'I am not French - I'm Parisian'

Chatting with British writer Stephen Clarke in a cute Parisian café, Jessica Knipe discovers that under his amusing puns lies an incredible wealth of knowledge and expertise about France

British writer and historian Stephen Clarke has based most of his career on turning merde into gold. The alchemy works – translated into 20 languages, he has established himself as an expert when it comes to all things French.

Clarke’s Merde series follows Paul West, a 27-year-old Englishman grappling with cultural differences as he sets up in France. Drawing on a lifetime of research, Clarke has filtered his knowledge through a dry, witty British lens to create a sharp, entertaining look at his own experiences as a young man coming to work in France. He followed up the initial success of Year in the Merde with the equally amusing Merde Actually and then Merde Happens. But the puns didn’t stop there – soon came Dial M for Merde, The Merde Factor and most recently, on the topic of Brexit, Merde in Europe.

The shock of white hair on Clarke’s head is in sharp contrast to the childlike glint in his eye as he talks about his pre-Merde days, modernising rude word entries in bilingual French and German dictionaries: “You’d be surprised at what wasn’t in there when I arrived” Clarke said. “It was fun…”

We are in a café in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, around the corner from where Clarke has been living for the past eight years. Inside, chairs are dotted around a zinc bar. Outside, along the canal, joggers shuffle past long boats.

Clarke chose this area “because it was cheap” but he points out that it has changed a lot. “There weren’t these boats - and up and down here used to be crack dealers,” he recalled. It’s still a lively place, but it has been significantly cleaned up. Across the water, there’s even a bar ...

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