High times in Canterbury-sur-Mer

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The Independent Culture
So how are you enjoying the kinder, gentler, post-you-know-what Britain? The new climate of emotional openness, the love of children and soft toys (not "cuddly" toys; they aren't cuddly until some sap cuddles the buggers)? The Britain where nobody snarls simply as a reflex, where the standard greeting is no longer "So what do you want?", where taxi- drivers acknowledge that they've heard your instructions and know how to get there, the open Britain, the weeping Britain, the absolutely utterly Mediterranean Britain?

Quite so. Total bollocks, from soup to nuts. Mediterranean? Even global warming won't make us Mediterranean, so a week of gut-churningly overblown Disney sententiousness doesn't stand a chance. The Icon of Perpetual Loveliness has been dug in to her little island and it's back to business as usual.

Mediterranean? We don't have it in us. Look. The scene: Canterbury, outside the cathedral gatehouse, a grey rainswept day. Tourists: hardly any, and who can blame them? They'll be tucked up in their Quality Inns and Forte booby- hatches, slowly desiccating in their air-conditioned rooms, wishing they'd stayed home in Oskhosh or Fukushima. Locals: too many, uncountable, shopping. What are they shopping for? They don't know. They're just ... shopping. You know: going into terrible shops and standing there with your mouth open, staring: Debenham's, Boots, WH Smith, places you go when you're not sure what you want, because they're not sure what they sell. Just ... shopping, the emotional equivalent of slowly, slowly letting the stale air out of a half-perished Lilo.

Schoolchildren? Lots, with their parents, coming back for the first day of term. And look! Here's me! See? I'm the only one who's properly dressed: ancient sailing trousers with a busted fly-zip; washed-out old polo shirt; blue plaid Pendleton thing, not quite a shirt, not quite a jacket but soft and comforting as chocolate-fed, afternoon, hotel sex. Appropriate, I'd say, but the other parents wouldn't say that, oh dear me no, they wouldn't say that at all. You can tell. The men have got their suits on, and their ties; some adventurous souls are wearing blazers, but they have ties, too; all have brightly polished shoes. Except me. Sneakers. Harrumph.

And the women. The mothers. Windsmoor, Jacqmar, Richard Shops, what can you say? The only answer is lunch. My daughter wants a picnic - chicken legs, bread and lettuces from M&S. She wants to eat it in the cathedral Close: a sort of territorial instinct is persuading her to try and mark it out with tomato-pips and breadcrumbs; but her mother says it won't do so we compromise. Outside the cathedral gatehouse, in the Buttermarket, by a pub called the Olive Branch, there are tables and chairs, lots of them, two couples sitting there, glooming in the incipient drizzle. At the bar, I order a pint of bitter, a bottle of Beck's and a lemonade. "Well you DO realise we'll HAVE to POUR the BECK'S into a GLASS," says the man behind the bar. I wonder why. "We don't know who may have been using the bottles before we got them," says a woman with noticeable breasts; "and, anyway, this is a classy joint."

Outside, we drink our beer, eat our chicken legs. A female emerges. "You are NOT ALLOWED to EAT at these TABLES," she announces across the square. "Because we SELL our OWN FOOD!" I tell her not to be silly. "You CAN'T eat your FOOD at these TABLES," she declaims; "BOOTS wouldn't like it if you took OUR DRINKS in THERE."

Groovy. But there's always a compromise to be had. I take a pull of beer. Stand up. Feet on the municipal stones of Canterbury, I take a bite of chicken. Arse down again on the Olive Branch plastic chair; another pull of beer. Up again: chicken. So it goes. For their part, the Olive Branch functionaries stand on the step of their pub and stare at me. It is a terribly Mediterranean scene, full of the joie de vivre for which the British do not even have a word. Two men emerge from the pub and sit at the next table, one tearing with his jaws at a cheese roll. "They say they have a full choice of menu items," he observes to his companion. "Do you want a bite?" "No," says his companion. We could almost be in Juan-les-Pins.

Autre temps, autre moeurs, who knows, I might have spent between pounds 500 and pounds 1,000 at the Olive Branch over the next five years. But now? Oh, oh, oh; the sheer bloody unreconstructed Britishness of it all.

Back inside the school precincts, we are all shovelled across into the Hall for a pi-jaw from the Head. The school smell supervenes and when everyone by reflex settles down as the Head comes in, I suddenly go little and I'm at school again, in assembly, in deep shit unless my luck holds out.

Then I suddenly understand about the men, the other fathers, their suits, their ties, their nice smart shoes.

They're in uniform. They, being grown-ups with proper jobs and firm ideas, had the foresight I lack, and have put on the nearest thing they can get to their old school uniforms, and now they feel all right, and are joining in, part of things, listening to the pep-talk from the beak, while I sit there sniggering and blowing off and nudging the mother of my daughter as the years roll back.

It's terrible, for a moment. But then, on the way out, I catch the eye of another father, an affable, rotund, white-haired man with an unspeakably beautiful Filipina wife. He is wearing the uniform; but his suit is creased, his shirt crumpled, his tie on sideways and his shoes dull as a city solicitor. A little flicker of mutual recognition passes between us, like two naughty boys. Give us a couple of days and we'd be up before the Head together, gated and jubilant, for eating chicken legs outside the Olive Branch pub. How would it be if everyone did it?

But they're not going to, no matter what. Our new-found national mood flared briefly then went out, like a candle in the wind. And that's how it should be. Anything else just wouldn't be British.

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