The Juppé cushion

I often feel like we’ve slipped into an alternative reality and another more legitimate version of myself is somewhere having a great time, and everything is inconspicuously normal. There are plenty of other hypotheses that attempt to explain the surreality we find ourselves in, such as the simulation theory I read about in the Guardian yesterday where boffins believe we’ve slipped into a version of The Matrix (the paradigm isn’t new and is likely Cartesian in origin, apart from the bit about The Matrix obviously). Fancy theories abound, and we can hypothesise all we like, but it doesn’t change the fact that everything’s gone a bit batshit politically recently, whether it feels like it’s really happening or not.

Right now I’m more obsessed with politics than usual. I fear if I take my eye off it for one second then something yet more hideous will manifest, dressed as a killer clown in UKIP purple. And it’s little wonder it’s getting to me. I spend my days fretting about Brexit while my nightmares are infested by that boogieman Donald Trump (or trompe in French, meaning to deceive). And now my mornings more often than not feature that dead-eyed guignol Nicolas Sarkozy, smarming up to the Republicans (formerly the UMP) as he seeks the party nomination.

It had seemed like a fine idea to self improve. I would take myself to the gym and make myself watch the French news for half an hour daily as I ran on the treadmill or pedalled on an exercise bike. But of course it just means I’m getting full daily political discourse on three fronts now, which is surely enough for any one brain to take.

Sarko is attempting to become leader of his party ahead of the 2017 elections as he sets out to “resurrect” France. He’s been positioning himself as the anti-establishment candidate against THE MAN Alain Juppé, despite being rich and very much a member of the establishment. Sound familiar? The similarities with Trump don’t end there. The three times married demagogue is running an anti-Muslim campaign, threatening to ban headscarves if elected, and he wants to throw people like me – who can’t speak French properly – out of the country. He’s anti-EU, a climate change denier, and he wants to put forward referenda within days of being elected asking voters if they want to a) suspend the right for non-EU nationals to join family in France and b) throw suspected radicalised Islamists in jail without having to go through the courts. He also plans to speak up for the silent majority (the unrepresented working classes rather than the dead, one presumes). He makes Marine Le Pen look like a tree-hugging bleeding-heart liberal in other words.

Fortunately he probably won’t win. Juppé, the self-styled “prophet of happiness”, has been running a campaign focusing on hope rather than Sarkozy’s fear, and it appears to be paying off. This has given me a sense of hope that might be fallacious, as firstly Sarkozy is dogged by dodgy finances and his party probably don’t have such short memories that they’ve forgotten the electorate hates his guts, and secondly, when I actually think about it, I remember that Juppé is also a right winger, even if Sarko makes him look like a wet. But still, with Francois Hollande a dead president walking, Juppé might be the best hope we have against the unconscionable – a Front National government (it’s unlikely but not unthinkable).

The centre ground has suddenly shifted so far to the right everywhere, that we end up feeling grateful for the smallest of mercies; Theresa May becoming Prime Minister instead of Andrea Leadsom in the UK; Hillary hopefully wiping the floor with Trump in the US in November. Have things become so bleak in such a worryingly short period of time that we’re all suddenly settling for damage limitation? Also, voters now favour such a weird hotchpotch of ideas (pro-nationalisation of the railways while being anti-immigration for instance) that the old spectrum of left to right doesn’t even really work anymore. It’s all very confusing and worrying. I don’t think it’s an aberration either. I can’t see a way back for the left, and I can’t see the tectonic plates shifting to where they were any time soon. Meanwhile Brexit has unleashed dark forces and the racist genie isn’t about to go back into its bottle. I just pray the French and the Americans aren’t as stupid as the British, but when you no longer trust the reality you find yourself in then it’s impossible to repress the feeling that anything could happen, and it just might as well…

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To infinity and viande…

“The times they are a-changin’” sang a nasally hippy once. Presumably things are always in some state of flux, and sometimes you notice them more often than others. The other day, I told one of the children I tutor that the world moves faster now in a month than it did during the whole of the 14th century, which either blew his mind or he fazed out, it’s difficult to tell which. “Stuff is changing” obviously isn’t very scientific, but the signs are all around us. Brangelina is no more, Nigel Farage has left UKIP (hopefully for good this time), Bowie, Prince and Lemmy are all dead, our landlady wants us to move out (perhaps I’ll expound upon this in a future blog), and France is thinking about going vegetarian.

