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Les Fleurs du Mal of May.


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Long ago, when I finally decided the life of a seminarian — at least in the Anglican franchise — wasn’t going to be the life for me, I took a job in a pub in a part of London called Little Venice and found a room in a flat I shared sadly, platonically with a bra designer, a red-haired beauty named Rosalind. You must understand that this was more than 30 years ago, when being a bra designer was something like being a yak shepherd — definitely exotic and not understood to be a growth industry. Everything about her interested me, but in an abstract way.

If she’d only have been a French bra designer, everything would have been different. But she was a girl from Scarborough, and a cricket fanatic through and through. She was particularly attracted to Geoffrey Boycott, the great Yorkshire batsman. All through one summer, as she hunched over her — what do bra designers work at? Her bra-bench, let’s say — she drank tea the color of sand and listen to “the cricket” on the BBC. Listening to cricket on the radio was like listening to monks take naps. As Rosalind wound her cups with gauze and wire, vast lawns of broadcast silence were punctuated by a suddenly urgent voice saying something deeply esoteric, like, “…silly mid off…” or “… just outside off stump…” Then more, much more silence. Every time the commentator said something, I jumped, because I forgot the radio was on.

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Cricket’s changed now, of course. Same old game — gardening with scorekeepers — but flashier uniforms, more colorful commentary (some by Geoffrey Boycott, himself — until his recent bout with cancer) and now, best of all, Nick Harper’s remarkable coverage of the sport in the Guardian.

It’s not just that it’s fun to read Harper and his colleagues, although it certainly is. It’s that the Guardian’s lovely conceit captures exactly what watching a match with a bunch of pals on a slow afternoon is all about: A great deal of normal life, interrupted by inconsequential bits of cricket. This just couldn’t happen in France. And if the French could pass English laws, maybe it wouldn’t happen in England, either.

If the Tories are right about the proposed EU constitution, part of which was unveiled Monday, the Europeans will help the British become less British and more like, say, the French. It seems unlikely, no? Two nations, divided by history and language and culture, but finally brought together by a chunnel? Yet, reading the first part of the draft of the document on the European Convention’s website, I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of familiarity. With its guileful slide into shared sovereignty, it reminded me of the promises that accompanied the introduction of federal funding for education, back before public education tanked: Federal money doesn’t mean federal control, they all said back then.

Reading the thing also generated a degree of sadness. It wasn’t just the awful language, the stiff cadences produced by the kind of people who write fishing statutes and issue driving licenses. It was the complete un-Englishness of it all. I am not a British person. I was born in Texas. But if any country has a national character that can only be defined apophatically, it’s Great Britain. I once crossed the channel with a very morose man who later sat in the House of Lords. When he spotted the dim, gray buildings of Calais on the horizon, the turned to me and said, rudely, “Wogs start here, dear boy.” He liked France, he liked Europe. But the rest of the planet, from Calais on, was all non-British to him.

The Daily Telegraph understands this very English view, and the paper thinks that others will too. Its leader writer suggests that if British persons are going to be forced by law to become non-British persons, they ought to at least be able to vote on it. Even Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the Jefferson (not Thomas; think Starship) of the European Convention and perhaps the man most responsible for the shape of the draft constitution, agrees. Let them cast votes, he says in a report in the Times. And why not? He either gets a thumbs up — or he gets a Britain isolated in Europe. Win-win, if you’re French.

Most of the other EU states are taking the trouble to vote on something as significant as all this. But to allow the British to do the same is something the Guardian thinks is a right-wing plot to vote the U.K. out of the EU. The paper generally supports the government’s claim, as reported in today’s Telegraph, that only parliament should make the decision to ratify the draft. That position won’t hold for long. As William Rees-Mogg remarks in the Times, “No consent; no valid ratification. No valid ratification; no national commitment.…Britain does not want to imitate the agonies of France.”

And, yes! speaking of the agonies of France, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, according to the Telegraph, has produced a book containing some 800 pages of his poetry and other highbrow stuff. M de Villepin certainly has the hair of an 800-page poet. Plus, the French obviously like lots of poetry. As Liberation reported, hundreds of thousands of French persons marched last weekend to protest against working hard and to protect their right to lots of free time in order to read your Baudelaire and your Rimbaud.

That could never happen in Britain. The English prefer verse, thinking de Villepin worse. For example, according to a report in the Guardian, HM the Queen left a very metrical poem of the McGonagall sort in the guest book at the Castle of Mey — which rhymes with “Tay” and perhaps not coincidentally. The paper asked several poets to comment on it, and they politely did so. “It is very cheering to know that the Queen has such a strong and good sense of rhythm,” said Andrew Motion.

God save the queen, but bless the Republic. To us Americans, modern poetry is the broccoli of the arts. We like movies (but not French ones, as the IHT’s report on Cannes’s clash of critics this year made plain). Remember at the beginning of the Iraq conflict? How the poets of America swamped the White House with their creepy, lousy poems? Think of it: Ten thousand “poems” from academic hacks kept afloat by grants and tenure arrived in George W.’s inbox all at the same time. That’s what I call senseless deforestation.

When I was younger and more sensitive, I too was a federally funded poet. Along with real poets like Louis Simpson and Marilyn Hacker (and a band improbably called “Eggs Over Easy”), I was sent around by the State Department to various British universities where I read short bursts of words, some of which actually rhymed, yes, but all of which were designed exclusively to enhance my very limited appeal to the British coeds present. Why did it never occur to me to also become the foreign minister of France? What a slacker I was!

Note to my many correspondents who offered a better riposte than mine to the young Englishwoman who asked me what it was like to be from the most hated nation on earth: Stop e-mailing me. The winner is Rod Aday, from East Rutherford, N.J. His rejoinder: “I wouldn’t know madam, you’d have to ask Jacques Chirac.” Mr. Aday wins a five-dollar U.S. government gift certificate signed by the Treasurer of America. You can use it wherever they sell beer by the bottle, Rod — but don’t redeem and drive, okay?

And finally, a Jayson Blair disclaimer: O.K., I’m not in France at the moment. I’ve returned to the U.S. for a few weeks to supervise the sale of my [wildly brazen self-aggrandizing product-placement warning] sweet Pennsylvania farm. Then it’s off to Albania to be a missionary!

Denis Boyles, an NRO contributor, is a journalist based in Europe.



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