14 AUGUST 2004, Page 11

T hinking about the outbreak of the first world war 90

years ago this month, I returned to Hardy's famous short poem 'In Time of "The Breaking of Nations" ', which he wrote in 1915. It is about how some things never change, outlasting war: 'Only a man harrowing clods/ In a slow silent walk/ With an old horse that stumbles and nods/ Half asleep as they stalk ... Yet this will go onward the same/ Though Dynasties pass./ Yonder a maid and her wight/ Come whispering by:/ War's annals will cloud into night/ Ere their story die.' It is a powerful affirmation of humanity's endurance. But what if Hardy is wrong? Like many writers, he takes agriculture as a symbol of permanence, but in the 21st century there are hardly any horses left harrowing the land, yet there are plenty of wars. One might think he is on stronger ground with his reference to courtship, but is he? Now that technology is in the process of separating the sexual act from human reproduction, how much longer will maids (not many of them around) and wights need to go whispering anywhere? The phrase 'the breaking of nations' in the poem's title is taken from the Book of Jeremiah and in the relevant passage God is speaking to Israel: '. . . with thee I will break in pieces the nations'. Hardy is implicitly disagreeing with Jeremiah, for the prophet goes on to state that God will break in pieces 'the husbandman and his yokes of oxen' and 'the young man and the maid'. The object of all the destruction that God promises is Babylon, which is modern Iraq, because of what it has done against Israel. This poem is perhaps a unique case where Hardy, that great pessimist, was guilty of false optimism.

One reason one likes the poem, though, is that the image of a man and a horse harrowing the clods is attractive. As a tourist, I seek an agriculture which is completely uneconomic. Some of the best memories of childhood visits to southern Europe are of the carriage animals, the oxcarts and the clothes and faces of the peasants who worked with them. My children's generation has not seen such sights, and they will never be seen again in Europe. The visual landscape, which I have just experienced once more on holiday in the Dordogne and Brittany, is much the poorer for their disappearance. This cannot be a bad thing, since it reflects the emancipation of hundreds of thousands from poverty, but it may still be a sad one. T ike most Englishmen, I do not allow my

Euroscepticism to cloud my admiration for the way the French manage to live. Although you read more complaints about fast food, etc., the quality of small shops and markets, cafés and restaurants, remains astonishing. In fact, in some ways, prosperity has made it better, because there is more demand (including from tourists like ourselves). So much of this is to do with a different attitude to time. A great many French people positively prefer to shop quite slowly, moving from shop to shop or stall to stall in search of small quantities of good things. They also spend two hours at lunch and you very rarely see them snacking in the street or on public transport. The English enjoy all this on holiday, of course, but in my experience, even among our Francophile, educated middle classes, when normal life resumes convenience is the overriding consideration for more than 90 per cent of us. Yes, we want quality, but not if we have to choose the chicken to be slaughtered or cause a mess in the kitchen by the preparation of what we cook. We seek 'the recipe', but not the ambient knowledge about finding the best ingredients, which is rather like buying a plant without knowing what soil it needs.

Another reason that French provincial life is so pleasant is its expansiveness. In southern rural England, the fear of any new building is obsessive. In Brittany, our friend bought a two-acre plot and got permission to build a house on it. The mayor of the village was unhappy about only one aspect of the matter — why was

my friend building one house when he could have managed several?

k"13reading ( I may have written it myself) that France can't go on like this, that its unemployment is too high, its bureaucracy too strong, its big business too subject to government interference, its working day too short. Yet still it vies with Britain to be the fourth biggest economy in the world. This question is addressed in the current bestseller Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong. The book has a rather goody-goody earnestness which reflects the prevailing culture of its Canadian authors, but it does make the simple point that France is a distinct nation and has worked out a way of doing things which accords with its national character. I wonder, though, how much of a look-in most of the 60 million Frenchmen (who Can't Be Wrong) get. To our way of thinking, the place is quite amazingly undemocratic, and perpetuates the interest of those who already have power against that of those who don't. One statistic the book gives is so striking that I wonder whether it can be true. It says that 41 per cent of the deputies in the Assemblee Nationale are civil servants on leave. A quarter of these, it goes on, are graduates of the famous ENA (the Ecole Nationale d'Administration). Not much of a check on government there.

It reminds me of the wonderful rule that used to apply in the House of Commons in the 19th century. Any MP made a government minister — usually after a general election — had to stand at once in a by-election. The thinking was that, as he had now accepted an 'office of profit under the Crown', he should seek his voters' approval of this potential conflict of interest. The effect, of course, was to discourage the creation of more ministerial jobs than were necessary. If this rule were brought back, it would, with beautiful simplicity, rein in governmental expansion, and do more for 'standards in public life' than any amount of Nolanry.

Our friend and occasional neighbour, Edward Fitzgerald QC, famed defender of the indefensible, flew back from the West Indies, where he was acting for an alleged gangster whom the American authorities want to talk to, a fortnight ago, and came as straight as one can to Sussex by train. As, jetlagged and bedraggled, he stood up to get off at his usual station, the train hurried on regardless. 'Why didn't it stop?' he asked the ticket collector, "Cos we're late,' was the unapologetic reply.