Friday Song, Georges Brassens, FERNANDE (1972)

This week’s Friday Song will be a great encouragement to those brave British patriots who fear that too great a proximity to Europe will corrupt and pollute our glorious culture.

The story of Georges Brassens, and more specifically his song ‘Fernande’, is proof that across the English Channel,  a world exists that, in matters of taste and tolerance,  is a long, long way from our land of disapproval and the Daily Mail.

Let’s start with language. Never has national difference between Britain a and France been more perfectly exemplified than in the lyrics of ‘Fernande’.

Its chorus starts:

‘Quand je pense à Fernande,

Je bande, je bande…’

Using David Yendley’s excellent website Brassens With English (90 songs translated, with notes and videos), we learn that this means:

When I think of Fernande,

It’s so hard, it’s so hard….’

Yes  (children, please look away now), this is a musical celebration of the male erection.

In the chorus, Brassens goes through a list of women he likes to think of while he is alone until he gets to Lulu.

‘Mais quand je pense à Lulu,

Là, je ne bande plus.

La bandaison, papa

Ne se commande pas.’

Which, being translated, is:

‘But when I think of Lulu,

There, it is hard no more.

Getting hard, papa,

That just can’t be controlled.’

Already, you’ll see the problem.   The English language just isn’t up to it.

Where ‘bander‘ is a neutral verb in French, an economic statement of a physical event, its English equivalents – getting hard/getting wood/aroused/having an erection/getting turned on – are either coy or creepy or crude.  Each has a sub-textual baggage; they are all clumsy, embarrassed.

I  discovered the inadequacy of English in this context through an unhappy experience with ‘Fernande’.

When I read that the song was famously untranslatable, I took it as a challenge. For a show I did with my friend Derek Hewitson (who, like Brassens, would occasionally smoke a pipe while playing the guitar). I came up with an English version, which deviated a long way from the original while retaining its basic concept and theme.

The first two verses went:

‘A man’s life is very hard,

Rejection and temptation

I recommend to the  battle-scarred

My  private contemplation…

When I think of Martha, I’m harder, I’m  harder

When I think of Janet,

I’m like a piece of granite.

But when I think of Claire.

You know, there’s nothing there.

The spirit may be willing, but there’s nothing there.

 

The vicar looks so stern and dour

As he prays for life and death

But watch his lips, I’m almost sure

He’s singing under his breath.

When I think of Bridget, I’m rigid, I’m rigid

When I think of Elaine, I’m up again

When I think of Lisa,

I’m like the Tower of Pisa.

But when I think of Claire

You know, there’s nothing there.

The spirit may be willing, but there’s nothing there.

 

If I had previously had any doubts as to the vast gulf between rural England and our neighbours across the Channel, I quickly learned the error of my ways.

When we first played ‘Fernande’ in a show called Let’s Misbehave, put on in a village hall, the temperature dropped about fifty degrees. There was no encore at the end of the show and, as the audience filed past us,  Derek and I couldn’t help becoming aware that a certain amount of tutting and sideward glances was going on.

A few days later, an official letter of complaint was sent by the vicar’s wife to the organiser. We were a disgrace, she said. This kind of song should not be sung ‘in mixed company’.

In France, they do things differently. Not only is ‘Fernande’  a national favourite, but it was once sung by none other than the president’s wife Carla Bruni  – her soft, huskily-voiced version will have evoked in many male YouTube viewers a response entirely in keeping with the song.

Brassens was gloriously subversive, defiant and uncompromising in his life and his writing. He was, as his great disciple Jake Thackray once put it,  ‘the best of the very best of poet-singers’. A novelist and acclaimed poet – he won the highly prestigious  Grand Prix de Poésie de l’Academie Française  in 1967 and his work including ‘Fernande’  is earnestly studied and annoted –  he was literary, left-wing, jauntily frank about sex, sweary, determinedly anti-authority – particularly the Catholic church  – and a great celebrant of the life of ordinary and occasionally extraordinary) people.

Both intimately confessional and yet a public poet, the stories and opinions in his songs go to places most songwriters prefer to avoid.

He remains popular in France 37 years after his death because the French appreciate that love, sex, food, politics, religion and music are part of daily life – that it’s not rude to make fun of them. It’s life-affirming.

In this country, I fear, that a singer with his attitude would be regarded as weird and immoral. He would be scolded by Anne Widdecombe and Peter Hitchens; there would be a Twitters-storm about his inappropriateness, orchestrated by Piers Morgan.

In France, he is still the object of such affection that a group of famous singers of all ages and colours, men and women, can happily appear on TV and sing together a Brassens song about a randy, well-endowed gorilla who escapes from his cage and rogers a judge (0’55 into the video).

That same song, incidentally   – Brassens’ first hit ‘Le Gorille’  – was brilliantly translated and performed by Jake Thackray as ‘Brother Gorilla’.

Brassens wrote around 200 songs. ‘Fernande’ is not my favourite  –  I particularly love ‘Les Copain D’Abord’, Mysogie a Part’, ‘La Mauvaise Reputation‘ and ‘Je Me Suis Fait Tout Petit’ – but it has a wonderful, universal appeal. It represents much about France that I admire and envy.

And every time I hear it, I think of that vicar’s wife.  How relieved she must be that we are about to put a greater distance between us and the country where they can actually laugh about love and sex without feeling embarrassed or ashamed..

Here , whether you are in mixed company or not, is Georges Brassens singing  ‘Fernande’ in the only live performance video of the song I have been able to find. It has some very useful sub-titles for the lyrics – in Spanish.

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