I was queueing in my mild, peaceable and orderly English way, in a city centre department store, waiting to pay. From my right, groping for the right words, came someone with a slight but detectable mid-European accent. She was holding an item of clothing, and she asked the counter assistant ‘where to try on, please’. The assistant, who was very friendly to the customer, responded ‘IT IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER,’ and waved her hands in a vaguely gyratory way. She was quite unconscious that she had turned up the volume, and that she seemed to the rest of the store to be addressing an extreme idiot who had been bothering her for a bit.
We all do this, don’t we? If someone is old, or in a wheelchair (or more paradoxically, blind), we turn up the volume. So we obviously subconsciously regard being un-English (I am exculpating the Scots, Welsh and Irish) as some kind of disability or even senility of a sort. In France, the French don’t shout at our attempts, which are particularly pitiful, at speaking their language. They smile, in a helpful or sometimes unhelpful way. Into my head flies at this point another recollection of something silly I said when across the Channel. I was camping, in my late twenties, and had managed to dismantle, irreparably, a lamp, and since nights are dark, I went to a camping shop somewhere in Brittany, and asked – very loudly, I expect – ‘Avez vous un lit?‘ My O level French was letting me down again, and it wasn’t until there had been much mime on both sides that I realised that I had just asked for a bed, and that they realised I was looking for a lumière.
What brought this to mind was a tale told me by some friends when they came down this way two weekends ago. One of them, Michèle, is French, and has lived in this country for the best part of four decades. As they came down the M5, with plenty of time to spare, they saw a sign to Burnham-on-Sea, and decided to check it out.
It so happened that Burnham-on-Sea was having a bit a celebrity pother that day, because who should have popped in, in a helicopter, but Prince Edward (whether his missus, the Countess of ‘Wessex’, that well-known contemporary area of England, was there, I don’t know). At one point, Michèle and one of the others, Sue, visited the Ladies, during which visit, they chatted about the said Prince and his having hovered in. A woman in the the Ladies eyed them, especially Michèle.
After a short instant, she said to Michèle, ‘You’re not English, are you?’ in that helpful way for which we English are famous. Michèle agreed that she wasn’t.
The woman took a good gust into her lungs, and let it out for Michèle’s express benefit. She said, ‘HE’S SEVENTH IN LINE TO THE THRONE.’