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Opinion

John Bird: Voilà, the special relationship de nos jours

“I hope Monsieur Macron hasn’t personally chosen the Bayeux Tapestry just to rub our noses in it, just to prove that the peoples of France outstrip us all”

Monsieur Macron seems to have blessed us with a visitation of the Bayeux Tapestry, which must be classed as the world’s first (and longest) comic strip. I have seen it going round the walls of the Musée de la Tapisserie, in Bayeux. It is stunning. And it is truly stunning that, after the roughing up the UK has gotten over its EU withdrawal, post-referendum, we are being lent this truly great objet d’art.

On Radio 4’s Today programme, it was suggested that we might want to loan the Rosetta Stone in return, dug up in Egypt by a French Army officer, Pierre-François Bouchard at the end of the 18th century, and captured by Britain soon after in the wars against Napoleon.

I loved seeing the Bayeux Tapestry on all the occasions I hitched, cycled, trained or drove to Normandy

It’s funny how having guns and armies allows you to pick things up in one vicinity of the Earth, really Egyptian through and through, and for them to become something we now associate with our national treasure.

Napoleon’s greatest piece of thievery – but then again, he did have the legitimacy of ‘might’ on his side – was probably the nicking of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from what later became the country of Italy. The Louvre is full of stolen goods, although, like most European nations, their museums would be empty without plunder. Our own plundering, via bargain deals made with occupiers, is much in evidence at our own museums, so we don’t get away with the higher moral ground argument here either.

I loved seeing the Bayeux Tapestry on all the occasions I hitched, cycled, trained or drove to Normandy. It is the genuine article: no one can say they stole it from a weaker party.

The fact that it celebrates the stealing of a whole country, viz the Norman Conquest, the thousand-year anniversary coming up fast in 2066, has been well and truly absorbed into our national consciousness (although I’m sure there are those that still can’t put it behind them).

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I hope Monsieur Macron hasn’t personally chosen the Bayeux Tapestry just to rub our noses in it, just to prove that the peoples of France outstrip us all. With London as France’s sixth biggest city – as le Président reminded us during his UK campaign stop last February – I’m sure he wants to just keep in with us.

My trips to Normandy were loaded down, not just by a love of Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture, but because of the 50-mile stretch of landing beaches from D-Day. What a spectacle it is, with the Mulberry floating harbour, a great invention, at Arromanches-les-Bains, the guns still there. And the general celebrations of that incredible victory when largely untried British, American, Canadian and Commonwealth men arrived to smite the intolerably murderous (and seemingly invincible) German armies. And meeting the Atlantikwall of guns and batteries, many still to be explored, as I have done, scattered across northernmost France.

And then to go into the cafes and meet older French men and women who still, in the 1970s and ’80s, were welcoming of us with our English accents – as if we were still those people who made their liberty and their prosperity possible. It was quite emotional for me because my father’s family were all old soldiers and everywhere, post-war, we were surrounded by a tremendous sense of pride in the role we played in making modern Europe possible.

As a boy, it caused me to sign up as a cadet in the territorials and, but for the charge of ‘receiving money under false pretences’ and a sentence of three to five years, I would have been an adult soldier.

Thank you, Monsieur Macron. Thank you for hopefully remembering who your true friends are, and who helped you out of the merde on a few occasions before

So bless Monsieur Macron, probably helping us come in and out of the cold a little. We certainly don’t want to be left out on a limb – although, until our entry to the European Economic Community in 1973, we tended to spend most of our time militarily trying to keep the big countries off the throats of their competitors. And helping to see countries like Luxembourg and Belgium stay in existence.

If you get a chance to retrace the D-Day landings, go to Pegasus Bridge at Bénouville, which I last saw in 1994, 50 years after the Allied invasion. There, British airborne troops dropped behind enemy lines and held the bridge so that the crossing, with the River Orne flowing below, could not be blown up. It was the first place, I’m told, that was liberated from the Nazi occupation of France.

Paratroopers though died in their hundreds in the woodlands nearby, and going through the woods always made me feel respectfully silent.

I hope Monsieur Macron is lending us the Bayeux Tapestry because he realises that though we can go on (and on) about a special relationship with the USA, that this is the real  thing. OK, the USA and the Soviet Union saved our bacon in World War II, but France and Britain have always been in each other’s pockets.

I do hope we can keep those bits of the Nazi sea wall strewn along the coast of northern France, if only to show that it’s where the threat of complete domination of France came to an end. For across the Channel were friends, waiting patiently to cross by air and sea. And when they came, it was spectacular.

Thank you, Monsieur Macron. Thank you for hopefully remembering who your true friends are, and who helped you out of the merde on a few occasions before.

Let us hope us we islanders don’t forget this special relationship, which is older and deeper than anything going on now.

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