I’d swap French pride for British cynicism
12 March 2008
Now and then, events which are utterly disparate and different align themselves into a pattern of dreamlike logic. So it has been this week with the self-banishing of the eminent actor Hugh Laurie, an uncertain spasm of loyalty to the Crown from the former attorney-general Lord Goldsmith and the 30th anniversary of the death of Claude “CloClo” François, the great French pop singer.
CloClo first. His memory, like that of many great men, is easy to mock. His looks were manicured, his clothes silly, his private life was dodgy and he died in his bath while trying to change a light-bulb. Even the song he gave the world has become faintly ludicrous, with ‘Comme D’Habitude’, once a rather touching love song, re-merging as the vulgar ‘My Way’.
Even when they are naff, French singers have a certain style. François was at the height of his popularity when I lived in Paris in the early 1970s – indeed, the anthem of the moment was ‘J’habite En France’, which was co-written by Jacques Revaux, who worked with François.
Cheerfully, almost boastfully patriotic, the song’s message was that there more to France than the way it was seen – wine, music, cafés – and that France was more than just Paris. It closes, inevitably, with a cliché of its own about the quality of French lovers. France, the song says, is not at all what they say – it is even better.
For someone who came from a country where such patriotism was distinctly uncool, the unashamed Frenchness of singers like François and Michel Sardou, who had a hit with ‘J’Habite En France’, was a revelation. I remember thinking, with expat smugness, that a British singer making an equivalent musical celebration would be laughed out of the country.
Thirty or so years later, Lord Goldsmith is trying to make a similar point. There is, he is arguing, more to this nation than the way it is perceived – a view, incidentally, which is considerably less rosy than that reflected in ‘J’Habite En France’. The pledge of allegiance which Goldsmith is proposing, to be made by school-leavers as they enter the adult world, has met with predictable sneers in the media but in fact has much to be said for it. The right kind of pledge would be a small but significant vote for involvement, against alienation, cynicism and boredom. It would be a gentle reminder that, if a person is concerned about the country where he or she lives, it is not enough to complain on the sidelines. It would encourage the newly grown-up to think of the nation, its institutions and inhabitants as “us” rather than “them”.
Pledges and Englishness have featured in Hugh Laurie’s rather sad interview in the Radio Times. The star of the award-winning Hollywood series House complained that he was never offered work by English producers. He had a theory as to why this should be the case. “There is a peculiarly British attitude that I took an oath I wouldn’t be successful and reneged on it.” It is for this reason he now lives in America.
What is even more peculiarly British, of course, is the capacity for finessing querulous gloom out of blazing success. Warming to his theme, Laurie went on to make what must one of the bravest statements from a celebrity for many a month. “I don’t hugely like me,” he said.
Perhaps, after all, the reason why the British – or at least the English – are so uncomfortable within their own skin, nestles deep within the national soul. It will probably take more than songs or pledges to shift it.
The Lord who’s leading by example
Lord Adair Turner, the chairman of the Climate Change Committee, which started work on Monday, has made a bold personal mission statement about energy conservation. He will do his bit by not wearing a tie this summer. If we keep cooler, he says, there will be less need for air conditioning. In addition, his family will be returning from their skiing holiday in Courchevel by train.
When it comes to domestic energy conservation, the climate tsar is already on the case. “We have installed solar panels to heat the pool at our country home,” he says.
What an inspiring example this is. While individually his lordship’s sacrifices may not reverse the threat of global warming, he is showing how each of us can make a difference. If all millionaires working for the Government took off their ties, came back from holiday by train and heated pools at their country houses with renewable energy, what a powerful message that would send to other, less responsible nations around the world.
* Writing a spirited defence of a woman who did (or didn’t) have an affair with the late Bill Deedes, Mary Ann Sieghart has provided a poignant insight into the life of a female journalist.
“I have had to rebuff a fair number of lecherous older men,” she reveals in The Times, listing a number of instances – a brace of Tory government ministers, a political columnist – who “tried to jump me”.
In the company of younger women, she warns, “most men are at least flirtatious, if not overtly lecherous”.
How exhausting it must be to be desired so much, and how drearily predictable those sad, randy old men turn out to be.