'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

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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 that has started its own microbrewery. “It’s not at all chic or anything, but what I like is that it’s really mixed. As I come out of the front door and walk towards the métro, I will see Africans, Arabs, Orthodox Jews, African Jews, the Chinese… I see people like me, the ‘bobos’, I also see very poor white people. It’s really old-fashioned, cosmopolitan Paris. The harmony that reigns here is amazing really.”

Calling over the garçon to order a café allongé, no one could ever tell that Clarke was not born in France. “I’m not French,” he corrects as I point this out, “I’m Parisian.”

His first experience of France was as a language assistant in a school in Perpignan, as part of a year abroad as a student. Clarke read French and German at Oxford, and when presented with the options of Strasbourg, or Metz, he decided that he preferred somewhere “where there was sun”. It was Paris that got full-time custody of him in 1993, though – after the dictionary years, Clarke came to the French capital to climb the ranks of an English-language magazine. He spent 10 years gaining real experience of working for a French publishing company, where “almost all of my colleagues were French, the company culture was French... It was my training in how French life and work function.”

A couple of novels later (including a sci-fi romp set in Bournemouth), Clarke felt ready to start putting down on paper what he had experienced in France. “It’s always best to write what you know about,” he explains. “I worked for 10 years before I wrote Year in the Merde, because I wanted to write something genuine and not one of those books where someone’s been to the 6ème arrondissement in Paris, made a few trips up to the 11ème for a ‘daring’ outing, and then think they know about the whole of France.”

Six novels (and five non-fiction books) later, Clarke has established himself as the go-to guy for witty insights on what the British think about France. The Merde series was received to wide acclaim in France, and Clarke is a regular guest on French TV and radio shows. “What I find flattering,” says Clarke, “is that they also get me on to talk about French subjects! They get me in there because they know I’ll say something stupid, but then they tell me that they feel that my books are true.”

Clarke has also written sitcoms for French radio, like L’Anglais débarque, a show in 10 episodes about a young English man working as a language teacher in a French company. Sound familiar? The secret is that Clarke’s gentle mockery is based on real experience. “There’s no rubbish in there,” states Clarke, “just what I’ve actually seen.”

British people who can’t speak French also get a good ribbing (“not speaking a foreign language is just a real limitation of your brain power”) but what the French really enjoy, according to Clarke, is “being talked about. They seem to think that I must be quite intelligent, because I’ve realised how fascinating they are.”

Although famous for his light-hearted comedic fiction, Clarke’s knowledge of France runs deeper than the odd office anecdote. Alternating between fiction and historical books, he has published five books that delve deep into France’s backstory, applying his trademark amusing slant to his non-fiction, too.

The latest historical book, which has also been translated into French, is a biography of Edward VII, Dirty Bertie: an English King made in France. “It amused me that the Entente Cordiale was signed by his government, because he was a rare francophile,” Clarke explains. “He was a bit like Prince Charles, he had a long wait to become king, so he would come to Paris and to enjoy himself (too much some would say).” The book allowed Clarke to take a closer look at the people that Bertie met: “While he was having affairs with numerous actresses, he was also making friends with politicians right across the spectrum, from these mad royalists who wanted Revolution again, through to Emperor Napoleon III and even left-wing politicians like Gambetta, who was the opposite of him.”

Clarke discovered that Prince Edward was actually playing a key part in greasing the wheels of European politics. Thanks to his fluency in French, Clarke was able to dig up ancient archives from the Bibliothèque Nationale, recognising Edward as a keeper of the peace. “This is why I like doing history,” says Clarke. “There are these things that we think we know – if you read an English biography of Edward VII, you’ll think ‘OK, he had mistresses, he wasted his time, and then he became King and while the first World War was charging towards everyone, they were having garden parties and singing Elgar’. But you don’t realise the incredible diplomatic part he played in keeping the peace so that we could have those garden parties.”

