Strasbourg, focus of Franco-German emnity since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, changed hands four times between then and the end of WWII. It seems fitting that this city, the focus of so much strife and discord, should now be a seat of the European Union, a body which for all its differences seeks to foster cooperation and work towards mutually agreed policies.
After a too-brief visit to Strasbourg itself (and we’ll be back – what a city), there we were, at the vast complex of the EU Parliament. It offers employment to armies of staff who support the 751 MEPs from the now 28 member states. You need someone who can offer simultaneous translation from Polish to Greek, or Hungarian to Portuguese? Best look here.
This is a truly vast community, with meeting rooms, TV studios, offices, coffee shops, technical support, IT suites: all staffed by the most cosmopolitan bunch of people you could ever hope to meet.
We had a background lecture, and a rather exciting 360 degree film. We had a meeting with our own hard-working and committed Europhile MEPs Linda MacAvan and Richard Corbett.
And then we went into the Parliamentary Chamber. The debate was about immigration, the contributors from every corner of the EU, and almost every language (those simultaneous translators in their glass-walled studios were kept busy). Views expressed ranged from the near-fascist, to the liberal, moderate and inclusive. Nigel Farage wasn’t there. Funny, that.
And I left feeling more wretched than I have since the dreadful morning when we woke up to hear that the UK – by the smallest of margins – had voted to leave the EU.
It’s by no means perfect, but here in the EU we have a body fostering almost Europe-wide cooperation rather than conflict, working towards common progressive employment, economic, environmental and human rights practices. And we plan to leave? What for?
What image comes into your head when you think of Jarrow? If, like me, you’ve only really heard of it in the context of the Jarrow March, it may be a depressing one. Grimy desolate streets, a down-trodden and abandoned population, with little hope of change for the better maybe.
Well, Robert Colls, who walked with us on our Jarrow March Mark 2 for ‘Ramblings’ won’t entertain such images He’s irritated by those commentators, often from the south, who see nothing but the negative. He could do without the likes of George Orwell painting such depressing, hopeless images about the Industrial North. He was raised in nearby South Shields. His memories of the town are of a place that was gritty, maybe dingy, but where there was a rich cultural life, and a warm and supportive community where it was good to grow up.
Jarrow, in the North East of England, had been dependant on shipbuilding since the 1850s, but demand for ships fell throughout the 1920s and became worse during the 1930s. The main shipyard, Palmers, once the source of Jarrow’s prosperity, closed in 1934 after years of steady decline . By 1936, there was 70% unemployment in the town.
Town councillors planned a march to London to present a petition to Parliament highlighting the desperate conditions in Jarrow and towns like it. They secured cross-party support. They involved local churches and the business community. They fund-raised. Socialist medical students volunteered to work as medical attendants along the route. Nobody in town wanted yet another communist-inspired ‘hunger march’. No, Jarrow people planned a respectable event, one that would win widespread support.
It rained on and off the day we walked last week. I suggested to Robert that those marchers, with shabby, worn-out clothes would have had a thin time of it. I was wrong. The organisers insisted the men who were chosen to march – and yes, they were chosen – should wear their ‘Sunday best’, look smart and conduct themselves well. They had medicals, and only the 200 fittest men were chosen to march, accompanied by a second-hand bus carrying cooking equipment and ground sheets. A successful fund-raising campaign ensured the march was well-prepared and equipped, and that the men had a little pocket-money.
They started marching at 8.30 each morning of their 25-day journey (with Sundays as rest days). Many marched army style – 50 minutes to the hour with 10 minutes’ rest. A mouth organ band was a great success, ‘keeping the men swinging along all the time’, according to a report in the Shields Gazette, and there was singing – led sometimes by Ellen Wilkinson. Local papers apart, the only national paper to give the Jarrow Crusade wide coverage was The Manchester Guardian. Copy was supplied by the journalist Peter Richie-Calder, who walked much of the way with them.
