Plus ça change

Autumn has come early to the Tarn. Normally, the leaves are still green when we leave our house here at the end of October. We watch the gradation of colour as we drive back to England. But this year the colours started changing in late September, and the leaves started falling. The weather has still mostly been warm, but not in the mornings or evenings. The sun has seemed less able to recharge its batteries each day.

The harvest, paradoxically, is late. Not for wheat and barley, which were cut months ago, but for maize and sunflower. In other years, tractors would have been trawling the fields in mid-September, but not this year. Apparently, farmers are waiting for their crops to dry out. This has been a year of searing heat and heavy rain. All will no doubt come right in the end and, when we return in the spring, the cycle of the seasons will have started all over again.

Up on the hill, Gilbert is chopping his logs in the sunset. To be exact, he is chain-sawing them. Gilbert is a farmer but, now that he has retired, he is not allowed to farm, so he produces firewood. Once you start drawing your pension, French law lets you keep working, as long as you no longer do whatever you did before you retired. The thing you were good at, probably. Pondering this apparently nonsensical law, we have concluded that the reason must be to create permanent vacancies for younger people – younger farmers, in this case.

We seldom go into town and, when we do, we have to choose our time carefully. Almost everywhere is closed between 12 and 2 pm. As for Sundays, forget it. Lunch and a day of rest take precedence over the customer. In fact, most things take precedence over the customer. On any day.

Then there are the bank holidays – the religious feast days of a secular country. British bank holidays are mostly on a Monday: you can have a long weekend and that’s your lot. In France, they often fall on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This creates the opportunity for faire le pont – making the bridge. If Thursday is a bank holiday, it obviously makes no sense to go to work on the Friday, so that becomes another holiday.

When we were decorating our house in the Tarn, and I was following the plasterers around with a paintbrush, I was concerned because their irregular absences meant I had caught up with them and was having to wait for the next room to be ready.

‘Will you be here all next week?’ I asked Yves one Friday.

‘Oh yes,’ he said.

‘Every day?’

‘Well, Tuesday is a bank holiday, so not Tuesday.’

‘Apart from that?’

‘I take a holiday on Friday. Every year, some friends and I go duck-shooting in the Camargue.’

‘So Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, then?’

‘Not Monday,’ said Yves. ‘Faire le pont. And Wednesday? Non. The Tour de France is passing by.’ He shrugged his shoulders to express the obvious impossibility of working on such a day. So ‘all next week’ amounted to one day.

These observations are neither a nostalgic reflection on an old way of life, nor a patronising critique along the lines of ‘well, how on earth can you compete in the world economy?’ They are tiny examples of the practices that Emmanuel Macron wants to sweep away.

But I wonder if he is choosing the right time to do it. I wonder, in fact, if what was right for France a hundred years ago might not also be right for France in the next hundred years (and for Britain too), even if for the past century it has been wrong.

Some future blog will address the question of what is to become of our working lives in the age of artificial intelligence and so much else. But, if anything seems certain, it is that many fewer hours will be required to do the same amount of work, and yet – even with a static population – longer useful lifespans will mean an increase in the hours available for work. How the rewards of work are to be shared is the thorny question, but the average amount of work required from each person will surely fall.

So perhaps this is, after all, the perfect moment to reduce the working week. The perfect moment to insist on long and frequent holidays. The perfect moment to take leisurely lunch breaks. Perhaps, instead of France needing to catch up with the rest of the world, the rest of the world will need to go back to where France has always been.

I am in the great revolutionary nation of the world, which is also the great unchanging nation. Plus ça change.

Therapy for Remoaners

A recent visit from an old friend has been a vivid reminder of the violent passions that still run among some of those who voted to remain in the EU. Peter felt it wasn’t natural, or healthy, for him to feel an intense rage more than a year after the referendum. He asked if I could offer some informal therapy, which might stop him exploding at every Leaver he met. I was happy to oblige, and am now happy to share my therapy with the rest of the world. If there is enough demand, I may set up in business as a counsellor for Remoaners.   [read more]

Revolution in the air

Minutes of the 49th AGM of the Cambridgeshire Liberation Front, held in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Godmanchester, on Friday 29th September, in solidarity with the Labour Party Conference

1.   Members present: Mrs Daphne Guevara (Chair), Mr Hans Cohn-Bendit (Paving Stone), Ms Lorraine Chi-Min (Bamboo Splint), Mr Godfrey Gadaffi (Thermo-Nuclear Device), Ms Rosie Luxemburg (Pen), Monty X, Wayne Y, Tracey Z and 57 other members who asked for their anonymity to be protected.   [read more]

Money to burn

I don’t know where I was on 23 August 1994. But I managed to miss an event then, and have managed to go on missing it for the past 23 years. Until a month ago, when I finally read about it. Two musicians, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, best known as the band KLF, set fire to a million pounds in £5 notes on the island of Jura. Burnt them. Destroyed them utterly.   [read more]

Not set in stone

So (to pick up from last week’s blog, ‘A Matter of Judgment’), if we should be cautious in condemning people whose beliefs, while anathema to us today, were widespread in their own time and place, what should we do with the statues that were raised to them? Do we allow a stony Cecil John Rhodes to preside over Oriel College, Oxford, or a brassy Robert E Lee to have pride of place in Charlottesville, or in many other towns of the old Confederacy?   [read more]

A matter of judgment

It is one of my strongest beliefs that the past should not be judged by the standards of the present, nor our ancestors judged by the same values that we apply to our contemporaries. This belief is my starting point (although not my end point) in this preface to next week’s blog, which focuses on the heated arguments that have exploded about statues of contentious figures from the past.   [read more]

Doctor’s orders

For most of my life, health warnings, health advice, health anything, have been subjects to ignore. I recoil from faddishness and fussiness, and from people telling me what to eat and what not to eat. This is due not only to contrariness. To follow all the advice would be impossible, especially since much of it is contradictory, and to discriminate between different pieces of advice requires a level of competence that I do not possess.   [read more]

Apocalypse now … well, soonish

I am not a natural pessimist. Neither am I a wild optimist. I believe that mankind has shown impressive ingenuity in continuing to reach forward into the future and, when it has encountered problems, impressive ingenuity in overcoming them. But I now feel pessimistic about the future. The problems are here and they are urgent, but there do not seem to be any solutions to them, even on the horizon.   [read more]

The fourth horseman of the economic apocalypse

This is the fourth in a series of blogs I’ve written over the past month focusing on ways of funding what appears to be an insatiable demand for increased public expenditure. The final available option is economic growth: the panacea for every ill that can always be trotted out when all else seems to be failing. So why should economic growth be a horseman of the apocalypse? Surely it is a white knight riding to the rescue on a gleaming charger? It would perhaps be more accurate to call the threat ‘delusions of growth’.   [read more]

The third horseman of the economic apocalypse

In the last two blogs, I have considered the options of printing more money and borrowing more money as means of generating new funds for public expenditure. Neither should be rejected out of hand. Each can sometimes play a short-term role in loosening the purse-strings, but neither appears to offer a sustainable way of creating new revenue for the government in the long term. What, then, about the third option – taxation?   [read more]