That Sweet Enemy by Robert and Isabelle Tombs - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

The Old Quarrel

That Sweet Enemy

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The English and the French have enjoyed a love–hate relationship for centuries. I say ‘the English’ because the Scots stand rather apart, or betwixt and between. Individual Scots – notably, as Robert and Isabelle Tombs remark, Adam Smith – have helped form a British mindset which the French find repugnant; yet Scots retain fond memories of the Auld Alliance and still speak of England as ‘the auld enemy’ – no sweetness there. Moreover, by a decree of Louis XII, never rescinded, Scots resident in France were to be regarded as French nationals. In August 1944 Colette, most French of all French writers, told her husband she would not believe in the liberation of Paris till he brought her a Scottish officer. ‘In a kilt?’ ‘Certainly in a kilt.’ He produced a major from a Highland regiment, who stayed to lunch. ‘My wife reads a lot,’ he said, ‘I expect she’ll have heard of you.’ This is by the by. It must be admitted, however, that the French usually speak of ‘Angleterre’ and ‘les Anglais’, rather than of Britain and the British.

I have long thought that the reason for the uneasy relationship between the French and the English is that neither group feels absolutely certain of its superiority to the other, while both feel comfortably superior to Americans, Germans, Spaniards and everybody else. Nothing in this full, rich and utterly engrossing

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RLF - March