FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS
“Like Proust meets Cervantes- with added sex!”
3. Hang on- aren’t I a foreigner?
For a long time, I had a habit of getting an early night, with someone whose name I could tell you – but shan’t until later.
You remember what happened in yesterday’s scintillating episode of Fun With The Foreigners? Yes, that’s right, I didn’t go to a barmitzvah, I had mustard on toast, and then I discovered you weren’t so pleased to see me after all, and were actually carrying a secret weapon in your pocket. I promised not to tell anyone about it. Well remembered. Ready for some more, slightly confusing, excitement? Here we go!
(Today’s episode is brought to you by Crawley pop group The Cure:
I’m the stranger”)
If questioned, I would have told you that I was growing up in a monolingual, monocultural home. The foreigners were definitely others, not necessarily far away- the Welsh and Scotch, with their accents, dances, “culture” such as ceilidhs and Eisteddfods, and peculiarities such as drinking far too much, or not letting you drink at all on Sundays. Even “northerners” were a different race, who ate chips as a stand-alone snack or in a butty, rather than as a side dish, and combined tea and supper in one hot meal in the late afternoon, before probably going to the pub and/or putting ferrets down their trousers- at any rate, doing something invigorating, perilous, and frowned-upon by my parents.
The Irish were folkloric and a sea away from the furthest tip of Wales- an endless source of hilarious stories, but not actually part of our culture in the south of England. The French were geographically much nearer (and there had been crazy talk of building a tunnel to them for almost a century), but were only occasionally visible through the fog over the Channel, tiny ants transporting huge mountains of garlic to and fro. They had certainly left their mark on our restaurants, though. A proper meal out involved a tablecloth, a lurid starter before the main, and a French wine that you were supposed to mispronounce, but discuss like an expert with the waiter (as Sir Henry at Rawlinson End does with a bottle of “Entre deux legs”).
But, and I have a big but- your surname is actually French, Matthew! It has a silent “t”- so you’d better learn how to pronounce it properly. And if anyone says “Perrett”, you can set them right by saying “Actually, it’s French”, and no-one will ever mock you or bully you for that.
Since you ask, a Mr. Pierre Perret left northern France for southern England at some point in the nineteenth century for unspecified reasons in rather a hurry. A decade or so ago, my father and I went to investigate our family roots in the small town of his birth, and despite Perret being a very common surname in France, not only could we find no evidence of the family, but the locals claimed not to understand the name and looked at us slightly askance. I don’t think we should draw any conclusions from that, except that national identity is a fluid thing, right?
After all, the Saxe-Coburgs only became the Windsors during the First World War when a German bomb literally had their name on it. I grew up eating samosas and curry, because my father was stationed in… Slough. I have French friends who consider the French national dish to be couscous, or “cou-cou”, as Mum called it. Mum, having married a man with a sexy silent “t” in the 1950s and become Mrs. Perre(t), didn’t learn any French, but took to removing consonants left, right and centre. (It was only in recent years I discovered there was no such dish as “croquet potatoes”, named after the sport.)
I’d always been the tall speccy kid with the foreign name and the bad hand. But now cultural identity was hitting me too, and like many pre-teens, I felt like a cuckoo in the nest for other, probably invented, reasons. So of course in my premature adolescent angst, I was listening to The Cure and reading Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels. Novels written from the sympathetic viewpoint of the murderer- a man who was constantly on the lookout, constantly concealing and deceiving, and yet somehow seeking a way to be true to himself, a way that set him apart from the others because no-one could quite accept his truth when confronted with it.
The Cure and Highsmith both had direct connections with twentieth-century French literature (a subject I was increasingly fascinated by) and more specifically, with Albert Camus, pied-noir philosopher, born in Algeria to colonial French parents. The Cure came from a similar Home Counties background to my own, but their first single, Killing An Arab, in 1979 (quoted above), was based on Albert Camus’s “L’Etranger”. (The literary reference in the song’s title was so misunderstood by racists that the band later chose to perform it live either as “Kissing An Arab” or “Killing Another”). Highsmith was a life-long Francophile. She described Camus’ novel as “a tour de force… a piece of brilliant impressionism. It captures the twentieth century’s annihilation of the individual”.
In my experience the typical attitude in Britain towards the extended Perret family is very similar to the average British attitude towards the French. Good people to know if you like decent food and wine, but annoying and slightly full of themselves after about 10 minutes’ conversation. You’ve been reading this entry for less than 10 minutes so far, but it feels like a lifetime already, right? Bienvenue en France.
For these reasons, which one could perhaps say combine existentialism with nominative determinism, I have always felt like a French cuckoo in an English nest. And if you think that sounds a tad pretentious, all I can say is: “Pretentious, moi?”