Sunday, 1 July 2012


In St. Germain-en-Laye there’s a cheerful approximation of an English pub. It’s called The Bitter End, and serves Adnam’s Ale along with those other staples of any English bar: Leffe, Hoegaarden, Nastro Azzuro etc. BBC 1 is streamed to the TV, so that you can watch Wimbledon with an English commentary – or you could, if the sound weren’t turned right down. Somehow, though, it doesn’t quite feel like an English pub, not least because when I visit it I’m often the only Brit there. Perhaps it’s best summed up in Philip Larkin’s line: ‘A joyous shot at how things ought to be’.

I sit now at one end of The Bitter End, reading this weekend’s Le Figaro magazine, entitled ‘All you need is Londres’. I turn the pages with increasing amazement: is this really how the French see the English?

The cover is predictable enough: a clownish figure bedecked in the Union Jack and posing in front of a red telephone kiosk. He is about to tip his souvenir-stand bowler at the reader but remains slightly inscrutable behind his dark glasses – the sort Timmy Mallet used to wear on Wacaday. The headline itself is an affectionate nod towards that other great British icon, John Lennon.

The articles within open up for Le Figaro’s readers an England I scarcely recognize, but one presumably meant to demonstrate that the best things across the Channel are, well, French. There’s an article about Arsène Wenger, ‘le plus anglais des entraineurs français’ and a special feature on one of England’s finest National Trust houses, the ever-so-not-English Waddesdon Manor:

En faisant construire Waddesdon Manor, Ferdinand de Rothschild voulait un édifice qui resemble au chateaux de la Loire. Le résultat est un savoureux mélange des XVe, XVIe et XVIIe siècles dressé dans la campagne anglaise.

At the other end of the scale, readers wanting to find the best pub in Soho are recommended to drink at

The French House qui a connu les riches heures de la Résistance française expatriée, plus tard lieu de boisson de Francis Bacon, toujours frequenté par des artistes d’aujourd’hui.

It is, Le Figaro reassures its readers, Sans doute le seul pub londinien qui ne sert pas de pintes. So that’s all right, then.

This special England edition has an oblique angle on the Olympics, about which Paris is perhaps still a bit sore. With a deft ironic nod in the direction of the approaching chaos of the Games, the leading article is headed ‘God save London!’ The author of this piece, Olivier Frébourg, asks pointedly:

Qu’est ce que la couronne royale si ce n’est l’alliance de clans, de clubs, de communautés? L’Angleterre ressemble à un vaste club avec ses règles, ses droits, ses devoirs: il permet d’échapper à la folie du monde. Le club est un cercle  olympique … L’esprit de club a sculpté la civilization britannique. C’est un garde-fou qui permet aux passions de ne pas déborder.

M. Frébourg sees a distinction between the Greek ideal of the athlete and the English notion of the sportif, the amateur - a good French word possibly going out of fashion in France. The Englishman, he asserts, loves sport because ‘il y voit les valeurs de la chevalerie, d’une noblesse accessible à tous.’ He forbears to mention that concepts of chivalry and noblesse arrived in England via the French codes of courtly love. Then follows a remarkable summing-up both of Englishness and of the English character:

Cette civilisation urbaine et industrielle qui a la culte de la maison, du cottage, du home sweet home, de la méchanique, vénère l’éspace vert, la pelouse, celle des squares et des jardins mais aussi celle des terrains de sport. Ce peuple de  l’intériorisation - never complain, never explain – a le culte des activités extérieures. C’est lui qui a inventé le week-end et le loisir sportif par tous les temps.

The writer expands on his theme in a second article, Au royaume des sports les plus excentriques. Here he introduces to astonished Figaro readers sports such as Cheese Rolling (‘La palme de l’absurde’), Chess Boxing (‘6 rounds d’échecs et 5 de boxe’ -  really?), Duck Racing (Course de Canards), the Eton Wall Game and ‘la Maldon mud race’. The origins and aims of this ancient sport were news to me:

500 participants plongent à marée basse dans ce port envasée de l’Essex … Sur un distance de 1 kilomètre, ils doivent traverser ces sables mouvants, visqueux et noirâtres qui ne tardent pas à les emprisoner. Engloutis, pétrifiés, les participants, histoire oblige, recherchent la tête de Byrthnoth, vaillant chef saxon décapité dans la rivière par les hordes de Vikings victorieux de la bataille de Maldon, que la vase ne parvint jamais a recouvrir.

I wish I’d know about this when struggling to read The Battle of Maldon in Anglo-Saxon at university. Surely the Maldon mudlarks, sinking beneath the shifting sands,  still call out words I memorized for my Finals:

Hige sceal þe heardra,          hearte þe cenre,
Mod sceal þe mare,           þe ure maegen lytað.
Our determination shall be stronger, our heart the keener,
Courage shall be greater, as our strength ebbs away.

