Annoying the French


My dear Scottish mother detested the French.  She forgave the Germans for their couple of hiccups.  She was sympathetic to the Poles.  She tolerated the Spanish.  But the French?  Even French cheeses were not welcome in her house.

So along comes a book. 1000 years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke (ISBN 978-0-552-77575-5, Bantam Press, 2010), a writer who these days lives in Paris, which I thought might give me the answer to my Mother’s antipathy to all things Gallic, or at least the inhabitants of that land mass on the other side of the English Channel.

The early years were mainly military skirmishes, with France and England taking it in turns; however, despite French history books, the Brits seemed to be on top, which did not please the French at all.

When you come to notable figures in British history, there is Mary Queen of Scots.  According to Clarke the historian, “Mary Queen of Scots was a French creation.  She was as Scottish as foie-gras flavored haggis.”  Mother would not have been as amused as I was.

But the French even have problems with French Canadians.  “The French think of Quebeckers rather like New Yorkers see Alabamians.  There’s just a little knuckle-on-floor-scraping involved.”

Champagne and Dom Perignon get their mention on the French side of the ledger, but historian Clarke claims that it was an English chap by the name of Merret who worked out how to keep the bubbles (and in fact manufacture some with the second fermentation in the bottle) from exploding in the bottle.  So there.  Methode champenoise was invented not by the Dom, but by the English.

Interestingly, at the court of Louis XIV, courtiers were obliged to bribe palace officials for any little favors.  Did the French then bring this to Thailand via Ayutthaya, I wonder!

The infamous Ponzi schemes and similar rackets in 1720 led to the British South Sea Bubble, but this was only following what the French had done earlier that year.  It would seem that greed is universal on either side of the English Channel.

By the time we have the Americans getting involved with both sides, Clarke writes about Benjamin Franklin’s eccentricity thus, “…to develop his theory that the best protection against sexually transmitted disease was a hearty post-coital pee.  Not one of his better ideas.”

And that Oh so French decapitation machine, the Guillotine, turns out not to be French at all, but was invented in Halifax, Northern England as early as 1286.  Dr. Guillotin might have popularized it in France, but France can not claim bragging rights.  The first to experience this machine in France was an unfortunate robber in 1792 called Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier, lucky I suppose that it was not called a Pelletier, though Pierre-Andre Pelletier, of the Amari Watergate might perhaps know more.

This book is the equivalent of Bill Bryson’s travelogues, but historical (and hysterical).  I laughed all the way through this book and you will too.  Unless you are French!  At B. 435 in Bookazine Big C Extra, difficult to find a funnier or more fulfilling read for the weekend.