A Day in Boulogne Sur Mer

I like Boulogne-sur-Mer and its shabby-chic and tatty edges. It’s a port and port-towns are usually without airs and graces, pomp and circumstances and many other cliches. There is something about the proximity to the sea and all that has meant historically and still means today. The fear of the people as storms prevent the fishing fleets returning, the terrible tragedies of ships sunk and lives lost. The sea provides a vast horizon, a constant movement of people and things. It takes a lot of copies of the Daily Mail to make port residents narrow minded and suspicious of other people. But the likes of the Daily Mail have big pockets and even bigger printing presses. They can keep up the flow of bile in a relentless fashion until people start to doubt who they really are. And the stuff that means something and is free is corroded and lost; or rather it is stolen. Like all aspects of the commons are stolen by rich and powerful interests.

The one problem I do have in Boulogne Sur Mer is lack of internet access. But that’s hardly the fault of the town. The owner of the apartment I’m staying in is having a war with the telecomms company. I’m not surprised. They are easy entities to have wars with. There is in fact a global internet and has been for decades. But it’s been chopped up into thousands of competing service providers. One must have an account, sign incomprehensible terms and conditions, agree to have one’s data scraped and passed around the world to advertising companies and the dirty secret parts of government. I am surrounded by wifi but have no means to access it. It is all privatised.

It is comparable to the Middle Ages when there was an extensive network of roads and waterways and bridges and ports. But at every crossing point one had to pay a groat or two. It became tedious. Eventually the bourgeoise rebelled. Enough. How can commodities freely flow with all these customs, tolls and tithes? They rose up, smashed the lords and masters on the head (or coopted them) and set the world to reflect their special interests. It is time we, the proletariat, did the same. Surely this cannot be in our interests to have so many internet service providers, so many different companies supplying gas, water and electricity? Would it make sense to centralise and socialise these things? Of course it would. Capitalism isn’t even efficient on its own terms. The technical means already exist to create global communications, global power and water supplies. What stands in the way is corruption, chicanery and capitalist competition. That’s a social issue which means the solution isn’t technical but a political revolution.

I thought a lot about political revolution in Boulogne. This was partly stimulated by long walks around the city trying to find free wifi. And also because the old town has several inscriptions of 1788 carved into the stone or added to the sides of buildings. Whatever were those stone masons and builders thinking? Now it almost feels as if it was a deliberate provocation, given that we know what happened next. There is a Brecht poem in which he says something along the lines of ‘there is a day with a cross marked against it’. (I could answer this properly if either I was at home with my library of if I had access to the web; it’s an approximation). It makes one wonder how much there are various configurations of time, people, events and space which feel they might become revolutionary ( a spot in time, as Hegel described it); but don’t. They fade. The moment is lost. But I wonder what configurations were felt in 1788?

I walked to the railway station. Perhaps they would have free wifi. The woman in the ticket office was very helpful and sold me a ticket for Monday. It’s a bank holiday and not all the trains are running. I would usually try and buy a ticket using my own peculiar version of the French language but I had to get this right.

As I walked back into town I noticed a anti-vax sticker on a street sign. They are the same as the ones in England. Who is funding this? Is it the Russian secret state, the Koch brothers, big business with fascist interest? That’s the real mystery but none of the loons sticking these things up would ever guess. They can concoct theories of monsters from outer space practicing mind control but cannot for a second perceive how they are being manipulated by the boss class. I checked there were no sharp objects underneath it and tore it off.

The streets are empty apart from cars. Cars and capitalism suck the life out of streets. There is a strange lifelessness here. But a lot of cars. Where there should be shops and cafes and bars there are boarded up spaces. Where there should be people walking in their local area there are just cars driving through. Where there should be a sense of place and people and people in that place there are just cars driving through. I’ve been reading Peter Linbaugh’s collection of essays, ‘Stop, Thief!’ which is all about the destruction of the commons. Motorism has played its part in this. I watch car after car go past each with one person in. It’s impossible for anyone in any one car to talk to any other person in a car face to face. It is street life but it is atomised and alienated. A young Black girl in flared pale pink trousers and a large set of headphones walks past. She is looking at her phone but seems to be miles away, lost in a forgotten dream, seduced by her own imagination into thinking great things, she is on the streets of Boulogne but her mind takes her everywhere she wants to be. I wonder what she’s thinking?

