Thursday, 21 October 2010

France on strike

After ten days criss-crossing France by train, I am astonished how normally everything seems to function. The high-speed trains are less frequent, and each day an ad hoc timetable appears, but I have been able to travel each time I wanted to. The worst problem was crossing Lyon as all the main roads were blocked by demos, but the metro was running normally, as it was in Paris.

The thing that most struck me, coming from England, was how powerful the CGT is. It is something like what the British TGWU was thirty years ago - a huge general-purpose union, capable of bringing tens of thousands of people on to the streets. The language is very class-ridden, workers versus bosses...

The other thing, which alas is not as striking as it would have been thirty years ago, is the swarms of police on the streets. Britain has now caught up with France and perhaps overtaken it in this respect. The French police seemed for the most part to be behaving very amiably towards the public. No doubt sooner or later somebody will get killed or injured, but so far it all seems to have been rather laid back.

Sites of London

In London a fortnight ago I noticed three things in particular: you now have to pay 50p for a pee; Hamley's toy shop is 250 years old; and after a couple of years there is still a huge gap in Oxford Street. The 50p charge is a sign of things to come, but is it Boris Johnson or the Coalition that did it? Anyway, clearly it is the poor who will suffer, especially the homelss and the jobless, who have neither a house nor a workplace to pee in; and of course everyone will be inconvenienced by the mess and smell in parks and dark corners.

Hamley's quarter millennium is interesting. It shows that the desire to give toys has been steadier than most other kinds of business, but even so, for a shop to last so long it must have been astonishingly well managed. Visits there are among my earliest memories. I fell in love wih a chess set and pestered my mother to buy it next time she was in town. I didn't know the rules and spent nine months organizing royal weddings until my father came home from America and taught me to play. I used to marry the white queen to the black king - a good start in colour-blind politics.

And the huge hole in Oxford Street is a sign of the times; whover bought the site must be unable to borrow any money to build on it. For a while it housed a temporary dinosaur exhibition - more toys! But now it is just a big gap surrounded by plywood walls. Instead of laying off thousands of public sector workers, the government should step in to get something built there, even if it is just the biggest helter-skelter in the world.