Intellectualism is not a dirty word in a country that revels in its cultural identity
There are times when I realise we bought more than just a house in the south of France. Such as when I read in a newspaper that French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has commissioned the French playwright Yasmina Reza to write a portrait of his existential inner being.
Most people reading this column will, like me, probably struggle to remember what existentialism is, if they ever knew. But the strange thing about living in France is that my children won’t. They will soon start learning about existentialism and all aspects of philosophy at school.
By the way, if you would like to know what existentialism is, it’s all about understanding the human condition. If anyone asks, just tell them it’s the opposite of positivism. That should shut them up.
My children’s cultural identity is already taking shape aged six and seven. Every two weeks they come home with a poem that they have to learn by heart. This is in their cahier de poésie, their poetry exercise book, a concept I find irresistibly charming, even if learning the poems does cause a lot of stress.
And the children are judged on how well they recite them. Competition may not be allowed to flourish in the French high street — Swedish chain store Hennes was recently banned from opening a branch in the Champs Elysées because the government wants to give smaller players a chance to operate — but it is alive and well in the French classroom.
Ever since my seven-year-old daughter, Olivia, received only an orange dot — as opposed to the top mark, a green one — she has been more determined than ever to learn her poem perfectly. The last one about the snow we heard so many times that her younger sister and brother were also reciting it by the end of the week. Even the cat purred along.
In Britain, we would have laughed if Margaret Thatcher had asked Harold Pinter to follow her around so he could write about her, although he might not have agreed to do it. It often seems as if the British place no value at all on the importance of culture, and intellectuals are seen as ridiculous.
In fact, when Indira Gandhi was planning a state visit to the UK in the 1980s she asked Thatcher to arrange a dinner with the country’s top 10 intellectuals. “In Britain, there are no intellectuals,” was Thatcher’s response. This rather reminds me of Hitler’s response to Mussolini’s question of what he was going to do about the homosexual problem in Germany.
In France, one of the most popular television shows in recent history was called Bouillon de Culture. This was aired around primetime on a Friday night and hosted by France’s answer to Melvyn Bragg, the silver-haired Bernard Pivot, who once said: “You get the feeling that many of my guests feel that the French language gives them entry into a more cultivated, more intelligent world.” All they did for two hours was talk. Pivot apparently reads for more than 10 hours a day. According to a study I saw recently, the average amount of time people spend reading in the UK each day is 10 minutes.
There is a radio station here called France Culture. I often listen to it as a way of learning French. Subjects vary from Algeria to the Middle East to interviews with writers, musicians and artists. The one thing that struck me when I first listened to it was just how much the French talk. I can drive to school, take the children in, chat to some other mothers for 10 minutes and when I come back the same guy will still be talking, possibly continuing the same sentence.
My cultural initiation also includes reading the French edition of Glamour magazine. Coming back from Paris once (surrounded by French people reading very highbrow books) I was flicking through an article entitled My Best Ever Night of Sex. After looking around to make sure nobody was watching me, I read about a girl who was on holiday with her best friend somewhere hot and steamy. They came across a stranger on the beach and had sex with him. Like you do. I was rather surprised, though, to find that at the bottom of this saga was an analysis from a leading psychiatrist, who concluded that “the girl is clearly in love with her best friend, as she never once mentions the stranger’s penis”. An underwear ad in the latest issue of French Elle magazine describes the lingerie as “a little poetry for the body”. An irresistible combination for the French: intellectual sex.
After six years of living here, I think we have moved further away from the English attitude. My husband, for example, has become addicted to Proust. He has even signed up to a website called Salon Proust. Yes, in France, men don’t spend their time drooling over sites like “Am I hot dot com” but rather they swap anecdotes about Marcel and his madeleine moments.
I have nothing against the French cultural bent. In fact, I have grown rather fond of it.
Intellectualising can be good fun and is cheaper than shopping. I also think it’s a good idea to teach children about poetry, philosophy and culture. Maybe it will make them less likely to become yobs; I certainly rate their chances of avoiding hoodies and other baddies here higher than I would in the UK.
But, sadly, I think one of the reasons the Brits are less intellectual than the French is the fact that we are so busy earning money that we don’t have the time for it. As Samuel Johnson said: “All intellectual improvement arises from leisure.” So there’s another good reason to hang on to the 35-hour week. Sarkozy, if you’re not too busy finding your existentialist inner self, take note.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019