You heard. Yesterday I was at the gym attempting to watch the French news while I pedaled like Rumplestiltskin ON CRACK. I was taken by surprise, as the headline news contained animals and compassion and French people all in the same story. A parliamentary inquiry has recommended a number of steps to make abattoirs less disgusting, after some were clandestinely filmed recently, uncovering all too predictable and heinous abuses of livestock by the scum of the earth. One of the committee’s recommendations was to install video cameras in France’s 941 slaughterhouses, to throw light on shady practices that go unnoticed.

If that wasn’t great enough news in itself, today I opened Libération, one of France’s mainstream (if admittedly left-leaning) newspapers, to discover a 4-page lead feature promoting vegetarian alternatives to meat in the light of such horrors. This may not seem like a biggie, but this is France we’re talking about. I was of the assumption that French people didn’t eat anything that hadn’t suffered first, but evidently people here are genuinely concerned about this issue.

I have a feeling that if the Hexagon – not famed for les droits des animaux – gets serious about this, then others will follow. Indeed, methods employed by 99% of the industry to ensure cheap meat is ever present in supermarkets, should shame us all if we’re not psychopaths. Even the French. There’s no better example of capitalism causing untold suffering in the pursuit of profits. Factory farming is indefensible, which is why there’s so much secrecy involved. As for a nation where the motto is liberté, égalité, fraternité, and one that prides itself in leading the way where civil rights of the human variety are concerned, France actually errs towards conformism too often, as recently demonstrated by the Burkini ban (in certain areas, rather than nationally, like some understood it). Gastronomy certainly limits itself by its own recherche foodie regulations, and woe betide anyone who veers from the accepted norm. Restaurants are getting better, but there are still plenty of places in cosmopolitan Paris where you’ll not find anything vegetarian on the menu, and you’ll also struggle if you have celiac disease or have any other dietary requirements. Go out to the country and you may as well prepare to starve. Apparently these aberrant preferences don’t fit with France’s incomprehensible philosophy of food (incomprehensible if you’re not French anyway), and I will say that while I adore living here and would prefer it to England any day of the week (except Sunday, everything’s shut), deviances of whim are barely tolerated.

As for not putting vegetarian options on the menu, there are at least 375 million veggies in the world, and 84.7 million tourists visited France in 2013, making it the most popular tourist destination on earth. If there are 7.12500 billion people in the world (2013 figures again), then of the 84.7 million visitors, I make that around 4 and a half million of them that are probably vegetarians. So give the poor fuckers something to eat when they get here, eh? Who knows, France might be a bit stuck in its ways where gastronomie is concerned, but maybe it can lead the way in sorting out these vile knackeries. The way we treat our creatures is a stain on our humanity, and history will judge us to be the savages that we are. The times they might be a-changin’, but in this instance, change can’t come quickly enough.

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Ageing bull

I found my emotions oddly conflicted as I caught the train at Oberkampf this afternoon. In front of me on the platform was a middle aged man with a large easel he’d clearly just purchased, and something about the uncomfortable way he held it – like how Nigel Farage might hold a black baby thrust at him for a photo opportunity – gave off the sense that this man had probably never flicked a paintbrush in anger before. I felt like laughing at him, and when the metro suddenly jolted to a stop and he fell over with the easel landing on top of him, I couldn’t help but laugh at him. And yet there was something about this clumsy chap, who might or might not be experiencing a midlife crisis, that suddenly seemed completely adorable to me, and then I felt like a bit of a shit for instinctively sneering.

