Stephen Clarke, a British writer who lives in Paris, has built a successful career for himself by cleverly exploiting the long-standing love-hate relationship between the rosbifs and the frogs, to use each side’s slurring epithet for the other. After a series of novels with the attention-getting “merde” in the title, Clarke has now turned to the history of the enmity between the two countries in his new book, 1000 Years of Annoying the French.
Two countries annoying each other over a period of a millennium is a strange premise for a history book, and for approximately the first half of it, I found Clarke’s jokey tone and occasional cutesy wording intermittently annoying or distracting: writing about the Duc d’Orléans buying land in Mississippi, for example, he says, “Bits of the untamed swamp were trading at around a zillion square meters for one beaver skin.” This flippancy is a disservice to the serious research Clarke has done for this hefty volume of over five hundred pages.
On the other hand, it sometimes adds a spoonful of sugar to help the history go down easily, when he comes up with a good line like this one: “Any mention of the history of Quebec rouses burning anti-British and anti-American outrage in a French person’s heart, as if someone was talking about a favorite café of theirs that had been turned into a Starbucks.”
Clarke is really not anti-French at all, in spite of the provocative titles of his books, which are actually quite kind to the country he has chosen to live in (click here for a review of his novel Dial M for Merde and video interviews with him on why he loves France). This work, however, comes down fairly heavily on the side of the British and other “Anglos” (Americans). It’s hard to know whether this position came naturally out of his research or whether he cherry-picked episodes from history to suit his topic and make the French look more ridiculous.
While he takes many gratuitous stabs at the French, however – e.g., “He [William the Conquerer] never got drunk at table, consuming a maximum of three glasses of wine (more evidence that he wasn’t French)…” – his own countrymen get their jabs, too. He even puts to rest the famous idée recue that the French don’t wash, begun in 1984 by the British tabloid The Sun when it reported on a study saying that the French use less soap than other Europeans. Clarke points out, as The Sun didn’t, that the French used less soap because they were early adopters of shower gel.
About halfway through the book, either Clarke’s style became more relaxed and less jokey, or I got used to it, because I noticed fewer distractions and was actively enjoying it. A well-researched, well-written and entertaining work of popular history, it will especially please British subjects who enjoy putting down the French and want documentation. It’s just another volley in the cross-Channel war against “that sweet enemy, France.”*
*English poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), quoted by Clarke.