Tour de France

Back in England after a delirious four weeks in the Brittany sun.  Our house has a lovely garden with plum trees (not much this year), walnut trees (lots this year) and neighbours who bring us sacks of cherries (it’s been a very good year; I even tried my first bash at cherry jam).  The lavender looks splendid, and attracts a range not just of bees, but also humming-bird hawk-moths, which are a spectacular sight.

And this year the 100th Tour De France came through Brittany.  Brittany has a reputation for turning out great riders – including Bernard Hinault  – but we were there to cheer on Chris Froome, who responded by winning for Britain. OK, OK, he’s a Kenyan who lives in Monaco, but when people win, they are British through and through.  It was an interesting day for the non-cycling enthusiast.

We looked at the route in the local paper, and it seemed that the best place to watch was as it passed through the grounds of St-Cyr Coetquidan, the military academy (think Sandhurst or West Point) about twenty miles away.  Motto: “Ils s’instruisent pour vaincre” = “training for victory”.  The race course was marshalled by the cadets, dressed either in superb dress uniform with white plumed hats and golden epaulettes, or battle camouflage wear.  You turn up about two hours early, partly to get a view, but mostly to see the “caravane” of sponsored cars and floats that zoom ahead of the race.  It’s everything you might expect – cars sponsored by sport magazines or mobile phone companies; floats made up to look like soft drink bottle or crisp packets, with glamorous girls and boys tossing packs of sweets & snacks, plastic thumbs-up gloves or vouchers for mobile phones to the audience.   There were some cars from Yorkshire (where the Tour will start next year), and from Luxembourg (where it won’t).  The nationalised tote organisation threw out the big foam hands, Carrefour supermarket chucked the spectators lots of sun-hats, white with pink spots like the ‘King of the Mountains’ jersey. It goes on and on, and includes the most unlikely participants – such as Lutte Ouvrière, the equivalent of the Socialist Workers’ Party.  Imagine a New Orleans parade at 30 mph.

Then they disappear and you wait.  Policemen in flashy motor bikes zoom by.  The announcer tells you that the breakaway leaders will arrive in five minutes, but they don’t.  News helicopters hover overhead.  Remember, this was mid-July, and the sun baked us all.  Spectators set up their canvas beach chairs in the patches of shade that could be found.  Having obviously conducted a risk assessment, a lad in combat fatigues surreptitiously delivered cold bottles of water to the cadets in their heavy serge uniforms, who surreptitiously placed them on the grass nearby.  More cars zoom by, and more policemen.  Despite the impressive display of state force, no-one seemed interested in keeping the spectators off the road: in later stages, spectators actually ran on to slap the back of riders.

Then the leaders came, about five of them including the local boy Julien Simon, who was racing through his grand-parents’ village, and then made a self-sacrificing but crowd pleasing break.  The group seemed five minutes ahead of the peloton, and zoomed by in no time at all.  It seemed to me – on the basis of other athletic events like 10,000m or marathons – that it was all a done job.  They would win at a canter. However, in the end, of course, the peloton reeled the adventurous dashers back, and poor M. Simon paid for his boldness by ending up 120 places back.  In the final dash into St Malo, the British sprinter Mark Cavendish charged into another competitor in the final sprint, which did not help his popularity (he had urine thrown over him the next day).

It all took maybe ten minutes, after which an impressive fleet of Skoda estate cars with spare wheels and frames for the various teams on their roof racks whizzed by. And then we walked back to the car park, through the woods and heaths of the military training grounds, past the assault courses and gun emplacements hidden amongst the ferns and birches.  It wasn’t a drama, but we did it, and we are now another few centimetres into French culture.  And with the Yorkshire start that is planned, the lads are coming to see us in Sheffield next year.

Unlikely heroes

I’ve recently read a book and seen a TV programme that led to a few thoughts.  The book was “Dominion” by C. J. Sansom, a counter-factual thriller about life in a Nazi-dominated London in the 1950s.  The book starts as Neville Chamberlain meets Winston Churchill and Lord Halifax (the Foreign Secretary, and a leading appeaser of Hitler) when he realises he can no longer be Prime Minister.  In the meeting, Churchill agrees to serve under Halifax, who promptly signs a peace treaty with Germany.  The impressive aspect of the book is not the plot – a rattling-along thriller, sure – but the atmosphere of a Britain under a government of fascist sympathizers.  For me, it gave a convincing picture of how collaboration and anti-semitism can seep into the daily life of a country, almost unnoticed.  The heroes who oppose the regime do so for a number of reasons – there is one card-carrying Communist – but mostly out of an understated sense of decency.

