Today’s question: what would Tobias Smollett have made of Brexit? As we’re in the final throes of leaving, or maybe not, or perhaps simply going to hell in a handcart, it seems important to get the views of the 18th-century Scottish surgeon, writer and author of the 1763 bilious best-seller, Travels Through France And Italy. The pioneering travel writer knew a thing or two about le continent, and wasn’t impressed. Certainly, he’d have been full on for Brexit, given his views of the French. “Dirty knaves” was just the start.
Then again, he would have considered Brexiteers imbeciles, because that’s how he considered almost everyone who wasn’t Tobias Smollett. He would, thus, have been both for and against – fitting, really, for a fellow who, while disapproving of pretty much everything the French did, effectively inaugurated tourism to their country. Where Smollett led, other Britons followed, inventing, especially southern, France as a holiday destination. Then everyone else rolled in; now France is world tourism leader, earning more from visitors than from either farming or the car industry. Clearly, Tobias is due a posthumous legion-d’honneur. So are the rest of us (though without the posthumous bit). When we finally say “adieu” to France politically, we’ll remain woven into the fabric of some of their most outstanding spots. Nothing can unweave us.