21 Dec 2011

1000 years of annoying the French

Stephen Clarke is, like myself, an Englishman who lives in France. I have not read any of his other books, but I couldn't resist this one and read its 650 pages with considerable enjoyment.

The premice of the book is an exploration of the often complex relationships between our two countries (France and England) over the past 1000 years or so, as codified in the myths that surround key periods, events or symbolically weighted people or objects. For example and pêle-mêle, the invasion of England by the Normans, various battles, Mary Queen of Scots, the invention of sparkling Champagne, the guillotine, Napoleon, de Gaulle and WWII, the Channel tunnel, and so on.

Stephen Clarke

Clarke has clearly gone to some trouble to seek out source material and so the facts are clearly laid out, often side-by-side with the legends that have grown to shroud these facts, particularly in French history books or common lore. His angle is mostly ironic and often with an English bias, as indeed the title suggests, but the core of the book is actually quite serious and mostly solidly researched. Yet this book makes no pretence at any form of historical analysis. It tells stories, or snippets of stories, in a series of cameos to illustrate events, things or people which have acquired legendary status in history books on either side of the (English) channel. He has stated in an interview that he finds that the French do tend to distort or conceal facts of their history to a greater extent than the English, especially in school history books. 

To illustrate how reality is often misconstrued or even hidden by some versions of historial events, the example of Joan of Arc is quite eloquent. In fact she was captured by French soldiers under Burgundian command, then abandoned by the French king Charles VII who refused to pay her ransom, then tried for heresy by French priests. When she avoided being caught out by trick questions during a very long trial, these priests condemend her to be burnt as a relapsed heretic, for wearing trousers and armour! They then handed her over to the English for execution. So the English got the blame for her death!

There are many other examples, including the little-known facts that sparkling Champagne was invented in England (I could have supplied Clarke with more evidence in this case) as was the guillotine. The book is often very funny, and Clarke tells a good story. He is at his best when he delves into the complexities of relationships and major events, such as the Hundred Years war, the Stuarts, or Napoleon. The book has its weak points and parts, as Clarke occasionally lapses into facility, as if he was getting a bit tired of his angle, but it is generally excellent. The ironical chapter on de Gaulle (who, by the way, was known as "Joan of Arc" by his British hosts) and his containment by the Brits (and Americans) during the war is most enlightening. I would liked to have seen a chapter on sports, and particulary on rugby, a game which seems to epitomise the feeling of rivalry, occasional admiration and frequent lack of fair play that are still so much a part of our slightly schizoïde relationship. "When fictions become facts" could have been its subtitle, so clearly does Clarke strip away the spin that has been put by some official French historians on events that have brought our two countries together, whilst keeping them firmly apart, over the centuries. It might be interesting to see a Frenchman living in England do the same thing the other way around, but would he find the same gap between the "official" versions and the facts?

Read on....