Has anybody seen those appalling posters on Facebook about the wonders of being British? Something along the lines of how we’d rather walk a mile in tight shoes than complain about our restaurant food, or how we’d probably describe a nuclear strike as a ‘bit warm’? About how marvellously modest and unassuming we are?? I mean, has the person who wrote that ever heard of Jeremy Clarkson? Boris Johnson? Brian Blessed? Or the fans of any football club you care to mention? (I suppose you could make a case for the modesty of Millwall supporters, whose motto is ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’ but only if you’d never heard them in full cry).
Anyway, I have been thinking about Britishness lately because I have just come back from France. And my topic du jour is kissing. We are all kissing each other’s cheeks in Britain now, and I blame the French. Time was, and I’m not that decrepit, when you only kissed your mum and dad. And, possibly, whiskery aunties. And then just a swift peck, mind you, none of this random face pressing that we all seem to be going for these days. No. Back then, we British (if I can get all Facebook postery) made do with a swift handshake and a mumbled hello. In fact, that probably counted as rather imaginative foreplay back in the day.
When I was 17 I was taken by my sister in law (French) to stay in Bordeaux for a week. When we got off the plane an entire phalanx of relatives were lined up (some actually wearing berets) and we all solemnly kissed each other. Took ages. (I have to say at this point, although it is somewhat off piste, that during this visit I was taken to meet some great uncle who was in hospital. He was a lovely, ancient man, aged about 804, tucked tightly into a spotless bed; and he too was wearing a beret. And, naturally enough, we all kissed him. Took ages.
Years later I went to see a friend in France who had teenage children. And get this, when they brought friends home, they all came up to us and kissed us. I was charmed, and somewhat staggered. I could, in no circumstances, think of being approached in Britain by a strange teenager who wanted to kiss me politely on the cheek and wish me good day.
And yet, that day may not be far off. Even now, in the South East, people who’ve known each other for quite a long time are kissing each other when they meet (except my friend Deborah, who refuses to give in to any of this continental canoodling and is hoisting the flag for traditional British circumspection). Brothers and sisters are kissing each other when they greet (yes, really) and er, quite a few other people in situations I can’t think of at the moment. The disease has certainly reached the midlands, but the jury is out on whether it will sweep Yorkshire (it’s the way they stare at you there which kind of brings you to a halt before you properly get to grips with your intended target, and the only way you can alleviate any possible embarrassment is to stop before you get any closer, lift your arms really expansively and say, ‘fancy a pint?’)
Still, think on this. A couple of years ago I was sitting on a train in a French railway station watching out of the window as an inspector tried to pacify a surging crowd of people whose train’s departure had been delayed. Suddenly, down the steps on to the platform came the boss of the whole shebang. Big hat, gold braid, the lot. He marched up to the inspector. The people gesticulated. (As they do.) I thought there was going to be a riot. The inspector turned to his boss. His boss looked at him. And yes. They kissed. Both cheeks. And suddenly, everything was fine. The people got on the train, the inspector got on the train and the boss waved them off as it hooted down the track.
Maybe if it has that kind of effect, we shouldn’t be so uptight. Anyone up for a kiss? Mr Clarkson? Boris?
Picture by Banksy, courtesy of Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/leonsteber/1154551362/
Well, I’m back from my hols. The suitcases are spilling their guts all over the house, the dogs have come back from the kennels, and I’ve thrown away the orange I found mouldering on the kitchen counter.
I’ve been to the supermarket and stocked up on beer and bread and jammy dodgers and such fare as you lay before the faces of husbands and teenage children, and I’ve put away my shorts for another year.
I’ve got some nice pictures, including one of a beauty salon in Bordeaux, that my cousin Douglas seems unaccountably to have given his name to. We spent the day in the city, shopping and farting about in the sunlit squares and generally behaving like happy tourists.
But the best memory is of our first night. Son, 14, who was in rather a giddy mood, decided to wind up his sister by thrusting her hairbrush down the front of this pyjama bottoms. ‘Look Rose,’ he crowed rather disgustingly. ‘Look what I’m doing with your hairbrush.’ To which his sister witheringly replied, ‘That’s not my hairbrush. That’s dad’s.’
My last post, about three million years ago, it seems now, was about creating characters. So what did I do after I wrote it? I decided to enter a short story competition. Nothing bad about that, except for the fact I took all the earnest advice, I had just handed out, far too seriously, about planning and plotting and making sure everything was right before getting to grips with the story. Bad idea.
I was inspired, you see, by a photograph. Nothing wrong about that, although it was of me on holiday in Bordeaux, which seems a bit self absorbed. But I just thought how cool it would be to write a story about a woman who wants to treat her mother to a weekend in Bordeaux, only to realise that her mother knows the city really well, on account of a broken love affair long ago (get your hankies out now).
I decided to up the tension by putting the affair against the backdrop of the invasion of France in WW2. Which was where it all began to unravel. Because, if I made it a modern day story, then the mother couldn’t really be much younger than 90, and probably wouldn’t be up to trailing round Bordeaux and bumping into old acquaintances in the maquis (unless they were literally skeletons in her cupboards). And, when I started researching the history of the time I got in a right tangle. It was almost impossible to give my characters factual backgrounds without wondering if I was saying something completely wrong. All my inspiration was strangled and died. (Hankies, don’t forget the hankies).
My problem was that I let the research take over. If I’d done a bit of free-writing, say, I might have found a way round the problem. (Maybe by making the daughter tell the story to her daughter, and maybe setting it in a city whose past is slightly easier to be confident about. Maybe.).
But there you go. After writing and writing and re writing and reading more than I actually wanted to about the history of Bordeaux, and getting far too close to the competition deadline without achieving anything concrete, I screwed the whole lot up and sent in a story I wrote two years ago. Then I went to Ikea. Not exactly what Brendan Behan would have done, but then, despite my artistic tendencies, I am a middle aged woman who has cutlery needs.
Live and learn. In writing follow your instinct, not the rules. And when in doubt, keep blogging. It’s nice to be back.