August, the month of `squashed dog' stories: The Independent Archive

3 August 1988 The French like the idea of a security ring round the hospital to repel people intent on killing the pig. This is the Britain they recognise

ALL OVER Paris the shutters are up. You can tell how many families from any particular building are on holiday by looking up at the windows from the street outside. The French are still locked into a system of the August holiday.

This year the first day of August was a Monday. In other countries that would mean that people would start their holidays on the previous Friday evening. But 40 per cent of departing Parisians delayed their departure last weekend until the Monday. That was when their bookings started and until then they stayed at home. The result was the usual infernal traffic jam. Only the very grandest people stayed until 2 August and so avoided the traffic at the cost of one day on the beach.

The news in August takes on a different tempo. This is the month of "squashed dog" stories. In Britain they used be called "goldfish emerging from bathroom tap" stories. But in late 20th century, when the summer holidays are studded with rape, fire and flood, these traditional nicknames seem naive.

The month began with news of an attack on an old man in Pas-de-Calais carried out by a swarm of bees. The scenario might have pleased Hitchcock. The victim was sunning himself in his garden at the time. The firemen were called but were driven back into their vans by the ferocity of the insects. After 45 minutes someone arrived with protective clothing and insecticide. By then the man sitting in the deckchair was dead, covered in hundreds of stings, most of them on his eyelids. His children have started a civil case against their neighbours on the grounds that bees seldom attack without a reason.

From Lourdes comes rare good news: there have been numerous miracles. During the visit of 20,000 pilgrims belonging to a charismatic organisation known as The Lion of Judah, 12 sick people are said to have been cured. This story recalls the great days of the Lourdes pilgrimage. In the summer of 1897 the Assumptionist Fathers who led the annual French national pilgrimage to the shrine assembled 1,000 priests to chant the Confiteor. The director of the pilgrimage then turned on the sick pilgrims and ordered them to rise and walk. Amid scenes of wild enthusiasm, 41 incurable invalids obeyed his instructions.

The church authorities in Lourdes have long since discouraged such demonstrations and refuse to describe any cures as "miraculous" until they have been investigated over a period of years. One of those apparently cured this year was a doctor and mother of four from Lyons, paralysed for many years by arthritis. Another was a man paralysed for 19 years by a slipped disc. Another was a four-year-old English girl, paralysed and speechless since birth; she was able to walk a few steps and utter sounds.

The normal procedure at Lourdes if someone claims to have been cured is for an investigation to be started at the medical bureau. But the charismatics of The Lion of Judah have decided not to bother with this. They are content with the event. So the credulous or sceptical onlooker will be denied his scientific investigation and left with his original prejudices. From the point of view of those cured, the objective proof hardly matters.

Even the news from Britain has taken on a slightly whimsical air. The French are very interested in the story from Dulwich about grafting a pig's kidneys on to a human patient. They go for the animal rights angle. They like the idea of putting a security ring round the hospital to repel people who are intent on rescuing the pig from dismemberment. This is the Britain they recognise and laugh at, in a kindly sort of way.

France, on the other hand, is still a country where there is money to be made by inventing faster ways of stuffing a live goose. Fortunately the French do not know what the animal rights movement thinks of pate de foie gras, or their laughter might die down rather suddenly.

Patrick Marnham

From `Out of France' in `The Independent', Wednesday 3 August 1988. The Law Report resumes with the Law Term in October

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