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Andrew Marr’s diary: Seeing shadows of Syria in Limousin’s ghost village

Plus: Scotland’s real ruling class, the best kind of holiday cottage, and my malice-laced first novel

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

No, no, no, you don’t want a house abroad — the paperwork, the taxes, the piping, the cost of the pool. What you want are good, kind, generous friends with houses abroad. That’s what we’ve enjoyed this summer, meeting scores of interesting new people and being looked after by our best friends. We pay them back with wine, little presents and London hospitality. The only downside to ‘les vacances ligging’ is having to book extra seats home on Ryanair for our vastly swollen and moaning livers.

The most striking thing we did in France was to visit Oradour-sur-Glane, the Limousin village where on 10 June 1944 a Panzer division of the SS massacred 642 men, women and children as a reprisal operation against the Resistance. The ‘village martyr’ has been preserved exactly as it was: de Gaulle ordered a new village to be built alongside. On a bakingly hot August day, we joined hundreds of tourists silently walking the roofless streets of what was once an idyllic little town. What takes the air out of your lungs is the familiarity and specificity of the place — the boulangerie, the postbox, the tram rails; the garage where men were rounded up and machine-gunned; still with its metal signs for petrol; the rusted hulks of Citroëns in the street. The worst place of all is the church where the women and children were killed with hand grenades and by shooting and burning. It’s an exquisite medieval building, minus its roof; inside, the bullet holes are everywhere, and there’s a mangled and burned children’s buggy and a fresh, warm sense of horror. The names of the officers and soldiers who committed the atrocity are all known and listed in the Memorial Centre. Some were French, from Alsace, and the whole country was divided about what happened.

Seventy years later — and by eavesdropping I know I wasn’t the only one thinking this — in another part of the world, strutting young men are behaving in almost exactly the same way, though with even greater cruelty. And they’re doing it for a surprisingly similar reason: a fanatical belief in purity. Once large numbers of people are convinced that there is one route to human felicity, whether it’s Aryan racial purity or extreme Sunni purity, massacres and sadism follow. Yes, I know there are other factors, from obedience to fear and the natural cruelty of young men in gangs. But they only remind us that we humans are too dangerous to be allowed simple, one-size-fits-all solutions to anything. Ideas are only good or bad in terms of their effect on actual societies, and I go back to Isaiah Berlin, who warned that without pluralism, there followed ‘the vivisection of actual human societies into some fixed pattern dictated by our fallible understanding of a largely imaginary past or a wholly imaginary future.’ Spot on. That vivisection is memorialised deep in rural France, and carries on in Iraq and Syria right now.

But this is, of course, also the year of the Scottish referendum. The Edinburgh Festival was more political than usual, but not much. The James Plays were certainly the highlight and an entire mini-festival had been organised for the politically enthusiastic. The fact that it was called ‘Yestival’ gives you some idea of how the Scottish writing and musical classes are thinking. On the other hand, wandering around Edinburgh, I was reminded that Scotland is really dominated by a regiment of small, stern-faced, grey-haired ladies. They have fierce Presbyterian views, hats, walk at great speed, and regard all politics as ‘damn nonsense’. When they finally take over the country, I tell you, it’s going to be a very different place.

Nervously, I’m publishing my first novel this month. It’s a comic political thriller, if you can imagine such a thing, set mainly in Downing Street. The current Prime Minister has kindly allowed me to check the layout of rooms for accuracy. The characters, however, are wildly fictional and the whole thing is laced with malice. I now have to hope friends and colleagues retain a sense of humour. I have a vague memory that there is, for instance, a kilted and libidinous No. 10 press secretary called Nelson Fraser. And I’m looking forward to a review by the journalist Dominic Sandbrook. Anyway, it’s called Head of State and at least it’s short.

One of the games we’ve been playing on holiday with friends is the one about great books we’ve never read. I got a lot of abuse for not knowing The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. It’s about the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and it’s an absolute belter. That and The Return of John Macnab by Andrew Greig are my two top tips to cheer up a rainy autumn.

Andrew Marr was editor of the Independent from 1996 to 1998 and political editor of the BBC from 2000 to 2005. His first novel, Head of State, comes out in two weeks’ time.

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