The editor kicked her feet off the desk, put aside her fat cigar and declared: “My dear Pecksniff, what the diary needs is a new angle, a new way of looking at British politics. A French way!
“Take as long as you like. Expense is no object. But bring me les mots justes!”
So for the next three weeks, the stool at the corner of the public bar at the Muckrakers will stand empty, The diary will be brought to you from the depths of la France profonde.
Le Journal Francais de Monsieur Pecksniff
It so happens that, as Pecksniff arrives in the Loire, there are elections afoot. The French follow their presidential vote with another to elect their legislature. So your correspondent was as quickly at work as a decent lunch allows, poring over the local press for their coverage.
It was not clear as to the political significance of a scantily clad young woman floating down the Loire whilst playing a grand piano. (The photograph is sadly unavailable, copyright la Nouvelle Republique.) But activity at the polling station at Civray de Touraine was scant. There was no sign of the party tellers who sit all day outside polling stations in Britain, collecting voters’ numbers. In fact a notice on the door made clear loitering is forbidden.
Also, in Britain the parties pick up voters to place their cross, but in France the local commune sees that role as its own. If you need a lift to vote, a minibus will come and pick you up. So it seems politics is yet another crucial aspect of our lives that we have outsourced.
No week can go by without mention of Liz Truss (South West Norfolk). This week she was blathering about how her plans to ditch part of the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland are “reasonable and practical”. In case we had forgotten, this is Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and she doesn’t know what a contract is. Any small claims court in the country could explain to her that the whole idea of a contract is that it’s binding; and one party really does not have the unilateral right to walk away from a solemn commitment.
More on Liz Truss. Soon after the war in Ukraine began, Ms Truss told viewers she supported British people going there to fight. This week she told more viewers she had said no such thing. There are only so many obscenities in the English language, and where is the point in trawling for more when the editor will just remove them? So insert your own.
It is claimed that the very best French is spoken in the Touraine. Is there a similar claim as to which region of Britain speaks the best English? Clearly not the Scots, Irish or Welsh – apart from the guttural inaccessibility of their own patois, they wouldn’t be interested in such a claim. The same could probably be said of the Cornish. What might be called royal English is ghastly: where on earth did the Queen learn that accent? Not from her late uncle, King Edward, who sounded positively petit bourgeois. He had the manner of speech of a golf club bore.
We can dismiss Geordies – they can’t even understand one another from one street to the next. Adenoidal Midlands can be dismissed utterly. (My dears, can you imagine?) Yorkshire people care only about speaking good Yorkshire, and are proud of not being understood by anybody beyond the Pennines. You only have to change trains in Norwich to be stuck with that accent for the rest of your life. And let’s not even joke about estuary English.
As a nation we give so little thought to our public face to the world, apart from the John Bull snarl and threat to send a gunboat. It seems likely that the matter of perfect English never arises. We can be sure that, at any international gathering where English is being spoken, the most perfect grasp of enunciation will come from one of those for whom it is not their first language.
Sir Gerald Howarth was once a Tory MP. He has loudly endorsed the government’s plan to ship refugees out to Rwanda.
“We are full up in this country,” he says. “If you look everywhere you go in this country, there are more building sites. There’s more land which ought to be used for growing food, which is now being taken up by housing.”
Sir Gerald has retired to one of those chocolate box perfect Suffolk villages, all thatch and beams and a meandering stream trickling through the willows. The last visible signs of new building there are from about the late 15th century.
That used car salesman Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth), challenged on the government’s plans to return to imperial weights and measures, declares in a less than ringing endorsement that in his constituency “There are people who want to go back and have that.” He did not, however, explain how it will work.
Scrapping the metric system altogether would mean nothing would work. The whole nation other than those over 80 with faultless memories becomes innumerate. Because this was never intended as a policy, of course, just another vacuous headline for the Daily Express and a sop for a few in the Great Yarmouth Conservative Club. But the old Yarmouth Con Club is no more. In a metaphor for Tory Britain, it’s being turned into a karaoke bar with access through a run-down shopping centre.
Wednesday found Pecksniff on market day in the pretty medieval town of Loches, and handed an election leaflet for a candidate in the National Assembly elections, Henri Alfandari. M. Alfandari represents the Horizons party, one of what seems like a couple of hundred parties presently competing for power here.
