, Mr True-May said “Well, we just don’t have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them. It just wouldn’t work. Suddenly we might be in Slough”.
This has resulted in ITV bosses who have grown fat on the proceeds of 13 long seasons of Midsomer without apparently noticing its traditional Englishness, being ‘outraged’. In turn, Midsomer’s cowardly production company has suspended Brian True-May from the show he created. Clearly, we are meant to infer that Mr True-May’s comments are racist whereas he only says that Midsomer’s viewers like the ‘tourist’ view of England: a view almost amounting to originality when it is compared to the hours of diversity pumped out for the rest of the week. Presumably, in ITV bosses eyes, this also makes 6 million viewers in Britain – including the Queen – and all of those in the 231 other territories equally racist for watching it. What next? Are all viewers of straight drama homophobic? Must we shun Trollope and Hardy because they are insufficiently diverse? Do we have to lie about our reasons for loving other countries? “Forget the leaning tower, it’s the Albanian prostitutes that makes Italy so attractive for me…”
I haven’t mentioned any downsides to living in England. One of them is the degree to which fragile, middle-class sensibilities interfere with our freedom to express even the truth when ‘they’ decide that the mere mention or exclusion of ethnicity constitutes racism. Intolerance is rife in Britain and it is directed at ourselves.