The Richmond Circle


On a cold, blustery evening back in December, I was in the Vestry Hall, Richmond, London, helping a sweet old lady set out chairs. Every so often she stopped to wonder, ‘Where is everyone?’ or ‘This is the right day, isn’t it?’ Up to then I’d been certain it was, but I started having doubts. Or else they’d all looked at the programme, seen Mayotte: Histoire et Enjeux, a talk by Curtis Bausse, and thought, ‘Well, sod that. I’ve got better things to do on a cold, blustery evening in December.’

I was due to talk at 7 p.m. At 6.55, it was still just me, the sweet old lady and 40 empty chairs. This was a meeting of the Cercle Français de Richmond, to whom I’d written to ask if they wanted to hear about Mayotte. ‘Yes,’ replied Timothy, the association president, ‘that would be lovely.’ That was a couple of months before. Now I surveyed the empty chairs and thought, ‘Well, at least they won’t heckle me.’

Just after 7, the rank and file began to trickle in. This being the last meeting before Christmas, they’d brought wine and mince pies, so by the time I began to speak, it was almost 8 and we were all a little tipsy. Latecomers had brought the number up to a healthy 30 or so, though ‘healthy’ perhaps isn’t quite the word. The average age, at a guess, was 72. Halfway through my speech, one chap keeled over and hit the floor. I stopped speaking, as one would, while he was attended to, but Timothy signalled at me to carry on, his expression telling me not to worry, it was just old Fred having another heart attack.

Nobody heckled me. At the end they all applauded and asked questions in excellent French. Several came up and thanked me for a fascinating talk, and I was invited back to speak on another topic whenever I wanted. I hadn’t asked to be paid at all, but a few days later, Timothy sent me a cheque for £50, covering my travel costs from Cambridge. All in all, it was a very pleasant evening, except possibly for Fred.

They’d taken a bit of a gamble, Timothy said, because their speakers were usually on the registered list of the Alliance Française. In most of the major towns in the UK, there’s a French club, and apparently, if I get myself on the list, I can command a fee and tour the country giving lectures, all expenses paid. I’m not sure I really want to do that, but I said I’d look into it.

Set up in 1883, the Association nationale pour la propagation de la langue française dans les colonies et à l’étranger, as it was then known, included on its board such eminent citizens as Louis Pasteur and Jules Verne. Today it has over a 1000 locations in 135 countries. Its UK counterpart, the British Council, wasn’t founded till 1934, its aim being more overtly political at a time when pernicious ideologies were rising, namely to create in a country overseas a basis of friendly knowledge and understanding of the people of this country, of their philosophy and way of life, which will lead to a sympathetic appreciation of British foreign policy.

In many ways, the two institutions compete, continuing today the rivalry of empires. But despite the best efforts of the Alliance Française, the influence of French worldwide is in relative decline compared to English. Will that be the case in Europe after Brexit? Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission says that ‘English is losing its importance.’ But as The Economist points out, Among students at lower secondary level outside Britain, 97% are learning English. Only 34% are studying French and 23% German. In primary school 79% of students are already learning English, against just 4% for French. The demise of English appears to be a long way off. Meanwhile, though, all is not lost for French: there are still a few committed francophiles ready to brave the British winter to eat mince pies and hear about Mayotte.

Lou Messugo
Posted in France, Mayotte and tagged , , , , , , , .


  1. Hi Curtis – gosh that was a laid back arrival – but I’m so glad they enjoyed themselves … even with the little extras of Christmas time … Mayotte sounds an interesting place to live … and great you’ve been able to set a series there … good luck and have fun … cheers Hilary

  2. Because everyone in my family knows my elder sister will arrive late to any event with a start time, we tell her the start times are half a hour earlier than they actually are. Perhaps, because you were an unknown speaker, not registered on the list of the Alliance Française, Cercle Français de Richmond took the same precaution with you, while inviting their members to a fascinating event titled, “Mayotte: Histoire et Enjeux, a talk by Curtis Bausse” to begin at 7:30 pm. Not only would this ensure the seats would be set up ahead of time, but the speaker would be present, a little unnerved yet grateful, when the audience arrived.

