The Hundred Years’ War Continued
Bitchiness at its finest. Seriously. There is no love lost between the English and the French.
Why can’t the English be more like the French?
With the high-speed link to London about to open at last, Hortense de Monplaisir warns her fellow Parisians of the horreurs anglais that await them
The Sunday Times, 4 November 2007
It seems like only yesterday that Pierre-Marie, my husband, delivered the bombshell. Hortense, he said, I have some good news. I have been offered a promotion which I am not about to refuse. He smiled at me nervously. There is a petite complication, he said. The job is in London.
Three months later, I found myself mistress of a cherissime doll’s house off Fulham Road, barely large enough to contain my wardrobe. When the removal van had left, my husband said: “Let us go for dinner.”
There is a famous crêperie on the King’s Road. (We love crêpes, as we have kept in touch with simple pleasures.) As lumpen doughy pancakes were brought to the table with a pitiful garnish of anaemic lettuce and flavourless tomatoes, I wept. I gazed out at the rain and said: “I cannot do this.” My husband held my hand and looked quite wretched.
Ten years on, however, I have become so entirely bi-culturelle that I understand the English better than they do themselves. I will show you how it is to live in the land where the men don’t look at you. Where they never say what they think and laugh like hyenas at things that aren’t funny.
LET me walk you through my house in west London, and point out to you the peculiar features of the English home, of which they seem so inappropriately proud.
Like most London houses, mine stands indistinguishable from the others in a joined-up line or “terrace”, hastily thrown up in the Victorian age. Up three steps to the front door, and you will notice a small potted bay tree chained to the railings (even in smart parts of town you cannot leave anything to chance, and every house is disfigured by a burglar alarm box).
Through the front door, and you will be overcome by claustrophobia in the mean and narrow hall. Push open the door to the salon, where you might just have room, to borrow an English expression, to swing a cat. This is what they call a “double reception room”: a shrunken version of our own double-living, a peculiar corridor of a room with a window at each end.
These sash windows slide up and down and never fit properly, causing tremendous draughts that make it impossible to heat the room. They are also filthy, as they can only be reached for cleaning from the outside by a ladder.
Follow me down the stairs, which you might think will lead to the cellar. Think again! Here is where the English live, like rats underground, hiding from the light, gazing up through prison bars on their grimy windows, to watch the legs of passers-by.
No expense has been spared in creating a luxury kitchen-dining room, but why would you choose to live like troglodytes? Needless to say, it is also the coldest room in the house: perfect perhaps for its original purpose of storing coal and wine, and for servants stoking the ovens, but not for middle-class professionals hoping to enjoy gracious dinners.
This desire to live in the basement is part of the English nostalgia disease. Trapped in a sentimental fantasy of life below stairs, they pretend to be Victorian servants, and name their children accordingly.
Two frightening pieces of information you should know about London: you are never more than three metres away from a rat, and the rubbish is only collected once or twice a week! Even more frightening, perhaps, is the English failure to keep their homes clean. My friend in marketing tells me that Englishwomen are recognised as the sluts of Europe, with no feeling for housework, and this has certainly been my experience. Grubby, untidy rooms speak of no passion for order.
I confess it is a long time since I did my own housework, but it is a question of knowing what is required and being firm with the servants, which seems to be quite beyond Englishwomen. They ingratiate themselves with the maid, rushing around to clean up before they come, then apologising for the state of the house. This is a shame as cleaners become spoilt, making it harder for us Frenchwomen to demand the level of service we are used to.
SOME Frenchwomen find it liberating to live in a country where nobody cares what they are wearing, but personally I find it depressing. When you walk down a street in England, you might just as well be dressed like a fright, because nobody is going to look at you.
This upset me at first. Had I lost my charms? I tried again in the company of a beautiful actress: same result. No eye contact, no simmering acknowledgment, no seduction. Eyes down, walk past, don’t even go there.
My personal view of why the English don’t dress well is that it’s a Protestant thing. Vanity is despised. Appearances don’t matter. Keep your eyes and your hands to yourself.
I don’t want to be unfair. Many British women are great beauties. Charlotte Rampling, Kristin Scott Thomas and Jane Birkin, for instance, although of course they live in France. But there may be a grain of truth in the old French joke: what do you call a beautiful woman in London? Answer: a tourist.
Big faces, pear-shaped torsos with heavy low-slung bosoms . . . one could be cruel about the English physique. But to my practised eye there is nothing wrong with the raw material; it’s just that they don’t know how to showcase their charms.
The British press takes great pleasure in women failing to look good. Whole pages are devoted to photographs of celebrities getting it wrong: heavy bosoms falling out of cocktail dresses, pixie boots, helmet hair, ill-judged accessories. In France we could never run such pages, even if we wanted to. Why? Because you could never find women in the the public eye looking embarrassing.
Remember that shot of S�golène Royale in her bikini? A political leader in her fifties with the body of a 25-year-old. It made me so proud to be French.
Can I suggest three visual snap-shots, to compare French and English allure? Catherine Deneuve v Judi Dench; S�golène Royale v Margaret Beckett; Arielle Dombasle v Jade Goody.
