Just back from southern France, where the sun shone, the (public) pool sparkled, lunch remained lunch and the motorways provided genial standing-room only as the second grand depart coincided with the first grand retour. But in the interests of balance – and to console those of you not heading for this particular holiday playground in coming weeks – I feel obliged to report that there is shade across the Channel as well as light. And while the French can be relied upon to find a reason (or two) to feel bad about themselves, there seemed to be more shadows this year, and in unaccustomed places.
The Prime Minister, François Fillon, set the tone by uttering the taboo word rigueur during a trip to Japan just after Bastille Day. Austerité, apparently, was something the French could stomach, but rigueur – well, that was something altogether closer to home. The French media made certain that a shudder duly passed through the land. Had he mis- spoken? Had he lost his cue cards? Was he preparing the nation for the worst?
There were riots in the benighted banlieues of Grenoble – the venerable university city of Grenoble, for heaven's sake – and Roma encampments in uproar in, of all places, the Dordogne. Down south, Catalonia's vote to ban bull-fighting made disapproving waves, but only in the background. In the foreground, this year's great angoisse was the delightful institution of the village fête. There were stabbings and fights; several people were killed, more injured. There was drinking to get drunk. Worried mayors searched for reasons: the fête used to last a day, now it goes on all week, they said. People are less restrained than they used to be, quicker to rage. There's less work, less money, more aggression, fewer social sanctions, stronger drink, more drugs.
But then those same mayors remembered that fêtes always had a tendency to get a bit out of hand, but any excesses were handled within the community. Now, one said, the young want none of that. "We're in a state of shock between two cultures". The social pressure has gone, and nothing has replaced it. But it turned out that the adolescent arrested for one of the stabbings had been stone cold sober at the time; his blood test showed up not a milligram of alcohol. It was all about a girl ... How old-fashioned is that?
Then a strange little spectre appeared. Marking the 40th anniversary of Cap d'Agde, one of the Mediterranean resorts designed for mass tourism, the local paper recalled the nightly violence that broke out one year between Paris gangs. Ville, Vie, Vacances, a well-meaning 1990s social programme designed to give young people from the banlieues a summer holiday, had rebounded spectacularly, when rival gang-members found themselves in the resort at the same time. And that was the end of that. Anyone in the mood for a summer riot must now do it on their own patch.
Catch her understated artistry before it's gone
It must be more than 10 years ago now. We were staying with friends in New England. Unable to sleep, I switched on my tiny transistor to hear National Public Radio, whiling away the night hours with a recording of a Beethoven piano concerto. The playing was immediately riveting; intense, entirely at one with the orchestra, and with an all-encompassing sense of the whole. I had to listen to the end to find out who was playing; the name – Maria Joao Pires – meant nothing to me. I have since remedied that omission.
My one regret about being away the past two weeks is that I missed Pires's late-night Prom, of Chopin Nocturnes. It's not easy to get to hear Pires these days – nor, in recent years, has it ever been. Now 66, she is not one of classical music's most prolific performers or recording artists. A child prodigy in Portugal, she grew up to be about as self-effacing as any solo artist can be, with a social conscience that led her to found a national music project for deprived children, the Belgais Centre, and when – for reasons I do not fully understand – she felt that project cold-shouldered by the Portuguese authorities, she upped and moved to Brazil and set up a similar project there. Pires has made it known that a tour of Japan next year will end her concert career. I'm just hoping she might squeeze in a farewell performance in the UK for those of us who foolishly missed her Prom.
No 'toffee-nosed snob'
It's hard to feel much sympathy for someone who will pocket a year's salary of £1m and a £10m pension pot in return for relinquishing his post as chief executive of BP, especially when he is also being kept "in the family" as a director of the company's Russian outpost. In one important way, though, Tony Hayward has been wronged. To call him, as incensed American critics have, "a toffee-nosed, yacht-sailing snob" exposes a lamentable grasp of the British class system. Yacht-sailing he may be, but Hayward is no toffee-nosed snob – at least not in the way the Americans mean it, as a paid-up member of the English upper crust.
In a way, that may have been part of his problem. Had Hayward, like Cameron, Clegg or Blair, attended one of our elite public schools, followed by Oxbridge, he might have acquired the sort of charm, social polish and PR nous that would have steered him safely away from the gaffes he made in Louisiana. But he didn't. The eldest of seven children, he went to his local grammar (just down the road from Eton, as it happens), thence to Aston and Aberdeen Universities. His whole demeanour positively shouts grammar-school boy.
Dear Americans, listen carefully and you will learn: not all English accents are the same.
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