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.
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.
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.
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, lecrimepassionnel 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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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.
In the sporting field it’s hardly surprising that absolute loyalty is required of the French soccer commentator whose role is to provide constant proof that he fully shares the 150% commitment of the average viewer to his favourites. A supreme example of this ideal type of commentator was provided by the late Thierry Roland whose partisan devotion to the French soccer cause not only endeared him to his sporting public but has made of him a legendary figure of football commentary. Just one example of his sectarian allegiance was supplied by an international match I watched on T.V. some time ago. It is, of course, normal that the elevated position of a T.V. soccer commentator should sometimes give him a far better vision of the game than its arbitrator who can, in all fairness, on occasions be unsighted. At one point in an international soccer match (which had a high level of what is commonly termed ‘physical commitment’), a defender from the foreign team committed a disgraceful foul on a French forward, which the referee failed to notice. ‘Foul, monsieur l’arbitre, foul!’ Monsieur Roland howled into his microphone. A few minutes later a French defender was guilty of what could possibly have been an even worse foul on a foreign attacker, which the referee (he must have been English) once again seemed not to notice. ‘Oh, the referee is nearer than me!’ Monsieur Roland calmly declared. On another occasion during a France-Bulgaria soccer match, so great was this same commentator’s passionate commitment to the French cause, and so vigorous his hostility to the referee (who had just proved he was doing his best to deny the French a just victory by awarding a penalty to the opposing team), that in a moment of uncontrollable fury he announced to millions of viewers: ‘Monsieur Foot, vous êtes un salaud!’ (Monsieur Foot you’re a bastard) . This considerably increased his popularity with the French sporting public: for in view of the hundreds of supportive letters received, the T.V. channel which employed him announced that previously-envisaged sanctions would not be taken. And surprisingly, the referee in question was Scottish, not English. Indeed, a whole book could be devoted to the sporting comments of Thierry Roland, and the following constitute just a short selection of his more memorable pronouncements:
‘Don’t you think we could have found something better than a Tunisian to referee a match of this importance?’ Surprisingly, this remark was prompted by the famous goal scored by Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ – which the referee failed to see – during a World Cup soccer match between England and Argentina (Thierry Roland was a great Anglophile). So much did it pose a threat to Franco-Tunisian relations that the French ambassador was obliged to offer his apologies to the then Tunisian Prime Minister, Ben Ali.
‘Rumanians are all chicken thieves!’ An aside made to the other commentary-team member, his ex-football-star chum, Jean-Michel Larqué, during a France-Rumania match.
‘Koreans are all alike … they all measure 5’8” and they’ve all got brown hair.’ A comment made during a France-South Korea World Cup preparation match. During the match, in reply to Larqué’s astute observation that a lot of South Korean players were called ‘Lee,’ he retorted: ‘Since there are several ‘Lees’ (lit = bed), we can put them all together in the same bedroom.’ Other legendary remarks include, ‘Those two won’t spend their holidays together!’ ‘The flies have changed donkeys,’ And, when France won the 2002 World Cup, ‘Now we can all die in peace … but as late as possible!’ Unfortunately, his wish hardly came true as he departed our planet at the relatively premature age of 74.
Even though a case could possibly be made out in defense of the foreign beginnings of a limited number of minor sports, little doubt can be entertained as to the English origins of the major ones and, above all, the source of the sporting spirit in which they are played. Readers will have already realized it was my Englishman who won the toss and kicked off this article on sports with the above lines. Initially he set the ball rolling by: ‘Even though absolutely no doubt whatsoever may possibly be entertained as to the English origins of all popular sports …,’ but was crunchingly tackled on this by his left-wing French team mate. My Gallic vehemently protested that, contrary to general belief on the English side of the Channel, popular sports such as football, rugby, and tennis are, in fact, of French origin. He went on to insist that if his English alter ego were to remain true to the principle of fair play he claimed for himself and his compatriots, the very least he could do was to admit the existence of doubt on this score.
