Thou hast committed
Fornication: but that was in another country,
And besides, the wench is dead.
The Jew of Malta, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
Another Country is about British people in France, people who have turned their back on their homeland to settle in the Dordogne. It is about the lives they have built there, the identities they have acquired, and their view of the country they have left behind. But the subtext of these images, and the force driving my interest in this expatriate world, is an exploration of my own motivations for living in France and for spending most of my adult years there. My rejection of Britain, my attraction to France, my sense of social inadequacy – the feeling that I belonged nowhere in Britain – and my self-reinvention and ambition have all been part of this process. Over time, however, I find myself less content to be a foreigner and am increasingly drawn towards the British values that were instilled during my childhood. One day I might be drawn back to Britain itself.
As a child, at the end of each holiday in France, I never wanted to return to Britain. Later on, as I travelled around Asia after leaving school, I had recurring nightmares about caped men dragging me back to my country. As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to leave Britain. I started preparing my departure when I was fifteen. Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels helped me to perfect my fumbling French: I jotted down words I did not understand, to be crossed off once memorised. It was a mixture of wanting to escape Britain and being attracted to France, which had a culture closer to my way of seeing things.
I have studied and worked, mainly in Paris, since the age of nineteen and have now spent far more of my life in France than anywhere else. I no longer know where my home country is. In Britain, I do not feel British. In France, I am a French photographer with British nationality. Outside both countries, I am an Englishman from France. Now living in Belgium with my French partner, we are both homesick for France. Our daughter, Iris, was born in Belgium and has three different surnames, according to British, French and Belgian legislation. When she is older, I do not know whether she will say she is from her mother’s country, her father’s country, the country in which she was born, or the country in which she grows up.
Now that France and Britain are far from home, I feel a need to clear up my relationship with both places. I have found that misunderstandings between my partner and myself and the arguments that ensue often stem from our opposing ways of seeing things. British and French people rarely react to a situation in the same way. Even though we have lived together for many years, our daughter’s birth and her everyday upbringing have suddenly highlighted our differences. The French tend to be stricter with their children, imposing domestic rules and regulations at an early age. The British, on the other hand, are often happy to let their children run wild to encourage their creativity and development. Indeed, some French consider that the British do not know how to raise their children, which is why they have to send them away to strict boarding schools.
Before Iris was born, French was the common language in our household. For Iris to maintain her dual origins, however, we speak to her in our respective mother tongues. I find myself behaving differently when speaking each language. In English, I am calmer than in French. I often catch myself suppressing emotions, whereas in French I let them go. Discussions in English tend to be pragmatic and an outcome is expected, while in French, issues tend to be abstract and I toy with ideas with no real conclusion in mind. Hence, I can be more British in English and more French in French. This schizophrenic predicament that I find myself in contributes to a growing cultural divide within our small family.
The offer of an artist’s residence in the town of Ribérac in the Dordogne gave me the opportunity to spend time with British people living in what appeared to be a similar situation to mine. It was becoming urgent for me to recognise and understand the differences between my partner and myself in order to achieve a common ground between our two cultures. These Dordogne British, I thought, could sort out some of my problems at home by answering my indiscreet questions about how they related to the French people around them. They could give me some answers about issues such as social security, sex, taxes, education, freedom, money, health, love, pressure, Britain, happiness, stress, food, friends and politics, that are dealt with differently in the two countries.
Britain’s relationship with France in general is telling. The British have a passionate love-hate relationship with France, yet the French in turn are only vaguely interested in Britain. Bordering Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Germany and Belgium, and receiving a stream of immigrants from old African and Asian colonies, France has other fish to fry. This one-way fascination with France says a lot about Britain. An object of desire, France could also be a mirror portraying what is wrong in Britain, revealing a hidden side.
My work has always focused on people living far from my home. I do not speak their languages and we rarely have any cultural links. A translator acts as a go-between, giving me distance and time to observe and assess the situation. In the areas where I have worked previously, such as Central Asia, Africa or Eastern Europe, legislation is different or non-existent, so the documents that normally allow me to reproduce and publish a person’s image are not necessary, thereby avoiding the uneasy process of contracts and signatures. In these contexts, personal disclosure is one way. I learn about their lives in situ, but they can only know what I choose to tell them about mine. Working in war zones, I take risks, putting myself in physical danger, but there are no repercussions on my life outside that situation. When the job is done, I can detach myself from it forever. Far from home, nobody is going to threaten my family, confront me with my childhood mistakes, or remind me what I am running from. No-one has ever recognised me or my accent, or known my background well enough to confront me with my incoherencies and contradictions.