I think I’ve made my point? When in Paris, I always buy a little something at Fifi Chachnil on the rue St Honor�. But most Englishwomen buy their lingerie in Marks & Spencer, as it can be scooped into a wire basket along with the ready meals.
The single bestselling bra in England is made by Triumph and called Doreen. It comes in sizes up to 60DD, which is off the scale for conversion to French, and is endorsed by one grateful customer as follows: “When I drove over speed bumps, I knew I had the right bra. Usually I bounce all over the place.”
Bee, my next-door neighbour – her real name is Beatrice, “but call me Bee”, she said when we met for the first time, in that way the English have of forcing nicknames upon total strangers – thinks it’s not worth spending money on underwear, as nobody sees it. I assume she means Hereward, her husband, when she says nobody.
It is well known that Englishmen are no good at sex. They go at it in a medieval fashion, blind drunk, ignorant and with no respect for la s�duction.
To attract male attention, Englishwomen have to go out “on the pull” dressed like tarts. When the English do “score” (sporting vocabulary is de rigueur for sex), the rules are clear. In no way must the sex ever be discussed, although it might be conceded that last night was “a laugh”. Altogether, it is a mystery how they ever procreate.
Instead of a sex life, the British have their newspapers. What they really love is scandal: catching people out, punishing them for daring to have sex. This is completely in keeping with the puritan tradition.
Picture the English couple in bed on Sunday morning. I am speaking here of Bee and Hereward, but it could be any English couple. They have got the weekly sex over, thank goodness. They may even have taken off their Marks & Spencer pyjamas. They’ll have had their little joke: “Well, that’s got that out of the way for another month.”
Then Hereward will go down to the dungeon kitchen to make a pot of tea. On the way up, he’ll pick up the papers that have been thrust through the letter box (newspaper delivery is the only service better here than in France), and with a sigh of true happiness, they will both sink back with a cup of tea and begin the “muck raking” that is so very much more enjoyable than their own lacklustre lovemaking.
THE best shortcut to the English Look can be found in the “jolly hockey sticks” Boden mail-order catalogue. Large pale Englishmen are photographed in the country, cavorting with “good sport” girlfriends, with captions that assume the reader has no knowledge or feeling for clothes. He favours large beige trousers to house thighs like tree trunks, while she downs a pint of bitter in a lurid floral cardigan and a camisole “cut to conceal, not to reveal”.
Bee has unkind and unjustified things to say about Pierre-Marie’s dress sense. When we invited her round for an informal summer barbecue, she made much of his primrose cashmere sweater thrown around his shoulders, and his pointed shoes that she found “dodgy”.
If she could think of a more appropriate way to dress for a changeable British summer evening, I would be pleased to hear it. Nor did I see that a sensitivity to colour and fine Italian leather is in any way a sign of homosexuality, which was her theme later in the evening. It was un peu exagg�r�, I thought, coming from the wife of an Englishman.
I am a tireless champion for human rights, so one of the things I adore about England is the tolerance accorded to minorities. I unreservedly applaud the high profile enjoyed by homosexuals, making London the gay capital of Europe.
Gay pride has come roaring into the heart of the Establishment to network with a vengeance. I sometimes wonder if the English become gay just to enjoy the fabulous social life. It’s like a modern version of the gentlemen’s club: women not admitted (or at least, not noticed), vodka cocktails and salmon blinis instead of port and suet pudding. Plus ça change . . .
Bee, after a few drinks, once asked me what the difference was between an English and a French homosexual. “The French homosexual is mar-ried!” she shrieked, slopping her gin down the front of her dress.
She then recounted how her gay friend (all Englishwomen are intimate with homosexual men) regularly went to Paris in summer to pick up pères de famille in the Tuileries gardens while their wives were on the Ile de R� with the children.
I wasn’t sure if she was trying to cast doubt on my own husband. He always used to stay in Paris in July and join us for weekends. But then so did all my friends’ husbands; in fact they often had dinner together, on a warm terrasse, a rare chance for mec en mec conversation, before strolling back to their deserted apartments . . . But I must hasten to reassure you that there is nothing lacking in our vie intime. And anyway, Pierre-Marie didn’t go to boarding school.
I ONCE asked an English friend why the English were so horrid about the French. Was it because they were jealous? Oh no, he said, we don’t do jealousy. It’s more . . . pity.
Oh really, I said. Is that why you all want to come to live in our country, because you feel sorry for us? Now, I am no psychologist, but it is evident to me the antiFrench nonsense that fills the British press is nothing more than envy. They envy us our culture, our food, our small bottoms and our ability to say non to anything that threatens these, be it immigrants, globalisation or the importing of nasty British meat.
This envy is so strong that one in five of them wishes they were French, according to a 2006 survey indignantly reported across the press. I see it in their eyes when they talk to me, admiring the inimitable twist of my silk scarf. I see it in the crates of wine and oozing cheese they carry back home to tide them over until their next mini-break. I feel their pain, the cri de coeur that reaches out to me and shouts: “If only I were French! Au fait with phi-losophy! Insouciant! Engaged in a Jules et Jim style m�nage à trois!”
