Low life

My French lessons with Lord Nelson

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

Every Friday afternoon the foreign correspondent and I attend a French lady’s home for our one-hour French lesson. The foreign correspondent has lived happily in France for about 20 years with only ‘hallo’, ‘yes’, ‘red wine, please’, ‘same again, chief’, ‘keep it coming’ and ‘cheerio’. His wife is smoothly fluent and has been urging him for years to set himself the feat of learning French. It was at the end of January, when the subject came up during a four-hour lunch, that he surprised us all by agreeing that it was indeed high time. His one condition was that I make it a joint enterprise.

We have started from scratch as absolute beginners. So far we have had three lessons. In the first we learned the useful conversational gambit of asking everybody in the room how old they are. Our teacher is 65, gentle, elegant, intellectual and has a sense of humour — Dieu merci. We three sit down at a round table in her airy living room, our faces surgically masked. Last week I was last to arrive and found her and the foreign correspondent ready to go and each wearing two masks: a standard surgical mask underneath and one of those weird beaky jobs on top. Wearing two masks struck me as being as absurd as wearing two hats and I laughed, assuming it was a joke. It was no joke, however. Government advice was now double masks, they said sombrely. Had I not heard?

In spite of his spending most of his working life reporting from war zones throughout the world, the foreign correspondent (67) has not only remained stubbornly monoglot, but his English persona bears not the slightest taint of a foreign influence, least of all French. It’s like learning French with Lord Nelson. He demonstrates his seriousness and commitment to our fantastic undertaking by always bringing a battered leather briefcase, from which he draws a large bound notebook in which he dutifully writes down every word and phrase of double Dutch as it arrives.


But occasionally a particular French word will sound a clarion call in his imagination. One such was the word saigner — to bleed: I bleed, you bleed, he bleeds, we bleed, you bleed, they bleed. It’s a conjugational bloodbath. The poetry of the word rang loud and clear to this veteran of the wars in Chechnya (where he was blown up); in Iraq; in Sri Lanka (flung into jail); and in Bosnia (shot by a sniper). ‘Saigner!’ he cried, with a shock of recognition. ‘My goodness me, isn’t that a lovely word! It just sings — doesn’t it? Can’t you just see it and smell it when you hear that word?’

‘Saigner,’ articulated the teacher deadpan as a call to order. Before any of us are carried away by the poetry of any particular word, we must at least know how to pronounce it correctly. ‘No. It is not the river Seine but saigner.’ To imprint the correct pronunciation on our minds she repeated the word saigner three times, exaggerating the first syllable with an evil grimace.

But the foreign correspondent was too galvanised by his atavistic affinity with this French word to be discomposed by an error of pronunciation; a French word, more-over, offering citizenship to those of every nation and tongue who think with the blood. ‘Saigner! Seine! It’s a river of blood!’ he cried. Then he flung himself back in his chair in defeat and despair at the smallness of a human mind vouchsafed a glimpse of the glory of the world.

Another word exciting his sense of fitness cropped up when our teacher was pointing out the difference in French usage between leisure activities performed with or without a ball. In French, as in English, one ‘does’ yoga or painting or karate, but one ‘plays’ croquet or basketball or football or indeed a musical instrument. For example: ‘Ma grand-mère fait du yoga et Rodney joue au foot.’ Our teacher inscribed this sentence in green on her whiteboard and asked the foreign correspondent if he would read it aloud. He looked. He leaned forward and gave the sentence a second, warier look, as though the car in which he was travelling had been stopped at an improvised roadblock by a heavily armed militia, one that nobody had ever heard of before, and they were all stoned out of their minds.

‘Foot?’ he said. ‘What is foot?’ Our teacher said that it was the French word for football. This unexpected simplicity overthrew him. If one looked hard enough, a nugget of logic was occasionally to be found among all this gibberish after all. ‘Foot! It’s perfectly logical!’ he cried in relief.

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