Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Thursday 18 September 2008

Gently remove the postilion from under the horse...

This is one of the handy phrases offered by Mme de Genlis, tutor to French royalty, in her 18th century guide and phrasebook for travellers in rural France, as quoted in Graham Robb's Discovery of France, a book I'm loving.

The book is the story of how "France" developed from a society in which people had little experience of anywhere, let alone of any authority, outside their own immediate pays, where excise duties were required as goods moved from one part of the country to another, where families could - for no obvious reason - be defined as a caste almost of "untouchable" status as in India. It tells how the country was mapped, how transport was developed, how people migrated - a fascinating mix of global trends and piquant local detail. As for example, what Mme de Genlis's choice of phrases tells you about the state of the roads at the time. And did you know that bands of dogs were trained to smuggle goods past the excise officers - without being led by humans? Or that the "Tour de France" was a term for apprentices' travels to learn their trades around the country?.

The book closes with the development of both national identity through national education (and national military service) in the nineteenth century, and at the same time of regional/local identities to encourage tourism. Paris, by the way, hardly features.

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