Obituaries: Gerald Long

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I KNOW few people who had Gerald Long's knowledge of the French language or who could rival his erudition on a whole number of subjects, particularly concerning Paris, writes Professor Douglas Johnson [further to the obituary by Donald Read, 14 November]. He could transform an idle conversation and make if fascinating. I spoke once of Marshal Ney's statue that stands in the Avenue de l'Observatoire. Immediately, he told me the history of the statue, how it originated, how it had been moved, how the old version had been replaced by another.

He was familiar with the contemporary sources relevant to many historical incidents. Thus, speaking about the shooting of Robespierre before he was guillotined, he would quote Edme-Bonaventure Courtois (whilst saying that he was as foolish as he was dishonest), the gendarme Meda and the surgeon who examined the wound. And on the subject of the Revolution he would ask why it was that the English had adopted the word "tumbril" from the little-used French word tombereau, for the cart that transported the condemned to the guillotine.

He read something that I had written which was favourable to a contemporary French politician. I promptly received a letter:

I do not like politicians as politicians, but as people they can be acceptable, even, in extreme cases, attractive. But not your man, with his air of drawing his skirts about him, his holier-than-thou show of probity.

This was strong stuff. But in no way objectionable. One can see why one of his favourite quotations was from the Duc de Broglie: "We must beware of too much understanding lest we end by too much forgiving."

Long was known to many through his letters to newspapers and periodicals. They were always short and direct, usually correcting a fact or the misuse of a word. Perhaps the last such letter that he wrote was published in The Spectator (7 November). He there reproved a correspondent who stated over-confidently that the name of General Gallieni should be spelt with an acute accent. He pointed out that neither in the Paris boulevard nor in the metro station named after him are there accents. But both the French and the British scatter accents about for reasons of euphony, e.g. Degas and Clemenceau. And, in Jean Favier's monumental history of Paris the General's name has an accent in the index but not in the text. So, he concluded, "to see certainty where there is none is the work of an uncritical mind".

Gerald Long will be missed for such letters and for much more.