Dear Emmanuel

That great French export to our country, Eric Cantona, once inadvertently created a lot of interest round here in seagulls by producing a metaphor about gulls and trawlers during a press conference.

‘When seagulls follow the trawler,’ was the gist of what he said, ‘it is because they think that sardines will be thrown into the sea’. I think he was talking about the press following a story, but it’s not important. Like so many French things in our lives, John-Paul Sartre or andouillettes for example, you only really got to appreciate Cantona once you went below and beyond the headlines.

I woke up yesterday morning thinking about seagulls again. Gulls are an innocent old thing to wake up thinking about, so a day that starts with gulls is generally a good day, and a hopeful one. Specifically, I was thinking about the herring gull, who you can often see hopping from one leg to another on a lawn, looking for all the world like its feet are too hot. As it happens, they aren’t. What it is in fact doing is feigning rainfall, so as to encourage worms to come to the surface for its breakfast. Feigning things in nature is a common strategy.

And I was thinking that pretending there were metaphorical worms in the ground was what our next prime minister was doing the other day when she said that the ‘jury was out’ on our country’s friendship with you and with France. She was, of course, saying something that would appeal to the baser instincts of a tiny segment of people with particular views that are going to determine the immediate future of our country, a little crowd pleaser to demonstrate that she secretly has the same prejudices as them. And that they are therefore safe to vote for her. She did the same to our neighbour in Scotland, recently. I have many thoughtful and decent Conservative friends, and I suspect that many of them are now quietly despairing. Labour centrists were the same during the Corbyn years, only with the luxury of not being in government.

So, on behalf of myself, Emmanuel, let me make it quite clear that I love the French. I suspect that most of us do. It’s a peculiar love and is often far from straightforward. It’s a love for not just the obvious bits like your food and wine, but for the seriousness and pride with which you all treat your country, and the tenacity with which you are prepared to fight for it. I even like your grumpiness, and that mild sense of superiority French people emit when they are discussing their own country. I might not always agree with you, like when you shoot curlews or threaten to cut off our electricity when you are cross with our government, but you are our closest neighbour and strongest ally and our futures should be bound inextricably together. There is nothing between us, I reckon, that couldn’t be resolved by a robust discussion between friends. It’s a shame that Ms Truss couldn’t bring herself to say that, a shame, but absolutely not remotely surprising. Please know that if I had been asked the question, I would have said ‘yes’.

Every country has its severe challenges, at the moment, but in the UK we have more than most, much of it self-inflicted, as I know you know. I find myself thinking back nostalgically to the halcyon days of apparently decent people like Gordon Brown and John Major who, even if we didn’t happen to agree with them, we always felt vaguely confident were on our country’s side, and not just on the side of a small group of activists. In fact, a year ago, a formidably right wing friend of mine said that people like me who complained about Boris Johnson would miss him one day, despite all my protestations to the contrary. Right now, I have a dim understanding that he might have been right. At least Boris could be quite funny.

But it is what it is, as they say, and we are where we are. The vanishingly short window of opportunity that we had a few weeks ago that we might be able to rebuild relationships and not continue to trash them seems to have been slammed shut. Of course it has. By the same token, I try to be an environmentalist, and I grieve that the state of our planet, and of our responsibility to do the right thing by it, has been almost entirely absent from what has passed as our recent leadership debate. I adore my country, too, but at times it is a very hard act to keep up.

All of which takes us a long way from seagulls, which is a shame. Seabirds in general are suffering grievously from the avian flu that is flying round the densely packed colonies of breeding birds, and we should be moving heaven and earth to stop it happening, if, indeed, we can. But we are so busy wondering what’s coming next for our country that it never quite makes it onto the radar.

Finally, I hope that you are having a good summer and wish you all the best for the difficult winter ahead.


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