Captain Haddock and The Plague

Last week, an old school friend of mine reminded me of French A-level classes with Chesty McKeenan. I couldn’t stand the man. He once gave me a dressing down outside the men’s staff room on account of the length of my hair, the bum-fluff on my upper lip and the fact that, by wearing my dad’s short-sleeve sweater, I was sporting the wrong school-colours. He put the fear of God in me, so I passed up the opportunity of studying Albert Camus and his kidney at A-level.

Years later, when preparing to move to France, I regretted the decision somewhat. An A-level would have been more valuable than an O-level, I reasoned. So I got hold of an old copy of La Peste and laboriously ploughed through it in an effort to build my French vocabulary. Weeks became months, as I religiously noted down all the words I didn’t understand, to look up later in a dictionary. Then my wife and I would test each other on an ever-lengthening list of vocabulary during the long drives south from the Channel ports to our house in the Corrèze.

The novel dragged into a second and then a third year. When I reached about page 150, I finally saw the light. Sod this for a game of soldiers, I thought, life’s too short to read Camus in French. So I took up my Penguin copy in the English translation and read it from cover to cover, as if a veil had been lifted off my eyes. And I gave up trying to learn lists of the kinds of words that you probably only find anyway in great literary works.

Besides, I discovered fairly early on that the French taught at school, whether at A- or O-level, was of little use once someone started talking to me in a broad Correzian dialect. The adventures of the Bertillon family – Monsieur (a customs officer at Orly airport), Madame, Philippe (the older boy), Marie-Claude and Alain (the youngest), plus of course Miquet the cat and Miki the dog (they adopted as a stray) – might have helped when asking the way to the nearest boulangerie, but it wasn’t much use when it came to more pertinent enquiries – such as, ‘Do the contents of your septic tank flow into the pond in our garden?’

After the momentous decision to give up La Peste, I figured that if I were going to read French to boost my vocabulary and general comprehension of this difficult language, then I might as well read something fairly easy and enjoyable. As a kid, I had been a great reader of comics (The Topper and The Victor were my first rags of choice). No doubt they played a useful role in assimilating my mother tongue. Since it appeared that the French were mad keen on BDs – or bandes dessinées – then why not revert to my childhood pastime in order to learn this demanding new tongue?

Whereupon, I ploughed through just about the complete Hergé’s Ad-ventures of Tintin (as the excitable voice would announce before the animated versions they used to show on British television). I graduated to Asterix the Gaul without ever quite coming to terms with all the puns and plays-on words. I even negotiated an adult BD lent to me by a kindly neighbour: the story of some Franco-Spanish freedom fighters during the Spanish Civil War, which ended up with a shoot-out on the Plateau de Millevaches. It was pretty good, though it didn’t convert me into a full-time reader of adult comic books. That was something for the locals.

Word must have got out that I was devouring BDs, because French friends would turn up at birthdays with things like the Bidochons (a family of slobs, genetically modified versions of The Simpsons, Rab C. Nesbitt and Andy Capp) and the adventures of a group of bikers called the Joe Bar Team, whose humour escaped me as surely as did Coluche’s. I don’t entirely blame the French national sense of humour for that. I admit that my own total lack of comprehension was partly to blame.

The big difference was that I didn’t make lists of new vocabulary to learn. I looked up each new word on its appearance in the hope that it would sink in after two or three repeats. And, I’m happy to say, it worked. The only trouble being that Captain Haddock’s colourful nautical slang, say, has only a limited application to everyday life. I’ve never to this day ventured a ‘Sacré bleu!’ or a ‘Tonnère du Brest!’ in response, for example, to a price quoted in Point P or Monsieur Bricolage for a few measly building materials.

Nevertheless, Tintin and his cronies served me well for a time and I must have absorbed at least a hundred new words from Hergé’s wonderful books. More to the point, I enjoyed reading them. Now, however, I’ve come to terms with my natural level of (in)competence. I can just about hold my own in a simple conversation that doesn’t turn too philosophical. The fact that my French doesn’t appear to be getting any better no longer gives me stress. As they might say here, I’m reasonably comfortable in my skin these days.

At long last, I’ve discovered that the best way to learn the language is to accept the fact that I’ll make some mistakes – and have a go anyway. If someone corrects me, I don’t take it as a sleight to my manhood, but I smile graciously and learn from the error of my linguistic ways.

And then, following the example of le capitaine ‘Addock, I might walk away, muttering something under my breath. ‘Mille millions de mille sabords…’

Sounds a good idea, Jeanette. I’m guilty of not really exploring the option of books for children. Maybe it was because I had to read my daughter every night till she had memorised every word. ‘Pas moi,’ dit le cochon. I quite enjoyed the Petit Nicholas stories.