Friday, July 27, 2007
The French left-wing daily Libération, which I refer to regularly here, has, in recent years tried to offset its falling sales by running a series of supplements over the summer months, often gimmicky and designed to catch the eye of casual readers. The 'Sex' supplement over the summer of two years ago was one, as was the compilation of 'faits divers', major murder stories - many of them recounted in explicit details - from Libé's pages over the past twenty years, which appeared a couple of weeks back. There has also been this summer a one-off 'opening-up' to journalists from the right-wing Figaro and L'Express, which had some regular readers spitting fire: one web forum commenter said, 'if I want to read Le Figaro, I'll buy it. A real opening-up would have been to invite left-wing journalists in'. Such an opinion is common among many of the French left, who see Libé, founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, as having sold out in recent years. Of course many on the right and many outsiders (including a leftist like myself) see it as almost predictably orthodox in matters of ideology. But French politics is peculiar at the best of times.
The most interesting supplement (or, to be completely accurate, feature) so far is running at the moment; it is a daily feature on the history and cultural symbolism of diverse objects, such as the TV remote control, the crucifix and, puzzlingly, today the butter - as opposed to cheese - wire. The most interesting though has been Tuesday's piece on the bidet, which, alas, I cannot find on the website. The jist of the article anyway was France's falling out of love with the bidet, which it invented and which was present in 95% of French homes during the 1970s. Now the frequency of bidets is much less common and the king of bidet users are the Italians - followed by the Spanish and Portuguese - all of whom would not dream of using the toilet for 'une grande commission', as the French would say, without following it by hopping onto the neighbouring bidet. Hence Italians tend to squeamish about using toilets outside their home. According to an interview with an Italian historian of hygiene and sanitation, it is considered bad form to use the bidet in a house you are visiting without first being permitted, in which case you will be provided with your own personal pile of towels. The same historian defends bidet use against charges of wasting water saying that it actually uses less than a shower does, which reminds me of P.J. O'Rourke sneer (aimed at the French) in Holidays in Hell, when he says that 'hygiene means cleaning all your body'.
The article also mentions the English's complete bafflement in the face of the bidet, while adding that English expats in the French provinces now scour antique shops looking for old specimens to furnish their bathrooms with. The bidet figured as the ultimate taboo in Carry On at Your Convenience, the one thing that Kenneth Williams' lavatory manufacturers Boggs & Co. would never deign to make, and it was this film that probably informed my own view of them as an object of derision while growing up. The only bidet I ever saw as a child was in the bathroom of our cousins in Kildare, progressive folk who went on European holidays, and I remember my sister telling me half-amused, half-scandalised, 'they have a bidet!' These days the presence of a bidet in French households can be troublesome to negotiate, not least because they are sometimes located for some insane reason in a bathroom separate to the toilet itself. At a house party I was at a couple of years back in an apartment thus ill-equipped many people mistook the bidet for something else. Not too endearing that, thankfully it appeared to be only for des petites commissions.