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It takes more than youthful indiscretion to make a summer

Riyadh: Sunday 13th May, 2012

Amid the endless stories of economic melt down in Europe it is possible to forget two parallel features which characterize much of modern European culture and identity.

Firstly, it remains the case that for the vast majority of people in Western Europe, it has never been cheaper to travel abroad. Despite the “Double-Dip” Recession and European Financial Crisis, this summer will see millions of Britons travelling to destinations which were the preserve of the wealthy just 50 years ago. The profound alterations this has witnessed in British popular culture should not be underestimated. 100 years ago, very few Britons had ever been abroad. France was not merely a dream destination but for the majority a completely unrealizable one: a place so unimaginably foreign that when WWI saw, for the first time in living memory, large numbers of working class men heading for the continent, stories abounded of their befuddled attempts to come to terms with foreign drinks such as wine or today’s familiar place names. Today it is possible, relatively cheaply to sample Rakia at the other end of Europe, within a few hours of home. And more importantly, this is deemed unremarkable.

Secondly, for all that we celebrate the democratization of foreign travel, all European economies still maintain elites to whom the burden of leadership falls and to whose children, future leadership will fall. For all the attempts to legislate a meritocratic alternative to the dictatorship of the proletariat foreseen by Marxists, Europe remains relentlessly class bound. It is possible for a talented child to rise to positions of prominence and importance in most European economies. But it remains much harder than for children of privilege. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the class divide, however, the fact remains that while we can all now travel to the great European Capitals, given a moderate level of will power and self-discipline, few of us will ever be important enough to directly influence events in such places. Rightly or wrongly, that burden and privilege will continue to fall, disproportionately on the children of the wealthiest 5% of our populations and it is their formative travels that will dictate our future relationships with Europeans.

So nothing has changed. For Centuries, The Great European Capitals have beguiled and fascinated and drawn like sirens, the worlds upwardly mobile to sample their delights. In a line of tourism longer than anything that could be mustered at Heathrow Passport Control, generations have travelled to the great capitals to be entertained, enlightened and to find romance. Geoffrey Chaucer could not have written the Canterbury Tales were it not for his journey to Italy and his falling under the influence of Boccaccio And ever since, men who wished to advance have travelled to the continent to gain fortune and favour. Only occasionally has this route been open to the middle and lower classes and normally only in time of war.

The 30 years war saw large numbers of British people travelling from England, Ireland and Scotland to fight either through religious conscience or, more normally, for material reward as mercenaries for one side or the other. Yet it is directly from this war and its settlement of European affairs into a condition of relative peace for a generation which allowed, for the first great Aristocratic migrations to influence British life.

The 18th Century equivalent of the YUPPY, “Macaroni’s,” those foppish dandies, sons of British aristocrats and tea merchants’ would travel on Grand Tours, mixing first hand experience of the continents Greco-Roman treasures and the great civilizations centered on Vienna, Madrid, Paris or Istanbul with initial, doubtless fumbling, ventures into the pleasures of the flesh. The French revolution and Wars of Napoleon called an abrupt halt to such adolescent frivolity, but not before Keats and Wordsworth, Pitt The Younger, Spencer Percival and Lord Castlereagh and others had their formative experiences broadened by a chance to see first hand, the world from a sun drenched Tuscan landscapes to the Tyrolean Mountains, to have their understanding of the Classics broadened, their knowledge of modern languages enhanced and their sexual teeth cut by exotic exponents of the oldest profession.

The war (and in particular, the peninsula Campaign lead by the Duke of Wellington), introduced an altogether different young demographic to the European Continent. A generation of young men who might have otherwise toiled on fields or in the pre-industrial towns of Britain their entire lives, instead found themselves sweating under the Kings shilling from the coast of Portugal to arid Spanish interior to the Pyrenees and finally into France.

