Call of France

A Trilogy by Barry A. Whittingham

Month: October 2017

The French chasseur

Not only does the French chasseur seriously deplete the ranks of our furry and feathery friends, and is not averse to using the odd road sign, stray cat or dog as target practice, but he also represents a considerable danger for some 15 million of his outdoor-loving compatriotes: walkers, ramblers, joggers, mushroom and blackberry-seekers, horse-riders, mountain-bikers, photographers, and general wild-life observers. In his favour, however, he does seem to be conscious of this: my Englishman has just reminded me of one occasion when, while strolling through a public forest one Sunday afternoon, I myself was the object of a peremptory warning (to the indignation even of the Frenchman in me), from a group of chasseurs that: ‘Vous vous promenez ici à vos risques et périls!’ – ‘Here, you’re walking at your own risk!’ For the French chasseur is enough of a bad shot to be the cause of around 170 accidents per year – more than a score of which are fatal, and three score of which are considered extremely serious. Though 150 of these accidents stay in the family, roughly 20 involve non-shooters – even the most innocent of these.
Evidence of this was provided by a short article which appeared recently in my local weekly newspaper evoking a scenario worthy of the gun-toting Wild West. Last Saturday afternoon, it related, a young boy was playing in a junior football match with his local team when the ball happened to be kicked over onto the nearby road. As he was retrieving it, he was struck in the leg by some sort of projectile. He was immediately rushed to hospital where, after examination, a bullet was extracted from his knee. The article went on to reassure us that the boy’s life was not, however, in danger, and the following morning the gendarmes in charge of the investigation reported that a hunter had presented himself at the gendarmerie, along with rifle and cartridges. It was probably, they explained, a stray bullet which had ricocheted on a rock. It goes without saying that no French government has the political courage to ruffle the feathers of this powerful lobby counting more than 1.4 million voters who dictate their law of the gun.

English Versus French Angling Ethics

Perhaps the biggest difference between French and  English in matters of angling ethics is that the Englishman is far less obsessed with that notion of return on effort which permanently haunts the back of the French hunter, shooter or angler’s mind. So, not only is the Englishman left with enough peace of mind to be able to consider a much larger part of the activity as pleasurable in itself, but he also enjoys a far greater scope to concentrate on the ethics of the sport. Nowhere is this more evident than in angling. It would, for example, be unthinkably improper for the true English trout angler to extract his adversary from its liquid element simply by standing on the bank, and dangling his line in the water with a vulgar worm or tiddler wriggling on the end. Attempting to catch a trout in this way would show a total lack of respect for a noble adversary. Since, for the Englishman, angling is far more a challenging sporting contest between equals, where he pits his skill, patience and experience against a mistrustful, home-based fish, the only fair way of enticing it to bite is by standing up to his thighs in water with an artificial fly on his hook. And usually when the fish has been successfully extracted, the contest is deemed to be over: it will be weighed, perhaps photographed, and then placed lovingly back. It is, nevertheless, true that if the English angler caught the biggest trout or pike of his life, he might be tempted to have it stuffed, encased and placed on public display. But this would be as much, even more, a tribute to the fighting qualities of his adversary than to his own angling prowess.
The English angler could, therefore, remain from dawn to dusk at a lake or riverside, catch nothing and go home in rapturous bliss. Not so with a Frenchman. The French angler who caught the biggest pike in his life would be driven not only by the constant fear of ridicule which gnaws permanently at his soul, but by this same obsessive notion that everything must serve a practical purpose. He would, therefore, have it weighed, have himself photographed with it, then take it home and (what is more natural in a land where cooking has the status of a religion?) seek consecration in the eating. An article which appeared in my local newspaper provides a perfect example of this.  Now, throughout the summer months my local newspaper regularly publishes photos, supplied by the anglers themselves, exhibiting the monstrous specimens of trout, carp, catfish and pike they have extracted, after prolonged and heroic struggle, from the depths of the region’s numerous lakes, étangs and rivers. It even offers an end-of-season prize for the largest capture in each category. My Englishman remembers, in particular, one photo showing an angler proudly displaying a gigantic pike. Such were its monstrous proportions (dwarfing his ten-year-old son purposely placed by its side) that considerable concern was expressed as to the cooking which was far beyond the capacity of an ordinary kitchen oven. In a reassuring attempt at dissipating readers’ fears that the fish’s very size might be an insurmountable obstacle to gastronomic consecration, it was explained that the local baker had kindly offered his assistance by placing at the disposal of the angler’s wife his professionally-sized oven. This, it was emphasized, would have no problem in accommodating the inordinate proportions of the beast. For the true English angler, such shamefully unsporting disrespect for a noble adversary would be considered akin to cannibalism.