Ellen Wilkinson was one of only four women MPs at the time, and she represented Jarrow. Though from a poor background, she was well-educated – she won a scholarship to Manchester University – and built up an impressive career both in the unions and in parliament. By the age of 24 she was already National Women’s Organiser for the Cooperative Employees union, and only nine years later, an MP – one of only four women in parliament. She was a terrific orator, she was passionate, and she believed in the Jarrow marchers and their cause. She walked with them whenever she could, distinctive with her fiery red hair. Towards the end of the march, Ellen broke away in order to address the Labour party conference and, with tears streaming down her face, exhorted delegates to ‘…tell the government our people shall not starve!’ She failed, however, to win special attention for her cause.
The lack of political affiliation helped those marchers. They were fed and watered and given places to sleep all along their route. Harrogate, for instance, just south of Ripley, then as now is a true blue and prosperous sort of place. But the civic authorities greeted them warmly, the Rotary Club fed them, and they were given sleeping quarters by the Territorial Army.
I depend on good boots when I’m walking and wondered about how the marchers were shod. They had decent shoes, Robert said. And what’s more, when they arrived in Leicester, the Cooperative Society’s bootmakers stayed up all night to repair all their by now thin-soled shoes, and did so without pay. The story of the Jarrow march is peppered with such examples of support and kindness.
They arrived in London. They presented their petition in Parliament, the petition that had 11,00 signatures. It prompted only the briefest and most complacent of discussions. And that was that. The disillusioned marchers returned to Jarrow by train, their fares paid by benefactors.
Astonishingly, many men finished the march healthier than when they had started. Boosted by regular exercise – and the decent food and accommodation they had received along the route – many put on weight. This was just as well. For the duration of the march, their unemployment benefit had been suspended as they were ‘unavailable for work’.
A few modest attempts to bring work to the town resulted in jobs for a few hundred people, but only with the start of World War II did work once more surge back into the shipyards and factories of Jarrow. For the duration only.
Ellen Wilkinson continue to be a thorn in the side of the Labour party, though she worked tirelessly at home and abroad against fascism. Perhaps her greatest achievement was in 1945, when as Minister for Education in the Labour Government, she was instrumental in having the school-leaving age raised to 15. No wonder Helen is an enthusiast for this most dynamic, charismatic and troublesome woman.
So there we are. One – no two – history lessons, all parcelled up in an agreeable package of a long country walk, following, if not exactly by the same route, in the footsteps of those Jarrow Marchers.
I came in the other day to find a message on the answer phone. The BBC. Clare Balding wanted to talk to me. Well, not Clare actually. She’s one of Britain’s favourite broadcasters and a bit busy I dare say. Her research assistant Lucy finally got hold of me, and asked me if I’d be able to lead Clare and team on a walk from Ripon to Ripley for ‘Ramblings’, a popular programme on BBC R4 about walking.
Why me? Because I’m Hon. Sec. of Ripon Ramblers, our local walking group, and our details are out there, if you care to look. Yes, but why ME? Lucy thought, after our chat, that I’d be OK on the radio.
OK then, why Ripon? Because, it turns out that in October 1936 the Jarrow Marchers walked from Jarrow, through Ripon to Ripley and beyond, all 280 miles to London. In October, ‘Ramblings’ plans to broadcast a programme to celebrate its 60th anniversary.
Perhaps you don’t know much about the Jarrow March. Neither did I. Not till I met Clare and Lucy, cultural historian Robert Colls, and Helen Antrobus, who’s a real Ellen Wilkinson enthusiast from the People’s Museum in Manchester. The five us walked and talked our way along our eight mile route from Ripon to Ripley, and we barely noticed the rain which threatened constantly, but only delivered occasional short sharp showers.
This is a blog in two parts. The first is our country walk, the second about the Jarrow March. But Friday wasn’t in two parts. Every step we took, we remembered those marchers. Robert and Helen told us the story. Together, we drew comparisons between their march and our own hike.
I’d already dutifully planned and walked a route. The marchers went entirely on main roads, but if you’ve ever driven on the A61, you’ll know this is no longer a good idea. Country paths were the way to go.
