Though anecdotes abound concerning the Englishman’s legendary ability to preserve his sense of humour and sang-froid in moments of crisis, the Frenchman in us has just pointed out that fewer exist regarding another of his specialities: hypocrisy. You know, we’re sure he’d be ready to bet our bottom euro that there isn’t another country in the world where direct rectification, disagreement or contradiction is perceived as being tantamount to a declaration of war. And it can only be you English who, when you find yourselves in the embarrassing situation of having to correct a mistake, will go to such extraordinarily apologetic lengths to point out that what you are about to say is in no way a criticism, but stems merely from a wish to explain. Though our Froggie would be the first to admit that the rules of politeness oblige us all to conceal our true feelings and opinions so as to minimize the risk of conflict with others, you take this to ridiculous extremes. He really doesn’t know of any other people in the world who, instead of declaring, ‘No, I disagree with you entirely!’ go to such extraordinary lengths to reply, ‘Well you certainly might have a point, but, on the other hand, don’t you think …?’ when they are intimately convinced you’re talking unmitigated rubbish. Now, let’s be honest. How can you possibly trust someone who systematically professes to agree with everything you say?
And some years ago during an IRA terrorist bombing campaign in London, we were enjoying a quiet evening drink with an English friend in a pub near Piccadilly Circus, when suddenly in the distance we heard a violent detonation. The window panes rattled slightly, glasses on shelves behind the bar chinked together, and a few particles of dust floated down from the ceiling. To our utter amazement, everybody except us threw themselves to the floor, and remained there for several moments in deathly silence. Finally, on realizing there was no danger, our friend raised himself to his feet, casually dusted his jacket sleeves and trouser legs, looked us knowingly in the eye, and then remarked with a smug-looking smile, ‘Oh! You were so scared you couldn’t move!’
What’s more, in the field of sport our Frenchman is convinced that you English are much less stars of fair play than champions at making people think you are and, if there was a gold medal to be won in the field of perfidious hypocrisy, you would be world-beaters. On this score, the experience our neighbour, Monsieur Martin, had in his youth can be taken as just one example.
In his younger days, Monsieur Martin played rugby for our local fifteen. Now such is the aggressive nature of this sport, ‘a game of thugs played by gentlemen’, that certain situations could provide the opportunity for violent, below-the-belt tactics, worthy of the most unsavoury street-fighter which, admittedly, the referee is not always in a position to witness and punish. The game relies, therefore, on the rules of fair sporting conduct being responsibly applied by all players. In this respect, Monsieur Martin often tells the story of the ‘friendly’ match he once played against a touring English club team.
A match between England and France can never, of course, be amicable in the true sense of the word, and this one was no exception. In an enthusiastically-disputed ruck Monsieur Martin received a kick in the head from an English forward (out of sight, of course, of the referee), vigorous enough for him to be obliged to play the rest of the match with blood streaming from a gash in his forehead (this was before the days of the blood substitute). At the end of the game (narrowly lost by the French), the English consolidated their triumph, as is their custom, by lining up in a guard of honour and ‘sportingly’ shaking hands with their adversaries.
‘Oh dear! Did you bump your head?’ enquired the English forward, seizing Monsieur Martin warmly by the hand.
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