Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: We may clash, but I’m glad to have France as our neighbour

A couple and children walk past the snow covered Sacre Coeur basilica after snowfall over Paris

A couple and children walk past the snow covered Sacre Coeur basilica after snowfall over Paris - Credit: AP

I dedicate this week’s Joy of Essex to Paris and to France. This in spite of, rather than because of, last week’s ghastly events. I’m very fond of France and always imagined that if I ever did anything to upset England then France would probably be my first choice of exile.

There was a time just over a decade ago when many people I knew were planning to buy or had already bought a house in France. I wrote a scathing stage poem round about this time entitled House in France. The poem lampoons people who buy run-down Provençal farmhouses, with the intention either of painting indifferent water-colours or writing tenuous novels.

Yet, what did they do, these nouveau-bohos, a year later, when they realised that they couldn’t paint, write or even speak much more than the holiday French with which they left the UK? I asked a university professor, who himself had bought a house in Normandy. “They drink a lot,” he told me bluntly.

Quel surprise, as we say. Back then I could have walked into any newsagents and found a clutch of glossy magazines all dedicated to the joys of owning a home in France. Five years later the chickens began coming home to roost. The newspaper articles written by returning ex-pats were interesting. One woman had been unable to cope with the local wild boars, which had gradually destroyed her orchard.

A middle-aged husband had returned to the UK after his wife left him for a young French handyman. French bureacracy was a nightmare, everyone agreed, and the south of France was far too hot during the summer months. It was embarrassing to read these cautionary tales, which now peppered the weekend travel supplements.

I was puzzled. Instead of buying, why didn’t they simply rent a house for a few months first and get to know the turf a little better? I probably wasn’t as puzzled as the French locals, however. Never wildly anglophile, in the south, they probably couldn’t believe their luck when the rosbif, in their sandals and socks, turned up in droves to purchase dodgy old gîtes in the middle of nowhere.

But then there’s Paris. Ah, Paris! I never expected to love Paris as I did. Although I first knew France when I was 21, I was in my mid 30s before I came to work in Paris. In April of 1990 Captain Sensible, TV Smith of the Adverts and I all arrived for an indie record company showcase. This took the form of a week-long residency in a rather sticky club on the Pigalle.

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The Pigalle, for the uninitiated, is a raunchy and garishly-lit strip of general naughtiness just at the foot of Montmartre, where we were staying.

Since in various combinations of musicians we were playing from 10pm well into the small hours each night, in order to sustain ourselves, from breakfast onwards, we drank a cheap but zippy lager called Valstar.

Actually, the French don’t do proper cooked breakfast – which is possibly why we bested them at Waterloo. In a working-men’s café, just up the hill off Rue des Martyrs, I nonetheless devised a way of getting a cooked breakfast:

1) Ask M. le Patron, politely, if you can have toast. 2) Now ask if you can have eggs on a plate. 3) After a pause, ask him “Monsier. Pensez-vous c’est possible vous mettez les oeufs sur le toaste?” Smile charmingly. He may boom, “What? For breakfast?” At which point you say cravenly in your best French. “I am sorry Sir. But I am only English.” “Seulement?” he laughs. “Le pauvre Anglais!” You sit down. Eggs on toast arrive. Half the thing about the French, is having a bash at the language. They won’t thank you for it. Why should they? In fact, they may even tell you how badly you’re doing. But I think that it goes quietly in your favour if you do attempt it.

The French produce songwriters and arrangers of music. Many English people don’t realise this. Those of us who dabble in French music often mention Serge Gainsbourg, George Brassens and Jacques Brel – a Belgian.

They don’t usually know Léo Ferré*, who for me at least, was the best of them all. Ferré when he died in 1993 occupied the front page of Paris Match magazine with the headline, “The Lion Is Dead.”

Ferré was an anarchist who defiantly refused all awards. “The only honor for an artiste is in not getting any,” he said. On stage he acted as a singer, poet, story-teller and musician, all within a single performance. But he was so untranslatably French in practically everything he said or sang, as to be nearly impenetrable to English speakers.

What really struck me, in fact, about France, when I first went there, was exactly how foreign it all seemed, especially when I considered that at the Channel’s narrowest point, our two countries are not much farther apart than Wivenhoe and Ipswich.

What I really like about France, is that if you are genuinely engaged in an artistic line of work, they can be rather more willing to accommodate you and your ideas, than the uninterested and obdurately foggy British. However ill-matched we may sometimes appear, therefore I’m rather glad that our two countries are neighbours.

*Curious listeners might care to search YouTube for Paris, Je ne t’aime plus by Léo Ferré

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