The French publication of the book will follow a radio play about Edward VII that Clarke has co-written for France Inter’s Autant en emporte l’histoire. Clarke reckons the topic will sit nicely with a French audience: “They are fascinated by British royalty. It’s quite funny,” muses Clarke. “I think something deep down in them wishes they hadn’t chopped off the heads of their own. They haven’t got anything that matches… I mean, there’s the Eiffel Tower, but it’s not exactly the same as having a living, breathing Queen floating down the Thames with a hundred boats tooting their horns and shooting their cannon.”

This straight-talking, acerbic wit has gotten him into trouble at times. People have insulted him for daring to criticise the French, for having an opinion on Joan of Arc, or even for speaking some truths about Napoleon. “He did happen to do some good things for France,” states Clarke, “like write their laws. But he also reintroduced slavery in the colonies and used his soldiers as cannon fodder!” Not everyone is a fan of such frankness, but Clarke confidently brushes off the attacks: “the director of the Fondation Napoléon, which is the real authority on the matter, invited me out to lunch because he likes the book. It’s all fact!”

The latest novel, Merde in Europe, came out just before the British referendum. Clarke is now working on the “morning-after chapter”, exploring what happens now that it’s happened. It’s The Hangover, British-style. “I didn’t see it coming,” Clarke says about the referendum’s result, “but one of the reasons I wrote the novel was that I was very quickly getting horrified by the sheer lies that were being told in the press. In the end, what it came down to was not about Europe, really, it was about immigration and refugees. If you asked people to name one European law that they didn’t like, they might have mentioned ‘straight bananas’ – that was invented by Boris Johnson when he was Daily Telegraph correspondent – but all European laws are about really is clean water, clean air, good working conditions, decent beaches and fair competition. A lot of these people who voted for Brexit will have less protection now than before.”

Despite being firmly settled in France, Clarke still regularly travels back to the UK. First and foremost to watch football (“I have always supported Bournemouth, and they are now in the Premier League, so I go back to watch them”) but also, lately, to watch theatre shows. “I’m currently putting together a sort of a stage version of one of my books,” explains Clarke. The book in question, The Merde Factor, was previously adapted for the stage by a Czech actor, with whom Clarke toured the Czech Republic, twice. “I was going to all of these tiny little towns, it was great fun,” grins Clarke. “I was paid the daily rate of a Czech actor, which is like six euros a day or something, it was fantastic!” The experience made Clarke want to adapt the script himself, adding some ideas for playing around with music between the scenes, and he is currently working with some actors and a director to put that on in 2017.

“It’s a very small thing, only two actors on stage and a musician, like a cabaret show!” says Clarke with a modesty barely hiding his excitement.

It won’t be the first book of Clarke’s to be adapted into another format. Aside from one of the Merde books being under option to become a movie, there is a castle in the north of France in which Clarke’s 1,000 years of annoying the French has been turned into an interactive museum experience. The Chateau d’Hardelot, set in the wooded sand dunes about 20 kilometres west of Calais, is the setting for France’s Centre Culturel de l’Entente Cordiale. It contains a Napoleon exhibition that Clarke curated, borrowing furniture, paintings and statues from places like Le Mobilier National or the Louvre. “It’s incredibly classy,” says Clarke proudly.

After over 20 years of living in France, Clarke doesn’t seem to be showing signs of leaving any time soon. “Well, unless I get deported when Britain leaves the EU!” he jokes. In fact, Clarke’s Merde character Paul West faces the same important question of what he will do, too. Should he take French nationality? Can a Brit, especially one as British as Paul West, become French?

“Can he sing the Marseillaise?” Clarke muses. “Can he even pronounce the word Marseillaise?” Paul West might not be able to, but Clarke definitely can. In fact, not only could he sing it, but such is the level of Clarke’s fusion with his country of adoption, he could probably tell you when, why and under what circumstances it was written, too.

Read our exclusive interview with Dordogne-based Bruno novelist Martin Walker here.