I don’t know what I would have done in such a situation.  I’m not talking about whether I would have revealed secrets under torture, or if my family were threatened (the answer is almost certainly yes).  Would I have passed food to a hidden Jewish family, as countless Dutch did ?  Or let the resistance know of train movements or troop concentrations ?  Or stepped in to prevent a dissident being dragged off by the police ?  I just don’t know.

Come a bit closer to today, and bring in my second piece of evidence, something you may feel has no place in an essay about fascism, racism and resistance.  It was a nostalgic BBC documentary about George Formby, the music hall entertainer of the 30s and 40s.  Much of the programme concerned his cheeky songs and his ukulele, with affectionate tributes from loyal fans who still meet annually.  You wouldn’t see George as a proto-Billy Bragg, but hang on a bit.   In 1946 George and his wife/manager Beryl toured South Africa shortly before formal racial apartheid was introduced, where they refused to play racially-segregated venues. According to Formby’s biographer, when George was cheered by a black audience after embracing a small black girl who had presented his wife with a box of chocolates, National Party leader Daniel François Malan (who later introduced apartheid) phoned to complain; Beryl replied “Why don’t you piss off, you horrible little man?” and was hurried on to the next plane home for her pains. George Formby as anti-racist hero ?  There’s more.

Take Petula Clarke – a child star who graduated to being a successful middle-of-the-road entertainer, but not in most people’s mind any sort of radical.  In 1968, NBC-TV invited Clark to host her own special in the U.S., and in doing so she inadvertently made television history. While singing a duet of “On the Path of Glory,” an anti-war song that she had composed, with guest Harry Belafonte, she took hold of his arm, to the dismay of a representative from the Chrysler Corporation, the show’s sponsor, who feared that the moment would incur the wrath of Southern viewers. When he insisted that they substitute a different take, with Clark and Belafonte standing well away from each other, Clark and the executive producer of the show – her husband – refused, destroyed all other takes of the song and delivered the finished programme to NBC with the touch intact.

And then there’s Dusty Springfield – a wonderful singer but, again, not someone whose image you’d expect to see, Marley/Dylan style, on a protestor’s T-shirt.  In December 1964 Springfield’s tour of South Africa was controversially terminated, and she was deported, after she performed for an integrated audience at a theatre near Cape Town, which was against the government’s policy of racial segregation.  Her contract specifically excluded segregated performances, one of the first British artists to do so.

None of these stances are in the same order as resistance heroism of Violette Szabo or Jean Moulin.  But they show a day-to-day understanding of what is right, and a determination not to take an easy route away from it.  But they weren’t painless acts.  For example, I would guess Petula Clark was aware that her success in America was at risk from her stand.

Who do we have on the other side ?  Frank Sinatra did it his way (and collected $2m for nine days work) in Sun City, where Elton John and Queen played too.  Rod Stewart, Boney M., Status Quo played South Africa or Sun City, unworried about the fact that their careers were based on music of black origin.  And none of these people were under threat of torture, or protecting their family, or going along with established government policy.  They were people with a lot of money and mostly they went to South Africa to get some more. Bad behaviour doesn’t stop there.  There is the cadre of alternative comedians like Jimmy Carr who use accountants’ scams to avoid paying their share of tax, or Bono lecturing us about Third World Needs whilst dodging any tax he can. I could go on. Nicholas Parsons advertising Wonga.com; Barbara Windsor advertising on-line bingo. Strewth.

So why would some people, not known for being in any sense dissidents, behave well under pressure, whilst others, with an edgy reputation, behave badly.  Could it be that what matters is not some developed radical stance, no showy commitment to human rights, but an intangible built-in feeling of decency, of right and wrong.  I don’t know where it comes from – the family, I guess – but it seems to be what motivated Sansom’s resisters, and also Beryl Formby.