 

 

 

English and French Sporting Ethics – Playing Away

A not negligible factor in the English sense of fair play involves a feeling of sympathy for the underdog. Not only is this type of adversary generally expected to be the loser because of his inferior sporting skills, but the circumstances surrounding the impending contest may also be to his disadvantage: the fact that he is operating away from home can have a significant part to play. In these conditions, giving the away-player(s) a sporting chance means going some way towards redressing this acknowledged handicap.
In England, this is usually echoed by a round of warm applause when the visiting team runs onto the pitch, by an acceptance of the referee’s decisions when these go against the home side and, above all, by the cathedral-like silence observed when penalties are being taken by the visitors. In contrast, for the Gallics, performing before your own supporters is an advantage which must be pushed firmly home. As a result, any self-respecting French supporter will use all means at his disposal to make the time spent on the playing field as much of an ordeal for away-team players and supporters (together with linesmen and the referee) as that suffered by General Gordon and his besieged forces on it becoming clear they were hopelessly outnumbered by the Dervish hordes, and that in the impending assault not the slightest quarter would be shown.
And this same notion of being on home or away ground has an equally important part to play in the sporting ethics of hunting and shooting, too. In this respect, my English half remembers a conversation I had during a dinner party in England a few years ago. As venison was on the menu, talk turned to hunting and shooting. On learning there was a French side to me, the elderly, distinguished-looking English gentleman sitting opposite immediately related an experience he’d had in the nineteen fifties while on holiday in the South of France. Hearing there was a ‘pigeon shooting competition’ in a neighbouring village, and being a clay-pigeon shooter himself, he decided to go along to watch. The same horror-struck indignation which had certainly seized him at the time was repeated when he informed us that the ‘clay’ pigeons released were, in fact, made of bone, flesh and feathers!
‘What a shameful transgression of sporting fair-play!’ he went on to add. ‘It was like shooting a sitting duck!’
‘I fail to see the difference, monsieur, between shooting live pigeons and live grouse!’ my  Frenchman countered.
Though the gentleman confessed to being a keen grouse-shooter himself, he adamantly denied infringing any sporting ethics. For him, what distinguished shooting grouse from live pigeons boiled down to a question of playing at home or away. Since grouse shooting takes place on their natural moorland habitat, it was the birds which had the advantage of playing on home ground. This was enough to make them fair game. With live pigeon shooting it was not the case. Releasing them from the away territory of man-made cages made them the defenceless victims of a shameful massacre: for what can be more disgracefully unsporting than to remove this last small chance an adversary has of escaping?
Moreover, this no doubt aristocratically-rooted English attachment to sporting ethics is still in evidence today: for an Englishman can come home at the end of a day’s shooting empty-handed but, as long as he has respected sporting ethics, rapturously happy and satisfied with time spent. The French chasseur, on the other hand, is of le peuple.  He is, above all, a predator. Far be it for my Englishman to imply by this that the chasseur is not insensitive to the profound communion with nature which his sport provides, nor to the warm camaraderie the pursuit of a commonly-shared passion procures; nor, at the limit, is he ignorant of the more rudimentary rules of sporting fair-play. But this notion of playing at home or away leaves him cold. For the French chasseur takes a far more pragmatic view: his primary aim is to avoid the humiliating ridicule involved in not obtaining tangible results, and any shame he might feel would be caused less by shooting a sitting duck than coming home with an empty game bag.
And it is certainly this point which goes somewhere towards explaining why in France at the beginning of each shooting season thousands of human-friendly partridges and pheasants are released from the farms where they were reared, and which they certainly considered as home, to be pitilessly massacred in less than half the time it takes to reload. In a good season’s shooting some 30 million of our feathery and furry friends (15 million of which are farm-raised ‘sitting-ducks’ – pheasants, partridges, mallards, rabbits, etc., released as gun fodder) meet a premature and gory end.