My French left winger then proceeded to declare that, though English history maintains that the game of rugby was inspired by a certain William Webb Ellis, a pupil at the Public School of the same sporting name who, in November 1823, during a game of soccer, hit on the brilliant idea of picking up the ball and running with it towards the opposing goal, this sport can actually be traced much further back in time to the ancient French game of la soule. This contest, apparently originating in Brittany, took the form of what was little more than a mass punch-up between two gangs of young men from rival villages, with few, if any rules – the goal being to carry a bran-filled pig’s bladder over a predetermined line. “If no rules existed,” my Englishman commented, “then it must have come from France.”
Similarly, again according to my Frenchman, tennis has its origins in the French jeu de paume. For him, indisputable proof of this is provided by the word ‘love’, signifying ‘nought’ in this sport only, and which is, in fact, a corruption of the French word ‘oeuf’, meaning ‘egg’– an egg having much the same shape as the figure nought. Imagine my Englishman’s stupefied indignation, however, when his French alter tried to bowl him over by declaring that even that quintessential English game of cricket was of Gallic inspiration. So silly was this point that my Englishman was stumped for a reply. After a few seconds, however, he creased himself with laughter but, realizing they were playing on a sticky wicket* here, he made an appeal to call off play. My Frenchman then served for the match by announcing that even the concept of ‘fair play’ was of French inspiration. The Englishman in me managed to get the ball back into the other half of the court by arguing that proof of its English origins would seem to be provided by the fact that no linguistic equivalent exists in the French language (the Gallics readily use the English expression), and even less in the French mentality. To this, my Gallic was unable to hit back a winner, and after a protracted rally my Englishman finally managed to win his point. In all justice it has to be admitted that, though my rosbif remains unshakeably convinced that the spirit of fair play left the shores of Albion in unadulterated form, only to arrive on the Continent considerably diluted (perhaps it got dropped in the water on the way), he is fair-minded enough to concede that the actual level of playing ability of sports, reputedly English in origin, is often considerably improved upon when exported abroad.
*For the benefit of my non-English readers ‘to play on a sticky wicket’ means to find oneself in a difficult or delicate situation. Derived from the game of cricket, a better understanding of this commonly-used expression pre-supposes an elementary knowledge of this sport – if, indeed, the word ‘sport’ may be used to qualify an activity which my Frenchman describes as ‘more akin to ritualized loafing’. The ‘wicket’ is the name given to the narrow strip of grass where, again according to my Frenchman, ‘most of the little action which characterizes the game’ takes place. On it, a bowler pitches a ball at a hitter who will attempt to strike it with his bat. Unlike baseball, the cricket ball is usually pitched in such a way that it bounces in front of the batter, and when the wicket is ‘sticky’ (i.e. drying out after a fall of rain) the ball can rebound in an unpredictable way, thereby placing the batter in a perilous situation.
In his permanent quest to prove it is in no way impossible that those who are the last to join a queue can be the first to leave it, the Frenchman has, of course, at his disposal an infinite number of techniques, one of the more widespread of which is the practice of lateral queuing. My French alter has kindly offered to explain. Bonjour tout le monde. The aim of lateral queuing (or side queuing as it’s sometimes called) is, above all, psychological in that it is directed towards creating and then exploiting confusion in the minds of other queuers. As the term suggests, the technique consists in casually positioning yourself laterally, as near as possible to the front, rather than tidily behind the last person at the back as the sheep-like English are programmed to do. By doing this, it is hoped that at some time during progression towards the exit, it will be possible to take advantage of the doubt created in the minds of existing queuers as to the exact moment of your arrival in relation to theirs, and sneak in well before your turn. Moreover, in the event of protest on the part of those already queuing (it does occasionally happen), positioning yourself laterally presents the immense advantage, especially when your trolley or basket is heavily laden, of allowing you to justify your action by invoking the pointless expenditure of energy required in pushing it right round to the back. Moreover, the more accomplished side queuer can make the strategy even more convincing by accompanying his explanation with heart-rending sighs of fatigue. Another not negligible advantage of the lateral queuing method is that when objections are encountered you may save face by retreating into feigned absent-mindedness, or ignorance as to the exact moment of your arrival at the side of the queue in relation to those already in it. But you can take it from me that, contrary to appearances (in France, things are never what they seem and never seem what they are), this type of master un-queuer is keenly alert – stealthily poised to exploit the slightest inattention. And what beats it all is that, when more stubborn opposition is encountered, you can even obtain a rousing moral victory by withering the remonstrator(s) with a look of lofty disdain, intended to bring it firmly home that there are more important things in life than this type of petty consideration. Obviously, this kind of creative un-queuing can only be effective under the right conditions, i.e. busy airports, supermarkets on Friday or Saturdays evenings, or on the eve of public holidays when the volume of trade is such that queues stretch a long way back.