By accident I find the Tourist Information Office. Now they might have wifi, or at least they might know where there is wifi to be had. There are two obstacles to asking this simple question. The first is that there is a vast construction site outside the office itself. Several workers in orange hi vis jackets and trousers and hard hats are moving diggers, pushing wheel barrows, wielding pick axes and shovels. It is not clear how to progress. I ask one young worker if I can walk along the half made pavement. He is moving grey bricks. Yes it’s ok. He continues with his work. However the Tourist Office is actually closed. It opens again at 2pm.

I sit in the Rue Victor Hugo and draw the X and C shop. Mainly because it is a type of building seen in Europe which I’m not quite sure about. I think they are eighteenth century. In Vienna they have a special name but ….I can’t check that now. They are certainly there in Hamburg and Frankfurt and Bruxelles. They are one storey high with an attic and often have an entrance way for a horse and carriage or cart to use. I should have taken a picture but I made a drawing instead. I won’t show it here because I made a terrible muddle of the central window.

Believe it or not, by the time I returned to the Tourist Information Office there was a queue. I joined it and a few minutes later the door opened and we were let in. Perhaps the first three people were old friends of the woman who worked inside. After about twenty minutes they turned to me and spoke in French. I have no idea what they said, ‘oh you’re still here!’ or something like that. I asked if anyone spoke English, the tourist worker does.

‘Can I just interrupt’, I said, ‘sorry’ looking at the other people, ‘do you know where I can get wifi access?’

‘Yes, here’, the worker said.

‘Just click on Yes Wifi and put your email in’.

Everyone turned to smile at me, a rather lovely form of encouragement. There was even a table and some chairs. As they were leaving, the woman in the rust coloured coat who had done most of the talking came over to talk to me. All in French. But we established that yes, I was here in Boulogne sur Mer at the end of October on holiday. She laughed and her whole face lit up. If the only purpose of being here was to make her laugh like this then I cannot complain. She was still laughing as she opened the door and left. But she was so alive and had such warmth that in those few moments something immensely human took place and without any effort the quality without a name was revealed.

Out into the rain and the grey skies and the sense of the sea. Boulogne now came alive. That woman was the key. I had walked around before and not discovered the superb artisanal bakery with the young woman worker who put me right on how to pronounce ‘Cannalle’ (a type of cake). And almost exactly opposite a small but well stocked wine shop. The sort of place I had hoped for but now I found. If you were to imagine a wine shop in a French town, this would be it. Wooden floors, bin ends, esoteric bottles from distant years, parts of Bordeaux unknown. Rivers and towns that have been hiding their wine making secrets in plain sight for centuries. The bottle of Chinon I selected from the Loire valley even had a credible coating of dust. The man running it appeared to be the sort of person who is everyone’s friend.

Not sure where to go. The streets are confused. The door of St Nicholas church is open. I venture in. Perhaps I’m too tired for the architecture. It is heavy and oppressive. Pre or post Revolution? Even in this strange building people seek solace from the heaviness that life sometimes brings. There are two or three people sitting still and silently in front of burning candles. It is this scene which suggests questions and possibly answers. The architecture itself is cold and sterile. It is not so much frozen music as frozen politics. The politics of the bureaucracy of the church. The politics of the class interest of the church. But it is use value and exchange value. The church is a wealthy institution but it has to still offer out hope, eternal salvation, golden rays of light in the darkness. And the church still has a use-value. People want more than capitalism has to offer; it’s just not clear for many people what that ‘more’ might involve.

Yesterday I had discovered the Bio-Coop and I went back there today to get some snacks and sausages. The woman cashier was wearing the same pale blue jumper with silver threads in it. She had been very helpful and funny yesterday. When I asked her if she could speak English she said no and proceeded to talk to me in French as if I was a regular customer. She did this with a lot of pointing at things which, if you are trying to learn a language is incredibly useful. It’s the constant trying and making mistakes which is part of the learning process.

She asked me if I had a store card (in French) and then looked at me, recognising me from the day before

‘Ah, no’, she said in a matter of fact way, ‘a tourist’.

I laughed about this all the way up the steep hill.

It’s good fun being a tourist out of season, being out of time, being out of the main stream. I got back to the apartment and watched the television. It seemed so weird. There is such a mismatch between that view of the world and what actually goes on in the world. But unfortunately it is not without influence, and neither is the internet.

Being digital, not being digital, being human, human being. We will need more than one revolution to sort it all out.

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