 

French Sporting Involvement – a Question of Passion?

You know, after giving the matter much thought, when it comes to sporting involvement I’m tempted to conclude that most of the difference in attitude between French and English boils down to a question of passion. As a general rule the flames of strong emotion leave the English cold. Is this part of their Victorian heritage? To what extent is it due to the Puritan factor? Can it be the result of a philosophy of education which placed strong emphasis on the systematic inculcation of phlegmatic restraint? Or could it simply be attributed to the sobering effects of a damp climate?
Credibility would seem to be lent to this thesis by the fact that an English judge would certainly not hesitate to sentence a compatriot to life imprisonment in the unlikely event that he emptied a gun on his wife and her lover after finding them in bed together. The French, on the other hand, warm much more to the idea that the fires of intense feeling may destroy rational behaviour. As a result, le crime passionnel would be much more liable to provide a plausible argument for extenuating circumstances, and hence be treated with far greater leniency than a crime of this nature perpetrated in cold blood.
Similarly, in the world of sport, an Englishman tends to show a much greater inclination to accept adversity with the same undemonstrative equanimity as he would show on discovering his spouse in bed with the window-cleaner. As a result he’s inclined to take the relatively dispassionate view that the opposition could actually prove itself equal or even superior. And so, when his team has the misfortune to lose, though some disappointment is naturally felt, that is usually the end of that. The Frenchman, on the other hand, takes a more committed stance – so much so that the Englishman in me cannot help but think that competitive sport for the Gallic is based on a fundamental principle which states that the triumph of the French sporting person or team is inscribed as much in the immutable order of things as the rising of the sun in the east each day. When harsh reality proves the opposite and they have the misfortune to lose, considerable imaginative prowess is shown in invoking reasons which might lead one to believe that defeat was due more to unfavourable circumstance than their own intrinsic inferiority. So frequently is this view encountered, especially in the media, that my own Englishman, has had no difficulty in compiling the following examples of some of the explanations used to absolve the non-performance of his French alter’s sporting countrymen:

‘For some reason we played badly.’
This penetrating analysis was advanced by a French international rugby player to explain defeat at the hands of the hereditary enemy at a Six Nations’ Tournament rugby match. Perhaps the reason he seems to have had so much difficulty in finding was simply the fact that the English played better. Oddly enough, when victory is on the French side it has yet to be heard suggested that the opposition played badly.

‘They were more realistic than us.’
The word ‘realism,’ or rather the lack of it, often crops up to explain French defeat, and my Englishman is not 100% sure what is really meant – perhaps that the opposition got their heads down, took their chances, and generally adapted their game to the conditions they were actually operating in: unplayable pitch, foul weather, hostile opposition supporters, incompetent referee, etc. In an ideal world, of course, where opponents are determined to let the French win, and playing conditions couldn’t be better (pitch like a bowling green, holiday weather, opposition supporters and referee entirely devoted to their cause) there can be only one winner.

‘The pitch was so uneven it stopped us taking advantage of our superior technique.’
The French B Soccer Team Manager offering his explanation as to why his prodigies managed only a disappointing away draw against a lowly African team by doing his best to convince us that bumps can be great levellers.

‘He was the victim of a boxing accident.’
A French T.V. commentator attempting to get us to swallow the fact that a French boxer being knocked out in the first round of a World Championship contest after two minutes flat was due more to the disastrous effects of his chin finding itself in the wrong place at the wrong time than the effectiveness of his opponent’s left hook.

‘They didn’t win. We lost.’
Yet another attempt to retrieve a semblance of superiority from
humiliating defeat. Curiously, when victory is French, we have yet to hear ‘We didn’t win. They lost.’

‘His game was just stifled by the incredible heat.’
One journalist’s explanation as to why a French tennis champion lost a five-set marathon during the Australian Open against a lesser ranked opponent. Things must have been much cooler on the other side of the net.