As we set out together from Ripon, we got our instructions. Lucy had her furry-muff-on-a-stick. You’ll have seen those, as reporters rove round town centres talking to likely passers-by about some event that’s happened locally. When recording, Clare’s always on the right of the person she’s talking to, and Lucy’s there on the left with her recording gear. It was slightly odd to walk alongside Clare as she formally introduced to the programme, telling listeners where she was, why she was there, and who we all were. But soon we forgot about that muff. We all chatted together easily, about that March, about walking, about each other. Sometimes we had to repeat what we’d said, in a spontaneous ‘I’ve just thought of this’ kind of way, because some passing noise – RAF jets overhead for instance – had ruined the recording.
In many ways our walk was a scam. The A61 passes through rolling hillsides, productive farmland, cows in the pasture, and pretty villages. It’s all bucolic England at its best. Our route presented a more hidden countryside. Isolated farmhouses with dilapidated barn roofs, ancient pastures, secret dark, damp woodlands, and tiny rather remote hamlets.
At first though, we were on a road. Badly maintained, rather narrow and with tall hedges it’s a bridle path these days, but it is still tarmacced, and perhaps the kind of highway those marchers would have recognised. Later, on grass-trodden pathways, we passed Markenfield Hall, a 14th century moated country house.
Those marchers didn’t. We went through the village of Markington. Apparently the marchers were welcomed here too, though we couldn’t imagine why. It’s more than a mile or so from the main road and history doesn’t record why exactly they made a detour. We strode along the edges of barley fields, on woodland paths and across gorsey heath, all without meeting a soul. Not what the marchers experienced.
And we talked. That’s what I’ll remember most. The sheer pleasure of walking and talking with a group of people thrust together for the day who quickly found themselves to be friends – just for a day. Thanks you Clare, Lucy, Robert and Helen for a very special occasion. It was a real privilege.
And the Jarrow March? More about that in my next post.
During the British General Election we were in France, and kept up to date with the campaign via the French media, with particular thanks to British pundits and MPs with a command of the French language.
During this French Presidential campaign, we’ve been in England. After the first round of voting last Sunday, a French friend helpfully sent me the results, as she feared statistics of this kind wouldn’t be considered newsworthy in dear old Blighty.
Actually, she needn’t have worried. I’ve been surprised at how thoroughly the French elections have so far been covered. The broadsheets, and both radio and television could be relied on to have some slant on the campaign every day. Much of the discussion has revolved round how the Franco-German alliance would fare if Angela Merkel has to forge a relationship with Hollande rather than Sarkozy. Other articled focussed on how, for many voters, it was perhaps more a question of who to vote against, rather than who to vote for.
Since Sunday’s first-round vote, after which it became clear that the Front National under the leadership of Marine le Pen had mopped up getting on for a fifth of the vote, the spotlight has changed to the rise of the far right throughout Europe. Le Pen herself has been the subject of examinations of her career to date, and Sunday’s Observer also carried a double-page spread on François Hollande, as he’s so far a pretty much unknown quantity here.
I’ve appreciated this coverage, as it’s been a little hard to get to grips with all the issues in France itself, as the media assumes a basic understanding of the major parties and alliances which we don’t necessarily have. But we’ll be back there by the time of the second round of voting, and will have a first-hand view of France as it wakes up on May 7th either to a new Socialist president, or, as seems less likely, another dose of Sarkozy. So far, in our left-leaning corner of France, we haven’t met anyone who’ll admit to ever having voted for him. In fact the two main candidates of the left, socialist Hollande and far-left Mélenchon knocked Sarkozy into 3rd place in our own commune of Laroque d’Olmes
My last post wasn’t entirely serious. That walk in the Pyrennean mists was fun despite the weather. We were well nourished (energy bars, abundant picnic food, and a delicious walnut cake that Michel shared). Thanks to the miracle of Gore-Tex and microfibres, we were warm and dry, and after it was over, we knew we’d be driving back to our cosy homes and family life.
