On Thursday afternoons, I teach French (as a volunteer) at the children’s school. So it was wonderful to hear in the Thursday morning news about French President’s visit to the UK. Moreover the prospect of the Bayeux Tapestry coming to London at some point in the future.
Emmanuel Macron, France’s charismatic and rule-breaking (in a good way!) President, reminded us all what a passionate politician looks like. Smart, articulate, engaged. And not even speaking his first language.
Last year, thanks no doubt to Monsieur Macron, France overtook the UK and the US as the world’s top soft power. It is our French neighbours who now wield the most non-military global influence. The UK has always prided itself on its own standing in the soft power index. Yet we remain at number two. The US has slipped from one to three. Donald Trump, Brexit and the election of the charming French centrist appear to have shifted global perceptions.
Does it matter? Well, I think does. And I think the UK government realises that too. ‘Global Britain’ is the new buzzword. Ministers everywhere are referring to an internationalist and outward looking country. Furthermore, heritage and culture are a brilliant way of delivering soft power objectives.
And in today’s multi-dimensional, digitally connected world, organisations like ours have an important role to play. INTO is able to leverage community resource and influence across geographic divides. Which is just what soft power is all about.
So Monsieur Macron, in promising to lend the Bayeux Tapestry – just as he gave the Chinese President a French horse – shows his mastery of the diplomatic gesture.
Gesture or symbol notwithstanding, my 9-11 year olds were excited about the Bayeux Tapestry. We talked about it as a work of art and historical document. How it tells the story of Hastings from the point of view of the victors. That it is not actually a tapestry, but an embroidery. That it was not made in Bayeux, but probably in Canterbury. And lastly that it is nearly 1000 years old, 70 metres long, 50 centimetres high and very fragile. They all now want to see it for themselves. In Bayeux or London!
The evening before, I had attended the opening of the European Year of Cultural Heritage at the London Lumiere. This had been handily combined with the presentation of a Europa Nostra award for the regeneration of Kings Cross Station. What particularly struck me from the speeches was the idea of turning mirrors into windows. This is what we gain from interactions with other people facing similar challenges and opportunities in different countries. A mirror reflects back our own experience. But a window both reflects AND allows you to see into other worlds.
The extraordinary installations of the London Lumiere provided an enchanting backdrop to conversations about light and shade, Europe, regeneration and many other topics. I was thrilled to finally meet Michael Mail of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage as well as other colleagues and friends.
So back to my French lessons and the Federico Fellini quote: “A different language is a different vision of life”. I rather agree. And I can’t help thinking that in this day and age, speaking another language is such a valuable thing.
Whilst typing up my blog, I found a related Chinese proverb: “To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world”. Windows again. So important.
Thanks for reading!