France is fabled as the land of bureaucratic centralisation, the epitome of administrative reason, where once a year every adolescent takes the same exam on the same day across the country. The image is not just a foreign legend. It was Tocqueville who first supplied it, as the brand-mark of French Absolutism and the Revolution that followed it. In modern times, its element of truth lies in the exceptional position of Paris as political and intellectual centre of the nation, a position occupied by no other city in a European society of comparable size. Madrid, Rome, Berlin may be capitals, but to their rank as seats of government corresponds no such predominance in culture, where Barcelona, Milan, Frankfurt can in different ways rival or outdo them. London is flanked by seats of learning whose prestige has long surpassed its own. Paris is set apart by the aura of its double pre-eminence. The halo of an unmatched concentration of national life and power radiates around it.
The reality of the country, however, exceeds its capital more deeply and vividly than the reality of England exceeds London. Not France, but the regnant bulk of the United Kingdom, embracing 84 per cent of its population, is by far the most centralised major society in Europe. (Britain, inseparable from the imperial pretensions of its adjective, remains a state, not a country, as the contemptuous abbreviation for its subjects implies: its inhabitants have no common name.) The historical reasons for that go back a long way. Full-blown feudalism was imposed in one fell swoop from above, by a Norman conquest that left a medieval monarchy structurally always more powerful than its Capetian rival, which slowly and painfully extended its reach, by piecemeal assemblage, beyond the Isle-de-France. Capitalism, in turn, arrived much earlier, in good measure because of the unique commercial and demographic predominance of London, a port which by the mid-17th century had more than three times the relative weight of Paris in France – a superior concentration of wealth and population whose effects remain still more pronounced today, when Greater London is now in absolute terms nearly four times the size of Paris: 8.2 to 2.2 million. The scale of the difference is, of course, a function of where the administrative boundaries are drawn. But these, in every sense, matter. The width of the moat separating Paris from its various banlieues can be gauged from the ethnic and generational risings around it in 2005 – not overnight riots, but weeks of vehicles in flames – as from the term itself, whose connotation of a violent high-rise slum is the opposite of the cosily respectable ‘suburb’ of the Anglosphere. Paris, as a meaningful city, is of modest proportions beside London.
The other side of the same coin is the far greater prominence in the national landscape of provincial towns in France. In the 19th century, literature offers a striking index of the difference. Paris is the epicentre of the Comédie humaine, but Balzac’s world in no way stops there, as that of Dickens does in London. Equally memorable are his depictions of Saumur, Angoulême or Tours. In Stendhal and Flaubert, the narratives of Le Rouge et le noir and Madame Bovary depend on Besançon and Rouen. In the 20th century, cinema has relayed the tradition. The extreme example is Eric Rohmer, whose Comédies et proverbes and Contes des quatre saisons include settings in Clermont-Ferrand, Annecy, Le Mans, Biarritz, Cergy-Pontoise, Nevers, St Malo. The list, like that of Impressionist paintings a century earlier, leans towards resorts, without being confined to them. But larger centres have their filmographies too: Marseille in Robert Guédiguian’s movies; Bordeaux in Moderato cantabile, Nice in Baie des anges; Lyon in Melville’s L’Armée des ombres; Lille in Zonca’s La Vie rêvée des anges. In such cases, the location of novels and films is precise and explicit, each accorded their distinctive colour and atmosphere.
The contrast with England is marked. Here, 19th-century literature could represent life outside London only with vague gestures of generalisation, as if the naming or describing of actual towns in the provinces fell under a pudeur scarcely less than that obscuring sex. Pallid typifications were the rule. Middlemarch is the title of a great novel, but the town itself is an abstraction, whose relation to the Coventry at which scholars try to peer behind it is notional. Was ‘Coketown’ – one of Dickens’s few excursion outside London – based on Preston, as some believe? It hardly matters. North and South? Skirts drawn up around Manchester, set in ‘Milton’. In Hardy, the faux-archaism of ‘Wessex’ and its cod-toponyms – Casterbridge, Melchester, Christminster and the rest – belong with the faux-mythology of the fates, though in this predominantly rural world, in which towns are subordinate, the veils, coy rather than classifying, are of less moment. Even in modern times, Cooper’s Scenes from Provincial Life evaporated Leicester, Amis’s Lucky Jim tippexed Swansea, and Lodge’s ‘Rummidge’ trilogy could not bring itself to name Birmingham. The persistence of the convention speaks volumes for the low standing of urban life outside the capital, novels risking loss of audience if they speak too openly of a particular city, as unlikely to be of much interest to anyone outside it. With few exceptions, films have followed suit. Liverpool in Distant Voices, Still Lives honourably aside, settings have tended to be either in London or a generically blurred North or Midlands.
Underlying this peculiarity of the English scene is the pattern described by Tom Nairn, fresh from Pisa, writing fifty years ago of the assimilation by the local bourgeoisie of the conservatism of the landowning rulers of the country:
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[*] Idiots building on sand
None too honest in business
A people who’ll never know anything
Invariably living in squalor
Several thousand vacant brains
Of an incorrigible stupidity.