From David Maughan Brown in York: “Completely potty”

August 8th

A cacophony of clucking reverberates around our shores as another flock of Brexit chickens, not yet chlorinated, comes home to roost.   These particular metaphorical chickens have taken on the guise of asylum seekers who are desperate enough to pay up to £3000 each to people-smugglers to allow themselves to be put on overcrowded and unseaworthy small boats, pointed towards these shores, and pushed out into the English Channel.  Taking advantage of the calm weather, they are arriving in our territorial waters in increasing numbers.   Many of them will be fleeing the violence in countries like Syria and Somalia, many of them will have seen their homes and livelihoods destroyed, their friends, and members of their own families, killed.  Some will be fleeing persecution, torture and death threats.   Some are unaccompanied children.  They will all have made their hazardous and unwelcomed way across Europe and will be traumatised enough to think that, after all they have been through, it is worth the risk to try to make it across the last twenty or thirty miles of open water to what they hope will be a safe haven where some of them already have friends and family.

We should be pleased that the UK is still seen around the world as the kind of country it is worth undergoing daunting hardship and perilous journeys to try to get to.   After five more years of this government it almost certainly won’t be.  Instead of meeting trauma, courage and resilience with compassion and understanding, our national figurehead where such matters are concerned, the execrable Priti Patel, Secretary of State for the Home Office, she of the permanent smirk, spews her xenophobic venom over Twitter and threatens to get the Royal Navy to sort them out.  A Ministry of Defence ‘source’, according to the Independent, says the idea of using the navy is “completely potty” and elaborates as follows: “We don’t resort to deploying armed forces to deal with political failings.  It’s beyond absurd to think that we should be deploying multi-million pound ships and elite soldiers to deal with desperate people barely staying afloat in rubber dinghies in the Channel.”

In essence, Patel’s problem is that ‘Taking Back Control’ and a national ‘Independence’ from anybody else’s rules was always a chimera.  Just as operating on World Trade Organisation terms means exactly what it says on the tin – being bound by regulations we don’t determine ourselves – so the ‘law of the sea’ dictates that people in small boats in UK territorial waters have to be rescued and taken to land in UK.   However much a furious Patel might feel inclined to sink the rubber dinghies, she can’t order the Navy even to ‘turn them back’.  It isn’t possible to disregard internationally agreed rules without making one’s country a ‘world-beating’ international pariah with whom nobody would want to have any dealings.   Genuine control would involve allowing the migrants to travel here safely, processing their asylum claims rapidly and humanely (which would require a different Home Office), welcoming those entitled to asylum and returning those we aren’t convinced by to the country of first entry to Europe to try to persuade that country to accept them.

Patel and her Brexiteer buddies are also going to sort France out, and make sure that France takes seriously its responsibility for stopping the boats leaving its shores, or turning them back before they leave French territorial waters.  They had better remember who won the Battle of Agincourt.   But if the Brexiteers were capable of coherent thought instead of perpetually playing to their fellow frothing-loon media supporters they might conceivably ask themselves two questions.  First, why on earth should France bother?  Once the transition period is over, the French would be entirely justified in feeling insulted, looked down on and patronised enough by the Brexiteers to stop spending what must be very extensive resources on trying to prevent migrants from making the crossing.  Indeed, it would be sensible, and almost certainly cheaper, to provide the migrants with the boats and escort them into British territorial waters themselves, with a ‘You wanted to leave the EU and “take control of immigration”, so it’s over to you.’  Literally ‘over to you’.

The other, longer term, question they should be asking themselves – although it seems way beyond their intellectual capacity and the very limited horizon of the immediate self-interest on which their attention is exclusively focussed – is who on earth do they think is in a decade or two going to be staffing the NHS, looking after their parents, waiting on the tables in their restaurants, and keeping fresh food on their tables, as our birth rate declines and they make sure that what is left of the once United Kingdom is a wholly undesirable place for people from Europe to seek work?   Many of the desperate people in those boats are highly qualified professionals (how else do they get to have the £3000?); they have all shown themselves to be enterprising, courageous and resilient.  They can only, in the longer term, strengthen the shallow gene-pool that has given us the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois, to name just two of the leading lights guiding our apology for a government.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Home Restaurant (2)

St Nectaire Fermier

July 26. I have long wondered whether there is an easier way of earning a living with my pen than writing history.  Anything will do that does not involve footnotes (as even these diary entries must have from time to time).

