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Speaking the Culture

The big cheese, an American expression which the British would understand but rarely use, means the head of an organisation or event, the person in charge. The big cheese for this book is Neil Thomas, the head of Thorogood Publishing, or as he calls himself on almost the first page, ‘Le Grand Fromage’.  Of course as Mr Thomas lives in Provence at St-Rémy-de-Provence he knows perfectly well that the literal translation for big cheese does not work. The French term for someone important, or perhaps calling the shots, is ‘une grosse légume’, literally ‘a big vegetable’. For obscure reasons the saying is feminine, even though ‘un gros légume’ would be grammatically correct. The editor, Andrew Whittaker, has added a footnote to explain that of course they knew ‘Le Grand Fromage’ was wrong but he omits the ‘une’ in front of ‘grosse légume’, perhaps to avoid the risk of the reader drawing the wrong conclusion about his publisher.

It all goes to show that when you are publishing a book about French culture, you cannot be too careful, even though it is printed in England and intended for British consumption. With this new venture, Thorogood, best known for its excellent books on leadership and management, is sailing in more dangerous, even uncharted waters. It sets out to dissect the French, to find out what makes them tick, the passions and habits that define France. Speak the Culture is divided into three strands: its land, history and language; its artists, writers and thinkers; and the rituals and tensions that make up its modern life.

The work is at its most entertaining in the fields of literature, the performing arts, cinema and fashion. It reminds us that, Shakespeare apart, France dominated the early theatre from the days of Corneille, Molière and Racine. It explains how the nouvelle vague or New Wave turned French and world cinema upside down in the 1950s, introducing real life themes with unknown actors and hand-held cameras.

Given the prodigious scope of the book, it would have been surprising if every section attained the same exceptionally high standard. When it runs to a new edition, as it surely will, the publisher might be advised to cast his net a little wider and find more knowledgeable writers on history and sport. 

The history is somewhat shaky, especially on the detail. To give a few random examples: Cyrano de Bergerac died one hundred years later than his entry states in this book. The true pathos of the death of Louis XIV’s composer Jean-Baptiste de Lully was that he accidentally struck his big toe with his conductor’s baton, and when it turned gangrenous, refused to have it amputated, long before the gangrene spread to his foot and the rest of his body. Voltaire made his fortune not from selling army supplies but by joining a syndicate which had correctly calculated that by buying up almost all the tickets in a French lottery they could guarantee to win the big prizes. 

The references to sport, given its important contribution to French culture, lack any real penetration. For example, it would have been interesting to discover how France suddenly produced a great team of soccer players to win one World Cup and reach another final, despite a poverty-stricken domestic championship and decades of mediocrity. Or to explain the psychological barrier that prevents the immensely gifted French rugby team from delivering on the big occasion. 

The scandals of the Tour de France conclude in 2006 even though 2007 was the real cause célèbre, an indication that this book has been long in its gestation. Most of it seems to have a cut-off point of last summer, with the result that Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy receive only a passing mention, even though their public and private personas have been the biggest talking point in France for the past year. Indeed the core issues of French politics and its personalities are dismissed in a couple of pages, when they deserved a substantial section of their own.

The real charm of this book is how, by dipping casually into pages, you learn some of those useless facts once debunked by Michael Caine with the observation ‘Not a lot of people know that’. For example: the Bourbons started the fashion of tea with milk, which was taken up enthusiastically by the British but discouraged in France after the Revolution as an aristocratic indulgence. The philosopher Descartes worked in bed for most of the day.  The average age of members of the French Academy is 77. Van Gogh painted 77 pictures in the last two months of his life but only succeeded in selling one of them. In 2004 the French police found a fully-equipped theatre and projection room in the Paris catacombs, obviously the true spiritual home of underground cinema.

All fascinating stuff. If you take only one book to France with you in the summer, take this one.

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Speaking the culture