Slanderous generalisations about our neighbours are an important part of our newspaper and book-publishing culture. The French are, we know, arrogant, rude, underwashed, oversexed, eat inedible species and smoke loosely-constructed, yellow cigarettes down to the last, foul-smelling ember. They wear berets and striped jumpers and carry baguettes under their arms at all times.
French commentary - or return fire - on the British tends to be disappointingly sober and fair- minded. Thank god, therefore, for Jacques A Bertrand.
Bertrand, a French humourist and novelist, a kind of Gallic Bill Bryson, has just published an uproarious tirade against the English. (He likes and pities the Scots, Welsh and Irish. After all, they share a great misfortune with the French: they live next door to us.)
His book, L'Angleterre Ferme a Cinq Heures ("England Closes at Five O'Clock"; Julliard, £23), is a devastating account of his three-year exile in the north London suburbs of the 1990s. He also lapses occasionally, in a spirit of revenge, maybe, into theheroically absurd clichés that the English love to perpetuate about the French.
Bertrand writes, for instance: "The Englishman is always on show. Even lost in the desert, with the night falling, and a sandstorm rising, with only a tin of sardines and a little water, the Englishman will change for dinner." Not always, Bertrand. I spent an entertaining day with 2,000 youngish Englishmen in Charleroi before an England-Germany football match four years ago. None of them changed for dinner. He is more convincing describing a typical London drinks party, "where you have to spend the evening standing up with a glass of white wine in your hand, eating two or three burnt sausages and dipping fragments of cauliflower in yoghurt".
Or when he compares attitudes to sporting success in the two countries. "When a French athlete finishes fourth in the Olympic Games, his execution is broadcast live on France 2. An English athlete is glorified at length on the BBC, which does not bother to mention who took the first three places."
Life in England, he says, is a permanent contest between England and "the rest of the world". However there is no true contest. Even if the rest of the world wins, England remains the best. London, he suggests, is the only city where you can actually find rugby shirts marked "The Rest of the World".
Bertrand is especially eloquent on the suburban English obsession with lawns. "My neighbour would use an enormous lawnmower, with a collecting box. Two days later, between two showers, he would use a smaller mower, without a collecting box. Then he brushed the lawn. The next day, taking advantage of a brief break in the weather, he would appear with a smaller, wheel-less mower, to cut the grass even shorter. I expected him to appear next with an electric razor but... he instead spent a few days hitting a golf ball, violently, against our communal fence, until it was time to use the large lawnmower again."
In his three years in the London suburbs, Bertrand reports, he was only once asked to enter an English suburban home. He was just mumbling a polite excuse when he realised that the invitation was not addressed to him, but to a neighbour's dog which was crossing the street a few yards away.
Bertrand, 56, who has published a score of books over the last 20 years, emigrated to London with his family when his wife was given a post at a medical research institute. "I arrived as a great admirer of all things English but left as a disappointed lover," he told me over the telephone. "I had not realised how much the English made an obsession of hating the French."
If his book occasionally lapses into clichés, he said, it was because he sometimes preferred the disappearing, clichéd England - the red telephone boxes, the black cabs, the bowler hats and stiff upper lips - to the confusing England that he found. "Maybe it is true that all Englishmen no longer dress for dinner, even alone in the desert," he said. "But they should. They should."
Tearaways strip on the Metro
I was sitting in a Paris Metro train the other night when three people came aboard and began to tear the advertising posters from the carriage walls. None of the other passengers said anything. A studious, dotty-looking young woman in her thirties explained that this was not vandalism but a "non-violent and joyous" act of self-defence against the "totalitarian and retrograde" menace of advertising posters on the underground.
For several months now, groups of anti-advertising protesters, loosely connected with the far-left and the anti-global movement, have been attacking posters on Metro stations and in Metro trains. By doing so (according to the little leaflet which the young woman gave me), they are "cutting off the fuel" of the "commercialisation" which threatens to engulf the world.
I complained that I would rather look at a poster for a language school than the ugly scribble that they had left in its place. One of the other protesters, a sixty-something woman with short silver hair, accused me of being closed-minded, fascist and, worse, foreign.
I later looked up their website - www.stopub.tk - to learn more. I was delighted to find it had been colonised by an advertising pop-up for Barclaycard, in German.
Sexy ads come out in the wash
Some attacks on ads are fine. Sex-with-everything is still the rule for French advertisers, despite frequent promises to mend their ways. In our neighbourhood Metro station, there is a poster for an electrical goods chain that shows a naked, female bottom sitting on a washing machine. Someone has written underneath: "Go and sell your vibrators elsewhere, you perverts."Reuse content