In France

The lifting of the tension and oppression of the general state of England can be tangibly felt. The constant howling of the right-wing has been silenced by the crossing of the channel. A new fool acts as the leader but it will be more of the same. Lying, the enrichment of the tax dodging management consultancies and the millionaires in government, the constant chipping away at the public sector, the screaming hysteria of culture wars. More flags, more poverty, less rights. Neo-liberalism has seeped into every aspect of life in England, disguised by a nostalgia for a world that never was. A never ending Sunday of remembering but what is being remembered is not so clear.

Some gentle chords fill the cabin at 6.15am. And then an announcement that all the bars and cafes and restaurants are open and selling breakfast. It was quite a choppy crossing and rather enjoyable. Half waking up in the night and feeling the bow of the ship plunging into the water, deeper, deeper, the water is forced to part, but will the ship come up again? And then it rolls, over to the side, the angle becomes more pronounced, will the ship right itself again? Strange dreams, as if I’m already in St Malo and meeting friends there. I’d forgotten that I knew so many people in the town. The light is sea grey, diffused and full of moist particles.

There’s time for one more visit to the outdoor deck. The old town of St Malo, the port, the yachts in the marina, the sun coming up, spires of churches and a ferris wheel. The ship slowly inches towards the quay. Three dock workers stand by, hands in pockets, talking the esoteric language of dock workers.

A bus arrives and a group of people get off. They walk along the steel roadway as the cyclists are the first to leave. I’m glad to see that. It was always the proper way to do it. Let the cyclists off the ferry first so they can clear the port before the cars and lorries. But those are the old ways now. Too often as a cyclist you are now forced to wait on the car decks while all the vehicles depart the ship first. All the foot passengers leave the ship and we wait for a bus. It’s an oddly unfriendly group of people. There’s no one to catch the eye and have a conversation with. Hardly anyone says good morning or thank you to the driver, a large French man who looks as if he enjoys all the good things that France has to offer. He’s cheerful to start with but I think even he gets a little despondent after so many of his jolly, ‘bonjour’s’ are met with sullen faces.

I walk towards the old town. The bare knuckle fighter and the tiny woman who the security guards gave such difficulties to yesterday in Portsmouth are crossing the bridge holding hands. She is now wearing a pink anorak over her pink mohair jumper. I see them later waiting for a bus engaged in conversation and the man pointing out various features of the port. I wonder what their trip to England was all about?

The old town is nice this early in the morning. There are no tourists and it has the feel of a working place. Bin lorries and street sweepers hard at work. It’s clean and getting cleaner. This is what can be done when there are good public services. I check some statistics; France spends much more of its GDP on public services than in Britain. But I also wonder about the form of that spending? In Britain great chunks of public money find their way to the consultancy firms of PwC, KPMG, Deloitte and E&Y. They certainly don’t deliver front line services. Is it known what percentage of public money they receive? Some years ago the Financial Times published an article in which central government admitted that it had no idea what the bill was. And yet, the same government insisted that the exact cost of providing a cup of tea for someone in a care home or hospital should be calculated and in the balance sheets.

The introduction of those management consultancies runs as part of the drive to privatisation, a process where the public purse takes all the risk and the private companies take all the profits. If they fail, they are bailed out. At the same time service after service has its funding cut. Youth centres, libraries, social care, housing, health provision. It is reflected all over the country in run down urban areas, derelict high streets, boarded up shops, closed libraries and museums, excessive fares on public transport and, a health system which no longer functions properly. To which can be added, the destruction of civic pride.

When the county councils celebrated their fifty year anniversaries in 1939 they produced books brimming with pride and achievements. Clinics, mother and baby centres, schools with substantial playing fields, new housing with gardens and lots of play space nearby. The architecture was interesting and the building quality good, the finances to pay for the services and infrastructure were managed properly and conscious of the need to minimise large interest payments and prevent accumulation of debt. I’m not sure that management consultants even existed then. The ethos was certainly different; it was often progressive with a sense of improvement.

I stop at the first patisserie I come to and buy a local type of cake. I don’t get the name but imagine something sweet and round that’s been baked briefly at a high temperature so it has a squidgy middle and a crisp, sugary exterior. It is delicious and the only slightly down beat disappointment is that the shop doesn’t sell coffee. And then I go to look at the sea. It’s blue here on the shore of Brittany. It makes me nostalgic for all those cycling trips that took me along this coast on several highly enjoyable occasions. I walk through the port area to the train station. I think there’s a train at 10.30am.

I manage to buy a ticket from a complicated machine but am puzzled why I need to put my date of birth in and why I was presented with 42 euros on the screen but only pay 27 euros. Have I got the wrong ticket? I ask the guard and he says no, it’s fine. I’m still not convinced but at least I have established a foot on that important position; the high moral ground. If I’m challenged I can point out that I checked; and what’s more the driver of the train was leaning out of his cab and he listened to the whole conversation. If necessary the train can be stopped and he will confirm my story. I change trains at Rennes a city which I would like to properly visit. I now only have an impression of a huge concrete railway station and a helpful ticket clerk. I had noticed that my ticket only goes as far as Nantes and need to buy an extension to Angers. I’m still not convinced about the ticket and ask her if its correct. I know have another witness. Along the subway, up the staircase and there’s the train on platform 10.

The train has hardly any people in it. The conductor is a vast bear like creature with heavily tattooed arms and rings on most of his fingers. I show him my ticket convinced that it is now correct. He looks at it, scans it with a laser beam device and wishes me bon journée. At last I can relax.

This train journey is lovely. Just me and two other people in the carriage. I don’t see one of the people but I do notice their cat box. After a while that most luxurious experience, no announcements. Not one. I notice something I have not experienced in trains in Britain for years; the possibility to just listen to the noise of the train and day dream. That’s impossible now in England for every five minutes or so – sometimes more frequently – there is a cacophony of shouting messages and what feel like orders.

The scenery is lovely too and the train runs in part through a gorgeous wooded vale with a river curly and bending between the hills. And then the fields open out and farm houses and stone barns are scattered across the green-field landscape. Glimpses are caught of once familiar places, strangely transported here to the Breton countryside, as if I’m being transported through the landscapes of my memories. I change at Nantes and on to the Paris train. It’s more industrial and already has the urbane atmosphere of the big city. I must admit I preferred the rural version.

I walk along a high stone wall towards the Tourist Information Centre. The first thing I always want when I arrive somewhere is a map. As it’s just about lunchtime I take a seat in a good looking Vietnamese restaurant. The woman who is running the place types out a long message on her phone. I guess she might be using a translation service on the web. It reads, in English, something along the lines of ‘I want to close at 2.30pm so you will have to have finished by then’. I point to the grilled pork with rice on the menu. She types away again. ‘No, sorry, it will take too long’. I abandon this plan and have a bagel instead from the patisserie.

The rest of the day is just walking around and around the streets. Here and there a glimpse of a Gothic building, a church, the cathedral, a chateaux. The streets are lively with masses of people and the bars and restaurants full of chatter and drinking and eating. It seems a prosperous place with high quality clothing shops, bookshops and a fantastic late nineteenth century department store. I discover alleyways and cut throughs, a wonderful art-deco apartment block built in 1927 and get a general idea of the topography of the central area. At night, a full money over the roof tops and chimney pots. I take some film of the clouds moving across this moon. It is strange and surreal and I’m not sure why.

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