During the Easter holiday 1966, despite A levels forthcoming, I managed to persuade my parents to let me go to France on the school's exchange scheme. It was a bit of a name (of a school) out of a hat business with those of us who went being distributed far and wide, possibly for the protection of the French people, throughout France. I drew St Emilion. The partner school arranged for me to stay with Jean-Marie's family for two weeks, he came for two weeks after that.
We are still friends. He came for breakfast and coffee this morning. He is on his way to visit one of his daughters in Barcelona, so flew into Bordeaux got a car from somebody in the family, visited his ancient parents then set off for Spain, via here. He 'announced' our 50 years of knowing each other next Easter would be celebrated. I will hear in time, until then it is all secret but for a few bare details.
We talked about change and he was terribly critical. Firstly, over the half century his life has given him his insights. After the 1966 trip he fell in love with London. He wanted to be a rock musician, not that his guitar playing was that good, but London was a dream for him. His family were in the wine business, so whilst learning that trade he went back and forth, played with a couple of bands but wanted more and more to live in London. He celebrated qualifying in the wine business at the end of 1968 by spending Christmas with me in Cambridge. He met one of my fellow students who said he should meet his family. The friend was related to Ahmed Pochee who started Oddbins. So, on the way home via London he went to meet some of that family. He met a cousin newly arrived from India and fell in love with her on the spot. They married in 1970, he eventually became an independent wine trader after being in the trade (probably linked to Oddbins).
Now he is known as John, rarely Jean-Marie, has a Surrey accent (the rural one that just about hangs on in a few bits of that county) and lives just near Godalming. He is an absolute Anglophile, except that despite 66 years age he still has that je ne sais quoi that gave French men a certain style some years ago. An ageing Belmondo type in a way.
He was looking at France as it has changed. He has never given up loving France and contact has been maintained through family at all times. Yet he was terribly critical. His starting point was food. He was saying that the small, rural places that used to be fantastic are now dying but perhaps the reason why is that they do not cater to contemporary tastes or offer the excellence they once did. Variety is gone. When one finds a great restaurant then too many are overpriced for what they offer and then they are also inconsistent. Good this time, forget it next visit. But then he was saying how he finds that people are no longer cooking at home as they did. His cousins, nieces and nephews use so much out of packets or the freezer he cannot believe it. He particularly finds that having seen the UK change from a culinary nightmare to endless variety and high quality that France has had the opportunity to diversify which it has missed and has seemingly lost the incentive to excel.
He then moved to clothes. He was a real style man at 17, took one look at youth in the UK and shuddered. Now he shudders here. He shook his head saying how the concierge of the small hotel they stayed at for the last two nights wears trainers with a shabby suit. Yet the place has very good ratings. Perhaps he is a bit of a snob, but he is also comparing with how things were. But that moved him on to the hotel room not being as clean as it was a decade ago when they were there, despite changes of personnel it has got worse. So it went on...
He seems to feel France has lost some of what made it different. For him the romance of the country that used to strike people he brought here for the first time is tarnished. Neera, his wife, has been here many, many times but added that she no longer enjoys it as she once did. Fifty years is a long time and of course I can see change, not as he does, but perhaps I am either accustomed or resigned to it. I still find French manners good, he finds them all but gone and that a handshake or bisou is nothing compared to what there was.
The celebration next year will be in England, no protests accepted, a place near Guildford where the food is better than here. He is paying for his parents to take their housekeeper since they were my hosts - to which they gave a firm promise to outlive next spring in order to make it. Jean-Marie, oops sorry, John knows he could do it in France but feels the risk of being let down is higher here. The country has changed so much, he feels the trust he once had has turned 180% on its head and now he is more confident in England. I suggested that it is because he is such an Anglophile and has lived there so long. His view on that is that when he got there as much as he loved London, the rest of the country left him cold, but it has changed and now too is also beginning to lose a lot of what it became at one time, probably the late 1980s or early 1990s. France, he felt, does not know how to change, therefore because things have in fact changed something has been lost. I am not sure what he really means, but perhaps he is right.
Therefore, our discussion fresh in my mind I am putting it to you all, especially people who have longer real experience of France than I do. Has France changed as he thinks, were we just skirting on the negative side of things rather than seeing many good things or is it all just his nostalgia in particular asking the impossible?