So I have decided to explore a career as a food critic.  Doesn’t seem difficult.  I have to eat every day.  There is a common experience (more or less), a common language (ditto), and to judge from the persistence of food columns in the lockdown even when their writers were unable to get to restaurants, an inexhaustible demand for such prose.

And I have a specialist topic.  Restaurant meals at home.  Last week it was Elite Bistros, this time it is the Côte brasserie chain which has recently expanded across the country.  It opened a branch in my local town just before the coronavirus struck.  I’m not sure whether it’s still there, but I can now buy Côte’s meals online.

For Saturday dinner we ordered: starter (for two) marinated heritage beetroot with crème fraiche £4 50; mains: chicken and walnut salad £ 6 95, poulet breton with chips £ 7 95; desserts: lemon and armagnac posset  £ 3 50, crème caramel £ 3 50.  The service also has a bakery and a cheese counter, so we added a sourdough seeded batard and two croissants, a St Nectaire fermier and a chèvre buchette frais cendrés.  The was a £4 95 delivery, charge, waived if the bill exceeds £80.

The website was easy to use, with every dish and product illustrated.  The box arrived within the specified hour on Saturday morning. 

Unlike the serious misadventure last week, cooking was straightforward.  I wrote then that it was nothing like a Marks and Spencer meal.  This, by contrast, was exactly such a product, better quality, not much more expensive, and requiring only time in the oven.  Or rather several different time slots in two ovens at different temperatures, but not too great a sweat.  Five minutes unwrapping, half an hour watching the timer, and we sit down to eat. 

What else to say?  How do these food writers spin out a meal into a thousand words or more?  There is no service to describe.  You don’t want to know about my kitchen, before or after cooking.  Or my kitchen table (though if you do it was made by a friend out of elm blown down in the great gale of 1987).  The beetroot was a surprisingly attractive reworking of a familiar vegetable.  The mains were huge.  I had ordered mine largely because I hadn’t eaten chips since before I can remember, and these oven products were not great.  The desserts were fine, the crème caramel leaving us with a little earthenware pot. 

The real gain was the bread and cheese.  On Saturday, had the year turned out as planned, we would have begun our family holiday in a gite on the shores of the Mediterranean south of Montpellier and west of the Camargue.  There we would have enjoyed one of the basic pleasures in life, visiting the boulangerie every day for croissants and cakes, exploring the cheese stalls in the weekly markets.  Now we could do it online, with a fine array of bakery products and regional cheeses  (Côte advertises itself as a ‘Parisian brasserie’, but I have rarely stepped inside one, except in the pages of a Maigret novel where the alcohol-dependent policeman is forever visiting them during the course of his working day, or in the case of the ‘Brasserie Dauphine’ next to the Quai des Orfèvres, inventing the modern office takeaway by having beer and sandwiches sent up in the midst of a long case.)

The one demerit, as with Elite Bistro, is the pile of packaging left behind, although it is all supposed to be recyclable.  The washable ceramic plate is one of those inventions that once made, is unimprovable.  As also the metal pot.  Food packed in, or still worse eaten out of, paper, plastic and cardboard, is an offence against civilisation and will be the death of this planet.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Le temps des cerises

July 10 Following my piece on ‘Cherry Ripe’ last week, my friend Marie contacted me about the French national song on the same topic.  She writes:

‘I was interested to see your post on cherries and the popularity of the song “cherry ripe”.  In France too we have a very popular song about cherries. “Le temps des cerisesA sweet and wistful song about the fickleness of girls and the transient nature of the cherry season. It’s a lament for lost love and maybe the lost ideals of the Revolution as well. It was composed by Jean Baptiste Clément in 1866 and was popular during the time of the Commune rebellion. In fact, Clement who supported the Commune, later dedicated it to a nurse helping the wounded on the barricades during the “semaine sanglante” in 1871 when the French government pitilessly overthrew the Commune.