In photographing Another Country, this was not the case. A number of links with my past emerged. Jeremy Harris (p. 62) had a brother three years below me at school, in my sister’s year. His father (p. 55) sails with my aunt and uncle off Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The parents of Louise Ham (p. 45) ran the local pub in the village where I grew up; her sister Katy was my first crush (we used to hold hands in the lunch queue at primary school). Paula Balfour (p. 59) is friends with my brother-in-law’s godfather. A close British friend spent four years redecorating a house belonging to the grandmother of Pinky Image (p. 30). Martha Price (p. 96) came with her family from a small town just inside Wales where my father lives. Matt Meers (p. 71) learnt to weave willow with a good friend. Strange coincidences in a country with a population of 65 million.
British identities are much less territorial than French ones. Apart from seeing themselves as Irish, Scottish, Welsh, or English, most of the people I met in the Dordogne could not say quite where they were from. The French, however, generally identify themselves through their particular geographical origins. Physique, accent, food, mentality and dress code are specific to a region. Even local language was very varied until quite recently. Only 20 per cent of people in France spoke French by the late nineteenth century: diverse patois were spoken in each region and French was confined to larger towns and the area surrounding Paris. Even today, national cohesion often comes second to regional allegiance in France.
In Britain, by contrast, there is a strong sense of nation and people identify with coming from the countryside, or from a town, rather than with a particular region. More significant for Anglo-Saxons is social class, as displayed through education, accent, body language, clothes, possessions and behaviour. Houses, especially, play a major part in marking social standing. The British own and love their homes: their house is their castle, a retreat and haven from the rest of the world, its objects and décor an expression of their soul. Peer pressure to have a beautiful home is one of the attractions of moving to France. For years, a beautiful old house in a country setting could be had in the Dordogne for a fraction of real estate prices in Britain. Until the 2008-09 financial crisis and the demise of the pound, a semi-detached house in Kent was worth more than a château just outside Ribérac. It seemed appropriate, then, that the British in the Dordogne defined their neighbours by describing the houses they lived in. Set in an untouched, bucolic, rolling countryside resembling that of Britain in the 1930s, every house is an aesthetic fantasy of an idealised version of Britain on French soil.
Hence, interesting houses found me interesting people. A couple of local estate agents, also expatriates, with a wide knowledge of local real estate and the British social scene helped me enormously by pointing me in the right direction. Those that I appreciated told me in turn about others and I followed the trail, aiming to meet people from all walks of life. To make life simpler, the people in this book all lived within a 30 kilometre radius of Ribérac, the majority in the Dordogne, with some just over the border in the Charente. If anyone showed the slightest reluctance to having their photograph taken, I stopped there. Generous, courageous, open-minded, creative and curious dreamers filtered their way into this book. With nothing to hide, everybody who ended up here said yes without persuasion. I have not sought to include or persuade any of those who were reluctant, or changed their mind at the last moment. As a result, the selection I have made here is not necessarily representative of the whole.
Officially, there are 10,000 British living in the Dordogne, but 30,000 would be closer to the truth. No one is obliged to say that they are there. Ribérac and its environs form one of the densest areas of British settlement in France. Ten kilometres further north, the percentage of British living in the canton of Verteillac is higher than that in any other territory outside the UK. The reason for this is simple: if you drive down from Britain, Ribérac is one of the furthest points south into France that can be reached before nightfall. It is an economical family destination that does not involve hotels, aeroplanes, car hire and exhaustion in getting there. The countryside is like Hampshire before motorways took over. British summer days last through seven months of the year and authentic houses are cheap.
