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9 December 2014

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.

By Will Self

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.

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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