What effect this new-found experience of the world may have had on these young men is little understood. In part we know so little, because their literacy was so poor. In many cases they were appallingly remembered after the fighting was done, returning to a post war depression with no use for their acquired martial skills and not enough work to return to, many of those who did not find themselves begging on the streets, were condemned to short, tough, violent internments in the gin soaked slums of the burgeoning cities or forced to devote their energies to labouring for squalid wages would find themselves indentured on package to the new world or as prisoners to the Australian colonies. But the majority will have returned to something approaching their previous lives, their reminiscences of foreign climates and cultures dying with them.

But the return to a century of peace from 1815 returned the aristocracy to a new golden period of Grand Tours. Lord George Gordon (Lord Byron) would live out the Romanticized dreams of an adolescent amid the echoes of Homeric do-and-dare, swimming the Hellespont and fighting for Greek Independence before succumbing to Tuberculosis, leaving behind him a string of broken hearts as long as his epic, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. He might have been the poster boy for the revived Grand Tours of the 19th Century but the lasting effects of these formative trips can be seen in the actions of others.

Winston Churchill, for example, enjoyed the delights of Europe, before heading off to the Boer War and his enduring love of the continent shows through in much of his later strategic thinking. His visions for Italian and Baltic Campaigns, and arguably even his deal with Stalin over the future of Greece, as well as his attitude toward sharing the victory with a resurrected France, all were arguably influenced in part by romantic underpinnings cemented during his youth. His grand sweeping strategic flights of fancy are often quite at odds with the sober reality of conflict as envisaged by his generals. It is certainly wrong to place too direct a link between Churchill’s vision for conducting a European War but it is similarly naive to ignore his romantic streak as well as his own family connections to the Duke of Monmouth, victor of the Battle of Blenheim during the 30 Years War.

And Churchill was not unique. Everywhere in 18th and 19th Century Political thinking we see echoes of Youthful dalliances on the continent. The effects could sometimes be profound and dramatic, at others, as a moon-cast shadow to the events of the day, but the overall effect was to guide British policy towards a conservative and sensitive view of European affairs, encouraging engaged isolationism together with an often romantic idea of the continent. As Britain (Particularly England) edged slowly away from puritanical or evangelical forms of Protestantism in the 18th century, so it became possible for a sort of High Anglican aristocracy to reassert itself after the travails of the 17th Century civil and religious wars. And it was this pragmatic elite, fabulously wealthy by the standards of the average person who would educate their sons in the philosophy of Ancient Greece, and in the history of the Romans, Byzantines and the reemergence from the dark ages, of civilization under Charlemagne. It is easy to imaging these gouache young aristocrats, fueled by testosterone and romantic zeal, heading expectantly out of harbour, bound for the adventure of a lifetime.

The enlightenment and the awakening of British intellectual life to modern Philosophical ideas did much to dictate the elites attitude to social change. The French revolution and subsequent rise of Napoleon shut off the grand tour for a generation and heralded increased repression of democratic sentiment at home (Just as later, the 1848 Revolutions would do). But it also influenced a generation of the elite to view more soberly (and eventually, judiciously) the idea of democracy and increased freedom. Wordsworth as a young man was so enthusiastic for the French Revolution that he travelled to Paris to witness it first hand, fathering an illegitimate child in the process. His subsequent swift repudiation of radicalism and slow emergence as the conservative, establishment figure who so enraged Byron can be traced to his disillusionment with what he witnessed in Paris.

And just as the Napoleonic Wars had introduced a generation of British youth to the continent so the first and second world wars took a generations of young men away from the cities, towns and villages of home and plunged them into foreign environments, where they were required to adapt to foreign food and drink and swelter under a foreign sun. The post-war generations of politicians reacted to these experiences very differently. Men like Dennis Healy or Ted Heath who fought during the war and their successors, like Michael Heseltine, Shirley Williams, Margaret Thatcher & David Owen, who came of age during its immediate and austere aftermath, sought passionately to deal with its legacy.

