Our Man In Paris: All change on the Western Front

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As a young, or youngish, man, one July in the late 1970s, I cycled through the battlefields of the Somme. I was astonished by the beauty of the rolling, green countryside in which the battle was fought. In my imagination, the 1914-18 war had occurred on a vast, featureless plain.

As a young, or youngish, man, one July in the late 1970s, I cycled through the battlefields of the Somme. I was astonished by the beauty of the rolling, green countryside in which the battle was fought. In my imagination, the 1914-18 war had occurred on a vast, featureless plain.

I was also surprised by the remains of the old trench lines - then 60 years old - that snaked through the shining fields of wheat and barley, and between the smaller fields of shining, white graves. In some of those cemeteries, every grave carried the same date - today's date, 1 July, the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916, the most calamitous single day in British military history.

Another quarter of a century later, the countryside immediately to the east of the small town of Albert in the département of the Somme is as pretty as ever. The fields of wheat and barley are still there. So are the little fields of white graves, beautifully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Most, but not all, of the traces of the old trench lines have been erased by the use of heavier agricultural machinery, and by the passage of another quarter of a century.

Popular interest in the Great War has not been erased. More Britons now visit the battlefields in France and Belgium than ever before. Popular memory of the war - how it was fought, by whom, and why - is necessarily fading, as the last few centenarian survivors die, and even their children become scarcer.

It is to address this conundrum - increased interest in the Great War, but fading memories of what the war was about - that a very important event will take place next Monday. A trench will be dug on the Somme once again, to prepare the way for an educational and visitor centre, the first of its kind to be built on any British battlefield of the 1914-18 war.

The centre will be constructed in the village of Thiepval, close to the great Portland-stone-and-brick arch designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and dedicated to "The Missing of the Somme". Originally, the plan to build an educational centre here was controversial. Traditionalists, including some officials at the Ministry of Defence, believed that the 1914-18 battlefields and cemeteries should be left undeveloped to speak for themselves. A visitor centre, it was argued, would turn the Somme into a kind of theme park.

These objections, and any number of other bureaucratic and financing problems, have gradually been overcome by the determination of a small group of people, led by a retired businessman from Sussex, Sir Frank Sanderson. Sir Frank has raised £520,000 towards the cost of the centre from charitable donations in the UK, including one donation of £72,000, representing £1 for each of the "missing" soldiers whose names are carved on the Thiepval arch.

The idea has been energetically supported by the British Legion, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Western Front Association, the former British ambassador to France, Sir Michael Jay (now Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office) and his successor, Sir John Holmes.

However (the Daily Mail and The Sun please note, in these French-bashing times), much political support and cash for the £1.25m project has also come from the Somme département council, from the French government, and from the European Union.

The centre, which will be sunk into the ground to preserve the sight lines of the Lutyens memorial, will contain hi-tech equipment and displays to explain the battle from the British, French and German viewpoints. The aim is to be factual, enlightening and moving, neither jingoistic nor simplistically anti-war. More information can be found at www. thiepval.org.uk.

If all goes well, the centre will be opened next year, which is, appropriately, the centenary of the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France. Sir Frank is still trying to raise a final £80,000 towards the cost of equipping the centre. Donations can be sent to: The Thiepval Project, Trust Department, Charities Aid Foundation, Kings Hill, West Malling, Kent ME19 4TA (tel: 01732 529305).

The Pam Ayres of politics strikes again

In the same way that both of the presidents Bush are celebrated for their "Bushisms", so the French prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, is cherished for his "Raffarinisms", or "Raffarinades".

Bushisms consist of accidental garbling of the language. Raffarinisms are deliberately coined aphorisms of stunning banality, which are meant (presumably) to reinforce the prime minister's image as a plain-spoken man of the provinces.

The first golden treasury of Raffarinisms has just been published by Michel Lafon (Raffarinades, by André Bercoff and Eric Giacometti, €10). It contains some old favourites: "The road is straight but the gradient is steep"; "The destiny of the young is to be the adults of tomorrow".

It also includes a couple of gems new to me: "As long as the ship has not hit the iceberg, we carry on sailing"; and (proof that Raffarin is truly a provincial poet in the mould of Pam Ayres or William McGonagall): "Man sings best when he is perched in his own family tree."

Erotica in the pink

France's first cable-television channel for gays, Pink TV, will start broadcasting in September. The French television watchdog, after prolonged negotiations, has given its approval for a range of daytime programmes, including old American children's TV series such as The Waltons, which have iconic status with gays. Erotic movies will be allowed, but only after midnight, and only if they are, in the majority, French- or European-made. It's good to see that France's determination to defend European culture extends to gay erotica. But why the English title, "Pink TV"? Shouldn't it be "TV Rose"?

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