Well that was seriously fun! I got a very early train to Toulouse and cycled along the Canal de Midi to my son with a suitcase full of clean laundry and homemade cookies. A whole section given over to eco-friendly modes of transport offered a glimpse of the joy cities could be without cars. Serene and spirit-lifting.
Sadly, tents line sections of the canal, homelessness on the rise everywhere. There were beautiful, often two-storied houseboats too, and Dutch barges – péniches. Heading back into town I dodged wave after wave of two-wheel traffic rushing towards the engineering and aeronautical schools and scientific complexes clustered on the south side of Toulouse.
Realising I still had two jars of garden cherries in my bag, I cycled back in the afternoon along the more than 240km waterway that links Toulouse with the Mediterranean Sea. It took men using picks and shovels fourteen years (1667-1681) to dig the canal masterminded by Pierre-Paul Riquet, Baron de Bonrepos (Baron Good Rest), former tax-farmer and munitions seller turned engineering genius.
The Canal de Garonne, a 290km-waterway that links Bordeaux and Toulouse, opened in 1856. Until then, ships had to sail around the coasts of Portugal and Spain to get from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Friends recently cycled both the Canal de Garonne and Canal de Midi at a rate of 60kms a day. Exhilarating.
One friend flew to Liverpool to enjoy Eurovision celebrations down on the docks while another headed up from London in a glorious Abba-meets-gay-pride billowing flared zip-up jumpsuit that made Hannah Waddingham’s outfit look almost tame. A mere few minutes of the Bread and Circuses on YouTube was enough for me. Nero live on stage, fiddling as Rome burns.
The government in Westminster is waging full out war on the natural world, tearing up hundreds of European laws which protect fish, wetlands, shorelines saltmarshes and other environmentally sensitive areas. They’re also allowing the use of biocidal products – disinfectants, wood preservatives and insect repellants. Jacob Rees-Mogg branded the decision to scale back the list from 5,000 to 600 ‘pathetically under-ambitious’.
Thanks to recent rain, the roses and peonies are sensational. But touching drops on a hydrangea leaf after a particularly heavy storm felt, not like touching water, but hand gel. Weird. High winds are knocking almonds off the tree weeks too early and cherries in various stages of ripening lie scattered everywhere.
Every 8th May our town is filled with plants. This year the council has also organised workshops with a water-based theme. Local schoolchildren have made some lovely (if environmentally horrible) art in the park by the river which is so full of agrochemicals and thick algae that swimming isn’t an option.
This month alone there are four public holidays in France to celebrate Workers’ Day (1 May), Victory in Europe (8 May 1945) and – despite being a secular republic – Pentecost and Ascension. Three of the four fall on Mondays this year, making long weekends. Ascension falling on a Thursday, many will make Friday a ‘pont’ (or bridge) to the weekend.
Last May temperatures began soaring into the forties and were doing the same this year, when planes began continually criss-crossing skies leaving chemical trails that take hours to disappear. I’m no conspiracy theorist but have never seen anything like the weird grey ’veils’ that stretch for miles nor the veritable circus of extravagant cloud formations blocking the sun.
The garden is a riot of colour. A gutter re-routed to a rose bush has meant an explosion of heavily perfumed pink flowers. California poppies abound, sage is in purple flower, borage in blue, cherries and almonds are already appearing (very early…) and a first flowering of figs. With temperatures way above average, the joy will be short -lived without rain….
The lack of general outcry is bewildering. Then again, protest is almost illegal; people are being arrested for peaceably voicing an opinion different to the UK government’s. Facial recognition software is being used to target climate and animal rights activist and preemptive arrests made on trumped-up charges. A journalist writes, ‘We are sleepwalking into fascism’.
Ignoring the advice of climate experts and the UN, the UK government is signing hundreds of new oil and gas contracts. On Saturday 52 people wearing Just Stop Oil T-Shirts planned to line part of the route the billionaire king passed on the way to his coronation, only to be arrested under new British government laws. For wearing T-Shirts and carrying flags.
Elsewhere, members of a group set up to promote more sustainable farming methods and protect animal rights were arrested during a non-violence training session, despite having confirmed on multiple occasions it would not target coronation day events. The UK government is turning people who stand up for nature and the environment into criminals.
From the Guardian: ‘This government doesn’t care about science, justice or reason. It has been bought by an industry that will sacrifice the whole of humanity for a last-minute dash for profit. [They are] engaged in a wholesale assault on our human rights: migrants’ rights, workers’ rights, protest rights – nothing is sacred’.
In 1981 I went to a Funk The Wedding protest gig and this weekend hope to avoid the merest hint of coronation. The UK being what it has become, official warning letters have been sent to people planning peaceful protests saying new criminal offences to prevent disruption have been rushed into law.
Clowns Sans Frontières-France (Clowns Without Borders) is marching to protest the Right to Childhood and to marvel. Donning red noses, they have taken to the road to highlight the importance of live theatre, defend the Right to Laugh and be amazed, to waken our imaginations. Their 45-step tour includes visits to UNESCO in Paris and the UN in Geneva.
The Red Nose march is timely: more than 30 million children worldwide have been displaced by conflict and are in danger of being trafficked, abused, exploited. Even in ‘safe’ or peaceful countries children’s mental health services are swamped. In the UK, 28 children’s care homes are closing – uprooting some of society’s most vulnerable kids – because a private company has decided they’re insufficiently profitable.
Unable to sleep yet again, I read Algues Vertes, L’Histoire Interdite. In recent decades, since the introduction of industrial farming, Brittany’s coastline has been plagued by highly toxic algae which has proved fatal to both humans and wildlife. In order though to protect tourism and agriculture industries, there have been widespread denials and scandalous cover-ups.
Pre-WW2, France’s agricultural partners were Hungary, Ukraine and Russia but as part of the post-war Marshall Plan, France began farming along American lines. Once 7 million ‘paysans’ worked Brittany’s small farms, producing high quality goods. Then trees were felled, hedges ploughed up and huge industrial highly polluting farms created. Redundant farm workers went to work in automobile factories.