The red colour of the cherries became a symbol for the shed blood of the Commune martyrs and the nostalgic longing for the cherry season was equated with a yearning for social change. It is well known even now and was often sung by left leaning singers and  heard at socialist meetings. Barbara Hendricks sang it at François Mitterrand’s memorial ceremony in 1996 in front of the Opera Bastille. I imagine a large part of the crowd would have sung along and been sad.

People of my age think of their grandparents when they hear it and feel a lump in their throat.’

These are the verses:

Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises (Quand nous en serons au temps des cerises)
Et gai rossignol et merle moqueur
Seront tous en fête
Les belles auront la folie en tête
Et les amoureux du soleil au cœur
Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises
Sifflera bien mieux le merle moqueur

Mais il est bien court le temps des cerises
Où l’on s’en va deux cueillir en rêvant
Des pendants d’oreille…
Cerises d’amour aux robes pareilles (vermeilles)
Tombant sous la feuille (mousse) en gouttes de sang…
Mais il est bien court le temps des cerises
Pendants de corail qu’on cueille en rêvant !

Quand vous en serez au temps des cerises
Si vous avez peur des chagrins d’amour
Évitez les belles!
Moi qui ne crains pas les peines cruelles
Je ne vivrai pas (point) sans souffrir un jour…
Quand vous en serez au temps des cerises
Vous aurez aussi des chagrins (peines) d’amour !

J’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises
C’est de ce temps-là que je garde au cœur
Une plaie ouverte !
Et Dame Fortune, en m’étant offerte
Ne pourra jamais calmer (fermer) ma douleur…
J’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises
Et le souvenir que je garde au cœur !

And here is Le temps des cerises sung by Yves Montand in all its lovely melancholy.  Do listen:

Guest Post from Jonathan Merrett in Sallèles d’Aude, France: three activities …

In February I had three activities lined up:

our house was already rented out for six weeks over the summer holidays, and we expected the gaps would be filled in;

I had six weddings booked over the same period (I officiate at weddings at a local chateau); and

I was due to go and inspect schools in Nepal for a week in May.

By the end of March, the Nepal trip had been cancelled and so had the house bookings. As I write this, one wedding has moved to October, one has cancelled, and the remainder are waiting to see what happens.

Looking at the house bookings, since the French government has loosened the travel restrictions, we have had a number of French families and groups book the house (about five weeks’ worth currently). This reflects the government’s move to encourage French families to take holidays within the country. They have not gone as far as the Polish government, for instance, which has given out financial incentives to people to holiday in their home country, but the message in France has been to encourage people to stay within the country and take advantage of the wealth of opportunities here for rest and relaxation. With beaches now open and restaurants and bars being able to serve food and drink (with a one metre distancing rule and clear instructions about table service) the local tourist industry can operate, partially, and hopefully survive.

The wedding situation is much less clear as all of the couples and their families are UK-based. Will borders be open or not for what might be classed as non-essential travel? The bizarre introduction of a 14-day quarantine by the UK government has made things even more complicated – families don’t know whether to book their travel or not and don’t know whether they will have to fulfil quarantine rules or not on their return home. I say bizarre as so many of the rules in the UK at present seem to be not rules as we know them but sort of ‘indicators to follow if you feel like it’ – thank goodness most people are sensible and follow the rules and resist driving to Barnard Castle.

Over the past nine years I have travelled to southern Africa, South America, Nepal and various bits of Europe inspecting international examination centres for Cambridge Assessment. What will be the future of international exams now, or even exams in general, now we have had a summer without them? Students have graduated and will pass on to universities (though what are they going to look like in September?) without having sat or passed exams – perhaps this already suspect way of assessing students will change?

And what about international air travel? When will we feel safe to travel inside that oversized sardine tin again, breathing each other’s air for hours at a time? Will countries that have reduced the effects of Covid welcome guests from countries where it is still rampant (the UK, for example) and will we want to visit countries where the virus is still active in the population?

All three of the above are income streams which the virus has affected. None is our sole income, all are significant; but what of the future?