This same lateral queuing technique is particularly effective when queuing for a ski-lift . In these circumstances successful application is considerably facilitated by the nature of the sport which requires participants to wear appendages extending some distance ahead of and behind feet, thereby rendering conventional rectilinear queuing totally impractical (ten skiers aligned with skis attached would probably occupy a distance which could accommodate 50 ski-less queuers). As a result, ski-lift queuing automatically generates lateral bunching which provides even the most inexperienced un-queuer with a multitude of opportunities to improve his technique. And so much do queues of this kind make speedy advancement a matter of such elementary simplicity that they provide the perfect training ground for our French youngsters to begin their un-queuing apprenticeship. Moreover, it is interesting to note that, in spite of my English brother’s attempts to make us believe his compatriots are at all times respectful queuers, English skiers – no doubt working off the accumulated frustrations occasioned by the uncompromising rigidity of queuing at home – are, along with their skis, letting their sense of fair play slip. And such is the enthusiasm shown that I have every reason to believe they will take full advantage of the lessons and experience it has been our privilege to provide them with in order to implement the same lateral queuing techniques on returning home.
Though the word ‘queue’ is shared by both English and French, nothing embodies more the gaping chasm that exists between the two peoples than their attitudes to, and behaviour in this mundane line: for its configuration differs so much in outward appearance and inner workings that, for the Englishman in me, it is doing the term a grave injustic to use it to describe the loose bunching and jockeying for position which goes under this same name on the Gallic side of the Channel.
The English approach to queuing is of child-like simplicity, being based exclusively on the principle of military-style, single-file alignment in strict accordance with the rule of ‘First In, First Out.’ As a result, the Englishman is prepared to spend a not inconsiderable amount of time patiently waiting his turn – provided, of course, that others do the same. For when other queuers show the same scrupulous respect for the rule he will relax and, amazingly, even enjoy himself.
A Fascinating Diversion
For example, my own Englishman will while away time spent in a supermarket line by honing his skills of empirical deduction through a fascinating diversion which consists in determining the occupation of fellow queuers by the articles reposing in their trolley. And at the time of writing, he has identified, with a high degree of probability, an alcoholic bee-keeper, a sweet-toothed house-husband, and a transvestite hooker with bunions.
However, the slightest deviation from the implacable rule of queuing which states that the first to join shall be the first to leave will unleash unbounded fury on the part of the English – so much so that very few allowances are made. I’m reminded of an incident some time ago when my poor mother who, in her mid-eighties and only partially sighted, mistakenly joined a queue in the middle. In spite of her age and infirmity, that stony-hearted English queuing law was applied in all its relentless rigour, and she was sternly enjoined to ‘get to the back!’
The Gallic attitude to Queuing, on the other hand, is of Freudian complexity. After close observation of his French alter my English part is tempted to think that when a Frenchman appends himself to that shapeless formation which in France masquerades under the name ‘queue’ (in spite of Cartesian precedent when it comes to queuing the French have a roundabout conception of linearity), he is seized by feelings of depersonalization and a resulting loss of self-esteem. Thus, the only way for him to re-find his identity and self respect is to accept the challenge which consists in proving to himself that he has enough personal resources to minimize to a maximum time spent in the line.
Every Man for Himself
Nevertheless, far be it for my Englishman to suggest that the rule of ‘First Come First Served’ is unknown to the French, and that the Gallic is not aware that un-queueing – necessarily to the detriment of others – can be contrary to accepted standards of fair play. The importance he attaches to le Système D is such, however, that he simply has a far less degree of conviction than the English queuer. And so, though he may well be piqued on observing that another has jumped the queue before him, his annoyance (which may even be tinged with grudging admiration), results less from the fact that the offender has infringed the sacrosanct Anglo-Saxon rule than that he has proved himself ‘beaucoup plus malin’, much smarter, in finding a way round it. As a result, whenever the opportunity presents itself, the non-rule of ‘Every Man for Himself’ is applied.
