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Tuesday, 28 March 2006
Entente cordiale?
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Yesterday's Times carried a news item on a "new European league of IQ scores". Here it is:

It is disappointing that we are not "top nation", but on the other hand we would not wish to be "too clever by half", that very English insult. So does the article express pleasure at beating Finland or Serbia? No. The headline is:

"Germans are brainier (but at least we're smarter than the French)"

This is rather clumsy, as headlines go, but few Times readers will question the sentiment expressed. The first paragraph of the article continues in francophobe form:

BRITAIN and France have experienced long periods of conflict and rivalry but now victory in one area can be claimed: Britons are more intelligent than the French.

A new European league of IQ scores has ranked the British in eighth place, well above the French, who were 19th. According to Richard Lynn of the University of Ulster, Britons have an average IQ of 100. The French scored 94.

The Times is a quality broadsheet, not a tub-thumping tabloid. Yet this kind of thing is not unusual. And there can be few Englishmen who did not rub their hands in glee at this story, or this. But surely we are all Europeans now?

Not according to Robert and Isabelle Tombs, who have written what promises to be an excellent book, That Sweet Enemy. The book is reviewed by Judith Flanders in The Spectator (subscription required):

A French journalist writing in 1999 was succinct: ‘The English hate the French. Who reciprocate … A purée of prejudice on a bed of inherited loathing. The French consider the English to be arrogant islanders, eating boiled lamb with mint, and not knowing how to be seductive. The English consider us talkative, arrogant, dirty, smelling of sweat and garlic, flighty, cheating and corrupt.’ ‘Inherited’ may be the most telling word in that outburst, and it is Robert and Isabelle Tombs’ keynote in this magisterial study of the on-going love-hate relationship between the British and the French over three centuries.

The relationship, as they point out, is unique: it has lasted longer than that between any other European or American nations; and it has affected not only the countries’ political systems, but their economies, their cultures and, not least, their views of themselves as well as of each other. It created the ideas of France and Britain as nations, as each country defined itself by what it was not. Further afield the struggle — and, later, the alliance — between the two countries shaped large swathes of Asia, Africa and the Americas.

After a detailed and what promises to be fascinating discussion of the naval race of the 1790s, the book discusses how this rivalry plays out in literature:

British 19th-century proto-Peter Mayle (depicts) ‘unsophisticated, incompetent, but honest and warm-hearted peasants’; and an early 20th-century British invasion novel, where ‘a doughty Cockney cyclist’, captured as a spy, shouts, ‘La Hongletaire est la première nation de la monde [sic]’, leaving his captors reluctantly murmuring, ‘Sacré bleu, c’est vrai’, as they release him. The prize must surely go, however, to the fashion in 1760s France for novels portraying English characters named Fanni, Sidnei, Wuillaume, Nency, Betsi and ‘Sir W. Shittleheaded’. Yet although the authors have clearly enjoyed these books for their own sakes, they also have historical points to make: just as the 1760s saw a period of Anglophilia reflected in French fiction, so after the Revolution Anglophobia can be measured by the works of Stendhal, de Vigny and Balzac, where the English can pretty well be relied on to be the villains (by the Tombs’ count, nearly all of the 31 English characters in Balzac are morally reprehensible).

Language has always been one of the clearest ways of marking distance between the two peoples...the hysteria of the Académie Française over ‘language-creep’ only focuses on English — no fiats command that pizza should turn into flan au fromage. Fear and disdain are focused solely on English..

For the British remain the Goddams, just as the French are the snail-eaters. These stereotypes were already in place in the 18th century; Victor Hugo restated them more elegantly in the 19th: ‘On one side precision, foresight, geometry, prudence, stubborn sang-froid. On the other, intuition, guess-work, the unorthodox, superhuman instinct.’

Stubborn sang-froid? That would be the typical Englishman's bloody cold that he never quite manages to shake off.

Book reviews can be a pleasure to read whether or not they make you want to read the book. But in this case, my appetite is definitely whetted. I particularly want to find out more about Sir W Shittleheaded. 

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Posted on 03/28/2006 3:44 AM by Mary Jackson
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