Free-wheeling Britannia

When I first heard about the mass weekly in-line skating sessions that had taken over the streets of Paris, I felt a peculiarly British pang of envy for their effortless command of style.


Finally, it seems, we may be getting there. A few years ago, when I first heard about the mass weekly in-line skating sessions that had taken over the streets of Paris, I felt a peculiarly British pang of envy for the Parisians' apparently effortless command of style.

Finally, it seems, we may be getting there. A few years ago, when I first heard about the mass weekly in-line skating sessions that had taken over the streets of Paris, I felt a peculiarly British pang of envy for the Parisians' apparently effortless command of style.

Yet again, here was evidence that they could play the Life Game better. Even before that, of course, the signs were everywhere. Baguettes and croissants instead of tasteless sliced loaf; an elegant glass pyramid in the Louvre courtyard instead of royal grumbles about architectural carbuncles; the easy confidence of French dress sense, instead of the so-what?, gravy-spattered British mess. On top of all that, the news that tens of thousands of skaters were taking part in a skaters' carnival around Paris every Friday evening, accompanied by speed-skating gendarmes, merely seemed the last straw - demonstrating conclusively that Parisians were destined to be the permanent masters of insouciance.

Much, of course, now seems to be changing. Admittedly, the Cool Britannia label is now much mocked, no doubt rightly so. Part of its credibility, after all, was based on the fact that Newsweek ran a cover story in 1996 about "the world's coolest city". Recently, I heard the curious genesis of that story. Newsweek's London team was invited to make suggestions about the magazine's not-high-enough profile in the UK. "Easy," came the answer. "Run a cover story about cool London - and everybody will discuss it endlessly." And so we did. Like easily flattered provincial mugs, oh, how we did - for months and excited months. Newsweek 1, London 0.

Leaving such delusions aside, however, we've got to admit it's getting better. With Tate Modern and the benighted but beguiling Millennium Bridge in place, and with a clutch of interesting buildings on the way, London dares to be relaxed. In fashion, we export our Alexander McQueens and Stella McCartneys to Paris. And now, this week I found the final proof that London is catching up - on the banks of the Serpentine.

On Wednesday evening, I joined a gaggle of skaters as they prepared for the mass blade that would take them from Hyde Park, past Buckingham Palace, down to Battersea, through Kensington and Notting Hill and back to Hyde Park. Pointlessly wonderful and wonderfully pointless, as a mass in-line skating session should be. (In other words, what any sane person would call "rollerblading". But if I did so here, there would be no end of grief: the lawyers for Rollerblade® believe that if we were to use the word "rollerbladers" even when referring to skaters who are not skating on the Real McRoller - we would undermine their client's business interests by muddying the purity of the brand name. Should they get a life, you ask? Probably.) Upon my tottering arrival at the Serpentine, I retained enough grasp of reality to recognise that my chances as a first-timer of keeping up with the in-liners' two-hour odyssey were slim. I thus contented myself with the "roadcraft session", which stayed at a leisurely pace in Hyde Park. Even for those who joined the city tour, it was reassuring that style seemed hardly to matter. There were, admittedly, seriously classy performers, who twisted and turned in the air with impressive aplomb. But there was room, too, for those who merely felt tempted by a gentle glide, including a 61-year-old who had not skated for 50 years and was thrilled to find that personal wheels are back on the menu.

All that was missing on Wednesday night was the skateborne police, who always seemed one of the most appealing features of the Paris extravaganza. Perhaps even that may change, if the skateathon becomes more established and the numbers continue to grow. One participant is Alison, a 27-year-old police constable who, when she lived in Paris, regularly joined the "fantastic" skate-aways there, where main thoroughfares are closed to traffic to allow the skaters to pass. She skates to work at her west London police station but cannot imagine colleagues keeping up with the pack. "London's too conservative to allow rollerblades to take over the streets. I can't see it happening." And yet, so much has changed in London in the past few years - why should this last bastion of conservatism not fall? Helmeted policemen on skates, Piccadilly closed for a weekly skate-past... It may all be just around the corner. Paris, look to your laurels.

* Going r*****b***ing in London can clearly be defined as not-work. Like rock-climbing (which my 13-year-old daughter, a keen climber, recently persuaded me to try out; to my astonishment, I enjoyed it) and even the daily bicycle ride along the canal towpath, the shedding of consecutive layers of work-worries is one obvious attraction. You get exhausted by the physical effort and, in doing so, forget the irritable brain-ache that has built up during the day.

Sometimes, though, the division is less clear-cut; it is difficult to be sure where the personal ends and the professional begins. The blurring of distinctions was all too obvious when I attended a meeting this week about how best to help Miroslav Filipovic, a Serb journalist recently jailed for seven years for alleged espionage; his real crime is that he was brave and outspoken in writing uncomfortable truths about the regime.

The consultation meeting - a group of people sitting round a table in Islington guzzling coffee and crisps - was hardly likely to deliver a news story. There was no great need for me to be there; my absence would scarcely have been noticed. But I have kicked around the Balkans for too many years; eventually you feel personally affected by events there. You do your best to describe what you see and hear fairly, accurately, and professionally. At some point, however - even if you succeed in those aims - you are personally caught up with the implications of the story. I have never met Filipovic, one of whose offending articles was published in The Independent. But I am all too aware that friends in Belgrade could at any moment face the same fate if they overstep an invisible line. There is not necessarily a warning shot across the bows - overnight detention or a police search - unlike in old-fashioned Communist regimes. The (lack of a) system in Belgrade is more brutal. One moment, a reporter may seem free to do his or her work, as honestly as they can. The next moment, they may be jailed or bombed (death threats against reporters are common; assassinations are rarely solved). Not surprisingly, distinctions between "work" and "personal interest" come to seem academic. In the circumstances, the otherwise optional coffee-and-crisps meeting was an unhappy must.

* The word "escapism" is usually thought of in terms of the reader. Increasingly, I wonder if it doesnot apply just as much to the writer - at least where journalists are concerned. I have just started reading A Foreign Country, "a story of love and war" by Francine Stock, former presenter of Newsnight. The book is enjoyable - a contemporary tale involving a clutch of television people, strange places, and a murky real episode from the Second World War. For me, though, the most immediate effecthas been to make me scold myself for failing (again) to progress with my own Unwritten Novel.

On holiday this month, I followed a longstanding tradition by jotting down chapter summaries and letting resonant phrases reverberate around my head for a short while, before folding up the A4 pad, ditching the resolutions and returning to the important business of sunbathing.

I have gradually begun to admit that the greatest pleasure may be the fantasy of thinking about the unlikely-to-be-written novel, rather than the hard work of actually putting it together. It is easy, however, to see why journalists are so attracted to the form - occasionally, as authors like Robert Harris have shown, with considerable success. Facts can be gripping, but they can also be elusive. As a journalist you are dependent on the evidence of your eyes and ears, which sometimes - through no fault of their own - just don't deliver what you were hoping for in terms of a strong storyline. How much simpler it would be to escape all professional discipline by simply making it up - and, best of all, no one will mind. You want a character to make a slicing, succinct remark? No sooner thought than done. No more prodding, no more searches for an eloquent interviewee. Any character can deliver any remark to order!

To make themselves more interesting or surprising, characters can change country, friends and life-story at the flick of a mouse - and no questions asked. Put like that, it sounds easy. Just a few more glitches in the plot to sort out (the beginning, the middle and the end - stuff like that). Roll on next year's summer holiday. That will be the moment. It's bound to get written then.


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