Years ago I used to spend the long summer holidays hitch-hiking around Europe. I had all sorts of experiences – and one of the most important things I learned was how good it is to have a decent bed to sleep in. But it also matters where the bed is: it doesn’t really work if you bed down in a den of thieves. So, I also learned the value of a secure, safe and predictable environment – one in which, as the French say, one can ‘rester tranquil’. Whilst I was hitch-hiking I had little idea of the latest news; I went without newspapers or television. In fact, I never really recovered from enjoying a newspaper-free life and I hardly ever bought or read a newspaper on my return to England. By contrast I did continue to watch some television – although because of the way I had been brought up I always felt that there were better ways in which I should be spending my time.
The BBC is supposed to inform, educate and entertain. In fairness, it goes some way towards meeting these long-established strategic objectives. Although people grumble about the ‘rubbish’ that is broadcast I often come across programmes that please me because they alert me to aspects of the world that I might otherwise overlook. These programmes often have a direct educational effect. Recently, for example, I have seen two programmes on the BBC that were remarkable. The first was about people who were getting married in Britain. The programme focused upon immigrant peoples and I could scarcely imagine a better advertisement for the benefits of welcoming people from other nationalities and cultures into the UK. The immigrants really prized the British way of life – and they underlined the importance of hospitality, freedom of speech, the chance to work and the promise of fulfilment or realising one’s potential that the UK made possible. The second programme explored the nature of poverty in the USA. It emphasised what it felt like to be child who was living in poverty and simultaneously it highlighted the problem of homelessness. [The official statistics on poverty and deprivation in the USA are astonishing – with over 16 million children now living in poverty. Increasingly large numbers are homeless and dependent on food aid. It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that there is something very fundamentally wrong with a society that can create such a huge gap between the rich and the poor.] The ‘poor’ people, who were featured were often charming, sensitive and articulate – especially the children. The mother of one of the children was huge and lumbered about trying to look after her family as best she could. Ironically, of course, she was called ‘Classy’. It was one of the few moments of real humour in the programme. I could not imagine a more pointed contrast between her name and her down-at-heel circumstances.
But the name Classy reminded me of an earlier episode when I was lying in a hospital in the French city of Nantes. I’d had an operation on my back so I was obliged to lie prone and remain as still as possible for about a week. However, I really enjoyed the experience because the man in the bed next to me was an expert economist. His name was Michel H. and each day he gave me lectures on the economic problems facing Europe. He predicted that the Greek, Portuguese, Irish and Spanish economies would all begin to collapse (which they did), that the world would enter a global recession (which it did) and that one of the very few ways forward for Europe was to achieve greater political control over the different economies (which it is trying to do). Michel H. (who was nearly 60) had lost faith in the economic culture of France and had dropped out. (He was now living an itinerant life and living in a converted Renault van. I thought this was rather a shame since his expertise was lost to the nation.)
During our conversations the assistant nurses would arrive and bring us our food and generally do all the things necessary to look after both of us. Michel H. was fascinated by one of the young assistant nurses. She was called ‘Elise’. Part of Michel H’s fascination was to do with the fact that he had first thought Elise was a ‘gitane’ (a gypsy.) Elise had striking looks – made more striking by the design of her eye-makeup which zig-zagged and then arrowed its way across her face. Elise was clearly a character – and sometimes we had a few moments of conversation together. She was a free-spirit and lived a semi-marginal existence. On one occasion I discovered that she had a dog. (Sadly, it was a pit bull.) Elise told me that she took her pit bull terrier for two walks a day, one before coming to work and the other late in the evenings – around one of the fashionable squares in the heart of Nantes. I asked Elise what she had called her dog. She replied that she had named her dog, ‘Connard‘. I was really struck by this name: Connard is an extremely rude French word which means ‘Dickhead‘. If you call someone a Connard in France there is sure to be trouble and the person so called is likely to want to punch you in the face.
When Elise left I couldn’t stop laughing: I began to imagine the consternation she must have caused in Nantes through the mere fact of calling out the name of her dog – of shouting out ‘Connard!‘ Goodness knows how many of the good people of Nantes, innocently promenading in their elegant square, will have wondered if, seemingly at random, they were being called a dickhead.