But the people who, for M. Frébourg (and now for me), best embody the Anglo-Saxon obsession with history, sport and snobbery are the Archers of Arden. It’s not surprising I’ve never heard of this exclusive band of merry men because ‘les archers d’Arden sont des hommes des bois mais ils composent l’un des clubs les plus fermés du royaume.’ With due deference to historical fact, the author acknowledges that ‘L’arc a été l’arme decisive qui a permis aux Anglais de batter les arbalètes [crossbowmen] françaises a la bataille d’Azincourt en 1415.’ He notes that members of this über-exclusive club begin their day’s sport with a copious breakfast of Cheddar cheese and beer and he finds some consolation for past national humiliation in the fact that, while the archers are at the butts,

Dans la cave sommeillent, tels des gisants,* de grands crus français: une forme de revanche sur la défaite d’Azincourt.

Well, Le Figaro has made my weekend. It’s clear the English remain au fond a source of amused, and bemused, admiration to their neighbours across the Channel. Finishing my pint and my annual 10-day immersion in Anglo-French bi-cultural education,comme tous les autres jeux excentriques’, at the Bitter End, I am happy to leave the last word to Olivier Frébourg:

On trinque a l’identité saxone et à l’esprit de corps. Plonger dans la fange demeure une façon pour les Britanniques de rire de la condition humaine, de conforter leur simplicité, la valeur la plus difficile à conquérir pour les français.

Adrian Barlow

* Gisants, a word new to me, are the stone effigies of sleeping lords and knights found on top of old tombs. They are a good simile for bottles of fine wine laid down in a vault (la cave sommeillent), waiting to be brought back to the light and then drunk.


  1. The French press, and indeed the French media as a whole, love to point out the differences between the English and the French, especially to the detriment of the former. It's something you have to learn to live with, although at times it can be annoying. The number of times that I've been reminded that we English burnt Joan of Arc just up the road from here in Rouen, although I enjoy retorting that we merely provided the matches as it was the French who torched her. I've recently taken to avoiding the staff room of my school as a result of undesirable comments concerning the European Cup which once again has stirred patriotic and idiotic comments against the English. The same thing happened with the Rugby World Cup. So I've given up enjoying either sport, prefering cricket, the only sport the French have never taken away from the English, either because the rules are too complicated or because it demands too much patience for Latin blood. However, I must point out that Le Havre will be opening a brand-new stadium this month for the local football team to manage, although football will not be its only venue. Le Havre Athletic Club, affectionately known through its abbreviation as 'le Hac', is celebrating its 140th anniversary this year, being the oldest football club in the country. Coming from Nottingham I could point out that Notts County shares the same distinction. But more interestingly than that, the pitch that we can see from my daughters' bedroom windows is where football and rugby were first introduced into France, and the stadium is named after the Englishman responsible for this, Langstaff. There were many English and Scots working in the port of Le Havre at the end of the nineteenth century, including my wife's great-grandparents from Glasgow (this is not an ideal mention, as you will see) and so it was decided to create a club. The choice of team colours was made simple: Oxford and Cambridge blues, which is why le Hac are also called les ciel et marine. Now, because of the opening of the new stadium and the 140th anniversary (I have to mention also in passing that my school, St Joseph, is also 140 years old this year) it has been decided to invite a club from Britain for an exhibition match and this will be Glasgow Rangers, no less, who also celebrate their 140th anniversary this year. So there won't be an Anglo-French showdown after all, but a nice friendly match based, not on Entente Cordial but... the Old Alliance!

  2. I've just re-read my comment and see that I've made an unfortunate typing error which could be misconstrued: the parenthetical remark should read: this is not an idle mention! I'm really quite proud of my French wife's Scottish ancestry, especially as it allows me to wear a kilt as I'm told this right passes down through the female line. The Langstaff stadium would have held up to 20,000 spectators and although it's been replaced by two now three stadiums, there's still a rugby match every other Sunday afternoon with the shouts from the covered tribune reaching us here in the flat. Now, after living in Le Havre for nearly thirty years, should I be behind le Hac or Glasgow Rangers?!

  3. I have what the French call 'l'esprit d'escalier': when you're going downstairs on your way out you think of the comment you should have made but didn't. I suppose we'd call it an afterthought, but the French image is much more telling. Anyway, I really must share this little anecdote about my trip up to the North of France with my then six-year-old daughter, Laura. I wanted to see the remains of the English Jesuit college in St Omer where the author I was researching for my thesis, Arthur Murphy, was taught, and on the way up we stopped off at Agincourt. I've always spoken English to both my daughters and have tried at all times to widen their knowledge or encourage their imagination. However they've both always spoken French in reply. On this particular occasion I thought it would be of educational interest for my daughter to see the famous battlefield, especially as we live just up the road from Harfleur where Henry V encouraged his men to fill up the breach with their English dead. (This is another parenthetical item but in Norman French 'brèche' from which the English word 'breach' comes was pronounced 'breque' and this word is still used today as the name of the huge traffic island at the entrance to Harfleur.) So we visited the panarama overlooking the battlefield, the small museum and the 'charogne' where the flower of French chivalry were buried in a mass grave. At some point I tried to explain to my daughter that this was where the English defeated the French and the English king became King of France also. This was too much for Laura, the daugher of an English father and French mother, and she said, rather distressfully: 'Non papa, on va dire qui ni les anglais, ni les français ont gagné!' What can you say to that!