Travels as a Brussels Scout by Nick Middleton, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 17.99
Perhaps it is something to do with English lack of self-confidence, but during a recent spell in Europe I found myself increasingly obsessed with what other nationalists thought Britain was like. Since these days most people's ideas about the rest of the world are gathered through their TV screens, I spent a lot of time flicking channels in hotel rooms looking for programmes about this country. There were lots of them. Unfortunately, most were made in the United Kingdom and dubbed or subtitled for local consumption. The selection itself was instructive, however. The British programmes the European broadcasters had chosen fell into two broad categories which we might call "Come quickly, Inspector! It's Sir Edward. He's dead", and "Whoooooah! Yeah! Rock 'n' roll!"
The styles never overlapped. Not once, for example, did the shaven-headed singer from Skunk Anansie leap out from behind a golden retriever and scare the living daylights out of Inspector Adam Dalglish. The bumbling, suburban Sergeant Lewis was likewise absent from the sexy Eternal videos.
Such obvious contradictions are often the basis of our unthought-out judgements of other nations. So, Britain is simultaneously hidebound and hip; Sweden is dull and sex-crazed: Belgium boring and overrun with serial killers, and so on. We live in a two-tier Europe of the mind.
Further proof of this admittedly rather scanty thesis comes with the publication of a pair of entertaining travel books, both of which look at modern Europe. Authors Nicholas Fraser and Nick Middleton often tread the same ground, but rarely find the same things, When Middleton goes to Paris, for instance, he visits Disneyland and gets drunk in a string of "English" pubs. When Fraser goes to Paris he chats with the next generation of Eurocrats at the elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration and interviews Bernard Henri Levy.
As you might gauge from this, Nicholas Fraser's is the more serious work; an attempt to define what being a European means as we approach the (I'm sorry to have to use this word, but there's really no alternative) millennium. Fraser is extremely erudite, and at times his journey seems as much intellectual as physical - Baudrillard to Yeats as well as Banjaluka to Yarmouth. The result is always interesting, the quotations apt and illuminating, although perhaps a problem arises from Fraser's relentlessly impeccable taste. Great artists have a universality. This is good for humanity, not so good for travel writers. Low culture tends to reflect current national fears and prejudices in a way that high culture often does not. When he is in Sarajevo, for example, Fraser expresses disbelief at the view that France is worried by the thought of an Islamic state in the heart of Europe. A glance at any French bookstall, however, would have turned up the works of Enki Bilal, one of France's most popular and acclaimed graphic novelists. Bilal (born in Belgrade but brought up in Paris) sets his work in a future Europe ripped apart by a terrorist war between Christian and Moslem factions. The fear, however ill-founded, is real.
The omission is surprising since Fraser is particularly good on France. The section dealing with Parisian intellectual life is both entertaining and provocative, a complicated and truthful mix of admiration and scepticism. On the one hand we have the brave and humane Camus, on the other Sartre cynically babbling, "A revolutionary regime must dispose of a certain number of individuals which threaten it, and I can see no other means of accomplishing this than death." The only consolation for which, is that after recent events in Cambodia, Jean-Paul and Pol Pot are now able to enjoy a cosy fireside chat together while Ceausescu roasts chestnuts for them.
While Fraser's prose sometimes mimics the lucid, slippery style of the modern French philosophers he approvingly quotes, Nick Middleton writes with straightforward and relentless good humour. At times, when mere jauntiness replaces the jokes, he can sound a bit like one of those round robin letters that arrive at Christmas from people you are sure you are related to but can't quite figure out how. Thankfully this rarely happens. He is good on quirky detail (in the TGV he notices that the mirrored ceiling allows you to watch other passengers picking their noses upside down) and a nice turn of phrase (a Dane has "fingers so thick they looked like a handful of thumbs"). Middleton is less knowledgeable than Fraser about literature (He confuses the nationality of the fictional Inspector Maigret with that of his Belgian creator, Georges Simenon, for example) but knows considerably more about breakfasts. If you read both books you may come away with the impression that Europe is part Schopenhauer, part sausages. Which is probably as near the truth as anything else.