It’s easy to sneer isn’t it? But why shouldn’t he (and obviously much of this is based on supposition) learn to paint in midlife or old age for that matter? In fact, mocking the transition from youth to middle age is mean-spirited, because it’s not always easy. I’ve personally never put away the childish things one is meant to eschew for grown up stuff like having a best crockery set and a mortgage and owning a drill, so I have no desire to recapture my youth, as I’m still doing the same nonsense I was doing when I was 17, bar the cider, magic mushrooms and religious guilt. Besides, and I’ve said this times, I used to worry about growing old, now I worry about not growing old. I had to go on a weird diet, drink laxatives, starve myself for 12 hours, go through an endoscopy and colonoscopy and then wait for two hours before being told everything was normal this week, so if you want to dress up in Cosplay or chase the shit out of Pokemon all day then knock yourself out. Personally I want to get a pair of sock suspenders, start listening to Brahms and buy a working printer. Just this afternoon I looked at my reflection in the metro window and decided I’d be a fox with white hair. Bring it on!

Last weekend we went to a music festival. Rock ‘n’ roll and going to gigs in fields used to be a young man’s game (and when I say man I’m not excluding woman), but maybe not any more. On the way back from La Route du Rock, we got a lift with a guy who was maybe 5 years older than me, maybe ten, and who had done 5 to ten more La Route du Rocks than me too (I’ve done 5). I say 5 to ten years older – he might be the same age for all I know (I mean look at TV historian Dominic Sandbrook, a year and a half my junior! Or TV comedian Dara “I’ve clearly led a hard fucking life” O’Briain – less than a year older according to his Wikipedia page). Anyway, the chap driving had started going to festivals sometime in the early 2000s, and despite being a baldy with a nice car and a good job, he’s now spent hundreds of hours photographing bands that the person we used to call 50-quid man has never heard of, knows some seriously niche music and is au fait with a lot of very obscure artists who’ve played LRDR and Transmusicales, festivals for the committed alternative music connoisseur. I decided not to ask him what had led to his rock ‘n’ roll road to Damascus, because a) it’s rude, and b) I couldn’t give a shit really. Whatever floats your boat.

Last night I did feel past it though. A group of young people have moved in downstairs, and they’ve fitted a hammock right below our window and go out to the courtyard to smoke and chat and listen to Bob Marley (not a good sign). Lots of young people have moved into the building since we’ve been here, and when we moved to the 11eme, part of the appeal was the youthfulness and the vibrancy of the area. Now we’re swamped with kids and I miss the respectful, fastidious gay men who used to characterise the locataires inhabiting the place. It used to be so quiet but for the yappy dogs. I realise how old I sound, and those who’ve known me for a while will no doubt be thinking how hypocritical the next paragraph makes me, but bite me.

This lot were very drunk, and managed to wake me up at 3am, 4am and also 5am. I went stomping down in my dressing gown and hammered on the window the first time to let them know what time it was. It wasn’t business time. I’ve discovered that my French is best when dealing with hospital matters, or when shouting at people for making too much noise. Suddenly “I’m going to call the police in a minute” and “I’ve got to go to work in the morning” tripped off the tongue, even if neither are true. The final time I lost my rag hanging out of the bedroom window swearing in English, they apologised graciously, went inside, and I didn’t hear another peep out of them. I’m not convinced I’ve heard the last of them though. And there’s a feeling in my bones that they could well be having a laugh at the silly English guy approaching middle age living upstairs. Maybe in the future I’ll need to take up painting to alleviate the stress?

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Nous sommes uni

I used to think there were just two types of people, those who’ve seen The Fall and those who haven’t. That didn’t stop me believing in the usual stuff; that there are basic human commonalities that bind us together in spite of differences of opinion, religion, political persuasion and all that other nonsense that can lead to a misunderstanding and 17 million violent deaths. The basic premise that we’re all the same deep deep down isn’t really up for discussion, and yet I’ve never in my lifetime experienced a period like the one we’re going through, where everything has become about Us and Them, whichever side you happen to be on.

