Two former Chunnel workers are reunited. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: England and France are too close for comfort

When the train hammers down through the Pas-de-Calais, dives under the sea, then re-emerges in the Kentish countryside, it’s difficult to resist the conclusion – looking out at the smooth, green shop floor of pan-European agribusiness – that these two locations are fundamentally the same place.

I wonder what’s happened to the Channel Tunnel – no, seriously, I do. All the romance has been sucked out of its guts, as an enema sucks half-digested foie gras from the bowel of a Lyonnaise brassiere manufacturer. I’m old enough to remember when a tunnel beneath the English Channel was a preposterous fantasy worthy of Jules Verne or H G Wells. In the 1960s and 1970s, such grands projets were often anticipated in the form of wide-eyed info screeds and graphic visualisations printed on the back of cereal boxes and you would read about them as you dribbled milk slowly into individual Weetabix, waiting for the thrilling moment when they became saturated and crumbled.

True, most of the space stations and ­undersea communities envisaged by these box-boosters never came to pass – but the Chunnel (as it was once affectionately styled) is a fact on the ground (or, rather, souterrain). There was a certain amount of brouhaha when it was opened: monarchical and presidential ribbon-severing; anxiety about incoming rabies (although you’d have thought the last place a hydrophobic dog would want to rave was in a tunnel beneath the sea). And then there were some operational bugs in the first few years: overheated trains catching fire, passengers having to be led to safety along the service tunnel. But soon enough the novelty of being able to get on the Eurostar at Waterloo and get off at the Gare du Nord was over.

In Scandinavia, the vast bridge thrown between Denmark and Sweden has become the focus of all sorts of intercommunal reappraisals – the TV thriller series The Bridge is only the visible apex of this complex shift in attitudes. In part, the impact of the bridge on Danish and Swedish psyches can be explained by the bizarre demi-­comprehensibility of their ­respective languages: both can understand each ­other’s tongues but, for the Danes, Swedish is quite a bit clearer. In The Bridge, much of the ­tension and humour is generated by this ­semantic fudging and blending – all of which is, by definition, quite untranslatable. I know about it all only because my brother, a slightly obsessive linguist, took it upon himself a few years ago to learn Swedish.

This isn’t easy, given the Swedes’ fluency in our own mother tongue. My brother had to pay to stay on an island in the Gulf of Finland, where the inhabitants are provided with a regular stipend in return for agreeing never to speak English. It worked for him; and now it’s impossible to sit down to a Scandinavian TV show with him because he will insist on laughing in all the right places. But the Channel Tunnel seems to have done little for Anglo-French relations. I’ve detected nothing in the way of enhanced mutual understanding. The French still believe that all Englishmen are deeply repressed sadomasochists – and this perception is returned in unkindness.

Yet the effects of the tunnel on our sense of place are significant. It’s no longer possible for the Continent to be cut off in stormy weather. When the train hammers down through the Pas-de-Calais, dives under the sea, then re-emerges in the Kentish countryside, it’s difficult to resist the conclusion – looking out at the smooth, green shop floor of pan-European agribusiness – that these two locations are fundamentally the same place. It’s been a source of puzzlement on the left for some time now why the Medway towns and the Isles of Thanet and Sheppey have gone over so precipitately to the dark-yellow side. Kent has always had its contingent of working-class true blues but immigrants are by no means present in sufficient numbers to explain such rampant xenophobia.

In sociology, the concept of the “narcissism of small differences” is used to explain the vehemence with which similar groups attack each other, whether these groups are defined by class, ethnicity, nationality or location. The harsh truth of the matter is that nowadays you can have a frothy chain-store coffee in Canterbury and, by the time you need a refill, you can be sitting in a Starbucks in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. The tunnel has brought us into such uncomfortable proximity that we are driven either to denial – or to rage. Our intrusive press may have wormed its way into the Élysée Palace but, in return, the French have sent us huddled masses of wanker-bankers seeking a more favourable tax regime. Our Anglo-Saxon austerity may have begun to subject the bloated French state to a crash diet but their cuisine is on display in Morrisons.

I only animadvert on these matters at such length because my work commitments require that I take the F-train pretty regularly at the moment. And the lack of any mystique or glamour is striking. It feels more of a culture shock taking the tram from Manchester Piccadilly to Sale.

The only possible solution to the rise and rise of Little England is not, I’m forced to conclude, political but spatial. The tunnel must be filled in and, while we’re at it, we should probably stuff that half-digested foie gras back up the Lyonnaise brassiere manufacturer, where it belongs.

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

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SRSLY #20: Friends, Lovers, Divers

On the pop culture podcast this week, we talk albums from Joanna Newsom, Bjork and Grimes, Todd Haynes film Carol, and comedy web series Ex-Best.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen to our new episode now:

...or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on Stitcher, RSS and SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s web editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we'd love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

The Links

Joanna Newsom, Bjork and Grimes

Joanna Newsom’s Divers doesn't seem to be on Spotify, but you can get it on iTunes here. Listen to Grimes’ Art Angels here and Bjork's Vulnicura here.

This is a good piece about Joanna Newsom.

This piece makes the comparison with Elena Ferrante that we talk about on the podcast.

Here's Grimes's own post about Bjork.

Tavi Gevinson's interview with Joanna Newsom (where she talks about liking Grimes).



Ryan Gilbey's review of Carol, which he calls “as tantalising as hearing a tender ballad on a tinpot transistor”.

Anna's piece about the photographers that influenced the visual style of the film.

An interesting Q & A with director Todd Haynes.



The full series is available to watch for free here.

Meghan Murphy on friendship break-ups.


Your questions:

We love reading out your emails. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we've discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at], or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.


Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 


See you next week!

PS If you missed #19, check it out here.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.