I detested French at school. I had an entirely unfathomable dislike for France in general and I attempted to never set foot in France. This bizarre attitude infected my behaviour so much so that I refused to take a family holiday to France and thereby missed out on watching the Tour de France live.
I am not entirely sure what it was that cause me to lose the will to keep up the somewhat ridiculous stand; the decisive moment when I succumbed to the lure of France was probably due to an excess of alcohol, commitment of work or most likely the possibility of a date with an attractive woman (Needless to say the date never occurred and even if it did, them my inability to communicate to her in french would have resulted in the date being fairly short and spectacularly unsuccessful).
I can remember times and places that may have weakened my resolve- and the more I think about one particular meeting, the more I think that it may have been the key moment when my idiotic attitude was terminally damaged: During the summer of 1989 when I was still a student I found myself with a desire to travel and no money, so I resolved to hitch-hike through various parts of Europe. I found myself in the french speaking part of Belgian in a little town called Spa. It is home to a rather impressive casino (though I couldn’t afford to go in and gamble), a wonderful (and free) water fountain in the centre of the town that had a constant flow of unfiltered, untouched-by-human-hand and fantastic tasting natural spring water (yes this is exactly the same stuff that is bottled and sold all around the world as Spa water- go visit the town and you too can drink it for free), several extremely cool art galleries (though I couldn’t afford any of the pictures I liked) and a number of typically french restaurants. Oh yes, and Spa is also home to a little motor racing circuit that a few years later I found myself driving along at 5am in a VW combi. OK, taking Eau Rouge at 55km in a fully laden, diesel powered camper van may not have quite the same G-forces as Lewis Hamilton blast around it in a Formula 1 McLaren, but it sure as heck woke me up.
Of these many, many commendable qualities that Spa possesses the critical one is possibly the most bland: the restaurants. Even at the age I was, and with the paucity of money that I had, I recognised the need to eat ‘properly’ from time to time. Which is how I found myself in one of these restaurants and trying to understand the ‘Menu Touristique’. The waitress saw me struggling and came over to help. Unfortunately (for her) it wasn’t the choice I was struggling with, it was the words and the language that they were written in. However, she was not to know this and as she was incredibly attractive, foreign and entirely unobtainable I was not going to send her away. As she came closer my first impressions of her beauty were confirmed and then multiplied; she had long dark hair that further accentuated her face and dark, chocolate brown eyes that looked as though you could drown in. But all of this was nothing compared to her mouth; at the time I had no way of describing it and nothing to compare it to. Today the nearest I can come to it is to say that she was like all the best bits of Scarlett Johansson and Angelina Jolie- except that at the time Scarlett and Angelina were 5 and 14 years old respectively and using them as a frame of reference of reference in 1989 is dodgy in the extreme. A few years later a colleague (stand up Stuart Roddis) heard me tell this story and immediately came up with the expression “she had a mouth that looked like it could suck start a Harley Davidson”. Although a little crude, this is the best description I have come across for her. And I apologise for it.
But even more was to come- although I speak incredibly poor french, I can still recognise differences in accent. In the same way that in english an irish lilt is much easier on the ear than a west midlands drawl or a west country brogue is less aggessive than a Liverpudlian’s scouse, so it seemed to me that Belgian French was softer, gentler and dammit, sexier than any other french accent that I had ever heard. And it was being spoken by a goddess with a mouth that had been formed by the finest artists on Mount Olympus specifically to make the sounds that were currently coming out of it. I was smitten and I didn’t care how much my dinner was going to cost, I had to stay and order. Even if I couldn’t talk to the object of my affection, I could listen.
And the listening was worth it. And if that simple act of listening opened my mind to the possibilities of France then once again we confirm that the smallest chance encounters can have the greatest effects on our lives.
So with this background it may seem strange that I enjoyed the Franglais columns (and accompanying books) by Miles Kington. Perhaps it was an extension of my dislike for french, by bastardising the former language of diplomacy, but either way I would try to read the columns each week in The Independent and bought the first three books. Franglais is, at its heart, a damning of the english and our inability to learn others languages. To speak franglais is simple. Insert as many French words as you know into the sentence you are trying to say, fill in the rest with English, then speak it with absolute conviction. There are examples from all over the world, the following are just a few that I like
- Je ne suis pas un nutter religieux
- A la Douane: Black Pudding n’est pas tax-free
- Le job interview: Vous etes exactement le go-ahead personal assistant que je cherche
- Le hangover: Il y a un petit homme dans ma tete, qui fait le demolition work
And now, the master of the art Miles Kington has passed away. I hadn’t read much by him recently, but in the same way that the passing of Douglas Adams (he of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) removed someone who was too clever not to be funny, so it is with Miles Kington.
And so, although I never knew you, Au Revoir, Miles.