‘Voisins vigilants’ – Neighbourhood Watch

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Neighbourhood WatchIt is yet one more measure of the often diametrical opposition that exists between French and English – geographically separated by just a narrow stretch of shallow brine but mentally oceans apart – that a recent proposal to implement in a village near which I live an Anglo-Saxon style ‘voisins vigilants’ scheme whereby the ordinary citoyen, in co-operation with local police, would form a neighbourhood surveillance group designed to combat the increasing number of burglaries and anti-social behaviour around them, has met with considerable reticence, if not hostility. Though some recognized that the police and the citoyen must work together in the fight against crime, considerable concern was expressed that a project of this kind might lead some to indulge their unhealthy curiosity in the private lives of their neighbours while others gave vent to fears that the group could assume some of the characteristics of the notorious wartime Militia.

In Anglo-Saxon cultures the generally-held view that individual well-being and freedom can only be obtained by co-operating with legitimate authority has led to a more developed willingness to work together in reinforcing the observance of rules and laws. In England and the U.S.A., for example, it is common to find voluntary Neighbourhood Watch schemes which involve the ordinary citizen in creating organized, patrolling surveillance groups whose aims, in co-operation with the police and local authorities, are to reduce burglaries, car crimes, vandalism and general anti-social behaviour, as well as increase security (e.g. better street lighting) within a given residential area. Far from being considered as a limitation of personal liberty these initiatives are generally perceived as being in the interests of the common good.

Safe driver signIt is perhaps even more significant that in England (and certainly other Anglo-Saxon countries) enough trust is placed in the ordinary citizen’s sense of civic responsibility to invite him to become actively involved in directly ensuring that others respect what is generally considered to be conducive to the well-being of all. An example of this was provided some time ago when a well-known national haulage firm hit on the idea of appending to the rear of its trucks a conspicuous sign, along with a phone number, inviting public road-users to report those among the company’s drivers they judged to be conducting themselves in a manner dangerous or simply discourteous to others. This initiative was perceived by the public as making a positive contribution towards safety and civility on roads – so much so that it considerably reinforced the public image of the haulage company in question. Moreover, during recent city riots in England, popular newspapers made headline appeals to the general public to ‘shop a moron’ – to denounce to the police those they personally recognized from video surveillance footage as committing acts of violence, theft, arson and looting.

In France not only would solicitations of this kind be considered a Big Brother style encroachment on personal liberty but dangerous in that they provide too great a temptation for individual human perversity to divert them to malicious, selfish ends by encouraging people to inform on others for reasons of personal animosity, jealousy or desire for revenge (perhaps the national memory has not forgotten those somber days of Nazi occupation when denunciation was rife), and accordingly best left to those professionally appointed to carry out the task. For in France it is not impossible that the English haulage company’s publicity campaign could have been exploited for personal financial gain. This, at least, is what the experience of my businessman neighbour, Monsieur Martin, would suggest.

Now Monsieur Martin’s firm has a small fleet of delivery vans on the sides of which the company name, together with email address and telephone number used to be displayed. I say ‘used to’ because Monsieur Martin has now deleted the phone number. Why? you may ask. Simply because he was receiving more and more calls from people claiming that one of his vans had bumped into their car, causing considerable damage, before driving on without stopping. In reality, these allegations were simply fraudulent attempts from members of the general public to save their no-claims bonus by attempting to make Monsieur Martin’s firm liable for damages resulting from an accident which the claimant himself was probably responsible for in totally unconnected circumstances. Seeming proof of this was supplied by the fact that not one single person has yet accepted Monsieur Martin’s systematic invitation to provide him with a written claim containing name and address, along with details of the circumstances in which the ‘accident’ occurred!

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Bradfield School

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Here is the opening to Bradfield School, the first novel in my trilogy To France With Love. The main protagonist, Michael Morgan, is a young French teacher working in an English secondary school. He dreams of fresh, more exciting horizons, and has just applied to be part of a teacher exchange programme which, if successful, will enable him to spend a year teaching English in a French lycée … and perhaps continue a new life beyond.  Bradfield School will be published during the course of the year.

