Saturday, September 08, 2007

The introduction of the bicycle

I like the FT books section partly because there's a real intellectual sensibility at work in the selection of books and pairing with reviewers--it's unusual among newspapers, I'd say, in having such a clear and appealing vision. Here for instance is a very appealing review by John Thornhill of Graham Robb's The Discovery of France.

(I am slightly ashamed to confess that I only clicked on the link because I saw the word "cycle"--Robb's means of getting around the country... Hmmm, I wonder if this is the book that would make a really useful addition to my unsatisfactory collection of cycling-related reading material...)

I think I've really got to read this one in any case, it sounds like a magically interesting book:
One of the most fascinating threads running through The Discovery of France is the role of language in shaping identity. It is striking to learn that only 3 million people – or 11 per cent of the population – spoke French by the time of the 1789 revolution. At the time the “French” spoke some 55 major dialects, and hundreds of sub-dialects. As late as 1863 one quarter of army recruits spoke only patois. During the first world war, Bretons were shot by French soldiers because they could not speak French and were mistaken for Germans.

Mass migration to the cities in the late 19th century, the introduction of the bicycle, and the impact of the first world war [probably the first news event to be transmitted across the whole country on the same day] all contributed to the “discovery” of France. Robb claims that greater mobility brought about by the bicycle even contributed to an increase in the average height of the French as more people married outside their blood relatives.

Robb’s book is scattered with such vivid gems. His rediscovered France is populated by Pyrenean shepherds who had their own whistling language, by postmen in the soggy Landes who used stilts on their delivery rounds into the 1930s, and by the smuggling dogs of northern France, trained to transport goods across internal borders.
Pretty great, eh?!?

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