‘Everything was against us.’
The weather and/or pitch conditions, physical and/or mental state of the French player(s), the referee, the opposing team and/or their supporters, fate, etc. can all unite to cause a catastrophic accident of nature.

‘We were unnerved by the deafening silence.’
So accustomed are French rugby players and footballers to converting tries or taking penalty kicks to an ear-shattering accompaniment of hooting, howling, whistling, drum-beating and horn-blowing on the part of opposing supporters that these have become a sine qua non for their successful accomplishment. This the perfidiously hypocritical English have long since understood and, consequently, providing the very opposite type of environment, i.e. where a pin can be heard to drop, is a nigh-on infallible way of putting off the most accurate of Gallic kickers.

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Golf à la Française – The Case of the Rotten Stake

While some historians maintain that the first golf ball was lofted in the Low Countries (the Dutch word kolf meaning ‘club’), and others point out that the Romans played a sport using a bent piece of wood and a ball made of feathers, it’s generally agreed that it was the Scots who defined the rules, and obtained official recognition for the game in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. And, as my Frenchman has just chipped in to say, the course of history shows that the game of golf is not devoid of Gallic influence too; for not only do links exist between golf and Mary Stuart, future queen of Scotland who, in the sixteenth century, introduced the game to France, but the word ‘caddie’, he maintains, is a derivation of the French word cadet (junior) used to designate the young men who helped players carry their clubs at that time.
Our Anglo-Saxon golf-playing readers might be tempted to think that The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrews’ multitudinous rules and regulations leave golfers no option but to be a model of correctness on the fairways and greens of our planet. Regrettably, this is not always the case. For this nit-picking complexity provides the French golfer with an infinite number of opportunities to torture them into complying with what he wants them to say. Take an experience I recently had.
Now, my Englishman’s inborn modesty does not prevent him from encouraging in me the belief that I am a considerably better golfer than my neighbour, Monsieur Martin. Yet, whenever we play together he usually manages to win. Just how does he do it? The case of the rotten stake says it all.
The other day Monsieur Martin and I played a round of golf together. Now, honesty compels me to admit that, on this occasion, Monsieur Martin played well enough to merit our scores being level as we teed off at the eighteenth. Now the eighteenth hole of our local course is a relatively straightforward par three of around 160 yards, the only hazard being a small, deepish bunker placed just in front of the green with two thick bushes along its right side. Even though  Monsieur Martin and myself hit reasonably straight drives, neither of our balls were to be seen when we walked up to the green. After some searching, we finally located mine which had rolled so far beneath the low-hanging branches of one of these bushes as to render any form of club-based extraction impossible. I had, therefore, to resign myself to declaring my ball unplayable, picking it up and dropping it with a one-point penalty. My initial dismay was, however, somewhat attenuated by the fact that Monsieur Martin’s ball had suffered a similar fate, as it was reposing beneath the other bush.
‘Ah, a penalty for you also, mon cher Martin!’ I exclaimed.
‘Mais pas du tout, mon vieux!’ Monsieur Martin retorted, after bending down and lifting up the overhanging branches of the bush to reveal an old, rotting, barely-visible wooden stake still attached to its trunk.
‘Vous voyez,’ he triumphantly declared, ‘my bush is still staked. I can drop my ball without a penalty point!’ *
Whereupon Monsieur Martin proceeded to drop his ball and finished on a par – thereby winning the round by one stroke. Afterwards, over a drink in the clubhouse, it was certainly my Englishman who prompted me to ask whether he would have informed me of the stake’s presence, had it been my ball which he’d found under that bush.
Who knows?’ he replied with an enigmatic smile.

* My environmentalist readers will be pleased to learn that, in order to protect young staked trees, bushes and shrubs from the risk of collateral damage when a golfer attempts to strike a ball lying in close proximity, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrew’s rules stipulate that it may be dropped at a distance (in accordance with a strictly defined procedure), with no penalty point. It goes without saying that in the above case, though technically-speaking the rule still applied, the tree had attained a degree of maturity which had long since caused the stake, and consequently the rule to have lost all raison d’être.

 

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