Bradfield School

Chapter One

The classroom door burst open and in marched Ron Cooper. Michael hadn’t heard a knock and he was pretty sure there hadn’t been one.

     ‘Hey, you!’ Cooper barked, directing an imperious finger at a boy sitting in the middle of the second row. ‘Wipe that stupid grin off your face, lad, and sit up straight! Where d’you think you are? At home watching telly?’ The boy spun round to look behind him.

     ‘No, I mean you, you idiot.’ The finger was waggled with simulated impatience. ‘What’s your name, boy?’

     ‘Me, sir?’

     ‘Yes, you sir. I’m talking to you, you half wit.

     ‘Higgins, sir.’

     ‘Stand up when you speak to me!’

Higgins shot up onto his feet with a velocity which suggested that Cooper’s command had triggered a powerful spring in the seat of the boy’s pants.

     ‘Mr Morgan, the headmaster would like to see you at break,’ Cooper announced, hardly bothering to lower his voice and his glowering face still half turned towards the boy. He stormed out with the same studied theatricality as he’d marched in.

     ‘O.K. Sit down, Higgins!’ Michael said gently.

Though it was obvious that this intrusion and ostentatious display of gratuitous authority was a calculated attempt by the Deputy Head to reinforce the fierce disciplinarian reputation he had among the pupils, Michael couldn’t help thinking that, as a young teacher, some of it was directed at him. But the indignation which welled up in him was also prompted by the retrograde effect this type of random victimization might have on the boy. Higgins was not the easiest of pupils to manage, and Michael suspected that he might be suffering from some kind of psychological or emotional disturbance. But he’d recently had proof he was a good, even sensitive lad at heart, and he’d been  congratulating himself on having obtained a kind of co-operation based on a still tenuous strand of respect. And what Deputy Head Cooper pretended to have interpreted as nothing more than an imbecilic grin was simply Higgins’s way of trying to demonstrate to his young French teacher that he was doing his best to put on a show of interest. One thing Higgins reacted against – and this with his own brand of obdurate tenacity – was what he considered to be injustice. And what was more unfair than this kind of adult bullying which he was probably all too subject to at home, and which Michael himself – though he did have the excuse of mitigating circumstances – had been guilty of not long ago?

It had all happened in the first two weeks of this new school year. Several times during their lessons Higgins’s restless determination to resist all efforts to encourage his active participation in the process of learning French had reached such an uncontrollable paroxysm that he’d pushed his chair gratingly back, stood resolutely up and, gazing out of the window next to him, loudly announced to the rest of the class: ‘I can see seagulls on the football pitch.’ A chorus of guffaws had followed. The first time this happened Michael had ordered him to move to a vacant desk in the middle of the second row in the hope that the simple expedient of increasing the distance between pupil and window would, if not totally eliminate, at least significantly reduce the likelihood of any future repetition. It had the opposite effect. Each time it occurred Michael had told him patiently but firmly to sit down again and look at his book. The boy had grudgingly obeyed. But on that final occasion it had been three times in the same lesson, and the third time he’d lost his self control. He’d marched up to the boy and given him a solid clip round the ear. Higgins’s reaction had been to seize his text book in a rage, fling it across the classroom and then lapse into a deep sulk.

     ‘Right. You’ll stay behind at the end of the lesson, my lad. I want to have a word with you!’ he’d simply said. Higgins had looked at him with sullen defiance. The end of the lesson came, the rest of the class filed out and the boy trudged out to the front. He was the first to speak.

     ‘You shouldn’t hit people smaller than yourself!’ he announced with determination.

     ‘What did you say, lad?’ He’d heard perfectly well the first time but the question was intended to grant the boy a chance to modify both the tone and the wording of this undisguised challenge to his authority, and to give himself a second or two to think.

     ‘You shouldn’t hit people smaller than yourself!’

