Latins, crimes and crooners
The French sometimes call the Irish the Latins of the North. But what have the two communities got in common? Sadly, both communities have been dealing with tragic youth crimes of late. One quality they appear to share is a love of words. But why have the Irish in particular been so slow to appreciate the lyrics of great French songwriter legends, such as Claude Nougaro, who passed away in March 2004?
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It's a blowy, rainy night in Paris. Not that uncommon in this moody city, where beauty and grim reality are locked in a timeless tango. Despite the wet, I cycle to work, hauling my bone-shaker a few monument-miles along the ponty river, by parked barges, over bouncy cobbles and under dank bridges, between the dreamy palaces of Orsay and Elysée.
The "Latins of the North" is how a guidebook, published in France by Autrement, has dubbed the Irish. Apart from this weather, it is not easy to pin down exactly what the Irish and French have in common, except an obvious mutual admiration.
Okay, there are majestic corners of Dublin that might compete with Paris. And there is the Catholic Church. But there are so many differences. Take cooking. To be sure, Irish cuisine has developed a natural and indigenous flare, especially eating out. But in the home the Irish are not exactly in love with cooking, preferring convenient finger buffets (great expression: can you imagine eating with your toes?) to bursting open oysters or serving the home-made beurre blanc. And when we have downed the "grand cru" we happily uncork an Ozzy Over Oaky.
Despite the many French in Ireland, some people here insist on viewing us as romantic warriors. Even rugby commentaries are peppered with references to "le fighting spirit", which infuriates us as we watch our players waxing all over the park, increasingly with the ball.
And for all this fighting spirit, when it comes to the crime statistics, it is France, not Ireland, that packs a bigger punch. Not that this is a particularly high crime country. Car theft here is lower than, say, in New Zealand. France has a third of Britain's level of burglaries and reports fewer sexual incidents than almost any other OECD country.
Still, Ireland has about half the volume of crime as in France (www.interpol.int). Do statistics lie? Are the Irish in fact gentle, the French that violent?
Homicide is higher in France, but recent cases in both countries involving relatively young offenders show we both have problems. Ireland has been absorbed by the tragic case of Brian Murphy, a young man who died after a fight outside a Dublin nightclub in 2002. The French have been grappling with two similar incidents: one where a 15-year-old boy called Cédric, died in the Ardèche on March 1 from 14 stab wounds apparently inflicted by other youths he had reported for stealing a car; then, a few days later, a teenager from Lyon, Julien, met a similar fate after an argument with a school friend.
Frightening, yet real, affairs all, not least for the parents. Where's the solution? Already, the age of criminal responsibility in Ireland is not 16 as in Spain, or even 13, as in France, but age 7 (though full responsibility is 14). Education has to be the answer.
Yet, Brian Murphy's accused aggressors were former pupils at Blackrock College, a prestigious high school in a wealthy area of Dublin, which educated such icons as Sir Bob Geldof and even "God", the nickname of rugby hero Brian O' Driscoll. A good friend of mine went to the Rock.
It was a boys-only rugby school that encouraged manners and manliness. Like any school, fights among pupils were not rare. Kids would clamour for a "claim" after class. Once, in a tangle of sweat and schoolbags, my friend saw a guy, urged on by background voices, slowly lift, then bang, the other chap's head against the path. No-one was hurt, but it was like a scene from Lord of the Flies.
Not that William Golding can be blamed anymore than Blackrock College for this. Headline writers have singled out spoiled brats and irresponsibility by the well-to-do for the Brian Murphy tragedy, but only the bitter would blame the Rock. For the truth is, Dublin has an aggressive edge. People may be friendlier on the whole than in Paris, but they can "start" on each other for no reason at all. I have wandered late in hairy parts of London, erred in Manhattan, and now potter around Paris, but Dublin is the only place (touch wood) I was ever beaten up in, and that was for helping a stranger cross the street. I know people who have been less lucky here.
Still, there is sense to this Latin theory. For one thing, the French and Irish enjoy letting the mind wander, sometimes pretentiously, often helplessly. Both spirits are drawn by the unpredictable. They can talk at length, weave ideas, argue. Nor is all this vacuous chat, but manifests itself in writing and music.