During the short, but intimate time I spent with each of the people in this book, I learned enough to understand how they went about their lives and what made them tick. The setting in each photograph is an expression of the person’s character or present situation. Graeme Wallace (p. 95), for example, who has spent most of his life hopping around the world teaching English, wore the elf costume he was given one Christmas. Lizzie Henty (p. 73) wore clothes that are for sale on her website. Her husband Michael (p. 97) wore none; having recently spent so much time in and out of hospital that it was almost second nature for him to be naked. Aaron Blond (p. 85) humoured me by showing the British tendency for loo décor; he acknowledges spending a lot of time reading there. Rachel Evans (p. 35) has been known to watch television in her birthday suit while riding Stanley in the sitting room. Depicting a broken dream, John and Egje Mitchell (p. 38) hug each other in an empty field, following the collapse of their house due to an incompetent British builder. After five years in a Tibetan monastery in India, Jeremy Harris (p. 62) uses a meditation technique at the bottom of his garden.
The photographs were intentionally taken during the winter months as only those who live in the Dordogne on a permanent basis are there at that time. We were also far from the Dordogne cliché of wine and confit de canard on sun-baked terraces, against a backdrop of sunflower fields and verdant hillsides. The title Another Country seemed appropriate for a variety of reasons. On the most superficial level, it reflects the pioneering efforts of the Dordogne British to create their ideal land, one that has perhaps never existed and never will. It is a country inspired by a romanticised version of Britain similar to that of Evelyn Waugh’s novels Decline and Fall (1928) and Brideshead Revisited (1945). But the title also has other resonances. The words come from The Jew of Malta, a play written by Christopher Marlowe in 1589 or 1590, and they were used by T.S. Eliot in a quotation to preface his haunting poem ‘Portrait of a Lady’, in which the narrator finds himself unable to respond to an older woman’s advances and so travels abroad. ‘Another Country’ was also used as the title of a play written by the English playwright Julian Mitchell, in 1982 and the adapted film by Mareck Kanievska with Rupert Everett, in 1984. Loosely based on the life of the spy, Guy Burgess, the play examines the effect of homosexuality and Marxism on the life of Burgess, and the hypocrisy and snobbery of the British public school system. The title refers not only to communist Russia, which is the ‘other country’, but also to the world of British public schools in the 1930s, which was indeed like ‘another country’.
In each of the above cases, the reference is in respect to both a geographical location that is different from the one in which the character grew up, and an emotional context from which he is now detached. The distant echo of the homosexual theme in Julian Mitchell’s play also serves here to reflect the dynamic gay scene among the British in the Dordogne. This seems paradoxical in rural France, often considered conventional and conservative, but this scene is apparently widely accepted here, since unlike the British in their native country, the French in the Dordogne care little about what their neighbours are, or what they do.
The Dordogne is an Eldorado where everyone can reinvent themselves. You can be whoever and whatever you want to be: a builder becomes a craftsman, a truck driver becomes an estate agent, a hairdresser becomes the lady of the manor, a shop assistant becomes a real estate mogul, an engineer becomes a film producer, and a company executive becomes a jack-of-all-trades. There is less chance of this happening in Britain, where the predominant class system, based on birth and education, often limits what one can and cannot do.
The British community in the Dordogne is divided into two distinct groups: those who are integrated into French society and those who are not. Some have a strange superiority complex and do not want to have anything to do with the French, nor do they have to, as their income comes from pension funds, rent or investments in Britain. Some are just too lazy to learn the language or make an effort, and live off income generated through the Dordogne British, mostly through building work, or holiday rentals. Some try very hard to integrate, however, and find that it is not easy. The general rule is that the longer a person has been around, the more chance he or she has of being accepted. I heard some British people say that they have little in common with French locals, apart from weather and building techniques, and that conversation topics quickly run dry. Small things can become big bones of contention, such as invitations to a home meal that are not reciprocated, or different responses to the hunting season when anything that moves is a potential target, making afternoon strolls a dangerous venture. There is a clear cultural divide, then, between the British and the local French. With high unemployment, the young locals tend to make a beeline for towns and cities to find work. Those who remain in the countryside scrape a living off the land on smallholdings and are not quite sure what to make of these incoming eccentrics.