But if you’d asked most of us whether we’d want to submit ourselves to a walk even more gruelling, every day for 4 days, in constant fear for our lives, maybe in the depths of winter, we’d have been certain to answer ‘no’.
Not so the men and women who during the Second World War risked their lives across the Pyrenees along paths such as le Chemin de la Liberté. On Monday, as part of its Remembrance season, the BBC broadcast its own tribute to those who trekked for 4 days up 4,750 metres of difficult, rocky terrain, in conditions that could change from mist to snow, to dazzling sun, to sleet several times in the course of a single day. These people – more than a 1000 of them over the whole period – were Allied soldiers and airmen who’d found themselves in enemy territory, escaped POWs and Jewish refugees: and the French and Spanish who helped them across the mountains to Spain.
Escapees had little choice. They were brave and resourceful from sheer necessity. But those who sheltered them as they travelled south through occupied Europe, prepared for their journeys, who shared the little they had, who interpreted, forged documents, sourced warm clothing so servicemen could ditch their tell-tale uniforms, those ‘passeurs’ who guided them to the comparative safety of Spain took unimaginable risks.
Would I have been brave enough to put my life on the line for strangers? Especially if in doing so, I risked the lives of my own family? I’m glad I don’t have to ask myself this question. More than a 100 ‘passeurs’ were caught and either executed or deported. 450 Ariègeois who assisted the escapees were deported – that’s one in 330 inhabitants of the region at the time. And they’re only the ones who were caught. Many others, somehow, weren’t.
A couple of years ago, a friend in the choir told me a story, a part of her family history. It didn’t happen in the Ariège, and it’s nothing to do with the passeurs, but it has stayed with me as a telling example of the desperation and bravery often shown in this period. Her family then lived in an isolated village in the Creuse, and they’d given shelter to a young Jewish girl for the duration. If searches were conducted – and they were – this child was inserted into one of those long bolsters the French used to favour, and arranged on the made-up bed. She simply had to lie there, still as a corpse, till the search was over. She survived. They survived.
At least she didn’t have to flee with a miscellaneous band of other inexperienced escapees: soldiers, mothers, underfed and frightened people, led by a series of local guides over often treacherous mountain passes – no waymarks and well-trodden paths here. At least her mother wasn’t asked to suffocate her because her pathetic cries might alert a German patrol. These things happened. Those times are over: but the memories live on.
France is a determinedly secular (laïque) society. Those of us who weren’t in the country at the time probably became aware of this during the ‘foulard’ controversy of the 1990’s, during which there was a series of strikes and other actions both for and against the right of Muslim girls to be veiled. This culminated, in 2004, in a law banning the wearing of ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols: the reality was that it was the Muslim headscarf that seemed to be the target.
The law is widely seen as intended to discriminate against non-Christian faiths. It’s hard not to agree. Here in France, as in England, there are state schools and private schools. But there’s a third category too. In some circumstances, private faith schools have access to state and local funding which means pupils attending them benefit from very low fees. 95% of such schools are Catholic.
It’s worth mentioning too that local authorities are responsible for the cost of maintaining places of worship built before 1905. It’s doubtful if any mosques fall into this category, and it’s certainly true that the burden of keeping often historic buildings in a state of good repair is a crippling burden for many small communes, and much resented by laïque members of that community.
And what about public holidays? Quite a few are holy days, and retain their Christian names: Ascension Day, Whit Monday, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, All Saints’ Day, Christmas Day….
Nevertheless, Laïcité cuts pretty deep. I’m currently involved in helping the librarian in Lavelanet mount an exhibition and series of children’s events in early December about English Children’s Literature. Because of the timing, there’ll be displays about a typical British Christmas, and Christmas-themed books will play their part.
Despite this, interpretations of the nativity story, by wonderful authors such as Geraldine McCaughrean, Jane Ray, Jan Pienkowski and Nicholas Allen (Not read ‘Round the Back!’? You’ve missed a treat) will not be represented. Why not? Because telling the Christmas story might give offence.
