Almost exactly 35 years ago, I decided to leave the busy Fleet Street office of The Scotsman
(those were the days) and return to Edinburgh as the newspaper's industrial editor (those were the days).
Friends and colleagues in 'The Street' were bewildered. I had found a happy billet as a member of the notorious labour and industrial correspondents' group, was comfortable working the trade union beat, and was known to have received several tempting offers from 'national', meaning London-published, newspapers. One expression kept cropping up: 'But it's so provincial,' I was told repeatedly. 'Why go back to the provinces?'
Provincial, as the term is used in the UK and especially from within the M25, is just about as condescending as the English language gets. In France, by contrast, it is a badge of cultural pride. In the UK, it denotes inferiority: in France, distinctiveness and self-confidence.
As to leaving London, there were all sorts of reasons. Six years coping with London's (then) abysmal infrastructure and grime were enough. The 1980's excesses of City yuppiedom were every bit as repellent as history remembers. Home rule for Scotland was at last returning to the political agenda, having dropped off in 1979. I had just become a father and, with the Thatcher house price boom at its height in London but yet to spread elsewhere, we could sell our dreich little terraced house in Wimbledon and raise our child in a splendid Victorian detached villa beside the Water of Leith.
Plus, as I pointed out doggedly, Scotland wasn't, and never has been, anybody's damn province. Still, I knew what they meant. There was a grain of truth in this metropolitan perception that everywhere outside the 'home' counties was a primitive, derelict wasteland where nothing interesting ever happened. There is rather more than a grain of truth in it now.
Half a century of de-industrialisation has seen London steadily suck the vitality, wealth, opportunity, talent and energy out of the rest of the country. The great cities of the manufacturing age are now despondent husks, trying to carve a future out of raw optimism, embarrassing slogans and speculative development, as once they carved it out of coal, steel and timber. London gobbles resources like a greedy infant: add the £18bn cost of Crossrail1 to the £41bn earmarked for Crossrail2 and you have the entire Scottish budget. Think what ScotRail could do with the £500m spent on refurbishing King's Cross station, or the £800m spent next door at St Pancras. Boris Johnson's 'levelling up' agenda, while it has come to very little, was a belated recognition that London's economic churn is now miles beyond the reach of any other part of Britain.
Worse, almost, than the resource disparities are the attitudes that go with it. 'Provincial' life in Britain is too often made to feel like following the parade with a bucket and shovel. Theatrical productions that have run to exhaustion in London are sent on a 'tour of the provinces', usually with a third-rate replacement cast. The 'national' media review restaurants or fashion or performance outside London only during the Edinburgh Festival. Fragments of great art exhibitions are loaned out to the 'provinces', like crumbs from the high table. Interesting ideas and debate are the exclusive preserve of metropolitan intellectual salons.
After the Brexit vote, a phrase did the rounds to the effect that Britain was 'a brilliant city with a crap country attached'. Again, it wasn't true, but you could see the point. There is always loads going on in London, and not nearly enough going on everywhere else. What the sneers of 'provincial' and 'crap' do is to lay the blame on everywhere else.
The French use the term 'provincial' too, but it is not pejorative, even when spoken by a Parisian. It does not mean backward or inconsequential. Provincial in France conveys distinctiveness of place and independence of outlook. It has positive connotations. The French speak of provincial cuisine, and culture, and dialect, and politics: and they do so with pride.
In contrast to Britain, provincial pride has grown with migration from countryside to city. Many extended French families share the cost of keeping on a family home, often inhabited by elderly relatives, back in the region – the patrimoine – from which they come, and to which they return frequently. 'Provincial' is about location, not prestige. It is not in the least contradictory to talk of a proud provincial capital like Lyon, Marseilles, Rennes, Strasbourg… or Lille, where we just spent a fascinating week.
This is not meant cruelly, but Lille ought to be a Cowdenbeath or a Kilmarnock, and for a while it was. Tucked away on the Belgian border in the far north-east of France, it was the focus of France's main coalfield. When the pits closed, unemployment hit 40%. The funky, confident city we enjoyed this week, a place of smart shops, grand buildings, an exquisitely gentrified old town, zippy modern architecture, gregarious students, quirky street art, superb galleries (including the Louvre's only outstation), fine gastronomy and boisterous beer bars, gives little hint of past melancholy. So how was it done?
One answer, as with Georges Frêche in our own city of Montpellier, was the good fortune of a titanically ambitious mayor: two, in fact. Pierre Mauroy held office for three decades, including a spell as Prime Minister to François Mitterand. His successor Martine Aubry, in post since 2001, is also fairly well-acquainted with the corridors of power and the techniques of persuasion, being the daughter of Jacques Delors. Between them, Mauroy the economic visionary and Aubry the zealous social reformer have transformed both the image and the reality of a dopey old industrial town.
The key achievement was Mauroy's. Uninhibited by either geometry or geography, he successfully lobbied for Eurostar to be routed through, and to stop at, Lille, even though its terminus in Brussels is barely 40 minutes away. Armed with this improbable concession, he conjured a whole fabulous mythology about the Carrefour de l'Europe (Crossroads of Europe), portraying Lille as the gateway to a pulsing European heartland. Unlikely historical ingredients were stirred into this narrative: that Lille was the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle (and hence of the Fifth Republic), that it is the capital of French Flanders (the qualifying adjective tends to be quietly dropped) and that its cosmopolitan verve stems from having been successively Flemish, Burgundian, Spanish, Dutch, and German and French twice each.
England in recent years has tried to copy the model of the dynamic mayor, and some like Andy Burnham talk a good game. But the obvious difference is that French cities control their own finances, reinforced by the knowledge that the voting public likes bold ideas and that the state is generally supportive of innovative investment. Proactive encouragement for arts and leisure, for example, has made Lille a thriving weekend destination for trans-border Eurocrats.
The less obvious difference, but perhaps the more important one, is that French cities like Lille are expected to assert their distinctiveness, expected to think big, expected to have confidence in their own ambitions and identity. They want to be known for what they uniquely are, not for trying to keep up with Paris. To adapt James Brown: Say it loud: I'm provincial and I'm proud!
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster