'I want to eat scones. I want to see again the Burlington Arcade - so elegant. I want to buy an Aquascutum macintosh trench coat. Not Burberry - the lining is so banal. I want to see thatch.' Thatch? La dame de fer? Unless Madame Tussaud has already melted her down . . . 'No no] Thatched houses and oat houses.' Oat? Oh, oast houses] 'I want to see a Miss Marple village. I must go to see Sevenoaks.'
Sevenoaks? It took me a while to figure out the cultural significance of haute-bourgeoise suburbia for Herve, until I remembered a best-selling Bandes Dessinees by French comic book artists Floc'h et Riviere. La Mystere de Sevenoaks features a moustached, metropolitan detective, who occasionally wears what looks like an Aquascutum trench coat.
He is assisted by an English Amazon, a detective story writer who wears tailored tweed costumes and dresses her hair a la Louise Brooks. It is one of a series of mystery adventures set in a late 1930s milieu of upper-middle class suburban comfort - maids still bring in afternoon tea and scones on trays to well-dressed guests assembled in the general's library, curtains are drawn at dusk by butlers summoned by little handbells rung by elderly ladies who look like Agatha Christie, chairs and sofas are covered in bright floral chintz or cretonne, and standard lamps are furnished with heavily fringed silk shades. Gas street lamps shine like golden eggs through the dark, rain and fog to light the roads for vintage Bentleys and taxi cabs driven by elderly Cockneys wearing flat caps and mufflers.
Living in central London in a one-bedroom basement flat, I was perhaps a grave disappointment to Herve who had to trek to Safeway in Kensington High Street to buy a pack of four cellophane-wrapped fruit scones, a pot of Tiptree raspberry jam, a half pound brick of Danish butter and Earl Grey tea bags. We heated the scones briefly in the microwave, and took them out with the teapot to the paved garden where Frankie, the prize stud English Bulldog, as authentically solid and traditional as Herve could have wished, was waiting to scoff his share.
Were the scones all right? 'Pas mal,' said Herve, chewing determinedly. He sighed in the concentrated heat. What's the matter? 'Nobody comes to London for the good weather,' he said. 'English weather is what people come for. If I'd wanted sun and heat, I'd have gone to the South of France. My friends from Marseilles last year went to Scotland for the Scotch mist and the coolness. They enjoyed it very much. When do you think it will rain? I would like to wear my new Aquascutum trench coat.' The sun beat down.
'What shall we have for dinner?' said Herve. 'Not pasta again. Not your Salade Nicoise - you are terrible at salads. Something hot. You know I wish to eat only English.
Steak and kidney pies, suet pudding, Cheddar cheese and boiled beef with carrots. York pudding and Yorkshire ham.' Useless to try to tell Herve that the English in London have been taken over by Italian bar-cafes and trattorie, that they now drink only cappuccino and espresso coffee, that pubs only do quiche and undressed salads, that only Simpson's in the Strand and Rules in Maiden Lane dish up food that Sevenoaks on a Sunday would recognise as a hot lunch.
'We will shop,' said Herve. 'I will speak to your charcutier myself.' My charcutier happens to be a willing enough, but inadequately informed, adolescent behind the deli counter at Safeway where we bought wafer-thin slices of smoked ham and some rounds of rare roast beef.
Fortunately, I live right across the road from possibly the best bakery in London - Clarke's in Kensington Church Street - which of course doesn't bake English bread: Tuscan bread, French bread, rye bread, Parmesan bread, croissants, and all the rest that is flavoursome and heady with the scents of herbs and olives, but asking for a decent English loaf at Clarke's is to feel like an embarrassed man in a Bateman cartoon. To get British bread, or at least a round of Irish soda bread, I had to take Herve to Portobello Road where he also stocked up thankfully on fruit and vegetables that Safeway hadn't yet got round to wrapping in individual cellophane envelopes. Walking that far involved several stops for reviving our energies at pubs along the way.
'In Paris,' said Herve severely, 'I do not have to walk so far. Nobody walks so far. On every street there are the little shops. In London, there are no shops except clothes and antique shops, and still you do not dress well and you do not care about your furniture. I do not understand these long streets with many apartments, row after row of terraces filled with people who must eat and who have no shops to buy their dinner, who must take the Tube or the bus to buy a beefsteak that is sold in a little plastic box at a supermarket.'
'Talking of the subway, in Paris . . . ' said Herve, hailing a black cab in the Strand after an exhausting evening at Sunset Boulevard, 'I never have to take a taxi. Boh] Ten minutes from my apartment and I can be at L'Opera without a transfer.' You mean without changing? 'Yes. Always we transfer at the Earls Court. For me, the Earls Court is a subway platform I will never forget. The whole world, coming from Heathrow, has to transfer at the Earls Court. When I die, I will surely transfer at the Earls Court: and still I will not know which train to take or how long I will have to wait. All I know is that it will stop forever just before High Street Kensington and never will I see Barker's beautiful store building again, and never will I get to Sevenoaks.'
To console Herve, I took him to the Pugin exhibition at the V&A. Pugin was a moderate success: 'Mais c'est Viollet-le-Duc]' exclaimed Herve, recognising a French parallel in 19th-century French design. He preferred the Kauffman office, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and recently transplanted wholesale (if that's the right word for Kauffman, a prosperous department store owner) from America to the V&A.
But at last Herve had a good word for quintessential Englishness: 'Pas mal,' said Herve after the first night of Lady Windermere's Fan at the Albery Theatre in St Martin's Lane. He savoured the production like a featherlight scone spread with the finest raspberry conserve and topped with whipped cream.
'The decor] The frocks] Stupendous] Sumptuous] Madame Erlynne - who is this Francesca Annis? Ah] What an actress] We have nothing like this in Paris. Oh, maybe at L'Opera, but never in the theatre. Formidable] For me, London will always be Mrs Erlynne living to be a grand old lady eating afternoon tea with scones in Sevenoaks and never having to transfer on the metro at the Earls Court.'
Iain Finlayson's latest book, 'Tangier, is published by Flamingo. He is working on a biography of Robert Browning for HarperCollins.Reuse content