The British I came across that had succeded integration within French society were either born in France, or had come when they were young and open-minded enough to assimilate. After a certain age, people seemed to have been instilled with a Britishness that it was impossible to wash out further down the line. Following a violent dispute with his father, Norman Smith (p. 78) ran away to the area when he was seventeen. At that time, there were few young British people around and he was adopted as the local French mascot. Now married to a local French schoolteacher, Norman is an established builder and most of his clients are French. Joel Thomas Grant (p. 80) has a similar story: with problems at home, he came when he was fifteen and was adopted by both British and French communities. The British call him Tom and the French call him Joel. Norman and Tom both made a conscious decision to leave Britain and embrace France. They consider themselves to be more French than British, having given to and taken from France far more than they have with respect to Britain. They came to immerse themselves in the French culture, to learn French, to learn from the French and to be French.
Sara de Bathe (p. 57) is another example of integration. She came from Southsea in Hampshire with her parents when she was eleven years old, went back at sixteen, but then, missing France, she returned in 2004 at the age of thirty-three. Employed as a teaching assistant in Saint Aulaye, she is the only person I met who worked for the French state. Having arrived here twenty-two years ago, Mitt Morris (p. 89) works on architectural projects in the area, alongside French builders working for French clients. Describing herself as ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing with tits’, she commands respect from French builders, who arrive on time and do the job for the same pay as their British counterparts. The secret of integration here is work. If you work with the French, you have to speak French and you become part of the French system and France. On the whole, though, the British are ardently independent and like to be their own boss, whereas the French want the security of employment and the social benefits that go with it. Equally, many British do not have the fluency in French, or the relevant qualifications, required by a prospective French employer.
The recent financial crisis has changed things dramatically. The pound has dropped by a third against the euro, the London stock exchange has lost a third of its value, interest rates have plummeted and British real estate is in turmoil. France is now more expensive than Britain. Bad news for those living off a sterling income in the Dordogne, but no change for those living within the French system. For the first time, without their buying power and financial complacency the British realise that to survive they must either integrate into French society or leave. Some are returning to Britain, while others are trying to reproduce the same pattern by moving to Morocco, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania, where living and real estate remain cheap.
The British I met in the Dordogne are brave. Most have left everything behind in Britain: family, friends, work and community, to live out their dream and attain a standard of living impossible back home. They are a mirror reflecting what is wrong with their country. The stakes are high: peers think they are either mad or enlightened, and any backtracking to Britain is often deemed a financial and social failure. Proud to be from the same nation as these people in Another Country, I was surprised by their stiff upper lip and the way that they never complain, no matter how difficult their situation may be. I enjoyed their self-derisory sense of humour. They were trusting and generous, potential friends who could be family. With our shared British backgrounds, they were somehow part of me, but I no longer feel that I belong with them. This book has shown me that I am made up of two spheres, each rotating around the other. The two do not mix, but together they keep me standing: one would collapse without the other. To understand the real allegiances of those integrated within French society, I bluntly asked them which camp they would choose if a war broke out between Britain and France. They all said that they would run away. This is how I feel. I cannot take sides. On the one hand, it would mean fighting family and friends, on the other it would be the same. I am no longer British, but I am not French: my identity is both.
The people in Another Country consider that home is where family and friends are; it is not linked to geography or culture. Essentially, the idea of home is up to us, it is where and what we want it to be. I found that I looked forward to going ‘home’ to Belgium at the end of each stay. I was homesick for Brussels. Instead of finding answers for our differences at home, Another Country has indirectly resolved matters in an unexpected way. Reassured that I am not the only one to dress up as an elf, ride around naked on a donkey, or have a ram for a chauffeur, my partner has written a piece for this book. This is the first time we have worked together on a project. She has also started to speak to Iris in English, and now I often speak to Iris in French.
We are expecting our second child in June.
Rip Hopkins, Brussels, December 2009
"We’re slaves to this place now": Matt (41) and Wendy (44) Meers have lived on their smallholding since 2003. They came from Witney in Oxfordshire, jumping off the bandwagon to live an alternative life. Matt is now a farmer, yurt-builder and willow-weaver, and Wendy is an eco-warrior. Spunkpot (2) is a Jacob Ram. His grandfather won the Best Jacob prize in Holland. His name comes from his father, Spike, and his mother, Inkpot. Some time in the future, their children may influence a decision to move. If they do leave they will go to Canada.