Glad to be back!

After a rare visit to his native city of Manchester, Basil Howitt was thrilled to touch down once more at Perpignan airport and be whisked back to his adoptive village of Lansac in the Pyrenean foothills.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m very pleased I visited Manchester, though I wasn’t looking forward to it. But since I hadn’t been there for two years, I finally succumbed to the cajolings and arm twistings of my dear wife Clare and treasured stepdaughter Catherine.
It wasn’t as though I could complain about the prospect of Manchester’s gloomy skies and endless rain, since here in Lansac we have had the worst – or longest – winter in living memory, according to the locals.

3 Hooked! A 50 year love affair 3

My reluctance to leave my adoptive country for my native shores is easily explained. I can recall with Proustian clarity the first time as a boy I set eyes on France at the start of a family holiday in Paris.

3 Gare maritime 3

Dieppe harbour one summer in the mid 1950s! The packet boat from Newhaven nudges the quay. I will never forget the frantic hullabaloo of the dockworkers in blue overalls – gesticulating, shouting and dashing madly as they caught and looped the mooring ropes and started to unload the swinging freight – all so very unEnglish. And there also on the quayside was a steam engine like no other I had ever seen –with its huge boiler festooned with pipes, its strange funnel, and somehow looking so much bigger than British engines.
In that moment I was hooked – and of course still am. Living here permanently now is a dream come true after a 50 year love affair.

3 The Old Flame 3

Anyway, in spite of this life-long Francophilia, for a while I fell again under the spell of Manchester – now an Old Flame for me! Catherine had laid on everything she could to enchant me and demonstrate Manchester’s charms – and how successful she was! She drove us straight from the airport to a very good fish and chip shop, The Battered Cod in Fallowfield. In our flat in Levenshulme I then pigged myself on (naturally) battered cod – 2 large, succulent pieces, the golden coating crisp and thick – and mushy peas.

3 Cholesterol heaven 3

Two days later, this British foodfest continued with a fried breakfast – the full works – in the basement café of the Levenshulme Antiques Village, formerly Levenshulme Town Hall – all green tiles and mosaic floors. The fry-up was washed down with a mug of proper builder’s tea brewed with Manchester’s soft water. (The tea back in Lansac is often disgusting: the water is so calcareous it leaves a thick scum on the sides of your cup.)
Now to culture. We also attended a matinee performance at the Royal Exchange Theatre (in the round) where we saw a superb production, to a packed house, of George Bernard Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses – politically still highly relevant today.
Back to grub. Having done “English” it was time to sample “ethnic”, Manchester being justly famous for the quality and variety of “world foods” on offer. We celebrated a special birthday for Clare with 20 of us: friends, and our large extended family, awash with parents, step-parents, siblings, half- and step-siblings, ex-spouses… The venue was Aladdin in Withington, where we sat down to a Syrian/Lebanese feast – my favourite dips being fateh (yoghurt and chickpeas with pitta croutons) and baba ghannouj (a slightly smoky mix of aubergine and tahini).

3 Pub Crawl 3

One incentive for my trip to Manchester was to drink its superb real draught beers one evening with two friends. We arranged to meet at The Moon Under Water (Weatherspoon’s) and then move on to The Ape and Apple – a nice old fashioned boozer serving Holt’s dirt-cheap Manchester Ales.

3 Stymied! 3

On St.George’s Day, I went in on the train from Levenshulme. Clare had warned me against the squalor of litter and drunkenness in Piccadilly Gardens… though when I arrived everyone seemed to be sobering up outside the pubs with no glasses in their hands – and it was only 8.30.
I arrived at Wetherspoon’s to find it shut, with a bouncer telling me the pub had been closed by the police. Having texted my two friends, we met at The Ape and Apple, only to find the doors firmly locked there as well. Simon, half the age of Mike and me, then sprinted around central Manchester and eventually found a place open in a side– street – serving only gassy pasteurised beers at inflated prices.
We made the best of it, me with draught Guinness – the others with unreal ale.

3 “Love Britain or Fuck off” 3

I discovered later that there had been a nasty BNP incident in the afternoon. At 4.30pm, around 120 BNP supporters had been milling around Sinclair’s Oyster Bar and were reported to be chanting abuse at passers by. Some were wearing T-shirts sporting the charming message “Love Britain or Fuck off.” The police had to be called.
I have no real idea whether this kind of behaviour is common also among France’s Front National members. I suspect not, though I stand corrected. Certainly the Front National has been much less of an outsider party on the French political scene. In the Presidential elections of 2002, for example, Jean-Marie Le Pen gained a best-ever 17.79% share of the vote in the second round.

3 Britannia rules the waves! 3

Certainly, however, when it comes to drunken behaviour and teenage violence Britain is becoming a world leader. In 2006 the Institute of Public Policy Research revealed that 27 per cent of British teenagers are regularly drunk, the highest in Europe. This compared with just three per cent of French teenagers and five per cent in Italy. British teenagers were then also the most belligerent, with 44 per cent having been involved in a fight in the year leading up to the survey. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these figures have now worsened.
Of course France has many serious social problems, not least riots (remember Perpignan May 2005?) sparked off in contexts of deprivation and exclusion. And in some parts of the country, especially in Brittany, the British binge drinking scourge has been catching on.

3 A peaceful pint and a chat in the gents. 3

I did get my decent pint in the end. After the matinée show I sat quietly in The Ape and Apple and relished three pints, enjoying also casual conversation with Mancunians all around me – and of course also in the gents. In northern pubs, the gents is an informal discussion forum between people who don’t know each other at all.

3 Health Care 3

Everybody knows that France has the best healthcare system in the world. This was brought home to me vividly while I was in Manchester. A friend of my extended family is suffering so badly from gall bladder problems that he had to refuse our big celebration. Due to a litany of delays and setbacks, he has been waiting in pain for “several months” for treatment. That would simply not happen over here.

3 No thanks! 3

When I went to buy my return train ticket to Stansted airport, the clerk tried to sell me a Senior Railcard. “No thanks mate,” I said in my re-honed, thickest Manchester accent, “I live in France and only come here for a week every two years.”
“I bet you notice the difference here don’t you?”
“Sure do,” I said.
© 2008 Basil Howitt

3 References and followup: 3
– The Independent 17/10/08
– Daily Mail 21/05/09
– Institute of Public Policy Research, report on teenage behaviour, 2006, as reported in [The Guardian->]
– [Holt’s Ales->]

Basil Howitt has also written
[Life in a Penguin Suit->Life in a Penguin Suit] (Camerata Productions 1993)
[Love Lives of the Great Composers->Love Lives of the Great Composers] (Sound and Vision 1995)
[Grand Passions and Broken Hearts: Lives and Lusts of the Great Composers->Grand Passions and Broken Hearts: Loves and Lusts of the Great Composers] (Robson Books 1998)
[More Love Lives of the Great Composers->More Love Lives of the Great Composers] (Sound And Vision 2002)
Walter and His Daughters: The Story of the Carroll Family of Manchester (Forsyth Brothers Ltd 2005)

[(You can contact Basil by email: [>])]

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