My title is taken in part from a chapter included in Christopher S. Thompson’s The Tour de France: A Cultural History (London 2006 & 2008). It seems a curious juxtaposition of topics but in this time of general confusion and uncertainty perhaps it is through conjunctures like this that coherence can best emerge.
An earlier contribution to this site from myself asked people to disregard the World War II rhetoric emerging from Downing St. and consider instead the meaning and relevance of Great War memorials. The three months that have passed since that publication have seen little change in the official narrative where bombast and slogan – ‘Build, Build, Build’ being the latest dumb outpouring – diminish and negate serious discussion.
It is through reading Thompson’s exhaustive and detailed history especially the chapter named above where he considers the Tour de France as a prime agent of regeneration in a country shattered to the bone by the impacts of both World Wars that a sense of the parallel conditions in Covid-19 Wales emerges.
Thompson pertinently describes the mass migrations in search of employment from the Brittany countryside following the Great War, ‘the disproportionately heavy toll (around 12% of the French total) of Breton war fatalities’ and the banning of the Breton language in its schools at the war’s outbreak. He estimates from his sources that Breton was spoken by one and a half million people at that time – a total higher in degree to population than that of Wales at the same time – but the total exodus, of people and their language from an essentially rural Brittany amounted to at least 215,000 in the decade following the 1918 Armistice.
These figures stand direct comparison with those of Wales and the economic depression that continued into the 1930’s strikes a similar chord. To help stem its survival as an entity with specific differences from the rest of France, Brittany played a trump card, albeit by default, with the Tour de France returning to the region’s heartland city of Rennes in 1933 and repeating this as an annual visit for the next five years, effectively putting that city back ‘on the map’. In the decade following the Great War, the port of Brest, at the very tip of Brittany had been included for a stopover but the race shunned the interior and was seen as disregarding its native population as a result.
There being no obvious equivalent to the Tour in British terms as either a reality or an existential unifying force, one that encourages a serious debate amongst the wreckage that has followed Johnson’s unilateral declaration of ‘Lockdown’, it is left to Wales to salvage her own particular solution to the present crisis and to be convinced enough to see it through. This latter needs to be in defiance of the compromises down the centuries that have inevitably produced a favour to the English side of the border – perhaps the closure of Ebbw Vale Steelworks being an obvious and bitter example. Observed from a distance, in this writer’s case the English side of the border, it is striking to note the response of Mark Drakeford as First Minister shows a greater coherence and respect for human values than that of the resident in 10, Downing St. and it is certainly time for the negative voices in Welsh politics to give up on points scoring and petty criticism. A ‘national’ government for Wales would be my solution, this could be the unique moment in time to allow it to happen.
This year’s edition of the Tour has been postponed with the scheduled first stage taking place later this month, 29th and a culmination due in Paris three weeks later – as is the norm – on Sunday, September 20. All the signs from France in every sphere indicate that the Tour will go ahead. As Thompson indicates and as will be apparent to anyone who has witnessed the race at first-hand, the race has become, ‘a preeminent symbol of France that both commemorates the past and looks to the future while beggaring the complicated question; which France does the Tour symbolise?’ For this reasoning it is imperative to the French psyche that the Tour happens.
We would do well, as a nation whose borders exceed the lines drawn on a map, to take a long, hard look at the Tour de France and the representations of itinerary, narrative and identity it will project through every medium known. There just may be an answer there as to the way forward for Wales in the continuing climate of Covid-19.