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Diary

05 October 2012

ISTOCK

WE WERE burgled this summer. Thieves broke into our campervan while we were swimming in a French river, and took my laptop, an iPod, two smartphones, and my daughter's guitar. Like an idiot, I assumed we were covered by the travel insurance that we get "free" with our bank accounts, but, silly me: "Valuables taken from a motor vehicle" were specifically excluded.

Clearly, no one at RBS or Nationwide ever travels in a "motor vehicle". Indeed, judging by what they charge to look after your money, they probably all have personalised, gold-plated helicopters with built-in jacuzzis and mini-bars.

The fact that our motor vehicle was, at the time we were robbed, the equivalent of our hotel room, where the theft would have been covered, was of no interest. The banks' computer very definitely said "No".

I WOULD not mind so much if the banks did not, at the same time, pretend that they are really your helpful chums who cannot wait to press £50 notes into your hand. The only reason why Nationwide gave its customers "free" travel insurance in the first place was to obscure the fact that it was also extending the time it took to clear cheques. Travel insurance was a gimmick - and, as it turns out, a pretty useless one.

So, when they gush that they are "Now on your side more than ever", in their ghastly, Orwellian way, I know that what they really mean is: "Now getting even more money out of you than before, sucker."

THE real lesson I learnt from the burglary was not that banks are charlatans, however, or that I should have backed up my documents on a memory stick (thank you, everyone who told me afterwards), or that I should be grateful that no one had been hurt, but that losing my entire past, as recorded on my computer, was, well, brilliant.

After the shock and rage had died down - and my children had helpfully pointed out that they could send me all their emails and photos again, although whether they ever will is another story - my overriding feeling was, much to my astonishment, relief.

I felt as if I had I had got rid of a huge burden that had been weighing me down for years: a mass of responsibility and complexity that had produced a permanent state of long-term, low-level anxiety. My life for the past ten or more years was on that laptop, and I had finally got rid of it.

By losing all those emails, documents, accounts, demands, etc. - even the first few chapters of my so-called book - not to mention endless quantities of spam, jokes, and video clips, I felt as if I had switched off a too-loud background conversation, and was alone again in a silent room.

IT MADE me realise how tyrannised we all are we are by the non-stop tsunami of communication which gushes through our lives. Once upon a time, a few letters would land on the mat at breakfast, written days - or even weeks - before, which you could open, read, think about, and reply to when you felt like it (or not at all), the whole process taking at least a week - if you were idle or lethargic, considerably more.

Now, however, a flood of emails, texts, tweets, and posts pours in at all hours of the day and night, demanding immediate attention and response. And, what is worse, we are addicted to it, feverishly checking our phones and laptops and tablets a dozen times a day to see if somebody - anybody - has sent something to us, no matter how banal.

Add to that the 24/7 stream of television and radio, the endless news and gossip, the headlines, the music, the chat, the interviews, and it is no wonder that we feel so assaulted and exhausted all the time.

MY MISTAKE was to take my laptop on holiday at all. Not because it ended up financing some poor French chômeur's next fix, but because holidays are about cutting loose, not keeping contact. That feeling of lightness and calm I got, knowing that my documents had gone for good, was a revelation.

I now buy fewer newspapers, watch less television, and switch the radio off. In fact, I have turned into a fully paid-up Old Person (it helps that I still have not replaced the laptop). Not wanting so much contact with the world may be a sign of early-onset dementia. But there again, it could be a sign of late-acquired sanity.

THIS week brought the death of a man who changed the face of France. Edouard Leclerc, who was 85, was the daddy of the chain of 130 hypermarkets and 400 supermarkets that bear his name, and could be said, along with depopulation and the rise of the motor car, to have brought about the decay of provincial France. By cutting out the middleman in his 1947 grocery shop, Leclerc was able to sell at near-wholesale prices, undercutting his rivals, and eventually, along with competitors Intermarché and Carrefour, killing the little shops dead.

In England, we said goodbye to our independent grocers, hardware shops, and fishmongers years ago, but, until relatively recently, most little French towns had somewhere to buy food, such as an alimentation or a dépôt de pain. But, this summer, yet more of the places we stopped at were deserted, the faded shops boarded up and marked "À Vendre". A few of the prettier towns had survived, even more chillingly, by "Cotswoldifying" - turning their bakers and butchers into "ateliers" selling expensive nonsense: wooden puppets, wrought-iron gew-gaws, and antique linen.

Thanks in part to Leclerc, the French now do their proper shopping out of town, in the vast supermarkets and hangars that blight the outskirts of every town, sprawling further and further into the countryside. There is plenty of countryside left, but that Babar-like 1950s quality of France - the toy-box railway stations, the geranium-bedecked Bureaux de Poste, the shops and cafés on the square - is in its death throes.

We cannot just blame Leclerc. Every time we buy our holiday provisions at a hypermarket, or break our French journey at McDonald's, or stay the night in a budget-chain motel on the autoroute instead of at an independent chambre d'hôte, we are contributing to the decline.

The France to which the British are so sentimentally attached needs its 80 million annual tourists to put their money where their mouth is, and buy locally.

Oenone Williams lives in Salisbury with her five children and a husband who sings in the cathedral choir.

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Fri 20 May @ 03:09
Dean of Llandaff announces his resignation https://t.co/0FLLmJPQpM

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