But though proportional representation is supposed to mean politicians find a party which honestly represents their view, there is still a major problem of factionalism. Each party is still a coalition of competing views. Horizons was only set up last year and is of the centre right, a nuance which has not been doing too well in recent years.
The two traditional blocs, left and right, collapsed in 2017 when Macron invented his own party, Renaissance. These days the public mood is for either far left or far right. The country whose international reputation has been born of nuance has become bored with it. They want the overdramatic, the transpontine, the vulgar. Before you know it they may even be drinking Australian wines. [Sacré bleu! -Ed.]
Then suddenly across the café, there was M. Alfandari in person. Pecksniff left his crème, stuck the ‘press’ card in his hat band and requested an interview.
The boy Henri was young and confident and terribly reassuring. Horizons would triumph, in spite of holding only two seats out of 577. The secret is that the party is in the electoral alliance called Ensemble, which also features Macron’s Renaissance. In fact, a quick check down the list of parties suggests that almost everybody is part of Ensemble.
So Henri hands out his leaflets on market day and smiles his smile, and far away from Boris Johnson and his latest embarrassments and with lunch approaching, Pecksniff would be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
That excrescence on public life Tom Hunt MP (Ipswich) has taken to task Prince Charles and the entire leadership of the Church of England, for expressing outrage at government plans to transport refugees to Rwanda.
“Border control is one of the key functions of the Home Office,” Mr Hunt points out.
But of course he had not read last week’s diary, in which it was pointed out that Priti Patel (Witham), the home secretary, is so far on top of her key policy of border control she has not yet even met the chief inspector. All six scheduled meetings have been cancelled, all at her request.
Now the European Court of Human Rights has stepped in to prevent the first Rwanda flight, and Mr Hunt demands Britain must now leave the ECHR. Never mind that it was set up by Winston Churchill. Mr Hunt claims these frustrations are all the work of lefty lawyers and a contemptuous if undefined elite. ‘All polls show the real public back the government’s Rwanda flights policy’, he claims. But he can’t even get this right. A poll this week asks:
“After the ECHR prevented flights of asylum seekers leaving for Rwanda, in a referendum to leave the ECHR how would you vote?”
The results: leave 17%, remain 83%.
On to Therese Coffey MP (Suffolk Coastal), who in spite of being work and pensions secretary, showed in a TV interview this week that she still hasn’t learned her brief. Here is Dr Coffey either deliberately misleading the public or simply not understanding what is going on in her own department. Five times in a single interview.
Oliver Dowden MP (Hertsmere) is the joint chairman of the Conservative Party, so it’s his job to think up silly ideas. Here’s one. This week he urged the public to sign his petition against the Labour Party supporting rail strikes. But to whom is this petition to be presented? After all, Mr Dearden (or is it Sir Oliver? I can’t remember) represents the government, so he can hardly present his own petition to himself. Or is it to the Labour Party, who seem unlikely to be swayed by a petition drawn up by their opponents.
The other party involved is the rail union. But in presenting the petition to them Mr Dowden would be asking them to condemn support for themselves (which is unlikely) by an organisation over whom they have no control.
This is only silly if you take it at face value. In order to register your outrage at the proposed strikes you have to hand over your contact details. So this is almost certainly just another brazen attempt at data harvesting by the Tories.
A tale of the difference between French and British ideas of public service and civic pride. The little village of Croix-sur-Touraine was without a boulangerie. Imagine, a village without its own baker! They had to do with a depot de pain, which sells somebody else’s bread.
So the local authority weren’t having it. They bought up an empty shop and announced to their public they are renovating it to let as a boulangerie et patisserie. (Because man cannot live by bread alone, at least not a French man. Man must also have tartlets aux fraise and all manner of delectable pastries.)
Croix-sur-Touraine can hold up its head again. And get its fingers proudly sticky and sugary. But can you imagine the snorts of derision at such a proposal from any Tory-run council in Britain? A corporation baker? Municipal doughnuts?
Sadly, the same could be said of any authorities not run by the Tories either. When All This Is Over and the blue meanies have been driven from the land, we need to find a new sense of civic pride, instead of being embarrassed at the idea. And that requires redefining the role of local government and what is expected of it. One might suggest it should be a bloody sight more than we get at the moment.
Next week, Pecksniff moves down to the Mediterranean, with hopes of discussing Brexit with disgruntled ex-pats and the bronzed and beautiful people on the beaches of Cap d’Agde, the European centre of echangisme.