The declaration was uttered with an even stronger intention of purpose. It flashed through Michael’s mind that this might justify a second slap but he was collected enough to realize it would only lead to irretrievable, head-on conflict. And then, on one of those inexplicable impulses we are all at some time seized with he found himself saying: ‘O.K. Higgins, you’re right. I’m sorry I did that. It won’t happen again.’ And like all spontaneous compulsions it had come from the heart. ‘And I hope this won’t stop us from remaining friends,’ he’d added, holding out his hand.

It briefly occurred to him that it might be dangerous for a teacher to expose his feelings to a pupil in this way but the boy’s reaction had not disappointed him. His face had lit up, they’d shaken hands and since then the seagulls on the football pitch seemed to have lost their attraction. And yesterday, as they crossed paths in the corridor he’d been considerably gratified when Higgins had greeted him with a cheery, ‘Hello, sir! Did you see that programme about France on telly last night?’

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Living in France – Things Which May Surprise

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IdiosyncrasyThe following are tips on how to deal with what I’ve personally found to be some of the more common things which may surprise or even shock the newly-settled Anglo-Saxon expat. The list is in no way exhaustive.

- Don’t be surprised at the number of strikes and/or street demonstrations going on every single day of the year. The latter are perceived by the French as being a legitimate manifestation of direct democracy. When it’s safe to do so they’ll even take the kids along.

- When they say they invented the game of tennis, rugby, golf (I once even read an article in my local newspaper claiming they’d even invented cricket), try not to show your indignation. Be diplomatic and reply something like: ‘This might possibly be the case but don’t you think …?’

- Think twice before admitting you’ve made a mistake. I know that in Anglo-Saxon countries it’s usually considered to be a sign of honesty but in France it’s an admission of incompetence. You can blame anyone or anything.

- Be patient at your local tennis club’s Annual General Meeting (or any other meeting for that matter). Expect them to waste a considerable amount of time chatting about what you consider to be irrelevancies. And don’t be surprised if the only result is that they agree to disagree. Oh yes, and you’re not expected to turn up dead on time.

- If you see someone letting his dog do it on the pavement in front of you, turn a blind eye. After all, it’s none of your business. Aren’t people in uniforms paid to stop this sort of thing?

- Bear with them when they keep reminding you that France is the cradle of human rights. This is drilled into them at school. It all goes back to their main claim to glory (apart from Napoléon) – the Révolution and the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (1789).

- Don’t be too hard on them if they seem to spend most of their time moaning. They’re the first to admit they’re a nation of criticizers, complainers and protestors.

- Don’t be surprised that in a country like France which has a plethora of rules, regulations and laws you find people doing their best to get round them.  Be aware that applying them officially is often considered to be the ultimate sanction.

- Just as the English show a deep distrust of the weather but love talking about it, the French have no faith in their politicians but adore discussing politics. So gen up on Mr Cameroun (or whoever’s replaced him by the time this blog is published) and his policies. You’ll be expected to know all about them. And they still love to hate Mrs Thatcher.

- Despite the fact that Marxist-inspired, egalitarian ideology still frequently influences Gallic thinking they tend to be a bunch of conservatives at heart with little desire for change. As an Anglo-Saxon (especially the U.S. version) be prepared to be treated as an ultra-liberal capitalist with a strong tendency to pitilessly exploit the downtrodden poor. The media remind them of this every single day.

- Be suspicious when he tells you he agrees that motorway speed limits should be lowered, there should be more speed cameras, tax evasion should be punished more severely, etc., etc. What he really means is that all this is fine as long as it applies to everybody but him.

- When an Englishman walks past a pretty woman in the street he’ll usually fix his gaze on an imaginary spot two yards ahead. Any Frenchman worthy of the name will actually look at her with desire. I quite understand that the newly-landed Englishwoman might find this a little disquieting at first, but try to be positive and consider it to be a form of flattery. Though they’ll never admit it, most Frenchwomen expect this. And if they don’t eye you up and down, it could simply be that you’re getting on a bit. Or you’re just letting yourself go. Take a cold, hard look at yourself in the mirror to see what needs to be done.

