Archive for June, 2007

Notes from a small island

Saturday, June 9th, 2007

There is something particularly grim about bad weather in places designed for sun. Sitting in a little ‘villa’in Corsica last week and watching the palm trees bend under the wind – one of the many, named winds that Corsica experiences – and hearing the distant thunder over the mountains, listening to rain lashing against the windows and seeing the ripples across the swimming pool made me long for robust soup, comfortable sofas and a decent DVD

The seas were heaving crashing on the magnificent beaches in much the same way as they do in Cornwall. But of course, if we had been in Cornwall we’d have been fully equipped with waterproof clothes, sweaters, gloves, proper walking shoes, books, games and all the other equipment required for a British summer holiday.

Instead I sat inside with cups of tea reading a book called View from the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor. The author was recommended to me by Frances Walsh who I often chatted with at the kitchen table when she was a Reuters Fellow. It was a wonderful evocation of the glumness of post-war Britain, written in 1947 and the action, such as it is, takes place in a sea-side town. The image from it that most sticks is one of the characters in her shop wrapping a pair of shoes in newspaper for a customer. Second-hand shoes that is.

How gloomy Britain must have been and how cheated my parents generation must have felt. Having given up their youthful years to fight the war, the peace came with extreme rationing and rather less fun I suspect, than some of the wartime experiences of the people fighting on the home front. For those like my father who was a POW in upper Silesia the end couldn’t come soon enough but he told me once of the awful greyness of that first Christmas of liberty. He had to get out of the house in the afternoon and went into bomb damaged Croydon town centre where he found two German POWs waiting for repatriation and wandering in the town without an aim. So he took them home to tea because ‘they were the only people who could understand what I’d been through’. His parents and family could have no idea and only other young men, also victims of politics could he really talk to.

When I went to live in France in the ’70s I thought Paris almost unbearably beautiful and it was so vivacious and exciting. London, my home town, by comparison seemed stuck and turgid and generally rather miserable. I found returning to Paris quickened the step. But now I wonder if the tables are a little turned. London is still a huge salmagundi of rich, poor, old, new and the downright shabby. It is sparkling and disgusting, green and clean as well dangerous and dirty but it is busy and active and edgy and international. It also hosts a French community of around 250,000 people who have found work and established themselves in the greater community of Londoners from all over the world. In the ’70s there were scarcely any French people living in London although I think a good few went to the States.

Corsica appeared unchanged. Restaurants, roads, houses and shops seemed exactly where they were when we were last there about four years ago. But whereas I was once delighted to pick up the French life from where it had last left me, this time I found it rather annoying that so little had changed. There seemed a certain stolidness and complacency instead of former ‘gaiety’. I wonder if there will be a change from President Sarkozy. It will, I suspect have to be fairly painful and I do so hope that not too many babies go with the bathwater. I do remember the UK undergoing a major upheaval in the ’80s and although I think it very encouraging that French graduates come to the UK to work and live, I do wonder where it leaves their home country, which I am much devoted to and would like to see prosper.