Last week, during an episode of the interminable soap opera that is Brexit – nothing quite defines us as our inability to leave – President Macron of France apparently stood out against 26 other EU nations and said, loosely translated but I think within the spirit of his sentiment: ‘Bugger Britain’. He didn’t quite but he made the point that has been made oh so many times down the years: we may be close, neighbours even but give one the chance to do a little light shitting on the other and, well, it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?
Often was the time I’d watch France play England at rugby, sometimes with Dad next to me, sometimes debriefing the game at the end of the phone. ‘Well boy, what did you think?’ This was the first of many rhetorical questions posed in the next 30 minutes as he de-constructed the game. With other nations, Wales especially, after long years of losses, he was gleeful in victory, morose in defeat. With New Zealand he was ecstatic in victory and resigned, bordering on the accepting, in defeat. With France he was…. still in love. Sure he wanted to win but he adored the way the French went about trying to win. It was so …. French. Maybe these days he would have been depressed by that essential loss of Frenchness, but he would live in hope. A lot about him and France was based on hope rather than experience.
Indeed that about summed up his relationship with France. Frustrated lovers. He’d spend hours trying to perfect his French; he looked forward to all his many holidays there. But when he arrived, he despaired of the Gallic shrug, the condescension, the bureaucracy, the stubborn insistence that the French way was the only way. A bit like their rugby. He wanted them different but at times, not so different.
And yet he could never get enough of France; he simply adored the place. Perhaps it was the way a holiday there seemed to transport him back to Cambridgeshire circa 1938, when he holidayed with his aunts – the slower pace; the dominance of all things agricultural; the endemic rule breaking behind suffocating respectability. I think because he could never break rules himself he admired those who could and in the French friends he made in the twinned village of Yervil in Normandy he had a wide selection of such types.
His father would have been surprised. My grandfather spent the best part of four years in France as many of his generation did in 1914-18. He was in the Cavalry at the start, training in Ireland before arriving in France in early 1915. By then the days of horse borne warfare were clearly nearing their end and his war took a more functional turn in the trenches. I know little of my grandfather’s war, unlike my other grandfather and that is something I must remedy. I do know that, to Grandfather, foreign started well short of Calais and he had no inclination to visit it again. I suppose, given the horrors, the futility, that is hardly surprising.
And possibly part of that antipathy is in the family lore, handed down over generations. You see, my name is French – you may have noticed. Le Pard. What is a pard? Well…
Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth.
This is from the Seven Ages of Man speech in Shakespeare.
Pard is an old word for Leopard – someone added the Latin for lion on the front and it stuck. It suggests a certain ferocity somewhere in my genes.
My ancestry is Huguenot. The Huguenots were Protestants in France whose freedom to practice their religion was enshrined in French law by the Edict of Nantes at the end of the 16th Century. When revoked nearly 100 years later in 1685, a mass exodus of Protestants began and continued into the 18th Century. Historically the Wars of Religion during and up to this period and the turmoil in Europe are both fascinating and still reverberating today. But on a human level it gave my family a distinctive name and an enemy – the French.
As a child I can well recall that dichotomy: on the one hand I was clearly allied to the French in the name my family proudly carried; on the other my ancestors, my family, were persecuted by the French, thrown out of France and made to find a new life in England. In my childlike mind, I was therefore ‘against’ all things French. And cross and not a little embarrassed when it was assumed I could speak French or was French. It may have been one of the earliest of external labels applied to me, this link to France. In our little corner of suburbia it made us just a smidgen exotic.
My first foreign holiday, inevitably, was to France, when at 19, I visited with friends in an old Ford Escort as we camped our way around Northern France, ending up in Paris. I loved it and found it maddening. That has remained my reaction every time I cross the channel. The French and the English are friendly but not friends, business partners not life partners. We’ve been allies for more than a century and fought wars cheek by jowl to maintain our ways of life and yet if there’s one nation in Europe that sniggers at our ineptitudes it is France. And vice versa.
On that first trip I felt at home but it was a parallel home. It looked much the same: the countryside, the animals and birds, the crops being grown. It smelt and sounded similar and yet there was always something just a little off.
And in the background the root of these problem was that label. I was, am, as English as scones and sarcasm, roast beef and righteous indignation, yet that bloody name screamed ‘foreign’. My French masters expected me to speak the language like a native, everyone needed me to spell it out and almost invariably failed to split the ‘Le’ form the ‘Pard’. That disconnect still causes people an issue as my Blogger’s Bash nickname ‘Geoffle’ (one my daughter now uses) testifies. I like this one, it was donated to me with love and affection but the son of a bitch who corrupted it to come up with ‘Lardy’ when I was about ten needs to burn in somewhere dark and long lasting.
In my own small way I have experienced the prejudice, assumptions and stereotyping that come with being something different. I suffered barely at all – I’m white, male, middle class and have an accent that makes me a perfect 1980s Hollywood villain, hardly the epitome of English underclass – but I still remember enough incidents for it to have hurt at the time and to resonate still.
Back then I wanted to differentiate myself from all things French. But that leads to another lesson. There is no difference or at least none that matters between peoples. It is that similarity I didn’t want to accept and many others, on both sides of the Channel, can’t really abide. We know we are so different to them and them to us. We have to be. We make bread differently from the same flour; ditto butter and cheese from the same milk. We create distinctive clothes from the same raw materials, distinctive houses from the same timbers. Our beers are better than theirs; our wine… well maybe not yet. We have different spirits and, of course we both sneer at the other’s cooking. As my mother, staunch English woman to the last, once said, “Of course they make good sauces; they have no idea how to keep meat so they need something to cover the foul taste.” Hmm, not sure about that Mum.
It’s like one of those fairground mirrors where you are distorted by the curved glass. You stand there and your friends snigger and hoot at how short and fat, tall and skinny, twisted and crushed you look. And you do; you are the quintessential figure of fun. But all the time, however the glass remoulds you, you are still you and you can see that only too clearly.
That’s us and the French, my family and the French nation, me and my name; giggling at how odd and distorted they are yet fully conscious of the fact that close to the surface, beyond those superficial differences we are really one and the same.
And that is true of all differences we try and create even when it is easier to find difference – in skin colour, ethnicity, affluence, accent, religion. They are all still superficial, not real. I’m no more French for my name than the French are for their place of birth. We’re all just human.