As a consequence I and many others like me take to social media daily to reinforce our worldview by SHOUTING VERY LOUDLY at people who think just like us. I went on a couple of radio shows this week, and on one of them I did just that, although in my normal voice. It was a five minute interview for a podcast hosted by a guy who told me by email that he’d previously interviewed Noam Chomsky and Malcolm Gladwell, obviously appealing to the delusional part of my brain. As I say, I only had five minutes, and suddenly I found myself bleating on about how the liberal agenda is winning – that we’re talking more openly about addiction, mental health, sexual fluidity etc – despite the world appearing to be a scary place at the moment. It was meant to be a positive message, but by the time I shut up there wasn’t any time left for questions.

To enforce my worldview further, yesterday we visited the Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration at the Palais de la porte dorée in the 12th arrondissement. We weren’t disappointed. The art deco building was constructed in time for the Paris Colonial Exposition in 1931, and it apparently has a giant aquarium in the basement. Ironically a place built to salute imperialist dominance now champions independence, diversity and multiculturalism. It’s all there written on the walls, from Turkish builders in the 60s and 70s to Jewish diasporas through the centuries, as well as Southeast Asian boat people, Chileans fleeing persecution, Spanish, Portuguese, Algerian, Hungarian, Russian, Armenian, Polish, Italian and Belgian émigrés. There was even an influx of English in 1851 (and there might be another one coming soon judging by the way things are going). Without immigration France wouldn’t have enjoyed the massive artistic contributions of Goya, Chopin, Apollinaire, Man Ray, Picasso, Benjamin, Beckett, Brel, Brassaï, Xenakis or Thierry Henry. My hero, Gainsbourg, was a second generation Russian Jewish immigrant whose parents fled the Ukraine around the time of the Revolution. Immigration therefore equals good, that’s my *Weltanschauung.

The day before we were at a wedding, our first French one as it happens, featuring our two wonderful and dearly beloved friends, Russell and Lindsey (dearly beloved is a bit of a tautology now I think about it. Don’t blame me, blame the church). The ceremony was strictly secular, with vows taken in the presence of the tricolor and the flag of Europe. The deputy mayor of the mairie gave a little speech at the end, and said that while the UK had voted for Brexit, the French would still love us all the same. I had to stifle a little tear, but it soon disappeared when she mentioned the Queen.

Russell – or Dr Williams to give him his proper title – also managed to drop mention of the referendum into his rather excellent speech, and given that there were definitely some Brexiteers in the congregation, it thankfully didn’t sow the seeds of a ruckus later on. In fact there was a lot of love in the room all night, which transcended petty differences like party political persuasions, helped on I think by my most excellent DJing skills. When you’re sober, spinning some tunes is the perfect way to enjoy a wedding. You’re able to luxuriate in the joy the happy couple exude, while not really having to talk to anyone all night – apart from the drunkards coming up and asking for ‘Uptown Funk’ obviously.

I was meant to be taking tracks from Russell’s laptop and mixing them in with a record deck, only I couldn’t work out how to queue the records up silently, and the laptop stopped working, meaning we had to fire up Spotify on Claire’s phone. It was a bumpy ride, but we somehow managed it. I learnt that ‘Hong Kong Garden’ by Siouxsie and the Banshees, ‘Sweet Child O Mine’ by Guns n Roses, ‘Get Lucky’ by Daft Punk and ‘Modern Love’ by David Bowie are all dancefloor fillers at a wedding, whereas ‘Turn It On Again’ by Genesis is a killer, despite being ace. I presume Lindsey and Russell enjoyed themselves, but for me it might well have been the best night of my life. Or certainly the best night out I’ve had in ages. I was cut off at 11pm by the bar staff for being too loud (they had noise complaints from the neighbours), meaning I never got to play any Super Furry Animals for Russell. And I never got to play ‘Big New Prinz’ by The Fall for me either. That one would have divided people.

*We’re off to Berlin tomorrow so it’s important to learn a few poncy big German words)


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The transition to perdition

As Harry Kane splayed balls into the Nice night sky on Monday evening, I couldn’t help feeling it was a performance by the English football team that felt appropriate to its country’s existential crisis. In the same way that idiots setting fire to things in Marseilles the week before felt the perfect embodiment of the Brexit Leave campaign’s obdurate nihilism.

