The French author Jose-Alain Fralon described the English as “our most dear enemies”. My suspicion is that this fond animosity is reciprocated by the average thinking Anglo. In an age where we have to guard against bigotry, racial hatred, religious intolerance and xenophobia, the English and French seemed to have struck an unspoken agreement that it’s perfectly acceptable to poke fun at each other. Whereas the Frenchies get in hot water for sinking the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour and get vilified by the Americans for not being enthusiastic about “the war on terror”, they know they can always have a go at the English; and instead of boycotting their products and sulking we will sling some choice stereotypes right back at them. At this point I’d just like to mention that some of my best friends have spoken to French people and I have no problem with that. I’d also like to point out to the reader that an autopsy of Napoleon revealed that the great general’s little general was a staggeringly small 1.25 inches in length. It might also be of some interest to the reader to learn that 40% of French men and 25% of French women don’t change their underwear daily. As a curious footnote since I’m on the topic of underwear, the French have a peculiar fondness for suppositories – managing to stuff 235 tones of pharmaceuticals up their derrieres annually, which is more than the combined total of the rest of Europe.
To try and get a broader perspective on the entente cordial it is necessary to look at the actions of French and British statesmen. It will surprise many that in 2008 Nicolas Sarkozy was the first French President to make a state visit to England in twelve years. Considering that the French elite are that reluctant to have lunch with their English counterparts and that they get a bizarre kick of medicating themselves up the arse, it never ceases to amaze me that in 1990 Graham Fagg and Philippe Cozette met when the first service tunnel under the channel was joined, making it the first time in 8,000 years that France and Britain have been linked. As we all know the result was eventually to be the Channel Tunnel which was completed in 1994 and came in only 80% over-budget. Not content with such madness English and French leaders (Maggie and shagger Mitterrand) agreed to give up a bit of their respective country’s sovereignty. Thus British bobbies have a tiny bit of Coquelles in France to call Blighty and the Gendarmerie is allowed to operate in a small section of Cheriton in Folkestone. What does this mean? Well the British Police in France run one hour early on Kentish time and their Gallic brothers in blue on England’s sceptred isle are given free rein to hassle poor hippies before they’ve even stepped onto French soil. This article recounts my brush with those unwanted French police who make a nuisance of themselves in Dover.
It was back in the late 1990s when a good friend of mine called Mat invited me to take a road trip to his parent’s house in Normandy. Accompanying us was another mate, Danny – a gentle soul who had long ago decided to abandon the workaday world for perpetual academia.
Danny had arrived by train the night before from Sheffield to Mat’s house in a sleepy miniature-sized village near Milton Keynes where one of the pub scenes from Withnail and I had been filmed. Other than the minor fame bestowed on the village by its brief inclusion in a British cinematic masterpiece, the main advantage of Stony Stratford is that it isn’t Milton Keynes. M.K is a town so repugnant to human habitation one can only suspect it was designed by a French town planner as a means of avenging their defeat at Agincourt.
Anyway we set off early in the morning full of high spirits. Mat had taken time off his job as an Engineer and Danny had left his obscurantism on his desk at Sheffield Uni. I myself had just signed on and so was free for two weeks from my public service of pretending to look for work. Being a road trip, we had come prepared to make the most of the miles of wet green scenery that is England. Mat had some Moroccan resin and I too had brought along my finest solids. Add to that a few cans of cheap lager and we were talking merry times for the two mini musketeers (Mat and Dan are somewhat vertically challenged) and me the dreaded, scrawny bearded dole bludger D’Artagan.
The time and miles flew by as Mat drove his red Renault down the motorway to the coast. We smoked it up and cracked a few tinnies and took the piss out of Mat’s rockabilly tapes (that was in the glorious analogue days before mp3s started destroying music).
Before we knew it we were queuing up to get on the Chunnel. Mat being an engineer was a capitalist at heart and one of his shrewder investments had been shares in the channel tunnel company. Along with a dividend he received the occasional free ticket to use the tunnel, hence the reason for the trip.
As we slowly moved towards the customs checkpoint I discretely put my gear into the heart of my dreads. Into the fungal morass I lodged my lump and asked my travel companions if they could see any traces of the contraband poking through my matted mop. They naturally took the piss but told me they could detect nothing. I then checked with Mat to make sure he had also found a suitable place to stash his weed. Mat had done the journey many times before and assured me customs would be a breeze. He was so confident of this that he had casually put his herb into his poncey black satchel on the front seat and left his tobacco on the dashboard. I was somewhat impressed by Mat’s blasé attitude but not entirely convinced: just the year before I had been busted by the French pigs on the border with Italy at Chamonix. I thought that perhaps once we were on the train I could persuade Mat to try a bit harder to hide his stuff before confronting the French police who I knew would take one look at me and rub their garlic perfumed hands in glee.
That was my big mistake.
After waiting twenty minutes we made it to British passport and customs control. They took a cursory look at us and our documentation and then waved us through. No questions, no stepping out of the car or opening the boot. At the time I somewhat respected the British bobby, although they occasionally hassled me in Cardiff and once or twice made me empty my pockets while I was living in Exeter, they never really considered me of any consequence. I was like the small fry that anglers chucked back in the water, hoping that one day it would be worth catching. On one stoned night walking home from a party, a policeman had even found gear on me but because he was looking for a burglar he nicely turned a blind eye. And that was back in the days of class war, the student loan protests, Johnny Major (who tucked his shirt into his pants and had an affair with possibly one of the ugliest women alive), hunt sabs, new age travelers and the racist jokes of Bernard Manning. Nowadays, our force is probably even better.
