On BBC Radio 6, Steve Lamacq played a version of the song “Ça Plane Pour Moi” by the Whyte Horses. The original version was one of the few French language songs to enjoy commercial success in England. While a punk song with themes that might be associated with punk rock, the fact it was sung in French gave it a sense of being very different from the songs of bands like the Sex Pistols and The Stranglers.
In 1978, when “Ça Plane Pour Moi” was in the charts , everything French seemed to exuded sophistication. There was something about the French that created a sense that here was style and elegance, while we were coarse and clumsy. Perhaps it was because they were the byword for fashion, what was the English translation for “haute couture”? Despite Christian Dior’s post-War “New Look” causing protests from those who had suffered the privations of the years of occupation, France moved quickly to escape from the drabness of austerity. Perhaps it was because, in the mind of a schoolboy, France was the embodiment of the risqué and the radical. Whether Paris or the Riviera, the Left Bank and Saint Tropez were a world apart from the world of 1970s England. Perhaps it was just that France was foreign, and being our nearest neighbour was our first encounter with language and culture differing from our own.
Chiefly, though, the images of France that shaped teenage thoughts were the black and white photographs. The people who looked at the lens seemed to occupy not just another country, but another planet. The photographs of the Tour de France are peopled by characters very different from those who stood on the terraces at English football grounds. It was hard to imagine those accustomed to red wine, baguettes and cheese being impressed by a bottle of brown ale and a meat pie. The street scenes photographed showed towns and cities not recovering from wartime bombing or heavy industrial decay. Everyday life seemed to have a different quality; three men pictured sitting at a table outside a café enjoying an evening glass of Anis created an image very different from that of three men standing in a pub drinking pints of bitter.
Perhaps it’s all a matter of presentation, France, being more image conscious, seeks to portray itself in a particular light, while England, priding itself on not being continental, does things differently. Perhaps the differences are not so great. That’s fine for me.