Saturday, 28 February 2009

The Money Tree

I have been trying to instill in La Fille a sense of the value and cost of things. It started when I remonstrated with her for breaking a toy. It was a small, inexpensive object broken carelessly rather than wantonly and I might have let it go except she said: "Let's buy another one." This made me really cross, so cross I found myself trotting out that hoary parental cliché about money having to be earned and not growing on trees, which just baffled her.

Then we arrived at St Pancras station and I told La Fille I had to go to the bank to get some money. Her eyes turned as wide as saucers as a wad of used notes spewed out of the mouth of the cashpoint machine. "Wow!", was all said. I could see from her expression she thought this was some kind of magic. ("You're right Mama it doesn't grow on trees it comes out of walls".)

Today, I told La Fille I was not prepared to spend my hard-earned cash on the merry-go-round if she planned to sulk her way through every go for no apparent reason. I said this more out of principle than penury - for now at least - but after a brief reprise of my diatribe about money and arboretum she said: "Shall we go to the bank?"

Later reading newspaper reports on certain bosses of British banks and their eye-watering bonuses and pensions it made me think of La Fille's saucer-eyed reaction when my money emerged from the hole in the wall and how, apparently like some bank chiefs, she now believes there is an unlimited supply of free money in this magic machine there for the taking.

Then again, in her defence La Fille is only four years old.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Uncle Walt and The Cold War Mole

The French do go on about their "cultural exception" and how erudite and educated they are while we Philistine Britons sneer and joke about how pretentious it is and how we just don't get the Gallic obsession with Serge and breathless Jane and films focussing on smoldering cigarettes in glass ashtrays and inexplicable angst, and dialogue punctuated by endless pauses and puffs and pouts on stinky filterless cigarettes and horribly long unreadable sentences like this one. I know; believe me I have sneered and joked and mocked along with the best.

But I should say, to the sound of words being munched and mutterings of having 'gone native', the French do culture exceedingly well, especially culture for children. Their approach is different to ours: they are less inclined towards the mainstream: hands-on museums; wonderfully kitsch 'it's-behind-you' pantomime; dreamy heroines in frou-frou dresses not to mention spangly benighted Princesses. They tend towards the understated, subtle, complex, dare I say it, sophisticated. It tends to be less fun more formal.

Take the wonderful films Kirikou and Azur et Asmar, by director Michel Ocelot for example. As animation goes they are old school and about as far removed from great Uncle Walt and Pixmar's slick productions as they could be without being cave paintings. The plots are the stuff of fantastic fables, the drawings colourful but technologically simple and the characters crudely drawn and two dimensional. And for all that the films are enchanting.

Last week, La Fille's class went to the cinema and I was drafted in as a parent helper. We took our seats in the vast auditorium and I waited for the titles to roll. But before the lights went down, we were introduced to two men sitting either side of the stage in front of the screen. One was behind a set of drums and a variety of interesting percussion including shells and tinkly things and African drums and a tweetie-whistle and the like. The other, to the left, was behind a keyboard surrounded by more tinkly things and a plastic concertina-ed pipe that went whooooooooo when he whirled it around his head. They took turns to explain how they would be playing the 'soundtrack' to the film and to describe the instruments they would be using and what it would mean when we heard the whooooooo sound of a plastic concertina-ed pipe being whirled around. I looked around and expected the 100 or so assembled three to four year-olds to be fidgeting but they were all ears.

The lights dimmed, the film rolled. It was The Little Mole or Krtec, a simple cartoon animal created in the 1950s by a Czech animator Zdeněk Miler. The 1950s are a long way from Dreamworks, but the films were enchanting and the two musicians played along so that their music was a parallel performance in itself. It made me realise how much we take film sountracks for granted and how interesting when the two medium are semi-separated.

La Fille and her classmates, along with the other schoolchildren present loved the film and loved the music as an entertainment in its own right, so much so they broke out into spontaneous beat-clapping several times and were whistling with the flute and cheering with the symbols and tweeting with the tweetie-whistle and whoooooing with the plastic whirly pipe at every opportunity.

It was unlike any other film screening I have ever been to. It was very French. It was absolutely magical. Vive cultural exceptions.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Twist and Shout

"You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there's no occasion to."

With this epigram, published in 1930, the Italian-born English poet Humbert Wolfe dismissed and indeed defamed the gentlemen (they were all chaps in those days) of Her Majesty's Press.

This week French president Nicolas Sarkozy also traduced the British press only with less style and considerably less humour when he blamed them for "twisting" his words to suggest he was critical of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's handling of the global economic crisis in his state-of-the-nation interview last Thursday.

Talk about shooting the messenger. If I understand correctly Mr Sarkozy wants us to know that the following, said in front of four French journalists and several million television viewers, was not in the least critical:

1) "Franchement, quand on voit la situation aux Etats-Unis et au Royaume-Uni, on n'a pas envie de leur ressembler"...Frankly, when one see the situation in the United States and the United Kingdom one has no desire to be like them.

2) "Les Anglais ont fait le choix d'une relance par la consommation, notamment avec la baisse de deux points de la TVA, on voit bien que ça n'a amené absolument aucun progrès....La consommation en Angleterre non seulement n'a pas repris mais continue à baisser". The English have chosen a relaunch through consumption (spending), notably with the reduction of VAT by two points. We can see clearly that this has brought absolutely no progress...spending in England has not only not picked up but has continued to fall.

