Author of the Bestselling books: A Year in the Merde, The Merde Factor, a novel in English, out in September, and Mille ans de mésentente cordiale, the translation of 1000 Years of Annoying the French, out in October.
Stephen Clarke, you are a very successful author, and you have also been recently defined, as by the ever faithful Wikipedia, as the unofficial Franco-British Ambassador?
Oh really? No-one has given me an Ambassador’s residence yet, that would be nice!
When did your life start to become Franco-British?
Before I went to university, I took French & German A-levels, then I worked in France and Germany for a while. I went to France on an International Students’ course. No, actually, that’s not true, when I was 11, I went camping with the school scouts—I had only joined them because they had made an announcement at the beginning saying we would be going camping in France this summer. So I joined them — we used to go walking in the French countryside side near Saumur and they gave us money for picnics, so we bought a baguette, some Babybel cheese and a bottle of cider. And we got drunk, by the river, laughing. Those were my first, rather blurred, memories of France.
So as a bachelor degree student, you came back to France?
When I was at university, I travelled around France all the time. Actually, before university, I went interrailing in the South. Ever since my A-levels, I have been travelling or living abroad, and mostly in France. And now I have been in Paris for 18 years.
When did you learn French?
I learnt a bit at school, and before A-levels, we used to learn French from these Englishmen who had learnt French before the war, so it was very boring and grammatical. And then, suddenly, before A-levels, we had these French students, you know – French girls actually came over to my school to give conversation lessons. That is when I found out that a language could be not only grammatical – but also useful and fun!
And language became real…
And much more attractive – and that’s how I understood the subjunctive!
Apart from the language, you also often write about French culture, so what attracted you so much to the “Merde Culture”?
SC: When I was at university, I got a good basic grounding on French culture. At Oxford, you study more than the language. In fact, you study the literature and then, you would go and study the languages abroad, like in France or Germany. But most of the time I preferred to study literature with my tutor. I suppose that I learnt how elitist French culture has almost always been, you know, after Rabelais, Voltaire, it has not been really democratic until the 20th century, and even then there is still a huge gap between les artistes, écrivains and everyone else. L’artiste was supposedly a superman—rarely a superwoman—who speaks for the rest of society and I didn’t like this idea at all – and I have been writing about that ever since.
Isn’t it ironic that an Oxford graduate should consider French culture as very elitist?
No. When I went to Oxford, it wasn’t a financial elite. It wasn’t a matter of who your friends were or what your parents did. There was an entrance exam and if you did well in the entrance exam, you got into Oxford. I came from a perfectly normal, middle-class family – no money, I got a full grant. I got to Oxford on pure merit. It was an elite but on merit. The French elite is getting into a club you never leave. Whereas, you go to Oxford and after that there is no automatic rise to glory. It’s very different from these Grandes Ecoles. Britain is different now – even if politicians and prime ministers have been to Oxford or Cambridge, in business and other fields it is quite different…
You have been living in Paris for 18 years, so you have become, whether you like it or not, a Franco-British citizen. How does being Franco-British enrich your life?
Well, obviously contact with other cultures opens up your mind. I am very interested in other cultures. I think in some ways it broadens your mind to have two cultures. For instance, when I go back to Britain, there are a lot of things I have missed out on in British culture and I need to catch up. It is much easier now with the internet, but before I got a real sense of being cut off my own culture. Now I can keep up, but I think I am still one step behind British culture. Whenever I go to London I go to a comedy club or a music club, or go to see a musical or something along these lines in an attempt to keep up with the culture!
It is perceived that the French and British cultures are very close and very different at the same time. What do you think?
I don’t think the French and British cultures are close at all – except that now we have British celebrity chefs who do bastardized French cooking. That aside, our cultures are completely different. Our films and music are completely different. These are inexhaustible veins of difference. I am not saying that one is superior to the other. The French Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, recently said that some cultures are superior to others, and I think that’s absurd. You might prefer one to the other, but that does not mean they are superior in any way – that’s something very different.
Being in contact with the French culture has made me appreciate British culture more. I now realize how the Brits are unlike the French. I now know why so many French films are exactly the same. One important thing I have realised, as I write humorous books, that in comedy the most important thing is maintaining the same register. So in my novels, for instance, there is never anyone evil, nor any violence. I maintain the same register. In France, when they produce comedy films, they would depict violence, or extreme viciousness. But that, I think, is because in France, these days, there is not as much comedy. In Britain, in London, you get Time Out and there are three pages of comedy gigs. The French do obviously have comedies and there are very witty comedians on the radio, but again, they are quite rare.
From your background and critical views on French culture, would you advise French or British students to go study abroad?
Yes, lots of Brits come here and enjoy it. I met a Brit last night who loves the music over here, particularly “Jazz Manoush”. My advice would be to go and experience another culture and you will appreciate your own culture more. Any experience in a foreign culture will add to your personal development, and quite simply, enrich you!
Thank you very much!
Interviewed on 5 April 2012 in Le Cadre noir, Paris, France
Franco-British Portrait Gallery
© Jean-Pascal Sibiet