Mary Dejevsky: The French are right: it's good to have have a little local pride

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The Independent Online

France has threatened to do this for years, but it's finally getting round to it. It is "modernising" its car number plate system, and one sad consequence is that the local identifier will be lost. After two years living in France and many, many trips, I had learnt to get the hell out of the way of the 75s racing home to Paris for dinner (from however far away). I had resigned myself to cutting mad overtakers some slack if their number plate was local. (You hoped they knew the road.) And I knew to be wary of the aggressive Lyonnais and, for quite opposite reasons, the distracted pootlers of the Cantal.

But I lament the passing of the French number plate, not just because it renders my area of specialised knowledge redundant, but because the département number on the plate contributed to something admirable about France: it bespoke a healthy type of local patriotism.

Something similar applies in the United States, where car number plates are also proud badges of local identity. There, though, I predict a revolt if anyone tries to remove the local element; people take their tag symbols and legends seriously. Years ago there was a mini-revolt in my husband's native state of Maine when they replaced the pine-tree logo on the number plate with what was widely regarded as the cruder image of a lobster. The state, region, city or town you are from is a source of pride. Name badges quite often include the place someone is from.

That doesn't happen much in Britain. Perhaps it is because more of us, proportionately, stay relatively close to home here than in the US and because French people often feel closer to their rural roots than we do. Whatever the reason, in the great melting pot that is London, I detect more of a desire to shake off regional allegiance than celebrate it. We now have Chinese, Indian, Irish, Russian and all sorts of other days in Trafalgar Square, but I don't recall ever seeing a waiter with a badge saying John from Leeds or Lisa from Exeter. People gravitate to the capital as much to get away as to arrive.

And where local pride does flourish in Britain, it sometimes seems to have a destructive and resentful edge, especially when it comes to cities or parts of cities and focuses on football. Bitterness and blame pervaded commemorations for the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster this week. Three times more people were at Anfield this year than for the 10th anniversary. Not just the memory, but a profound sense of injustice is being passed on to a new generation of Liverpudlians and is feeding into the city's sense of itself.

As European Capital of Culture, Liverpool celebrated its history, its architecture and its arts. Hillsborough is a part of that history, but only part. Think, too, of the reception certain footballers get when they play away, or "betray" their fans by signing for a rival.

In recent years, Glasgow has come across as an honourable exception, among British cities; somewhere that has managed at once to rediscover its past and reinvent itself for the future. It is somewhere people seem proud to come from. Which may also have something to do with the new and positive self-image devolved Scotland enjoyed, at least until the banking crisis struck.

If only some of this could rub off on the rest of the country. It looked for a while, in the brief heyday of euro-enthusiasm, as though we might be starting to absorb some of the friendly rivalry that pits Continental towns and cities against each other. Do you remember It's a Knockout? Well, the French are still glued to Intervilles of a summer evening. And the mayor does the honours, and a lot of people feel good about doing silly things in the name of just being from their neck of the woods.

Did it all go wrong, perhaps, when someone decided that our car number plates should not obviously reflect provenance. There was a time, I recall, when you could establish where a car came from by studying arcane codes at the back of the RAC manual. That may still be so, but who knows any more? Either, like the few, you have a personalised plate, or, like the many, you are anonymous. We have lost something now that we come from nowhere.

Break the motorway food monopoly

Waitrose is to open branches at motorway service stations. And your first reaction will probably be, as mine, to shout hooray. I fear, though, that rejoicing may be premature. There are some neat little M&S stores along the M4. But if you hoped, as I foolishly did, that you might combine a necessary journey with your weekly shop, you will be disappointed. Nor is the new addition likely seriously to alter the food landscape. It is true that there is now "competition", with similar but different outlets vying for custom, but if you can't get a cup of coffee and a slice of cake for less than £5 (that is £10 for two and £20 for a family of four) – which, give or take a few pence, you can't – that's something to be drawn to the attention of the Competition Commission.

Let's celebrate the Great British Sheep

The good thing about the new Channel rail link is that it is as smooth on our side as it is on the French and it's marginally faster, if you discount the additional trek some of us have to make to St Pancras. But there's something I miss: the distinctive sight of sheep – sheep crowding the green slopes of the South Downs as you emerge from the tunnel on the British side.

There are no sheep to relieve the tedium of the beet fields of northern France. But now that more of the railway on the British side is underground, you don't get that reassuring and at once diverting welcome home.

Every US state has its state bird, state flower – and, it goes without saying, its state animal. I've often thought that, if Britain had such a thing, it should be a sheep, or perhaps a whole flock. Oh, I know there's the English lion, and it's a splendid beast. But you don't find lions roaming wild here, whereas you do find sheep all over the British Isles. And they are very particular animals.

They are not like the stringy versions you find in southern Europe or the Middle East. They are solid, deeply woolly, and they stand four-square. And, if you take the time to look, they are full of character.

The sculptor Henry Moore took the time to look (see above), and the countryside around his one-time home at Perry Green in Hertfordshire is alive with sheep. At this season of year, the fields throng with lambs, feeding, gambolling and just being obstreperous. Even the most hardened townie can enjoy!

No need for Radio 4 to go soft at weekends

What to do with that awkward morning hour after the Radio 4 weekend news? Am I alone in feeling that, after years of trying, they still haven't got it right? On Saturday, the late John Peel's Home Truths could be cringe-makingly mawkish. But its inadequacies have nothing on the feeble dog's dinner that is poor Fi Glover's Saturday Live. I was hoping Glover, pictured, might have taken advantage of her recent break to bow out inconspicuously. But no, she's back. I regularly switch off, out of sympathy for her.

I don't even get that far with Saturday Live's Sunday contemporary, Broadcasting House. They try to trick you into listening by delaying the news summary until after the introduction. But I'm wise to that, now. I switch to Five and leave the overgrown teenage policy-wonks to their uneasy blend of second-rate discussion and third-rate satire.

By 9am at the weekend I'm awake enough to listen to something interesting, but not awake enough to embark on anything energetic. I'm part of a captive audience, just waiting to be informed. Why not have done with these misfired efforts to make weekends "different". Extend the Today programme – which knows its register, even if it sometimes calls it wrong – to seven days and start it and end it an hour later at weekends. The tone is already varied for bank holidays, so why not for Saturdays and Sundays, too?

Deborah Orr is away