Know the English

Published : Feb 27, 2009 00:00 IST

IN former days the England Returned was a figure of fun. The species did not fade away after Independence. It appeared in another incarnation using expressions no one uses at home. The English need a bit of knowing. They are a varied lot. Class distinctions have not disappeared altogether. Their stiff upper lip and urbanity can be misleading. As in elegant Urdu, insult delivered in good English can be wounding.

French disdain for the English is another matter. It is not unmixed with a certain admiration, if not affection. These two books are a delight to read. One is by a Frenchwoman who lived in London. The other is by an English writer whose love for conversation goes back to her school days. The English have a distinct style of conversation.

Hortense de Monplaisir is a Parisian from a very old French family. She married a banker. One day he dropped a bombshell. He had been offered a promotion; only the job was in London. He assured her that all would be well. You will shine in the salons of South Kensington. You will walk, talk and be elegant amongst those lumpen English women. And fiscally, it would be interesting. The last is a typically English statement. The rude reference to English women prepares the reader to what follows.

After ten years, she became bicultural but remained very French. The children are bilingual. The book is written for her French compatriots and was translated into English by Sarah Long, a close friend who is an English novelist.

Scarcely an aspect is overlooked. The eating habits, mistrust of intellectuals, disdain for culture, addiction to nostalgia, English manners, their habits at work or at the dining table, and the obsession with money are all here. Yet, the lady came to like the English.

Sample these two examples of her style. Read this. In France we like food that tastes good. English puritans dont care what it tastes like as long as it has a label showing its from the right place. This is called sourcing. The ideal label is organic (much over-rated as we know), and from a farmer whose name and address they can drop to their guests. They love shops like Planet Organic which make a great fuss about overpriced cheese and produce that is only what youd find in the most basic French market. They like to claim allergies, and buy bags of dried pulses which they stuff in the back of the cupboard and never cook.

And this. In France, we know there is no point in trying to reach anybody between the hours of twelve and two. The right of every person to sit down to a proper three-course lunch is a triumph of French civilisation. Who has not nodded bon appetit to a group of builders engaged in animated conversation around an improvised trestle table erected en plein chantier?

Alas, things are very different in the land of the sandwich. Hunched over their computers, office workers drop bits of panini and oily fragments of crisps on to their keyboards throughout the day, washed down by insipid cups of tea prepared in big mugs bearing jokey messages. Sometimes they may go out to the pub, where they have to balance plates of microwaved food in one hand and a pint glass in the other, which is not conducive to good digestion. Even Shakespeare is not spared. He was inferior to Jean Racine.

Catherine Bylths book is different from Stephen Millers erudite Conversation: A History of a Declining Art (vide the writers review Talking Aimlessly, Frontline, July 28, 2006). Hers is a guide to the many adventures conversation can provide, with examples from the days of Elizabeth I. She has read widely as the Select Bibliography testifies.

There are chapters on silences, on shop talk, on bores, flattery and on books such as guides to good conversation. There is a way to put down the pushy ones. Call me Cherie, Tony Blairs wife said to Princess Anne. The reply was perfect: Id rather not, Mrs. Blair.

This deceptively light book is a fine guide to dealing with the boor. One such Member of Parlaiment received good advice from Balfour: Speak often and speak for long; and you will soon acquire the contempt for his audience which every bore has.

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