Nothing summed up Brexit like England’s shitshow against Iceland. When the men from the land of fire and ice bagged their second goal I let out an involuntary ironic cheer followed by a hollow laugh. I’ve tried not supporting England before, but as soon as the whistle goes my heart invariably starts racing, I begin palpitating and shouting, “come on!” like one of Pavlov’s dogs dressed up like a full kit wanker. Not this time. My heart just wasn’t in it. When the final whistle went, I looked on enviously at Iceland’s team – a proper team – and what it meant to them. I felt ashamed to be British, and not for the first time that week either.

A week has passed now since the momentous decision, and it’s been a regular mantra this last seven days – “j’ai honte” or I am ashamed. I’ve said it to my French friends via text and email, to the Polish woman at the boulangerie, the staff at the cafes I like to go to in the daytime, and even to my oncologist. I remember how my American friends felt during the Bush years, and I wonder if a similar stigma now tarnishes les rosbifs, the stupid, drunk, obnoxious bad boy of Europe. The English and the Welsh – and to my further chagrin, the Cornish – opted for a future of isolationism, navel gazing and abject self loathing of which I don’t want to be a part of.

european_union_flag_stars_europe_texture_50952_1024x1024A lot has been said about racism already that I can’t be bothered to go into because it’s too depressing, but if the very best excuse for Brexit was a rejection of multiculturalism, then we have a serious problem. I know France has its own predicaments, and the emboldened and jubilant visage of Marine Le Pen is a terrifying one with elections looming in 2017 and Hollande regularly beating his own personal best popularity scores (negative PBs), but we’re not yet seeing halal shops petrol bombed and pig’s heads hung outside mosques and civilians on public transport being told to go back to their own countries. À Dieu ne plaise!

Where does this all leave us? Britain needs a new Prime Minister, and it looks like a toss up between a shaved ballbag in glasses as drawn by Robert Crumb, verses a woman Frankie Boyle described as a “hawk that’s had a This Morning makeover”. Meanwhile Claire and I have been struggling for months deciding whether or not to go home, but this has taken the decision out of our hands.

We want to be European, and if we have children then we want them to be European too. We’ve been looking at ways to ensure we can stay should a tit-for-tat programme of repatriation eventually ensue. Chances are Britain won’t need to control its borders now as there’ll be a stampede for the exit (who’d want to go and live there?) I need to take the idea of speaking fluent French more seriously, which means more language exchange, more watching the French news and more entering into the spirit of things. Football’s not coming home, and neither are we, but the chickens have certainly come home to roost.

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Within EU without EU

I walked along the Seine yesterday up near Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and the water had risen almost level with the path, with trees enveloped and sticking out of the muddy drink like swords being drawn from their sheaths. Another day of rain today and it might well start creeping up to the houses along the bank. I’ve not been down to the famous stretch of the river nearest us, but the Louvre has closed and masterpieces are being taken away as a precautionary measure. Add to that travel problems, strikes and the threat of terrorism with Euro 2016 around the corner, and if you are one of those types who believes everything you read, then you might assume France is imploding. And yet we continue on as if nothing has happened, because in my world, nothing has happened. Well not for a while anyway. Not yet.

The European Union Floods Directive defines a flood as a covering by water of land not normally covered by water. Where would we be without the EU, eh? Maybe we’ll soon find out. People have their selfish reasons for wanting In or Out; my selfish reason for wanting IN is that without the EU, I wouldn’t have received the world class healthcare I have this last two years; had our countries not been politically conjoined in some way then I could have been in real trouble. You might consider that dramatic, but I know how impossible it was for a writer friend of mine who moved to Philadelphia and got cancer. I used to worry about getting old, now I worry about not getting old; hopefully the excellent médecin généralistes of France will help me reach my dotage.

I’ve been here three years now – a terrible immigrant who still can’t really speak French properly – and the country’s healthcare system just keeps throwing money at me. Yesterday I went and gave a blood sample so some clever people in a laboratory can analyse my gene-coding and ascertain if my cancer was caused by any mutations, in order to give me better care in future and give better bespoke advice to my close relatives. My cover is 100% because of the seriousness of the situation, and I couldn’t have been looked after better. This has little to do with the cliché about unelected bureaucrats deciding our destiny in a room in Brussels somewhere, this is the hard reality of what it means to be part of the European Union, or at least it is for the 2.2 million Britons living elsewhere on the continent.