Religious instruction is not part of the school curriculum, nor is any kind of act of worship – anything but. This latter is, I think, not controversial. It feels an increasingly uncomfortable and ignored part of the British school day. But though I no longer count myself a believer, I’m very grateful that I and all my children had from school a good knowledge of the bible, and an understanding not only of Christianity, but all the major belief-systems of the world. Without this grounding, so much literature, painting, sculpture and music remains only partly accessible. Nobody has to proselytise. If it’s OK to tell a good rollicking Greek myth, why not the stories from the Old and New Testaments, and even the Apocrypha?
I sat talking with friends about this the other day. ‘Some of the English Christmas cards we’ve seen’ they said, ‘have religious imagery. Wouldn’t that be offensive to non-believers? And didn’t you say that lots of people, whether or not practising Christians, go to carol concerts and services and sing about the nativity?’ They found this astonishing. Surprising too that one’s little daughter might come home from school proudly brandishing the cardboard angel she’d made for the top of the Christmas tree.
One friend, an ex-teacher, told me how she’d once done a piece of work with her students about the pagan origins of many Christian traditions. She was hauled over the coals for promoting Catholicism.
This same friend told me that she would never send a postcard of a religious building to a friend unless she were sure that friend were a practising Christian. It might give offence. Well, let me tell you right now that if you go to Chartres to visit what is among the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe, I shan’t be a bit happy if you send me one of those jokey wholly black cards that reads ‘The town by night’.
I’ve found myself as irritated by this apparent ‘religious correctness’ as I am by ‘political correctness’ in England. I may well be missing something. Can anybody put me right, please?
‘What a mess. Half of the population who’ve got jobs are on strike. The other half can’t get to work because there’s no petrol, or the trains are on strike. And meanwhile, the numbers on the dole are growing. And it’s half term, and nobody can take their kids out because there’s no fuel. Welcome to France.’ That was the baker’s wife on Friday morning.
France, like most of Europe, is in the throes of passing legislation to raise the retirement age to cope with the pensions crisis. And the French don’t like it. More than that, they really don’t like Sarkozy. What better time to express their dissatisfaction by going on strike! Since September, there have been General Strikes at least once a week, with marches, demonstrations and protests. For more than two weeks, the petrol refineries have been blockaded, and fuel is running out. Apparently some 70% of the population, even right-voting electors, support the protests. Not round here though.
This part of the world is traditionally left-leaning, and I’ve met nobody who’s prepared to admit to having helped vote Sarkozy into power. But they’re not happy with the present state of affairs. The baker’s wife is not alone. There’s discontent at the number of days the children have missed at school, and at the intimidation by some of the striking students. Rubbish isn’t being collected. Prices are rising.
Some of the protests have their funny side. In the Dordogne, electricians have cut the electricity supply at town halls where the mayor supports President Sarkozy’s party, the UMP. Others seem to be turning a bit nasty. In a school in the Centre region, students and teachers who support the strike have smeared every available exterior surface with mayonnaise and ketchup to make it difficult and unpleasant for teachers and students who want to enter the building to do so.
Today on the radio, a hortculturalist explained her difficulties. For weeks she’s been growing the chrysanthemum plants which are sold in vast numbers, this week only, in time for the traditional All Saints’ holiday, the day when people visit the graves of their relatives to lay flowers. Petrol shortages mean the plants can’t be distributed, and unless things change very quickly, she’ll be left in debt, with a mountain of unsaleable plants. Anyone who depends on logistics in any way, such as farmers and shopkeepers, is in a mess.
And as M. Fonquernie pointed out this morning, the senate voted to pass the legislation on Friday. They won’t change their minds. But laws like this take a while to enact. Come the next election, two years away, the French get their chance to rid themselves of Sarkozy et al, and the newly elected government can repeal the legislation and pass its own. If it chooses.
Meanwhile, I’m far from happy. On Thursday, my son, his wife and her parents are due to fly out from England to stay with us. Guess what? Another general strike. So….no air traffic control, no flights, no anything much.