Nostalgie du Pays

Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche, after the success of the hard right parties in the European elections in France in May this year.

Even if you don’t normally watch videos, even if politics leave you cold, even if you don’t understand French, please take the time and have the patience to look at this – a man visibly moved by what is happening to his country.

 

Va, la France. Va, ma belle patrie. Allez les travailleurs, ressaisissez-vous, ne laissez pas que tout ça soit fait en votre nom. Ne permettez pas… Ne permettez pas que la France soit autre chose que ce qu’elle est dans le coeur du monde entier…

 

Forward, France, Onward , my beautiful country. Workers, organise; do not permit all this to be done in your name. Do not allow…Do not allow France to be any other than that which she is in the hearts of the whole world.

 

This came back to me in the wake of the murder of the young  Canadian soldier guarding the war memorial in Ottawa….we can know our country is not perfect, but we can love it despite – and sometimes because.

The corpse of that young man travelled the 310 miles of the Highway of Heroes – named as such when the dead from the war in Afghanistan were brought home  -with, it seems, every inch lined by people wishing to express solidarity with his family and solidarity with the values of the country in whose service he died.

Because the people of Canada have not reacted with hatred, but with sorrow, not by instigating witch hunts, but by expressing their love for a young man whose life was needlessly lost – and by setting up a trust find for his young son.

Practical, kindly, level headed people.

 

So why should this remind me of the words of a defeated French politician?

 

Because the love of country is a strange and unfathomable beast.

 

You can loathe  a system yet love the people who live under it….

You can live under oppression yet find relief in the memory of ancient freedom…

You can experience nostalgia for a way of life that once you knew, that you know to be gone, but whose memory lingers like the scent of lavender in your grandmother’s handkerchief drawer.
A scent which comes to you, softly, faintly, when you least expect it and rouses memories of times past.

Apollinaire in his ‘Cors de Chasse’ says that memories are like the calls of the hunting horn, dying away in the wind…but for me those calls bring the past vividly to life…while you live and remember, these things are real.

And the love of country seems to me to be to be a love of your memories…not the abstract ideals trumpeted by politicians who defile the very ideals of which they speak.

Much as I, a Scot, loathe ‘Flower of Scotland’, that dirge now sung on all national occasions…the lines ‘fought and died for your wee bit hill and glen’ conjure up for me my grandfather’s farm…the cattle in the byre, the sheep on the hill, someone cursing the reaper binder and all its works …and although I know that all that world has passed its memory still attaches me to Scotland.

I might know of the Declaration of Arbroath and all the tarradiddles about its real intention; the Wars of Independence, the Darien scheme which brought the country to its knees …but Scotland to me is my own small world when young; the neighbours – ‘canty and couthy and kindly, the best’…the soldiers of my father’s regiment, so kind to me when a child….my grandmother – the terror of the family – explaining to me that every stranger who knocked at the door was the Christ and was to be received with respect and assisted if in need…not that that prevented her from asking the Christ to chop a few logs…

I never really took to England…formed too early in Scotland, I suppose. Perhaps had I grown up in Edinburgh and gone to the right schools…but I had not.
I lived there, I worked there, but despite knowing a number of good kind people, overall life there confirmed my father’s view of the English.

The English? They’re like kippers. No guts and two faces…
Unfair, I know and untrue in private life, but all too evident in the public sphere.

I remember the miners’ strike in the Thatcher years…and how glad were the other union bosses that Scargill would not take the – by then – legally obligatory ballot for strike action…those yellow bellies sold out their own movement and now we have unemployment…people working zero hours contracts…and tax evaders ruling the roost.

I enjoyed the county shows…the magnificent animals and their proud owners…but no landscape held me, no one place anchored me.

But I came to England as an outsider..as a child…

When I moved to France it was as an adult, eyes wide open.

I had made the move as, at that point, property was much cheaper, as was the cost of living and I could still work by fax….without the commuting, without the hassle. Less money, more time.

I was lucky…the neighbours were decent, welcoming people…I made friends with them and, through the man who ran the library in the local town, met others of a more literary bent.
I began to get to know the place through their eyes….

And what a place it was!

I felt at home as I had not since childhood…there was a real inclusion in local life, an expectation that I would participate.
And participate I did, in the Maison Pour Tous – the local centre for activities for all, young or old – in the walking group, in the gardening club, and the Am Dram, playing Feydeau farces under the manic direction of the local dentist.
Unfortunately I wasn’t then eligible for the Old Age Pensioners meetings…a real den of iniquity under the guise of cards and knitting.

Walking the dogs in the evening I would be invited to join the game of boules in front of Jules’ farmhouse, or get hijacked by Papy into helping him fix the window of his little Renault van..Edith would pile us all into her ancient 2CV and we would visit Alice in the next hamlet, her garage full of the implements invented by her husband, who had been a surgical instrument maker…

These people let me into their world and gave me a great love for France – not the France of the caste of vain, incompetent buffoons who run the place, nor the France of the colour supplements where people sit at cafe terraces inhaling vehicle emisssions, nor yet the France of culture and architecture – but the France of ordinary people getting on with their lives as best they can and what those lives bring forth.

I love to keep in touch with it all…I can still see in my mind’s eye the woods at the back of my first house where the flowers of the sweet chestnut trees burst in yellow fireworks against the soft green foliage….I can still ‘hear’ the town band on its erratic way round the commune on July 13th.

Costa Rica has proved to be an amazingly happy place in which to have landed and has conquered me hook, line and sinker…

But, from time to time, I have nostalgie du pays.

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