One of the main arguments aside from immigration seems to be about sovereignty. I can understand that, although I can’t help feeling in many cases that the subtext is all about a desire to return to our colonial past, which is obviously absurd and in my opinion shameful. So what’s the alternative? Hand more power to the current government to further asset strip and sell off the family silver? The sovereignty argument is also usually upheld by Monarchists who have no problem with the House of Lords. I have nightmares about having to leave France when Marine le Pen storms to power next year and then coming back to find Boris or Michael Gove at the helm. That’s the doomsday scenario anyway.

Whether In or Out, I’m sure the UK will continue to survive and prosper (especially for the upper echelons), I just like the idea of us being part of something bigger, ideologically and politically. Voting out would repeal opportunities that weren’t there a generation ago, but the Baby Boomer generation – who’ve made their money and have no more adventures left in them – could get the final say. As for immigration, if the country is “creaking under the strain and unable to cope”, then that’s because public services have been cut all across Britain. It breaks my heart to say it, but I feel lucky to have been treated in France rather than under the NHS, which was fantastic in my hour of need a few years ago. If it’s in deep trouble now, then just see how efficiently it runs when they kick out all the foreigners.

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I can’t stand up for falling down

We retreated to the leafy suburbs of Croissy this weekend just gone, to dog-sit for some friends while they visited family in Spain. I love being in inner-Paris, but sometimes it’s good for the soul to re-energise somewhere spacious, where it doesn’t feel like the whole world is caving in on you. Our flat in the 11eme is tiny, and what’s more, our cooker exploded just the other day just like that, so it was nice to have the run of a commodious kitchen, as well as do things that we rarely get up to, like bike riding, eating al fresco in the garden, and taking long walks along the Seine, observing bucolic scenes where Renoir and Monet plonked their easels. In our care we had four delightful mutts in their dotage, a motley crew of characters with distinctive personalities and habits. I know you shouldn’t have favourites, but I fell in love with Saki, a comical dachshund from Japan who made the most bizarre noises, and like me, likes to kip in in the morning. My long held prejudices about small dogs have been somewhat impugned by Saki.

My prejudices about living in the idles beyond the périphérique have also been challenged, as I realised that life outside of the city might not be so bad. We certainly won’t be running off any time soon, and that’s not just because of a lack of affordability, but something about a more rustic and simple way of life suddenly appeals. I can picture myself cycling around country lanes with a baguette under my arm, writing crap thrillers in the afternoon, and perpetually wearing a straw boater, even when I’m in the shower.

Perhaps it’s old age or the fact I’ve been somewhat incapacitated for the last six months or so, but languid days stretched out ahead of me where nothing much happens seems far more alluring, than say, attending Nuit Debout, the nouveau occupy movement at the epicentre of Parisian life right now. Our little flat is just around the corner from Place de la Republique where it’s all been happening, and each night we eat dinner, or I watch football, and then we go to bed oblivious to the incendiary speeches, the star turns and the burning police cars down the road. I love the idea of political insubordination, but clearly the thought of staying up beyond half past 10 and having to mix with other people quickly negates the revolutionary within. Yes we… might, if we can be arsed…

We got back into town on Monday, and I went to visit my frère d’une autre mère Pascal in hospital. He’s just had another quite serious operation, and he was in fine fettle considering. Then I had another appointment with a different oncologist on Tuesday, who caused me to break out in a sweat on one hand, and feel reassured on the other. The treatment may be over for now (for good hopefully), but the process of surveillance is ongoing. I could move to the country, or move back to England, or bugger off somewhere else entirely, but there would be no getting away from this perdition, this minor inconvenience that may just save my life. I really should sound a bit more grateful. If I do end up elsewhere, I do hope I look back on my time in Paris and think about all the joy it brings me, and sometimes forget about the treatment altogether. I certainly hope there are chapters yet to be written where the only health mentioned is of the rude variety.

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