Hart of the Matter
It’s that week in the year when you come back from walking down the street wondering where everyone is. The answer, of course, is that they are off on holiday.
Our lives, whether we like it or not, are heavily influenced by the dates of the school term, even if it’s only trying to organise our holidays during term time to avoid the screaming kids and the high prices.
Of the thousands of people from Haverhill and its surrounding area who are heading off for their main annual break, there will be those who may well be taking the opportunity to visit friends they have made in two very particular districts of the Continent – Hessen on the River Lahn and Gard on the River Rhone.
Those friendships have come about by the merest chance that two little towns, one in each of these areas, became twinned with Haverhill in the days when town-twinning was a trendy activity.
The French twinning began over 50 years ago and sprang from a visit to Pont St Esprit by teachers from Castle Manor. The German one dates from the early 1980s thanks originally to a visit to Ehringshausen by teachers from Samuel Ward.
These links were given the stamp of civic approval at a time – particularly the earlier one – when we were all attempting to build bridges around Europe to prevent further hostilities in the wake of the Second World War.
They were cultural exchanges, too, because – and this may be difficult for anyone brought up in this global age to comprehend – travel to the continent had only just begun to emerge as a common activity for the working classes.
I remember my aunts and uncles beginning to take holidays abroad as quite a big adventure, and coming back with little fragments of the culture that they had encountered, such as a liking for Sauterne or Gorgonzola. Even France and Germany were very strange foreign places in those days.
It says something for the effect of holiday travel and initiatives like town-twinning that they are no longer seen as adventurous places to explore. Now they are more likely to be the target of a shopping trip.
The close involvement of schools in the birth of these twinning links was a common factor all over the country. Schools, even in those days, rarely did anything without an eye to how they would benefit from it, and in this case the object was the improvement of pupils’ mastery of foreign languages, in particular the two then seen as the most important – French and German.
If you accompany most British tourists abroad you will probably come to the conclusion that this part of the initiative has been a signal failure. English speakers are as reluctant as ever, in general, to risk their dignity by attempting to speak to a foreigner in his or her own language. Instead we expect them to rub along in ours which, of course, most of them can.
The twinning links, pupil exchanges and holiday trips often forced English guests or hosts out of their comfort zone. You might be billeted with a family which spoke no English, or where only one member had to act as translator.
It was generally the men who found this most difficult. While French or German women often seemed happily bilingual - and English women either also were, or were more willing to try - if the chaps were left alone together, silence was likely to descend, broken only by a bit of embarrassed laughter now and again.
Both Ehringshausen and Pont St Esprit are worth a visit. They are located in interesting and attractive parts of their respective countries and there is plenty to see and do. Equally, of course, Haverhill was ideally situated for their residents to visit Cambridge or London.
I have visited both on very enjoyable occasions and found the inhabitants genuinely friendly and interested in the twinning link. I have also visited another town which, though not an official twin, has historical links with us – Haverhill, Massachusetts, where the hospitality was equally as friendly and generous, but tinged with a certain patronising smugness.
Many Americans hold the view that theirs is the only country worth visiting, so they are delighted to host you and show you round, but not much interested in where you come from or you returning the compliment. Our hostess in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a much-travelled and well-educated Bostonian, confessed she was ashamed of her compatriots’ lack of interest in the world.
I wonder what she would have thought of Haverhill, England, removing the names of its twin towns from its entrance boards. I think she would have perceived an Americanisation of our culture, which has been rapidly advancing for decades and which seems to me to be the main, if not the only, reason from remaining in the EU.
Once people start examining what we get out of our twinning links in terms of business deals and the cost to us as tax payers, then you know that it’s not just our television which is being taken over.
It amuses me to see how people panic about the level of East European immigration to Britain, or the growth of the Muslim communities, and talk about how our country is becoming unrecognisable and is under cultural threat, but remain completely blind to the insidious way in which the American way of life has all but destroyed so much of what was essentially British.
When I was a child we knew nothing of burgers, of hot dogs, of malls, of blueberry muffins, of The Sopranos, of school proms, of Ninjas, of Mad Men, of maple syrup, of sneakers, of down-sizing, of networking, of fun days, of multiplexes, of alcopops, of jeggings, etc, etc – the list is endless.
I have a board game called The Best Of British, ‘a game of what makes Britain British’, and its creators have not had to distil this essence by getting rid of vast quantities of Eastern European, Mediterranian or Middle Eastern infusions. No, they have just had to boil away the massive, overwhelming invasion of American culture of the post-war period.
So let’s hang on to twinning with proper, long-established, historical cultures and build bridges with many others (China would certainly be a good one) – anything to remain independent by putting up a dam against being drowned from over the Pond.
|David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.