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A Year in the Merde

What to read this winter?

By Connell Rebecca

    Winter: the time when the bookshelves creak under the weight of literary gifts which cover such fascinatingly depressing topics as '101 things to do before I die' or Trinny and Susannah's 'What not to wear'.
A Year in the Merde
A Year in the Merde

It seems friends and family delight in 'saying it to you straight', imparting the 'no bullshit' kind of advice without risking sudden death. I particularly admire those people who have the nerve to hand each other books about 'Why your bum looks big in that' or the 'Quick Weight Loss program'. After all, if they don't say it to you, who will and it's the thought that counts, right?
Then there is the second kind of book which one receives at Christmas: the homage to your intellect, the kind of read your mother-in-law or pompous work colleague gives you. 'The French Revolution' by Doyle is a particular favourite of mine- a brilliant book by all accounts but not one which requires four slots in the library. Silly me, I am forgetting that I am French after all and therefore must love reading about my cultural heritage, non?      


French women don't get fat
French women don't get fat

In fact, the most delightful thing about the stereotypical intellectual reads is that you must act beside yourself with excitement at having received them yet again, or risk being branded an ill-educated prat.
So it is I find myself edging dangerously closer every Christmas morn to throwing said books back in gift-bearer's face. But I choose cold-blooded revenge: having stocked up on 'A guide to 18th century corn laws' and 'Accepting your fat', I will be readily distributing these come this time next year.
      David Broch, the owner, undoubtedly inspired by the idea of the 'home cinema' has turned the concept on its head. Rather than transporting the cinema experience into one's sitting room, why not bring the creature comforts of home to the cinema? A simple idea, but devilishly effective. The gallery seats (£15 including a glass of wine) are extremely popular, especially at weekends.
As I sat down last Tuesday, ready to delve into the latest proof of love entitled 'Why French women don't get fat', I held my breath when a small red gift-wrapped present caught my eye. Approaching it cautiously (I have learnt you see, to be weary of medium-sized rectangular gifts), I shook the parcel. No sound. Book identified.
There is nothing left for one to do at this point but to take the leap and remove the paper...which I did.           louvres

          'A year in the merde'. Tasteless Eiffel tower and snail adorn a dazzlingly white cover. I think: this sounds funny, it sounds witty, it sounds devilishly biased and ill researched. Could it be that this year I have been given a bit of light relief?
So it was I began to read northerner Stephen Clarke's account of life in Paris but the more I read, the more appalled I became.
Yes I wanted to read trash, but well written trash at least! Don't get me wrong, I adore the scathing attacks on French society an the 'Parisian crew', I'd be at the forefront of critiques but this was just pushing it too far.
In between asking myself if giver of gift was trying to tell me something and the urge to burn the thing, I did manage to find some reasonably comical moments. Some.

There are lots of French people who are not at all hypocritical, inefficient, aggressive, adulterous or incredibly sexy...They apparently just didn't make it into the book!

Published privately by the author in English in Paris, A Year in the Merde became an immediate local bestseller. Instant word-of-mouth spread like wildfire to England where booksellers began clamouring for it. Now Stephen Clarke's first novel will be rush-published officially in the UK to meet the worryingly ever-growing demand of fans.
And it's all a bit of a joke really apart from the fact Stephen Clarke states that he describes the French as they really are. We are apparently not cheese-eating surrender monkeys, but we do eat a lot of cheese, some of which smells like pigs' droppings.
We should praise Mr. Clarke though for his good will in rectifying a common belief: we do not wash our armpits with garlic soap. According to him, the French are still reeling in shock of course, at being stupid enough to sell Louisiana and thereby losing the chance to make French the global language.

The only part of this book which I will second is that going on strike really is the second national participation sport after pétanque.
The main story is that Paul West, a young Englishman, arrives to set up some "English" tea-rooms in Paris and as one mistaken critic states: 'gives a laugh-out-loud account of the pleasures and perils of being a Brit in France. Less quaint than A Year in Provence, less chocolaty than 'Chocolat', this book will tell you how to get the best of the grumpiest Parisian waiter, how to survive French meetings, how to make perfect vinaigrette every time, and how not to buy a house in the French countryside.' According to Stephen, "all names have been changed to avoid embarrassment, possible legal action and having my legs broken by someone in an Yves Saint Laurent suit (or, quite possibly, a Christian Dior skirt).
Need I say more? It's very kind of you Stephen, but don't give up the day job. I always wonder why it is the English take such pleasure in criticising the Gallic way of life when so many of them will rush over to the Southern extremities to enjoy life there at the drop of a hat.
Or why it is there is some adoration on the Englishwoman's part for the French man, and vice-versa, why the French woman adores the English man. History has proven time and time again that we are more alike and compatible than we think, you know.
May I suggest that this year sees us grow up a bit both politically and socially: explore France for yourself. I promise you, it most definitely will not be a year wasted /in the merde. I'm already looking forward to my next literary fix.


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