When I was a child, my great delight was to look for the curving brass or steel name-plates on the sides of steam locomotives.
When I was a child, my great delight was to look for the curving brass or steel name-plates on the sides of steam locomotives. The naming of railway engines used to be a romantic, British peculiarity. In recent years, the French railways have caught the habit, painting the names and coats of arms of French towns on the sides of their locomotives and high-speed trains.
As one who notices such things (trainspotting habits die hard), I have always thought it a shame that the elegant Eurostar trains that ply between London and Paris (and London and Brussels) should have no names. But that is about to change.
The Eurostar company is to call one of its trains after an unjustly neglected French Resistance hero, Michel Hollard - the man who discovered the V1 launch sites in northern France, and helped to save London from destruction in 1943-4.
The naming will be part of the celebrations for the centenary of the official friendship, or Entente Cordiale, between Britain and France. As I understand it, another Eurostar train will be named during the Queen's visit to Paris on 5 and 6 April.
I can claim a small part in the revival of interest in Hollard. His sons, Vincent and Florian, have been pushing for his exploits to be given some kind of fitting memorial. It was a French historian and journalist, Jean-Pierre Richardot, who first suggested that a Eurostar train should be named after him for the 100th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale. I mentioned this in an article that I wrote about Hollard in The Independent in November. The article produced a flurry of similar articles in France. Richardot put the case to Eurostar, and Eurostar has now agreed to fix cast nameplates, reading "Michel Hollard", on the power-cars of one of their 27 cross-Channel trains. Naming ceremonies will be held in London and Paris at the end of next month.
Who was Michel Hollard, and why does he deserve such recognition? He was decorated at the time by both countries, but his story has been largely forgotten in recent years - partly because he operated outside the recognised Resistance networks. Lt-Gen Sir Brian Horrocks, a D-Day commander and later one of the first TV historians, described him as "literally the man who saved London".
Michel Hollard, who died in 1993 aged 97, was a wealthy and educated man, a son of the French Protestant bourgeoisie, who set up his own spying network, independent of the Allies and other resistance groups. His organisation - called Agir, or "Act" - was a web of amateur agents in strategic places, hotel managers, businessmen and, above all, railwaymen. He personally made 49 return trips on foot over the heavily patrolled Franco-Swiss border to pass on information to the British.
His greatest coup was to discover the launch sites of the V1 flying bomb in November 1943, following tip-offs from railwaymen in northern Normandy. The sites were pulverised by the RAF that winter. New sites were hastily constructed, but the flying-bomb attack on London, and the D-Day invasion bases - intended as Hitler's trump card - came six months later than planned, and contained only a fraction of the missiles originally intended.
Michel Hollard's modesty, and the fact that he was not part of the official machinery of Resistance that was mythologised in the post-war years, have allowed his achievements to slip into undeserved obscurity. Until now.
Paul Thomas, head of public relations for Eurostar, said: "We like this idea very much. Michel Hollard was a remarkable man. It is especially fitting that he should be honoured in this way, as part of the Entente Cordiale centenary. It is doubly fitting that he should have a train named after him, because of all the help that his network received from railwaymen."
According to one of the many stories about Hollard's wartime activities, a railwayman-spy belonging to his Agir network jumped on to a steam locomotive and drove it away to escape from the Gestapo in Nîmes in 1943. Other railwaymen turned the signals and points against his pursuers. Film script, anyone?
Exploding the 'banlieu' myth
If you have never visited one of the "sensitive" suburbs of French cities, you might be under the impression that they are incandescent ghettos of Islamic political activity and violence. Violence exists. Extremist politics exist. But the poorer suburbs of French cities are, for the most part, racially mixed and apolitical.
Here are extracts from a letter that, to its credit, the right-wing Le Figaro published the other day. The letter was from "Laurent B", history teacher in a secondary school in the Val-Fourré housing estate in Mantes-la-Jolie, west of Paris, often listed as one of the most violent in France. He had asked his teenage pupils to write to the Spanish embassy on the Madrid bombings. "Why so much violence?" they wrote. "What is the point of all these innocent deaths? Why so much hate? We must all come together and stop this..." The teacher added: "Their names are Hassiba, Marouan, Houlemata, Chidi, Pinar, Nordine, Jebril, Sullivan, Samy, Karim, Dorina, Thomas."
A weighty problem for the postman
French politics is becoming too heavy, according to the postal workers of Nancy, in Lorraine. They went on partial strike last week, protesting against the regional elections (over two rounds last Sunday and this Sunday). They said that there are so many political parties in France, and so many candidates that each letter-carrier has to lug 40kg of political pamphlets a day.
This is an issue that should be addressed (so to speak) by the charming young leader of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, a Trotskyist party. Olivier Besancenot is a postman.Reuse content