3) "Si les Anglais on fait ça, c'est parce qu'ils n'ont plus d'industrie, a la différence de la France."...If the English have done that, it's because they no longer have any industry, unlike France."

Even allowing for translation, even juggling with a few synonyms can this be interpreted as anything other than criticism? So who is doing the twisting. During his interview Mr Sarkozy also spoke of the economic "erreurs" made by Britain. I don't think "erreurs" is open to much spinning or twisting by perfidious Anglo-Saxon journalists, but in case anyone thinks it might be, erreurs = errors, otherwise known as mistakes. Critical, moi?

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Fly the Flag

Why is it that people in Britain are so quick to assume they always have the pooey end of the stick and that life is so much better elsewhere? It's a mystery to me. I know the economic situation is bad, but long before the crunch the negativity was relentless. And depressing. The national self-esteem seems to have sunk so low that any criticism is snatched up eagerly for some collective self-flagellation.

Two recent examples: first there was a French journalist who explained to The Guardian exactly what was wrong with Britain: Britons had lost their way, were up to their necks in debt, only cared about money and had rubbish health, transport, social and every other system. He said we had lost our morality, and lost our way on immigration and crime (Do I hear the tinkle of a large glass house?) "Yes, yes, yes," the cry went up in response. It didn't seem to matter to anyone that the author, a journalist called Jacques Monin has spent only three years in Britain, included only one statistic and only one quote in his article (part of his book called The Shipwreck of Britain), or that he wasn't very specific and didn't mention much outside of London. Still, that's fine; it's Mr Monin's opinion and he's entitled to it. But why did so many rush to agree with him?

Then Nicolas Sarkozy weighed in saying we were basically stuffed, that we don't produce anything, that Gordon Brown was doing the economic crisis all wrong and that the PM's measures, including reducing VAT, were useless. He added that he, Mr Sarkozy, would not be making the same "mistakes". Well, what would you expect? He's the French president and he's there to defend and promote France. "Yes. Yes. YES," came the screams,"See, even the French think we're rubbish and we are."

Both men pressed all the buttons of those who feel Britain is going to a) the dogs, b) hell in a handcart c) down the drain d) worse. Mr Sarkozy's criticism was plucked with the breathless eagerness of a passed 400m relay baton and used to beat Gordon Brown around the head. It didn't even matter that Mr Sarkozy was playing fast and loose with the facts. As Downing Street pointed out to the Elysée Palace, Britain's industries represent 14 per cent of gross national product, compared to 16 per cent in France; not a huge difference. Plus, European Commission figures published in the Telegraph - not one of Mr Brown's biggest fans - show the economies are not so wildly different and even put Britain ahead in certain areas.

But never mind the statistics, what about a bit of national pride? Please. Not nationalism or imperialism or feeling superior or Rudyard Kipling's idea about the English holding the "winning ticket in the lottery of life" or The Sun's "Hop Off You Frogs" stuff, just a "Hang on a mo, it's not ALL bad".

I spend a lot of time in both countries, hence the title and raison d'etre for this blog. I love both for different reasons. There are great things, not so good things and pretty damn awful things in both. They are not always the things you would imagine.

Since President Sarkozy's criticism, the Frenchman - who also spends time in the UK - has been defending Britain to his friends and colleagues. If he can do it, so can you.

Friday, 6 February 2009

The Monsieur's Not For Turning

A few months ago President Nicolas Sarkozy was telling the French they needed to be emulating the successful Anglo-Saxon economic model. This, he insisted, was the way forward.

Last night President Nicolas Sarkozy was on television telling the French that the Anglo-Saxon economic model was not to be followed and he would be strenuously avoiding emulating it because it was a complete and utter disaster, rubbish, a heap of merde and absolutely not the way forward, or words to that effect.

Wonderful thing hindsight. The only thing astonishing about this is that nobody in France, not the press, the television, the radio, not even the Opposition, the Unions or the Communists, nobody (except the Frenchman) has pointed out this political U-turn.

As someone who is paid in coins and notes bearing Her Majesty's head - or electronic transfers of same - but spends in euros bearing pictures of bridges, pacifists, cloudberries, harps, Spartas, popes, flying swans and owls, I am being crunched.

Personally, I refuse to believe there is an economic crisis in the UK while British people are bidding more for second-hand Mini-Boden coats on eBay than they are being sold new on the company's website. Are they mad or do they have more money than sense?

I rest my case, M'Lud.

Monday, 2 February 2009

A Life of Constant Triumph?

You cannot keep a good half-French protester down.

La Fille returned from our foray into the mass demonstration and General Strike on Friday and made herself a placard. It even had writing on it. To be more accurate it had a series of letters on it in no particular order. Still, you could say the same of some of the acronym plastered banners waved last week, though La Fille is refusing to say what R T H I L or P O E A M might stand for. If there had been a C or a B or an S, I might have guessed it was a call to arms for more chocolate, bonbons or sweets, but as it is I haven't a clue. Having decorated her paper 'placard' she then glued it to a wooden chopstick she dug out of a kitchen drawer and began striding up and down the apartment. I could have been accused of political indoctrination, though that was not my intention at all, were it not for the fact that she was wearing a horribly sparkly frilly 'princess dress', a silver coloured plastic tiara and matching clip-on earrings as she marched.

A quote from Richard Dreyfuss in a theatre review in The Times, to combat the February blues.

“There are things in my life I have no regrets about. Other things I’ve done, I wince at. The drugs, the arrogance. That stuff. But does anyone live a life of constant triumph?”