In this respect my Frenchie is especially proud of one instance last year when I went along to our local supermarket to do some last minute Noël shopping. As in England, French supermarkets are very busy places at Christmas time, and my local supermarket is no exception. After completing my purchases, I wheeled my heavily-laden trolley towards check-out (in reality, it was my wily Frenchie who positioned himself so that my Englishman did most of the pushing). Now check-out at this supermarket consists of three cash desks, only two of which were, for some reason or other, in operation at that precise moment. And such was the afflux of shoppers that two long queues snaked back some twenty metres or more between the shelves. It goes without saying that my Englishman was on the point of walking right round and dutifully joining one of the queues from the back. But my Frenchie would have none of it, and positioned me laterally at the front, just by the side of the unstaffed check-out. And then, as he had certainly anticipated, a third check-out girl quickly appeared and proceeded to open up this cash desk. All I had to do (in fact, it was my Frenchie who took complete control) was push my trolley smartly over and empty its contents onto the conveyor belt. So, I was checked out first, well before those sheep who, in some cases, had joined their queue as long as twenty minutes before me!
You know, I just don’t seem to be able to get it through my English alter’s thicker part of our skull that life is too short not to take advantage of every single moment, and that precious time can be wasted blindly following the rule. Once again le Système D can be of precious assistance. Take, for example, le Code de la Route. During the time we were together, Priscille lived with her parents in a small mountain village some five kilomètres from the town where we lived and which could only be reached by a twisting mountainroad. Journey time could, however, be reduced by turning left off this main road and following another route – a steep, narrow, but relatively straight lane leading directly into the village centre. So narrow was this lane that a one-way system had always operated to the advantage of the coming-downers, the going-uppers being officially informed they must take the longer route by a large No Entry sign located at the intersection. It goes without saying that when our Englishman was at the wheel the words ‘No Entry’ constituted a barrier as impenetrable as Priscille’s virtue and, as my Frenchman never failed to remind him, we stupidly lost up to five minutes following the longer main road to the village instead of taking the short-cut. Things really came to a head when a section of the main road between the short-cut intersection and the village was partially blocked by a landslide, and a one-way system, regulated by temporary traffic lights, was implemented . When he was at the wheel, not only did my English part continue to take the same route, but he actually waited when the lights were red, frequently wasting precious time. What I could never get into his bird-sized part of our brain was that, even if we took the short-cut, the limited number of inhabitants, the remote location of the village, as well as the time of day (usually we called on Priscille and her parents in the evening after dinner) weighed the law of probability heavily in favour of us not meeting a going-downer on our way up. Of course, much to our Englishman’s extreme discomfort, whenever my Frenchie was in control, we always took the shorter way up. This choice always revealed itself to be right, except on one occasion when we had to stop and pull in to one side to let a coming-downer through. He, of course, in true French fashion, left us in no doubt as to his opinion on the matter by lowering his window, sticking his head out and bellowing, ‘Ca ne va pas la tête, non?’ However, this allusion to the softness of our brain was due less to the fact that we’d infringed the rule than the slight personal inconvenience he’d been caused: for this certainly didn’t prevent him from taking the same short-cut himself when he became a going-upper on his way back. Sooner or later, of course, life’s journey leads us on a collision course with those officially appointed to make sure rules and regulations are respected. It must not be imagined that because a French policeman is clad in blue, a heart of gold doesn’t beat beneath. What my French half doesn’t seem to be able to get through to our rosbif is that, with the help of le Système D, this type of encounter is far from obliging you to resign yourself to the worst. During the short time Priscille and ourself were together (the poor girl soon realized she couldn’t cope with an English and Frenchman rolled into one), whenever my Froggy was driving and we were stopped by les flics for exceeding the speed limit, he’d given her strict instructions to pretend to give us a resounding telling-off (towards the end I suspected she wasn’t acting at all). At the same time, our Anglo didn’t have to force himself to impart a typically English, sheepish expression to our face. In nine cases out of ten the policeman was unable to conceal his amusement and let us off with just a warning! C’est ça, le Système D!