FROM “THE FRENCH THING” (CARREG GWALCH 2002)

In Books, Reviews, Uncategorized by Chris0 Comments

 

 

“M. Dreyer drawled his fork across the plate with a disheartened gesture, stirring the frozen peas into little heaps. Beti finished her food with hurried, efficient  movements.  She pushed her plate to one side and picked at her teeth. Tom’s newspaper was folded on the table between them. There was a picture on the front page of an Arab, somebody from the Middle East;  the Frenchman noticed this, and tapped his finger at it.

‘Beaucoup de ces gens là à Strasbourg’ , he said. ‘Les mussulmanns sont des grands consommateurs de moutons. Vous permettez ?’

He picked up the newspaper and rustled through it.  Tom heard him give a little grunt of surprise or interest, as he shook and rattled the paper into a manageable size, showing them the page that had caught his attention.

‘Ça veut dire quoi, ça ?’

It was a half-page advertisement, the same bloody one that Farm Concern had used before, showing a bedraggled lamb, streaked with shit, hunched miserably in the corner of some broken-down stock-wagon. There’d been an injunction taken out on the use of this image a couple of months ago; the thing was bogus, it wasn’t an export lorry, a set-up like that would never have got past the Ministry, or Trading Standards. But here it was again. Presumably Farm Concern would just pay the fine;  they would welcome the fuss. The same caption over the picture: First soak in urine and excrement, then roast with garlic and herbs……  clever, venomous language, unconcerned with truth or fairness. Tom hadn’t noticed before the subtle appeal to xenophobia in the reference to garlic, the distasteful  subtext of foreigners and  their malodorous and gluttonous eating habits.  Farm Concern had spent their money well. Some advertising hack would be well pleased, some cynical bastard with a farmhouse in the Dordogne and a firm grip on the tabloid imagination.

Of course, it was the sight of the lambs on the lorries that really did it. When the big wagons joined the queues of  cars and caravans waiting to get on the ferry, when the children pressed sticky hands against the windows  look mum, look at all those sheep  dad  !   the sight  triggered that latent  English distaste for food and the enjoyment of eating which is one of the things they hold against Europe in general, and the French in particular,  that  sensual culture where a leg of lamb is a gigot  – the word itself plump and running with juices. It was just too obvious where the lambs were going, and what was intended for them. Not only to be eaten, but to be eaten by foreigners,  the mawkish idyll of the countryside swept away. Tom thought about the power of the food scares  —  pasteurella, salmonella:  beguiling names that sounded like  the limpid and under-age heroines of Chuck Berry songs. The food scares fitted comfortably into the notion that food and eating is  essentially polluting, cloacal, never far from the whiff of the toilet.

The movement  against live exports produced the fatal fusion between sentimentality and that low-grade xenophobia that is never far below the surface in the English psyche;  a dull and petulant hatred of the whole world, but especially of Europe.  People talk about Ireland’s deadly affair with history,  the gloomy steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone,  but really it is England that has the dismal and corrupting preoccupation with the past. Sometimes you feel the whole country has gone moth-eaten with regret for the moment, whenever it was, when the world jilted her;  gone rancid, eaten up with  self-pity and vainglory. This side of the Severn you get just as much introversion,  Tom thought,  but it is vague, misty, ignorant, benign.

The waitress cleared away their plates. She was a big girl;  as she leaned over the table between them, her white shirt stretched tight and  opened winking port-holes between the buttons.  M. Dreyer glanced gratefully up at her as her blouse brushed his cheek, turning his face towards her as reflexively as a baby.”

 

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