As Hitler and Napoleon had to learn the hard way, the Channel is wider than it seems and can be a difficult piece of water to straddle, even for those without warlike intent. Take for instance Raymond Blanc, one of TV’s favourite chefs and founder of the celebrated Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons hotel and restaurant in Oxfordshire. Blanc, awarded an honorary Order of the British Empire in 2008, is far better known in the UK than in his native France. Comparing the dedicated Amazon.co.uk Blanc webpage with his very limited appearance on Amazon.fr (Cuisinier Britannique!) suggests that his profiteroles are not honoured in his own country.
Another cross-Channel presence is Agnès Poirier, often called on by BBC radio as a cultural commentator (“someone whose job it is to decipher the British in all their idiosyncrasies and glory”, as she put it recently in the Guardian) who can explain the more puzzling aspects of France to les rosbifs. She is also a columnist in the same vein for The Times as well as the Guardian, and attempts to explain the British to the French readers of Marianne. She’s certainly needed here, given the current British lack of enthusiasm for things European except German cars, and one can only hope that she proves the exception and becomes more prominent in Paris too. In France intellectuals who become household names are known by three letter abbreviations – eg BHL – so from here on, and in anticipation, she will be ACP, her middle name being Catherine.
The brochure for this year’s The Times Cheltenham Literarature Festival included the above session on the Académie Française, programmed by ACP who was one of the Guest Directors this year. She was joined in conversation by Professor Michael Edwards, the first Englishman to become one of the forty members of the Académie and thereby attain the status of immortel, at least for the rest of his life, and Christopher Hampton, the writer and translator whose list of glittering prizes started with a starred first in French and German at Oxford and moved on to an Oscar. ACP seemed rather more in awe of Edwards than Hampton. Since both men are a few decades older than her, I put this down not to the Professor’s age but to the status of the Académie in French eyes, as opposed to the Academy.
For me, and perhaps some others in the audience, Francophilia proved a poor substitute for familiarity with French literature, and some surely insightful remarks from the panel about Racine and Molière alas went over my head. However, Professor Edwards, possibly familiar with the faltering attention displayed at times by weaker students, made some more accessible points about the origins of the French and English languages and the kinds of differences which have resulted - I now know that the French have a word for promiscuity but not for promiscuous! He will be joining the Académie’s Dictionary Commission during their work on letter R. Listening to Christopher Hampton made one realise just how difficult a translator’s job can be.
Clever woman though she is, ACP was possibly taking a bit of a risk in bringing together two intellos of the stature of Edwards and Hampton, but the conversation seemed to run well and the hour went all too quickly.
*To say the session nearly went “pear-shaped” (a UK English expression meaning “wrong”, ie not truly spherical or circular) was just an excuse for an awful pun, poire being French for pear, poirier for pear tree. ACP, I hasten to add, is not at all pear-shaped, being slim even by French standards.