At the End of the Day

The plum harvesters have been out in force over the last few days. Our region here in France is famous for its very sweet plums which, while too sickly for most tastes when raw, make the world’s best prunes when dried. (When cooked in butter with shallots, they also help to make an amazing sauce with duck).

The days of people going out and picking plums by hand are long gone. Nowadays, machines arrive with clamps which go round the tree-trunk. A large ‘safety net’ then opens up around the fruit tree, which is vigorously shaken by a giant vibrator thingy. Hey presto, about a thousand plums fall off in two minutes, and then it’s on to the next bough.

The sunflowers are beginning to droop a little, and the mornings are misty here and there. Autumn is coming, and already some of our own fruit trees have a tinge of yellow at the edge of their leaves. That’s when, down here, you can suddenly get a canicule – temperatures creeping up to 40 degrees, and hot winds blowing up from North Africa. This would be welcome, to be honest, because the current on-off heavy rain and hot sun combination ensures I can barely keep up with the rampant grass. But it does give everywhere a wonderfully rich, green glow as the sun settles of an evening. It’s not so much an assault on the senses as a gentle seduction of sight.

My neighbour Monsieur Morgue’s billy-goats have had a bit of a DSK winter, so there are seven kids variously frolicking and bleating about at the moment. It didn’t take them long to escape from Morgue’s hastily erected camp perimeter fence after my furious complaints of last year (they bit the tops off three of our saplings) and so the sound of their approaching bells of an afternoon is becoming something of a ritual.

It usually starts the minute I get my bum in the hammock, and so I’m forced to shout loudly and wave my arms about. This sets our two terriers off, which in turn gets my neighbour’s eight million hounds going with the howls thing. Among many other occupations and hobbies, he is a gun-dog breeder, and I’m beginning to suspect that his training method is to render them all stone deaf by the eight of eighteen months. He does this by shouting, clanging, banging, and revving things. I’m sure it’s effective, but the rest of us don’t enjoy it much. The dogs don’t either: as soon as the training session is over, they take turns at barking practice. It sounds like a sort of canine bell-ringing exhibition, but without the melodious part. It is also never shorter than a barkathon.

But despite all this – and the tractors, crop-sprayers, quad bikes, and our DJ Monsieur Dalteau next door the other way – most of the time we achieve a level of quiet here you can no longer find anywhere in England. This is because the background noise is minimal – and on Saturday and Sunday, nonexistent. Almost nobody locks their cars. Every town has a market one day a week. Every village has a social event at least twice a month. Most villages have a baker, a convenience store and – an interesting one this – a hairdresser.

If all this reminds you of anything, then I can tell you what it is: 1950s England. Here too, the kids ‘have nothing to do’ for much of the time – as we did then. But they’re not allowed out to roam, they’re all polite, they all respect authority, and – even with an almost all-embracing welfare State – they don’t expect everything to just fall into their laps. Above all, around here you never see a pre-teen French kid with ‘an attitude problem’.

In the banlieues of the bigger cities, of course (where the French too have cultural minorities continuing to fail) there are riots, petrol bombs and the standard hatred of police. But among most ordinary French people – and the politicians, media and social professionals – they get little or no sympathy. If I’m honest, they have a lot more to moan about here than they do in the UK: there is an inherent racism in France that would shock most UK liberals, and housing-list prejudice is quite common. But outside of the Communist media, there is little or no sense that immigrant rioting is a French cultural problem, or that riot police are brutal beasts. In France, even on the soft Left, there is no equivalent to a Guardian, constantly determined day in day out to blame everything on white people, men, coppers, the Right, ‘fascism’ or ‘the system’. The French had their 1968 spell of chucking cobbles at les flics, and that was about it. Political correctness and the whole concept of multiculturalism are widely regarded as dangerously silly, and perhaps even insanely authoritarian. There is no ‘progressive’ hectoring tendency in France: not only is everyday life the better for it….social cohesion and the sense of national identity is far stronger than in the UK.

At one and the same time, anti-globalist suspicion of free-market economics is widespread, but 25% of the French next time will probably vote for Marine Le Pen. There is no Guardianista pc, but the anti-Establishment gene is factory-fitted into every French baby. Tax evasion is a national sport, but then so is the hatred of bureaucrats – “A bas les fonctionnaires!” – and such evasion is based on the entirely empirically-based belief that all politicians are poltroons with no idea what they’re doing.

Is all this contradictory? I don’t think so. French adults tend, on the whole, to think for themselves. They think communities and well-mannered children are good things. They think school is for socio-civic training, and to learn stuff relevant to later life. They think immigrants should become French, or bugger off. They think devil-take-the-hindmost socio-economic ideas are patently silly – but then, they also think an inability to be pragmatic is a sure sign of mental instability. They detest bankers, distrust politicians, make the mayor work hard for his vote, and are innately truculent. They ignore laws they think daft, but they frown on drunkenness, find bad manners barbaric and (in private) admit that many of their less bright compatriots can be unspeakably rude at times. Respect for the old is automatic, and State care homes a must-have. And finally, while they can spot an idle waster from a mile off, they don’t exactly knock themselves out in their working lives.

Most of the French manage to achieve a life-balance and an ability to tell sh*t from putty that we can’t even approach in the UK. I couldn’t live in the culture full-time, because I remember what my country was and could be again; and there are just too many cultural idiosyncrasies and frustrations for me to adapt to at my age. But if I was 25 and starting a family today, I wouldn’t think twice about making a family home here. In every respect that really matters, the French State offers its children a better later life….simply because it has retained all the important things that make one content – and life itself both more fulfilling and less taxing.

Related: A grudging admiration for French self-interest.