Stephen Clarke, author of A Year in the Merde, trawled through 1,000 years of history to better understand the origins of Franco-British rivalry – and why it is still causing us problems today
What prompted you to delve into the past and get to the bottom of relations between France and the UK?
One of the most frequent questions I get asked when doing readings and talks is why is there such a love-hate relationship between the French and the Brits. I tell them it’s not hate – I think it’s mistrust. There’s a tendency to click into rivalry mode at the first opportunity because of our past. Even though we are friends there are many skeletons in the cupboard. It’s something that we need to get out into the open. Maybe if we confronted these hostilities we’d be less in denial.
What sort of denial do you mean?
The French are in terrible denial. Our versions of the same events are like two completely different stories.
You don’t question anything in the French curriculum. You just learn it – it’s gospel.
Some of what I found out has not been touched upon in any history book.
One of the funny reactions I got was talking to a historian who was writing a book about historical French women and I was discussing Simone de Beauvoir with her. [Clarke says in his book that Beauvoir was sacked as a lycée teacher, worked on Vichy’s national radio outlet and “rose to prominence in the talent vacuum of Nazi Paris”]. When I went into her record, it was like criticising Mother Theresa.
In the end, the historian said: yes, Simone de Beauvoir did do these things but we just don’t talk about them.
In your book, you say the 1066 conquest of England was not really a ‘French’ invasion at all...
If you look at the facts of the Norman Conquest in 1066, it becomes clear that France’s claim to have launched the last successful cross-Channel invasion is completely unfounded.
The Normans weren’t French at all. Calling a 10th- or 11th-century Norman a Frenchman would have been a bit like telling a Glaswegian he’s English. I was on Radio 4’s Loose Ends programme with Clive Anderson and he was having a go at me for saying that the Normans weren’t French I only had six minutes to discuss the book but we could have gone on for ages on that one point alone.
Did you uncover any other unexpected facts while researching the book?
I looked into the row between Henry II and Thomas Becket, who had provoked the king over who had the authority to choose archbishops. Becket went into exile, then came back more provocative than when he had left and continued his political stand against Henry. What few people know is that Thomas Becket had spent two years exiled in France as a guest of Louis VII, the ex-husband of Henry’s wife Eleanor.
What about the love part of the love-hate relationship between the two countries?
Despite what we might say in public, the French and the British find each other irresistibly sexy. We are completely different in almost everything we do – which is great for me because I write books about it. We are fascinated by each other – French people go to London and are interested to see how we live, and Brits come to Paris and like the fact that nothing much has changed. When you come to Paris it’s like you’re in a protected domain, almost like a zoo – it has weathered the recession well and still manages to enjoy itself.
What effect has the Channel Tunnel had on a Franco-British relations?
The opening of the tunnel was a seismic shock, like suddenly forcing an old couple to sleep in a double bed again after years on their own single mattresses. We’ve been linked geographically for the first time since the ice age. I think it has had a big effect. It has become a much more normal thing to nip across to the other country and make a habit of it – not just to stock up on booze at a Calais hypermarket. Young French kids go off to work in London and their parents know they are only two hours away by train.
Is there strong political tension and rivalry today?
There have been some serious spats about whether we ally with the US or Europe and whether the Brits join the euro. That’s a real rivalry which in the olden days might have led to war.
Is some of the French mistrust of Britain linked to the anglicisation of the French language?
I think there is a lot more protectionism of the French language – not just from English influences but corruption of the language from within. You only have to look at people sending text messages in French to see how it is changing. English is a kind of bastard language, a hybrid based around the patois of invaders. I think we are more open about change because our language has grown organically.
French has hardly changed at all. When I was reading medieval chronicles to research the book, I could understand them. Voltaire still makes sense, and he was only 100 years after Shakespeare, half of which you can’t understand these days.
There is talk of getting the book translated into French. What do you think French readers will make of it?
It might not be easy for French people to digest. I’ve tried to be as impartial as possible – any book that gives a balanced view of history is going to irritate French people, but I’m not French-bashing.
This is a change in direction from your earlier books, which were novels where characters getting used to life in France
My first book, A Year in the Merde, was a jokey novel about a man moving to French who did not speak the language very well and half-believed all the stereoytypes that had been fed to him. This is completely different from the novels but it’s the same tone – it touches on the same sort of clichés and stereotypes. This one is less jokey. I’ve let the historical jokes speak for themselves.
Which clichés about the British and the French need to be eradicted?
There are some big misconceptions. The Brits think the French are lazy and don’t work. It’s not at all true, they just don’t work when they don’t need to. They don’t boast about getting up at 6.00 in the morning for a breakfast conference call. If they can have that conference call at 9.30 and have time for a coffee and a chat they will. You don’t need to do everything over a dawn breakfast meeting.
I tell French people at my readings: don’t assume that all Brits are polite and reserved. In London it’s completely the opposite. Some French people think the UK is stuck in the 1950s. Of course there are some clichés that work in our favour – like when the French see British blokes as a cross between Hugh Grant and David Beckham, and the Brits think the French are all elegant.