- In view of that infuriating French habit of serving tea with a jug of warm milk, be sure to point out to the waiter when ordering that you want it ‘avec du lait froid’.

- If you’re English and are confronted with authority, try and get out of that silly habit of doing what you’re told without asking questions.

- Unlike the English who’ll go to extraordinary lengths to reply: ‘Well you certainly might have a point but on the other hand don’t you think that …? when they’re intimately convinced you’re speaking total rubbish, the French don’t normally consider direct rectification, disagreement or contradiction as being tantamount to a declaration of war. So don’t be offended if you’re told, ‘Non, je ne suis pas d’accord!’

- Don’t throw up your arms in horror when he says he’s looking forward to eating a nice horse-meat steak for lunch. Though the number of boucheries chevalines is now fast declining you can still buy horse meat on some specialized market stalls.

- Be aware of and make all necessary compensations for the fact that with many French people the sight of a uniform can have very much the same effect as that produced by a red rag when dangled close to the nose of a bull.



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Don’t Mind Me – I’m Just a Foreigner

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Three people conversationIn an intercultural partnership not only might your Anglo-Saxon expat’s limited comprehension of everyday spoken French make it difficult for you to have more than just the vaguest idea of what a conversation between your partner and a third person is all about, but your inability to use the language of your adopted country actively enough could restrict you to simply popping in the occasional word or two. In addition, even though you’d always thought that at home your social skills were reasonably well honed, the language difficulty can be aggravated by the fact that you live in a small town where everybody (except you) knows everybody, where your spouse or partner was born and bred and where the subject of conversation is, therefore, shared between her/him and the friend to the exclusion of yourself. And in such circumstances even the most trivial of encounters can sometimes be the cause of a not negligible strain. Let me explain.

The other day, for example, I was walking with my live-in partner, Renée, along the High Street of the town of some 10 000 inhabitants where we live when we happened to meet a friend she hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing since the days they were at school together. After the usual exchange of  greetings and enquiries about each other’s health their conversation turned towards a mutual friend who, I gathered, had married some while ago and left this town of their birth. ‘Au fait, ça fait des lustres que je n’ai pas de nouvelles de Jeannine. Qu’est-ce qu’elle est devenue? enquired Renée.

‘Ah, tu sais, d’après ce que j’ai entendu elle vient de divorcer. C’est bien dommage. Ils ont deux enfants qui sont absolument adorables.’

Now I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Jeannine, her ex-husband or their two adorable children, so I think I can be forgiven for taking only a minor interest in their recent divorce. But after ten minutes during which I was obliged to submit to a situation where I felt as much interest was being shown in me as in the wastepaper bin we were standing by (even though Renée had previously introduced me, and made the occasional half-hearted attempt to include me in their conversation), what started as nothing more than a vague disinterest began to swell up into a feeling of frustration, even annoyance at what I perceived as being unpardonable rudeness on the part of Renée’s old school friend whose only concession to my presence had been a distant ‘Bonjour monsieur.’

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m far from considering myself to be at the hub of a universe around which others should gravitate in beatific awe. I do, however, believe in the elementary politeness which consists in acknowledging the presence of others from time to time. On the other hand, I did realize that Renée was enjoying her chat. But when the subject of Jeannie and her marital woes was exhausted and they started to reminisce about other classmates and teachers I began to give serious thought to finding the best way of abridging their chat. Should I drop some kind of private hint to my partner that I’d prefer her to end the conversation there and then? Should I make it perfectly obvious to both that their conversation was getting to be a bit of a drag? Would the situation justify me simply walking away in a huff? Fortunately, reason got the better of me and I finally decided to opt for a middle course by politely announcing that I’d leave them to talk about old times together while I had a beer in the nearby bistrot. Fortunately the hint was taken, the conversation was brought to an end, cheeks were kissed and we parted the best of friends. Do you sometimes have the feeling you’re being excluded or is it simply me?


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