About ten or fifteen years ago I wrote a column in Punch called Let's Parler Franglais, a series of pretend French lessons in which most of the words were really English, and when they were French, they were often translations of such unFrench expressions as "Tell that to the Marines" or "Pull the other one - it's got bells on". This column seemed to strike a chord with the British public, and no less than four selections of the column came out in paperback, as well as a final more serious work which I called "The Franglais Lieutenant's Woman ".
Now, I gave up writing the Franglais material a dozen years ago, as I wanted to see if I could make my living by writing in English, which is my native language, but it still comes back to haunt me. It chiefly comes back in the form of calls from broadcasting companies. It has happened a lot recently. This is because a month ago M P Andrew Steane put down a motion in the Commons asking for all French expressions used in the English language to be made illegal, as a reprisal against a similar move by the French government to ban English usage from French.
No sooner had Mr Steane announced his little joke than the phone began ringing. ‘Oh, Mr Kington, it's Radio Midlands here, I don't know if you have heard the news that Andrew Steane MP has put a Commons motion asking for French expressions to be banned from the English language, but we remember your delightful Franglais books and though you might be able to put this thing in context for our listeners...’
I had about six calls in all, mostly from local and national radio, but also a couple from Sky news and CNN. They all wanted me to put the whole thing in context.
I said: ‘You want me to come on air and say that Mr Steane is making a joke?’.
They said: ‘Well no, we would just like you to say a little about the cultural relations between the French and English.’
I said: ‘You want me to come on and discuss the linguistic insecurity of the Francophone world, which has one of the great languages of the world at its command, but very little security of tenure, and how this affects the evolution of a language which, unlike English, cannot be left to its own devices?’
They said: ‘No, for God's sake not that - we just want you to come on and make a few jokes...’
It's a slightly depressing insight into the way the media work, actually. You can see how it happens. A newsroom. A newsflash. Andrew Steane MP asks for French expressions to be banned. Laughter in newsroom. Small pause. ‘How do we get this one covered, then? Have we got any French pundits on tap? Anyone for an instant quote? ‘
Now, of course there are plenty of French pundits around, but not all of them can be relied on for an instant quote, and most of them aren't sitting around at home, and most of them are unknown to the public, and somebody suddenly says, ‘Hey, what was the name of that bloke who wrote the Franglais books, we always had one or two sitting around in the loo at home, Kington, wasn't it, we could get a funny quote out of him, anyone got his phone number...’
And shortly afterwards my phone starts ringing. It's nice to be remembered, but actually I had gone through all this a month or two previously when the French Parliament had passed its law against English expressions, and all the same people had rung me up then to get a quote, and failed, and here they all were again, having forgotten they had been on to me already that year. Actually CNN was new. They hadn't rung me before. They wanted me to go 100 miles up to London, sit in front of a camera and say, ‘I think Mr Steane is making a joke’, then go home again.
I had heard that CNN was very rich and I was tempted. I said, ‘How much money would be involved?’
They said that no money would be forthcoming, unfortunately.
I asked them what I would get out of it in that case, and they said, International Exposure. I said: ‘You mean you're going to blackmail me? ‘
They said, no, they meant it would make me famous for two minutes...
What makes it all a bit sad is that when I finally get it through to them that I don't want to travel thousands of miles just to say all the things I said last time there was something in the news about the French language, they say: ‘Oh. In that case, can you suggest someone else who could do it? ‘
And I do suggest people, I say that John Wells would do it very well, he's fluent in French and very witty, and they say, ‘Oh, have you got Mr Wells's phone number?’
And round about then I get very depressed about the whole thing and wish I hadn't paid Andrew Steane MP a few quid to put down the motion in the first place in an effort to get Franglais made illegal so I could just forget about the whole thing...
You didn't know that you could pay MPs to put down motions? Oh yes, it's not just questions you can buy in Parliament. Motions are more expensive, of course, but we all have our price, and nothing is impossible in the market economy...
Radio 4 Fourth Column