Here are a few figures.
England has an area of approximately 130350 km2.
The UK has an area of approximately 244,750 km2.
France has an area of approximately 551,000 km2.
France is therefore 2.25 times bigger than the UK, and 4.25 times bigger than England.
England has a population of approximately 49 million, the UK 60 million, and France 59.5 million.
The reason I give these figures is because I was watching one of those “Run away from the hurly burly of the cities and find your country idyll far from all the noise of the 21st century” programmes which we English like to watch – and to believe. So many of them feature people complaining, “Yes, it’s very pretty, but I can hear a road,” and that’s the deal-breaker.Well, that’s what happens when you have a lot of people all trying to buy property in the same small space: if someone else is there, you are going to have to learn to share.
In France, there is space. Unlike in the UK, however, rural property is still far cheaper than in the cities, because nobody wants to live out there. There’s no work, few facilities, and nothing to do. The reason why there are so many houses for sale in the country is that inheritance laws say that property must be passed on to the children of the family. But whereas Mum and Dad may have made a good enough (for them) living making cheese, or keeping sheep, or farming, their children want proper jobs with prospects and with less hard physical graft. So either they abandon the houses, or they sell them off. Frequently they are unmodernised, unsanitary, or just too isolated to be attractive.
Sometimes they are used as holiday homes for les grandes vacances, and people will come down and camp for a month just to get away from their daily lives. In these circumstances, the shabby interior, the lack of plumbing, or the minimalist kitchen, is part of the adventure – up until the time when the children start to complain that actually it is cruel and unusual punishment, and they want to go and see – well, anything except Granny’s House yet again.
Sometimes, though, it really is a homecoming for the parents. Our neighbours, for instance, live and work in Paris. They were born in our village, and own a pair of cottages here. They come down every Easter and for a month in the summer, and they bring their younger children, who have over the years made friends nearby. There is family scattered about, too.
The parents are Breton in their hearts and minds. They were born here, they belong here. The children, when asked if they think of themselves as French or Breton, immediately say, French.
One of the older children, in his mid-20s, couldn’t repeat the name of a pub in the nearby town, as it was “how they speak down here”.
Brittany has a proud – and very separate – history. It had more dukes per acre than the whole of England could manage at its busiest. It is littered with castles, and manors, and fortified farms. It was a different country, in all but name, for centuries, with its own languages, Gallic and Breton. Road signs give place names in French and Breton. There is even a man who translates Chinese literature into Breton.
There is music, dance, folklore: there are more saints here than there are in Cornwall, and that is good going. There is wonderful coast, and a hugely varied landscape as you travel from west to east. But there is no work. If it isn’t farming related, or food production, there is really not much on offer. Cornwall has pretty much the same geology as Brittany – granite and slate. But there are no tin mines dotted over the land here, no stark abandoned chimneys left against the sky.
There was linen and hemp production in the region, and the Nantes-Brest canal to ship all manner of things inland to avoid the predations of the British. Like the wool in the UK, though, it is a thing for museums and historical reconstructions.
A Breton is a Breton through and through until the day he dies: but his children have looked over the fence, and seen something bigger, something less particular. The world of over there seems so much more exciting than the little land of slate and stone, of dead dukes and forgotten valleys. I wonder, though. Like Any High Street in the UK, is it better to be anonymous and like everything else, or to be different, and boldly so – to know where you stand in defence of what is yours, against the blurry sameness of what is theirs?
I know a man who was born in a mining town in Western Australia, which existed as long as the mine lasted, and was then dismantled and removed. The area has once again been totally subsumed by the desert. He can’t go home. It isn’t there. He has no roots, no family home to visit, no place in the country to go to for the holidays. It’s like climbing a ladder, and looking down to find that someone has taken all the lower rungs away.
Will our neighbour’s children ever wish they hadn’t climbed so high, or are they made bold because they know where they don’t want to be? They still have the choice, to belong or not. My friend in Australia hasn’t.
So whilst in England people long to escape from the cities into the green and pleasant land they believe is still there, the French are still heading in the opposite direction. It’s not a question of the grass being greener; more, “Who wants grass?”
To which the answer may be, you will, when there isn’t enough left to go round. When it is impossible to go back, perhaps you try harder to look over your shoulder to see what was there.
Until then, well - we’ll always have Paris.