Book Review: 1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke

As tongue in cheek as the title sounds, this is an informative history book that charts 1000 years of Anglo-French mutual adoration loathing. Stephen Clarke leaves no stone unturned as he charts events surrounding the momentous events from history involving the two countries.

The text is as tongue in cheek as you would expect and there are giggles aplenty. The first big laugh I had was when Clarke described William II (informally known as Rufus) of England as “a medieval Paris Hilton” for his indulgences and a love of “make up, dresses and yappy little dogs”.

He takes delight in pointing out that William the Conqueror was not French and that he loathed them as much as they loathed him and his barbaric Norman ways.

He recounts trips to Crecy and Azincourt (not Agincourt which is hundreds of miles away from the true battle site – with the z) and paints a less than glowing picture of Joan of Arc, religious zealot and manipulative egomaniac. Mary Queen of Scots passing was treated with indifference by the Scots (a people she had little regard for) and was designed to annoy – yes you’ve guessed – the French.

The book is over six hundred pages and as it says on the cover, discusses our relationship until the present day.

The narrative flows well and is littered with jokes such as those mentioned above. But this is not history dumbed down, it is as informative as any core text book. Who knew that modern champagne was invented in England, that Dom Perignon tried to remove the fizziness from the French stuff because the bottles kept exploding whereas the English went crazy for it and the fizzier the better (and had designed a stronger bottle to hold it)?

Clarke’s research is seemingly watertight, backed up with documentary evidence and largely apolitical despite the light-hearted subject matter. Neither is it xenophobic, Clarke lives in France and is also keen to stress the faults of the English in the relationship as he is to point out the French faults. He is also keen to defend the French where appropriate. During the Falklands War for example, the right wing press in the UK insisted that the French were helping Argentina because the equipment used in the invasion had been sold to them by the French. They ignored three things… 1) the arms deal had been pushed through decades before the conflict… 2) the French military trained British secret services in how to disable Exocets and 3) they loaned our military several aircraft to learn how to work against them. Entente Cordiale is not as dead as some would like to pretend.

This is a great introduction to anybody wanting to understand the peculiar relationship between two countries separated by a 30 mile stretch of water and 1000 years of colourful history.

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