Simon Heffer

Diary - 6 September 2003

The Daily Mail columnist is reminded of the superior quality of French education by watching <i>Millionnaire</i>

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You will expect me to bore you about my holiday in France, where, like Joan Collins, we found things hideously expensive compared with a year ago. When the credit-card bill arrives, I shall console myself that the euro is now heading south, and that when we return next year everything will be 10 per cent cheaper – especially if M. Chirac sets about trying to bust the stability pact in the way he now threatens. We reached France at the height of la canicule, and noted the daily reports on the television news and in Le Figaro about how thousands of elderly people had died of the heat. When they had to start storing the bodies in refrigerated meat trucks on industrial estates, even Johnny Frenchman's sangfroid went west. However, attempts to blame the government for the callousness of thousands of French families who simply dumped their oldies for the holiday season failed. Indeed, I especially enjoyed a letter to Le Figaro, in which a correspondent observed that most who had died would have popped off anyway in the next few months. He also noted that, as they couldn't die twice, the government was no doubt preparing to be congratulated for the lower mortality figures likely in the winter ahead.

Following a total humiliation on a charity edition of The Weakest Link, I reinforced my inflexible rule never, except in emergencies, to watch television game shows. In France, though, I found myself gripped by their version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which in those parts goes under the nom de guerre of Qui veut gagner des millions? I have watched the English version only two or three times, and have given up after about 20 minutes because of the stupidity of the contestants (and I speak as one) and the peculiar charmlessness of the enormously popular and successful host, Mr Chris Tarrant. However, several things soon became apparent about the French game. First, the questions really are quite taxing. Second, the French contestants speak French so much more properly than most of ours speak English. Third, even ouvriers from Etaples appear to have been quite seriously educated. Fourth, the host, M. Jean-Pierre Foucault, has immense charm, magnificent comic timing and a droll turn of phrase. If I were the BBC, I'd buy it and show it at the same time as ITV screens the domestic version. Even if it were watched only by GCSE French pupils, itinerant onion-sellers and expat restaurateurs, it would be more than worth the cost for furthering that most difficult of concepts, Anglo-French understanding.

Returning home, we were once more in a country where you cannot buy veal unless you live near one of those fancy butcher's shops in the West End. My own village butcher, who is superb, says with regret that he daren't stock it in case people cut up rough. Apparently, a woman of a certain age saw some in his window once and had to be resuscitated. Nor can he easily countenance an arrangement where, rather in the manner of dirty magazines in the era before the Lady Chatterley trial, it is passed under the counter in a plain brown wrapping. As an animal lover, I do wish we could be grown up about the distinction between domestic pets and other beasts. The Daily Mail carried a magnificent article last month about how the fox population of Scotland is being eradicated now that farmers and gamekeepers shoot them, hunting with hounds having been abolished. I have tried telling the class warriors who pose as animal lovers and are trying to abolish the sport in England that the same will happen here, but they refuse to believe me and shuffle off to resume their infinite struggle to distinguish their arse from their elbow. A hunt officer of my acquaintance tells me that, just to cheer up the class warriors, he will take all his hunt's hounds out into the parade ring of the local showground the day after hunting is abolished and shoot them, one by one, in public. Is that what they really want?

My wife forgot to have her dog inoculated in time to take him to France, so he went to kennels for three weeks. The business of leaving him there was especially traumatic for her. Not a day passed without a mournful reference to him. Attempts to lighten things up by mentioning his impending parole, his Red Cross parcels and his chairmanship of the escape committee went down like a bucket of Whiskas. The eventual reunion was, to say the least, emotional, with the promise of special privileges being afforded to the dog to compensate for his incarceration. However, Mrs Heffer then read the daily report provided by the kennels. I thought, given the present quality of the examinations, this would refer to his suitability as a candidate for A-level media studies next year, but it simply contained observations on his general demeanour each day. The upshot was that he had never been so happy in his life, joined in all the activities he could and made tons of new friends. There is now, inevitably, deep resentment that he didn't miss her nearly so much as she missed him.

I profited from the reports in the French press of the Hutton inquiry. Unlike here, where every media organisation either hates the government or hates the BBC, at least in France they hate everything British, so objectivity reigns. Nothing in the inquiry so far has so discomfited me as the evidence given by John Scarlett, the head of the joint intelligence committee. Perhaps his performance lost something in translation, but it did seem to me that he, too, had joined in the utter politicisation of the Civil Service led by his 'friend' Alastair Campbell. No doubt this is what those who wish to get to the top in Whitehall now have to do, and perhaps that is why the Cabinet secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, is so slow to stand up for the principles of the institution he notionally leads. It reminded me fleetingly of my disappointment in my penultimate term at Cambridge when the clutch of brown envelopes arrived in the college mailroom for those to be invited to London for a 'chat' about working in 'the government service'. It would have been fun to be a spy, but I reasoned that someone in a high place had obviously thought I must be a promiscuously homosexual alcoholic with advanced paranoia. I then realised, interestingly, that about half those who had received the envelopes were precisely that.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily Mail.