John Lichfield: Don’t let’s be beastly to the Belgians


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I share a distinction with Johnny Hallyday, Audrey Hepburn and a village on the Belgo-Luxembourg border which is nothing but cigarette shops on one side of the street and trees and cows on the other. I am half-Belgian.

It is very rare for anything even half-positive to be written about my half-nation. What can one say in defence of a country which, six months after an election, has still not formed a government? How can one excuse a country that owes 100 per cent of its income and yet, in mid-euro crisis, is inventing dotty ways of spending money to ease linguistic quarrels more tangled than 10 sets of Christmas tree lights?

Here, all the same, are two tributes to Belgium. The first is a survey by Britain's largest bank (a bank born in Hong Kong) and the second is a new film by the man who made the most successful French film of all time (a blond half-Algerian).

In its annual survey of the world, as seen by expats, HSBC bank declared Belgium to be the best place in the world to bring up children. Of 14 countries surveyed, Belgium came top in terms of quality of education, child care, health care, sports opportunities and the outdoor life. Britain was bottom. The United States came next to bottom. The survey did not surprise me. Expats with kids love suburbs. America and Britain may have invented the suburb but suburban culture has achieved its supreme expression in Belgium.

Parts of inner-city Brussels and Antwerp are depressed and troubled. Otherwise, most of the northern part of the country, on both sides of the linguistic divide, has become a more civilised New Jersey, with good roads, good state schools, good public transport and good state health care.

The second tribute to Belgium will come next month from an unlikely source – France. The French like to make Belgian jokes the way that the British make Irish jokes and the Irish make Kerryman jokes and, no doubt, Kerrymen make French jokes. In a new film, released on 26 January, Dany Boon, the French comedian turned film-maker, will try to make peace between the French and the Belgians. Making peace between the different kinds of Belgians is presumably beyond even him.

Mr Boon was born 44 years ago on the Franco-Belgian border at Armentières. His last film, in 2008, was an attempt to reconcile the rest of France with the Nord-Pas de Calais, the frozen wastes just south of the Channel where, in French popular imagination, alcoholic single-mothers huddle for warmth around the bottom of slag heaps. That film, Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis, was a roaring success, smashing all French box-office records with more than 20,000,000 tickets sold. His new movie, Rien à Déclarer (Nothing to Declare) is set in 1993, when the Schengen agreement brought down the border barriers between France and Belgium.

The wonderful Belgian actor Benoît Poelvoorde plays a Belgian customs official who hates the French. Dany Boon plays a French customs official who is in love with Poelvoorde's sister. When the barriers vanish, they are yoked together in a two-man customs flying squad, a kind of Franco-Belgian Starsky and Hutch.

The results are more hilarious than the "Ch'tis" movie, which was, in all honesty, an over-extended TV sketch with one joke. Mr Boon says that his intention is to fight petty prejudice with humour and turn clichés inside out. At one point, Poelwoorde's Belgian customs man says: "It's not that I detest the French. It's merely that the French are detestable." Equally, one might say: "There is nothing wrong with Belgians. It is merely Belgium – its divided political system, its malignantly and selfishly quarrelsome politicians – which is a bit of a nuisance."

Johnny the Indestructible has a busy year in prospect

My fellow half-Belgian Johnny Hallyday is about to make his latest comeback – this time from the dead. Twelve months after a near-death experience in Los Angeles last Christmas, Johnny, 67, sang in a couple of guest appearances on stage this month. He has a new album coming out in March. He starts a two-year, 10-stadium tour in November. In October, he will appear on the Paris stage for the first time, in an obscure Tennessee Williams play, Kingdom of Earth.

Johnny's artificially induced coma in a Los Angeles clinic last December was said at the time to have been caused by severe complications from an operation on a slipped disc. It has since been alleged that the American doctors were obliged to put him under because of his "incredible" alcohol intake. They feared that he would react badly to severance from the booze while in hospital.

The truth should emerge eventually. The indestructible Johnny has written his autobiography. He has insisted, however, that it should not appear in his lifetime. It would therefore be rash to expect publication any time soon.

Laugh out loud at this imperfect subjunctive

A few weeks ago I mentioned that a new verb had entered the French language: "Loler", to "laugh uproariously", derived from the English text abbreviation "lol", for "laugh out loud".

Rashly, I asked readers to conjugate the imperfect subjunctive of the verb "loler". The imperfect subjunctive is a literary form, never used in speech. "Loler" is unlikely ever to be recognised by the Académie Française. Nonetheless, a reader, Laurence Partis, has obliged with a full imperfect subjunctive conjugation. ("That I might have laughed out loud, that you might have laughed out loud" etc)

Je lolasse, tu lolasses, il/elle lolât, nous lolassions, vous lolassiez, ils/elles lolassent.

Dix sur dix.

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