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Avoir ses anglais
Red coats and the Stone of Scone
I hope you have had a good week. Sorry to be so predictably British as to start my letter talking about the weather (and saying sorry), but I must report that spring here is still being behaving peskily — we’re still alternating grey skies and sun, from day to day and from hour to hour. I took advantage of a sunshine-pocket earlier to go potter around in a spring-inspired way, which mostly involved buying a large hydrangea plant for my ‘balcony garden’, which I have just recently began to cultivate.
Thank you for all the interesting responses to my letter last week about French swearing, notably how much more common and less offensive the ‘c’ and ‘f’ words are here. My thinking on that subject was influenced by a conversation with my friend Dr. Diane. She also read the letter and has (a) a correction (b) an addition.
A -THE CORRECTION
FR: ‘Merci pour tous les compliments mais je mesure 5 feet AND 2 inches’
EN: ‘Thank you for all the compliments but I am 5 feet AND 2 inches tall’
(I had said Diane was five-feet tall)
B - THE ADDITION
Diane also brought my attention to another colloquial French phrase: ‘avoir ses anglais’ — or ‘to have one’s Englishes’, which means to have one’s period.
She seemed to think the phrase came about because Englishmen are often known to have red skin. My Internet research tells me the answer is more specific, and historical.
Apparently, following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, English soldiers dressed in red descended onto French soil and the euphemistic phrase, in various forms, came about during the time of their presence in Paris. You could also say ‘Les anglais ont debarqué' or ‘the English have arrived’.
And talking of…
Adventures of the Scone Stone — inside the Royal Footprint
By purely accidental timing, I happened to be in the UK when the Queen died. Now by incidental timing, I will be in the UK again when her son, King Charles, is crowned.
A journalist friend of mine who writes for a French publication is going to London to report on the coronation. I helped her a few weeks ago when she was in the process of trying to get press accreditation. “I’ve received an email”, she said, “but I don’t know what it means.” “Ah”, I replied, “let me help”.
It’s not that she doesn’t read English — she reads and speaks English very well. Rather, she wasn’t sure what it was getting at: beneath the profusion of words, what was the meaning? I opened the email she forwarded, and after scanning the eight paragraphs, I translated for her. “They are not going to give you press accreditation”. Here’s a sample of one of the obliquely worded sentences:
“Capacity within the ceremonial footprint is limited and accreditation for positions is being allocated via umbrella media.”
I asked OpenAI’s Dall-E programme to render me an image based on the words ‘ceremonial footprint’
As I understand it, French people (and indeed any non-British people) often have difficulty reading the subtext of the highly-coded way that British people speak, especially when they/we are being oppositional: a criticism is often couched in so many compliments and kind words that it can be almost impossible to spot for the untrained eye.
When my journalist friend realised she wasn’t getting the accreditation, she was disappointed and also impressed that the authorities had found such a roundabout and polite way to say ‘no’. But I said to her that it doesn’t really matter if she can’t get to the ‘ceremonial footprint’, because everything that happens outside of it (in the ceremonial clay, per the picture above) is the most entertaining anyway: the people who will camp out for days to get a good view (reminiscent of The Queue to see the Queen lying in state), or the local-council funding available for street parties. Or the procession of the Stone of Scone, which I learned of only today, despite a lifetime of being British.
The rectangular hunk of sandstone, also known as the Stone of Destiny, was originally used as part of the coronation of Scottish kings, up to perhaps more than a thousand years ago (historians are not sure when the stone first began its royal duties). They do know that in 1296, the King of England, Edward I, stole the stone as an act of gloaty power over Scotland, and even had a coronation chair specially made so that the stone fit nicely under it. The stolen stone was kept at Westminster Abbey for a long time, before being stolen(?) back in 1950 by activists supporting Scottish nationalism. It was given back to Scotland properly in 1996. The deal was it was only to be removed again for a royal coronation.
Well, that day has come. On Thursday it was moved from its home in Edinburgh Castle in an operation described by The Telegraph as woefully under-par because the people moving it were dressed too scruffily, and also seemed to struggle under its 150kg+ heft. The journalists contrasted this operation to the 1996 transfer to Edinburgh, which was flawlessly carried out by the Royal Company of Archers, “immaculate in their green tunics, Balmoral bonnets and polished boots.” Goodness!
I was inspired to paint the scenes of Thursday, as depicted in the newspaper:
My French friend’s reaction? “Stone of Scone sounds like a joke, and carrying it a job for Mr. Bean.”
Perhaps I have been living in a republic too long, but I do see her point.
Thirty-second book club
Talking of living in a republic, I have just finished the incredibly interesting book I mentioned last week, The French by Theodore Zeldin. Now, as you probably know, comparing French and British society is one of my favourite things to do, so this book that takes a deep look at French culture from a British perspective it really ‘a bit of me’. I slapped so many sticky notes onto parts I found interesting that the tome is more notes than book. Another element I enjoy is the illustrations. The text throughout is peppered with little cartoons drawn by famous French satirists like Daumier and Grandville. It reminded me of the extent to which the French are partial to a witty drawing — as am I!
Some of Grandville’s delightfully madcap anthropomorphic images remind me of the wonderful work of illustrator, author and comics-maker. She generously shares her work and ideas via her letter .
Thank you for reading this letter about 'les anglais’, in various iterations. I hope you enjoyed it! Please share it if you did.
A HUGE thank you to the people who pledged to sponsor Pen Friend this week. I am so touched. You are heroes of mine and shall receive postcards in the near future.
I’ll write next week. At least I very much intend to, as long as I’m not submerged deep inside the Ceremonial Footprint.
Have a lovely few days until then!