Switch on the television and you’ll see they can’t get enough of us. Documentaries show Londoners happily fleeing their homeland to hide away in some godforsaken corner of la France profonde. Can you imagine a Parisian family abandoning their apartment to begin a new life in a cottage in Wales?
As a French person in England, you must embrace the flattery of this attention and take the insults for what they are: cries for help. Hopelessly in thrall to our superiority, they lash out like inarticulate children.
Having no talent for sex (or food), the English make a virtue of their deficiencies. What they really enjoy is going without. Rather than leave the office for a delicious lunch, they will pull out a Tupper-ware box of sandwiches. Instead of a soir�e sensuelle, candlelit dinner followed by a night of love, they’ll go to the country to strip wallpaper, walk in the rain and sleep in a freezing cold bed.
Many examples of English puritanism are “green” – which is penny-pinching envy dressed up as moral righteousness. The English are delighted with their latest form of self-denial: carbon footprint counting. To compensate for all those fly-drive mini-breaks, they install low-wattage light bulbs, take tepid showers and build wormeries to recycle their teabags, all performed in a bean-counting, mercenary way.
When we cycle in France we do it properly, as a weekend sport, wearing bright Lycra clothing on multi-geared mountain bikes. The English cycle because they are cheap and because they like to arrive at dinner and make a great show of pulling off their helmets and luminous green bands to show what great citizens they are. And everyone is supposed to admire them for being too mean to dress properly and pay for a taxi.
In France we like food that tastes good. English puritans don’t care what it tastes like as long as it has a label showing it’s from the right place. This is called “sourcing”. The ideal label is “organic” (much overrated, as we know), and from a farmer whose name and address they can drop to their guests. They love shops like Planet Organic which make a great fuss about overpriced cheese and produce that is only what you’d find in the most basic French market.
The English are at their happiest when making do, and love eating left-overs. Where we would throw last night’s supper in the poubelle, the English will have it for lunch, which makes them feel virtuous for saving money. It is also an excuse for gluttony. “Shame to let it go to waste,” they say, as if they are doing everyone a favour by hoovering up the cold remains of a treacle pudding.
This makes them feel less guilty about their work-and-money cult. In France we have a civilised approach to work. It is part of life, not the point of it. Not so in money-loving England, where it is an obsession. What do you do? Business going well? Did you get a good bonus? These are all acceptable openings when conversing with strangers. Such terrible manners!
It’s enough to send you rushing back to France, and to hell with that 50% tax rate, just for the sake of a little discretion.
Every day there is a story on house prices, to make those of us who rent our homes feel like beggars at the feast. The English are obsessed by home ownership, and cannot walk past an estate agent’s window without checking to see what they might afford and salivating at what they cannot.
In France, we are wary of the marchands de biens, dealers who buy and sell houses for profit, but in England everyone is a marchand de bien. The property ladder is the very essence of Englishness: a fusion of greedy profiteering and stay-at-home cosiness.
Yet at the same time the English like to live as far as possible from their place of work, particularly once they have children. This gives the wife an excuse to give up work – “My salary wouldn’t even cover the train fares” – and the husband the chance to play the martyr by leaving home, wheyfaced, at 5am and returning to find his wife in bed, where she has been all day on account of her depression. (And who wouldn’t be depressed, so far from the city?)
There are terrible costs to all the money slushing around. In France, we know that happiness is found in daily pleasures. Buying mushrooms from the market, the moment of the ap�ritif, the contemplation of a well dressed woman. Accessible pleasures, open to all. In England, this has been lost beneath a miasma of nagging discontent. I should be getting more. I wish I was her. I must have that. Get me to the shops. Book me a mini-break.
The work-and-money cult has created a new “must have” that the English call “me time”. This narcissistic term refers to activities I engage in without a second thought: the spa, a lie down with a book, a solitary stroll in the park. For the French, all time is “me time”; we don’t need to give it a silly name.
© Sarah Long 2007
Extracted from Le Dossier: How to Survive the English, published by John Murray at £12.99. Copies can be purchased for £11.69 including postage from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0870 165 8585
Thoroughly French Hortense
About the author: Hortense de Monplaisir is from a very old French family who did not need to buy their particule. After studying at Sciences Po, one of the grandes �coles, or top universities, she married a grosse l�gume in banking and has made a career embellishing his grey world with her vivacious conversation and colourful table displays.
Thanks to her expatriation, her children are bilingual and au fait with binge drinking culture, while preferring to sip Orangina and dance le rock taught by a maître danseur from Paris. She and her husband live in London, but have homes in Paris’s Left Bank and in the Luberon, as well as one-tenth of the family manoir in Brittany.
An incisive observer of the English, she remains French through and through. Her interests include le scrapbooking, painting on porcelain and organising holidays in Verbier, St Barts and the Ile de R�.
She has an exceptional IQ and is a member of French Mensa.
About the translator: Sarah Long is the author of two novels, And What Do You Do? and The Next Best Thing. She lived for 10 years in Paris, where she met Hortense at a wine-tasting, leading to a lifelong friendship of such intensity that she paraphrases Flaubert in claiming: “Madame de Monplaisir, c’est moi!”