Package holidays have opened up the continent to working class Britons, who now no longer need to experience Europe only in times of Conflagration. Yet the Grand Tour, beloved of the aristocrat can still be found in pockets, like Hvar, Gestalt, as well as the old favorites of Paris, Vienna or Florence. Here, the young rich choose to spend their holidays before going to University. These holidays are much less romantically charged than those of Byron, more relaxed and less shrouded in mystique. No longer is it necessary to mingle the pleasures of wine and octopus salad and the delights of the flesh with an awareness of the classics or the Artistic and Philosophy of the ancients. Moreover, the holidays enjoyed by the young elites of today are rarely that distinguishable from those of the poor. The food is better, the clothes more expensive, the locations less developed, but the mix is much the same; sun, sea, sex and sangria.

And there is a principal difference between today’s young elites and those of the Grand Tours. Today’s young elite are more likely to be tomorrows investment Fund Managers rather than it’s statesmen, but just as surely as Churchill intoned in 1939, “Thank God for the French Army”, so will tomorrows leaders be indelibly influenced and marked by their formative experiences of European cultures and identities.

Or will they? On a visit to Paris last week, I was struck, as expected, by the sheer romance of the city. Clearly so were others for nowhere else on earth have I experienced so many couples suddenly and passionately embracing and kissing. It was as though, with a Parisian Spring had come a new age of fertility and love, only beneath this verdant image of multiple follies d’amour, lies a barren, withered heart. For the overwhelming majority of those I witnessed kissing in Paris were in their 40’s or older. Indeed, I am struggling to recall any people under 30 who were not Parisians. And those few examples were all American or Japanese. And this is not surprising, given Europe’s aging populations and the great expense of Paris. It is a wonderful city but even avoiding the restaurants and hotels at the top end of the spectrum involves a prohibitive financial outlay.

Paris is for the moneyed but how many of today’s youth have that sort of disposable income? Even among the affluent classes, that generation from whom tomorrows leaders will (rightly or wrongly) be drawn, have little in the way of jobs and are burdened with student debts and a requirement to save for pensions or mortgages from a young age. Perhaps, of course, it is simply that Early May is the wrong time for young couples. Perhaps in Easter or during the sweltering summer, as Paris heads en-mass to the Cote d’Azure, they will be replaced by the latest generation of young lovers, keen to broaden their horizons by visiting the Mona Lisa or Rodin’s The Kiss, by strolling amid the Jardin Du Luxembourg or rafishly seducing students at cafe’s by The Sorbonne.

But it was not always thus. As the song says, “Paris will always be Paris”, but “Paris in the Spring” is famous for good reason and is the ideal time to go. We rightly celebrate the democratization of foreign travel and the chance for people of all classes to enjoy foreign food and a fortnight’s sunshine. But amid this celebration, we must not forget the limitations of a week in the Costas. As the writer, Will Self, put it, it takes more than eating a ciabatta to ‘do Italy’.

Whatever their backgrounds, it is right that young people are able to go to foreign places and only natural that they will indulge in the interests and pursuits of the newly liberated. Moreover it is wholly wrong to criticize young people for behaving like young people on a foreign holiday. The Grand Tours were essentially debauched exercises in promiscuity and experimentation, and that will never change. What made them relevant to history, was that by exposing these young men (and by the dictats of the time, they were almost all young men) to different cultures, and giving them the education to immerse themselves in the world of culture and classical antiquity, they were ultimately enriched by the experience. As Byron swam The Hellespont, he was consciously imitating Greek romantic legend; a parallel excercise in libidinous machismo and a direct tribute to classical scholarship.

Yet if Paris is too expensive for the young rich, what hope do the rest of us have? If the young elites are no longer able to visit the pre-Raphaelite’s of Florence in between bouts of smoking weed and humping one another silly, what affect will this enforced philistinism have on our future rulers? If there is an advantage to providing the young with a window of freedom in which the rules of normal behaviour are discarded it is in providing a deliberate and unnatural context (a foreigness) to such libertine behaviour, which simultaneously sends a direct message as to the normality of real life. Yet the real value is in providing a oportunity to sample a culture and not merely a freer version of home.

And when we retreat to a world where our young can no longer afford to educate themselves in the interests of the young within a context a larger and wider and more diverse cultural landscape than our own, we cannot be surprised when the world that they inherit is a more parochial and self-absorbed one than the one bequeathed to us.

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