To end the digression, there we were in the red Renault, free ticket in hand and breathing sighs of relief after clearing British customs. The experience of the subterranean train awaited us. But what was that? No. In front of us stepped another policeman, this time with a round visored hat. What in the name of all things good and just was a French policeman doing performing his bigoted version of upholding the law on this blessed plot? Had the Tories taken leave of their senses? Had the madness of privatization been taken to a new level of stupidity? Had they allowed some dodgy company to outsource the patrolling of our borders to the French gendarmerie? These were questions that I had no time to ponder; instead I focused on trying to look invisible. We saw the French bobby waving other cars on, but the instant he saw me in the back seat, his body assumed the stiffness of officiousness and he indicted for us to pull over to the side. The window went down and Mat started up his French. The copper was not so easily bowled over; after checking our passports he spotted the pack of tobacco on the dash. He reached in and took it. As soon as he found the packet of small blue rizlas that had been roached he nearly smiled with joy. He told Mat to drive into the garage opposite.
And that’s where three French police officers started to make a small amends for the humiliation they had suffered at the hands of the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. First we were ordered in French out of the car. I couldn’t understand but got the gist all right. We stood around as they set about our luggage. In less than five minutes they had found Mat’s poorly hidden weed. Like a true soldier, Mat stepped up to the breach and admitted he was the owner of the Moroccan eighth. He went into full flow French with a delightfully Anglo-like lack of inflection. He quickly got out that he had parents living in France, frequently made the trip and had plain forgotten about the gear in his bag. One gendarme hitched up his unwashed britches and made some deep throated noises before leading Mat off to a small office.
Meanwhile Danny and I had been left alone, without our interpretator, at the mercy of the two remaining burly coppers. We huddled together as they resumed with new vigour to search the Renault. They pulled up the seats, they yanked at the dashboard, they stripped the boot, they pulled up the carpet, they smacked around the spare wheel. They grunted and sweated and disproved the theory that French public servants were lazy.
After fifteen minutes of impressive thoroughness they had drawn a blank. One of them strode away from the dismembered car and headed for another door to the left of where Mat was being held. He soon returned with two older policemen both of whom had a dull inhuman gimpish glimmer in their eyes. They approached Danny and me who by this point were losing our studied looks of innocent indifference. The uglier of the gimps did a silent mini miny mo and cocked a finger at me. “Oh God, here we go again,” I thought as I was lead back through the door that the two gimps had appeared from. I was taken down a dark narrow corridor and directed to another door on the left.
Initially it was just me and the older officer in the small room without windows. However, the slightly less revolting gimp slipped into the room as I started undressing. Just like their cousins on the Italian border they started giving me a French lesson while they searched my faded army trousers. Down to my baggy boxers, gimp senior savoured the moment before indicating that they needed to be removed. I felt like Indie Jones at the hands of Spielberg and Lucas. I could hear the cracking noise of latex gloves as I faced the wall. My legs were spread and my brown star was opened and investigated. Where was Bruce Willis when you needed him?
The gimp brothers lingered over their duties before reluctantly conceding that my body and clothes were free of narcotics. They nodded at my clothes on the table and allowed me to get dressed.
When I stepped back into the garage, Mat and Dan were there and the car had been put back together. It turned out that Mat had had a jolly old chat in the tongue of Flaubert and passed several pleasantries before being given a small fine. Dan had been made to empty his pockets but had been spared the anal obtrusion. Basically they were wrapping it up and had decided to take the one nil.
A more kindly female officer appeared and told us in English that we could go. Naturally, we couldn’t hightail it out of there immediately because the car was still up on the ramps. We sat on a table and waited. I was still in a state of shock, but Mat and Dan were in buoyant moods and attempted some small talk with the pigs.
Gimp senior still eyed me suspiciously. He didn’t look content with his pound of humiliation, obviously his gimp-telligence was working overtime (it must have been overtime because it was noon and he hadn’t had his three hour lunch break yet). He gave it one more go. He shuffled over to me and pointed at my hair and made a few guttural sounds. I placed my fate in the hands of the gods and pulled off my hair band and boldly leaned forward for him to inspect my dreadlocks. He hesitantly squeezed the tangled mass. I could feel that he had actually touched the unwashed lock that contained my ganja. Time collapsed on itself. I froze. Suddenly I wasn’t an atheist anymore. And then time resumed its beat as did my heart and he lowered his arms. I noted his face congeal in disgust as he wiped his hands on his greasy uniform. The cannabis hadn’t become dislodged and I had new faith in divine justice.
The car was now ready to go. I carefully put my hair band back on and walked shakily outside with Dan as Mat reversed out. God did I need smoke of the calming stuff! How I wanted just to drive away and escape their predatory gazes. That was not, however, to be. We had missed the train and had to wait an hour for the next tunnel connection. I smoked a fag and whispered to Mat and Dan that I still had my gear in my hair. I could feel gimp senior’s eyes on my back. My legs twitched as I overdosed on adrenalin.
What seemed like eons passed before the gate went up and we were allowed to drive onto the train. I sat leaning against the carriage wall and tried to appear normal. It wasn’t until we had driven off the train and straight into France (thank God the French police can only hassle you once per crossing) that I began to relax and laugh again. Mat and Dan were reveling in my tale of anal probing and feted me for putting one past the Frenchies and guaranteeing that it wouldn’t be a ganja-less holiday. Finally, I had got my revenge for Chamonix. I had outfoxed the French police and had left the field of engagement injured but victorious. Surely it was only a matter of time before they erected a statue of me somewhere in the heart of London.