I went to a local market today to buy some olives. That might seem a little obsessively single-minded, but the lady I buy off is a proper grown-up European who has every type of flavour and genus of olives. She has provencale, she has almond-stuffed, pepper-stuffed, anchovy-stuffed, Spanish tapas, Italian green – and best of all, facon Greque. In a few weeks time she’ll have Kalamata black olives, the best in the world.
I’ve been buying from her for over five years, because she sources everything herself, knows all her suppliers personally, and adds the value on her own farm in various vats using traditional recipes. Also because she always gives me a big hug, and remembers without fail what my special olive weaknesses are. Over the last year, she’s started selling her son’s tomatoes – the taste is spectacular – and then in early winter she sun-dries his excess crop. This produces an historic addition to spaghetti, and that’s my default Autumn midday snack.
While there, I picked up some St Augur blue cheese to go in a walnut salad for lunch, and then repaired to the local brasserie for a half of draught Stella. The bar is run by a black girl who is French, but speaks immaculate English without the slightest trace of an accent. She has two kids – one boy, one girl – both of whom are going to break dozens of hearts when they come of age. She brings them up alone while working her backside off as the barmaid, chef and maitre d’ of the joint. She organises live music evenings, Anglo-French language sessions and umpteen other things with boundless enthusiasm.
I’m sure this all sounds frightfully idyllic and Englishman abroad, but the truth is that it’s anything but. One of the reasons I buy from small retailers is that they have their fingers right on the pulse of the real economy. And their view remains, “Alors, c’est calme”….rough translation, “Business is flat and patchy”. They dismiss government statistics and EC talk of recovery with a “Pff!” and a wave of the hand. They point to small shop closures, squeezed salary rates and stubbornly high unemployment. At the mention of Macron’s name, they shrug and smile ironically. “Le Président, il ne parle que des conneries” said the cheese stallholder this morning: “Macron only talks bullshit”.
Bullshit or not, there is little doubt that, in an atmosphere of economic stagnation, Emmanuel Macron has the upper hand over labour. He was, after all, catapulted into the job by capital interests – and in their eyes, he is doing a very fine job indeed. The SNCF employees’ strike action is inconvenient….but this is 2018, not 1968: the fulcrum of politics has shifted dramatically to the Right, and public support for the SNCF workers is not high.
One very good reason for this is the benefits package they already get – goodies that British workers can only salivate about. SNCF (a public sector concern) offers its workers guaranteed pay increases, health cover, housing cost subsidies, early index-linked retirement and free First Class rail travel for them and their extended families.
The strikes are going ahead because Macron wants to stop this gravy train; and the Unions see this as the thin end of the wedge. They’re probably right, but the President shows little sign of wanting to compromise on the issue.
For myself, I would mutualise SNCF and give the workforce shares in the company in return for moderating their benefits package. That isn’t going to happen, however, under the Presidency of a Rothschild protegé.
The combination of a cool, wet Spring and then the sudden arrival of June temperatures in April has produced grass growing like bamboo in Malaysia. But the chore of cutting it is lightened by the fun of watching nature at work.
Everywhere one looks, pairs of things are frollicking, birds fly with nesting material in their beaks, small reptiles reach out for flies, and other insects buzz about the place in a proprietorial manner. A wasp colony has decided that my tractor mower is their home, and thus takes strong objection to me turning it into a mobile home on a daily basis. Plants that seemed lifeless a week ago are now bursting forth, and skeletal trees are once more softened by bright green new leaves.
I look at all these life forms, and this is what goes through my mind:
‘They don’t know about oil, Brexit, Syrian madness, endless Skripal wrangles, chemical weapons, Tory splits, Labour fissures, Islamic sects, multiculturalism, Time, missiles, killing for fun, pension arrangements, unemployment, neoliberal insanity, ruthless neocon foreign policies, benefits scams, archaic socialist ideology, the internet, mobile phones, androids, bots, gender politics or celebrity. Even if they might be eaten by a predator at any moment, this must result in them having very low stress levels indeed’
I am incredibly lucky to have been born in the West. But am I fortunate in being a human equipped with a large brain and the capacity for introspection? I’m not sure.