Yet, for all the Irish love of words, the best songwriters from France are hardly known in Ireland. It is too easy to blame soppy French pop music; after all, they did not produce Joe Dolan! Irish ignorance is more the culprit here and our impatient rejection of anything beyond the Anglo-American pop industry. By contrast, the French collect and listen, and not just to greats like Van Morrison. Afro-Latin audiences here encouraged the early careers of Youssou n'Dour and Salif Keita that led to the explosion of World Music. And long before Air and MC Solaar, French songs added zest to the English-singing world. Think of Claude François's My Way, sung by Sinatra and now a mythic anthem for the American dream. How many boppers realise that Bowie's Port of Amsterdam is by Jacques Brel, a Belgian exile who humorously carved open French society rather as Wilde dissected Victorian Britain. Many more singers should be better known: the late Barbara (fêted in Germany) for instance, or Lavillier (whose Night Bird kept a party bopping through the night in Dublin once). The Irish of all people should appreciate the poetry, if not the music. Poor interpretation has not helped the French cause: Seasons in the Sun, a weepy hit by Terry Jacks, is simply a betrayal of the original, jovial Brel poke at loyalty, life and death.
Arguably the most poetic French crooner of them all died this March. His passing got no mention in the Irish press (according to my Internet search), despite international coverage. If you look him up now in English, beware. Contrary to most reports, Claude Nougaro did not keep alive the French song tradition, but rather etched out a whole new space in jazz, folk and poetry.
Nougaro was from Toulouse, a warm pink city that in some ways resembles Dublin at its fairest, with its red brick splendour and jammed up traffic. Even the wide Garonne reflects a certain heavy dark Liffeyness. I have slumbered hot afternoons on the Garonne's banks, a calm wateriness that would have had Patrick Kavanagh standing out of his bench. But whereas Dublin is a Norman-Nordic-Anglo-Irish-(Latin) city, the heartbeat of Toulouse is Occitane and Spanish, as well as deeply Gallic. It is a bastion of free thinking and powerful politics. Felipe Gonzáles, Spain's long serving former prime minister, lived there in exile during the last days of General Franco.
When the news spread that Claude Nougaro had passed away in his flat near Notre Dame in Paris, the energy of Toulouse must have drawn his soul to fly south and kiss goodbye to the thousands who flocked to the main square of the city, the Capitol, in an outpouring of music-sprung emotion. Men, women, old, young: all of France wept in this public wake, for Nougaro was everyone's son and brother. He appeared in local hairdressers, sipped at bars, talked and chatted. He would have looked at home in a pub in Longford. Many songs were relayed aloud, hummed and sung by a teary sea of faces and quivering lips. Nougayork, Toulouse, le Coq, and one of his most lyrical songs, L'Irlandaise, whose words and music are as soft and uplifting as a ray of sun through a light rain.
It all reminds me of a pretty red-headed girl I met on a street in Toulouse playing the tin whistle many years ago. It was a fine day. She was surrounded by her little children, all strawberry reds. I asked her was she Irish. No, French, but she had lived there, and had been married to an Irishman. She loved it. She had a slight Kerry tinge to her accent. Why did she leave? She hesitated just a second. The rain, she replied calmly, and played on. I wonder if Nougaro wrote this song for her.
L'Irlandaise - Claude Nougaro (1929-2004)
Occitane, tu as mis dans mon âme
Une ballade irlandaise
Féminine comme une colline
Une mer vert Véronèse
Occitane, de toute mon âme
Du si bémol au do dièse
Je destine à qui tu devines
Cette ballade irlandaise
Que ne ferais-je
Que ne ferais-je pas pour te séduire
La pompe à neige et la brosse à reluire
Les sortilèges des rivages les plus nostal nostalgiques
Les cornemuses des muses celtiques
Trouba troudadou troubadour
Sous tes tours je viens faire un tour
J'ai mis la plume à mon chapeau
Robin des bois à Roncevaux
C'est comme ça, tu l'as voulu, tu l'as...
© Claude Nougaro, 1993
For more on Nougaro see : www.nougaro.com
Article ©RJ Doyle 2004blog comments powered by Disqus