    Although you might not be sure you want to get yourself on that list, I encourage you to do so anyway. Life and your own interests and expertise have presented you with a marketing opportunity for which you can actually receive payment! In an audience interested in Mayotte, statistically, some of them are bound to be mystery readers. Or readers who will want to read a book by an author who they have actually met! (I think this is called the Rubbing Elbows Effect, but don’t quote me on that.)

    Of course, you won’t stand before them saying, “Buy my book,” but it seems reasonable to mention that you researched the history of Mayotte prior to writing a book whose story is set there. And you just happened to bring a few copies with you if they’d care to take a look.

    There is also a potential Legacy Factor. In the event dear old Fred — or one of his friends — falls to the floor and fails to recover, family and/or friends will be sorting out and distributing the dearly departed’s belongings. How nice if they were to find Perfume Island (and One Green Bottle by association) among them.

    • Ah, I hadn’t thought of that explanation for the late arrivals – could well be! The promotion angle was in fact the reason I went there, but having split with my publisher in the meantime, I had no books to give. Maybe when I do, it’ll be worth getting on that list, especially since the talk is now ready.

  3. «not to worry, it was just old Fred having another heart attack»

    Good old Fred. He may be a francophile, but he still keeps a stiff upper lip and carries on. 🙂

  4. I don’t know if it’s true, Curtis, but recently I was searching for some French phrasings (I usually manage to forget the macrons, etc.) and ran across the statement that French is the second most-learned language in the world. I’d like to think it’s true! I’m glad your reading experience turned out well. I would’ve been so nervous ‘carrying’ the show. I’ve done a couple talks and one reading (my poetry), but those were piggybacked, so to speak, on other speakers being present. For my first readings, I might try to go for that type of set-up…as there’s (presumably) power in numbers and all that. Anyway, a bravo to you for your presentation last year and I love (don’t know if that’s morbid) the bit about Fred and just carrying on with your talk. I hope that fellow’s okay! That just sparked a memory of a TV show where, and I’m sure there are others, the character is always said to be having heart trouble: Sanford & Son. Are you familiar with it (it featured the comedian “Red” Fox)? It’s funny/clever how he (the actor) achieves a laugh with that bit.

    • Realizing I should’ve written acute and grave diacritical marks, not so much the macron. I guess it’s carryover from the recent French election! 🙂

    • Thanks, Leigh. Yes, I think it could well be true – it’s still the case in the UK that French is the language most learned. But the figures are paltry – Brits don’t both with other languages than English. And worldwide, French is in decline compared to Spanish or Chinese, so how long it will last, I don’t know.
      I wasn’t too nervous in fact as giving presentations used to be part of my job – it generally goes ok as long as I feel I know what I’m talking about!
      No, never come across Sanford & Son – there was Steptoe & Son when I was young, but maybe it’s nothing like that.
      Btw, did you get my email about Closed Circle?🙄

      • Yes, I think I answered your last question, although I’m obviously not on track sending it back in a few days after our communique. I’ve carved out time to enjoy it on my upcoming holiday, though. I hope I will get a lot of “down time” and not so much going to museums and running ’round to places this time out West.

        • Thanks for the reply, Leigh. Hope you have a great holiday (I thought you said ‘vacation’?) Don’t miss out on museums just to read my work, though – it can wait!

          • Hey, Curtis. Yeah, I think I’ve used both holiday and vacation to describe the trip. Nah, we’ve had lots of down-time so far (thankfully) for my husband and I to recover and plus, it’s so dang hot! 114 degrees the other day. It’s 102 even by 9-10 p.m. as well, so most people who want to explore trails go early, early morning (if at all). I’m looking forward to doing some fun reading; crazy person that I am, I brought copywriting work with me and have finished at least the first round of it, so I’ve got some fun-time coming to me!

          • That’s seriously hot! I function well enough around 95, but in that heat I’d just be in the shade with a book. Hope the fun time is all you’d want it to be.

  5. I must say I envy them. I wish my French was good enough to look forward to enjoying intellectual contemplations of culture in French, when one day I slow down enough to have time for such things. #AllAboutFrance.

  6. Fascinating, Curtis. Yes with Macron, maybe France will make a resurgence on the world stage. As for languages, proud to say Chinese is up there amongst them and Spanish. no prizes for guessing which is the easiest for a native english speaker to learn! ( having dabbled at both)

    now, onto Fred… did he make it through the night? Is he going to appear in disguise in the next Magali adventure I am waiting to read…? 🙂

  7. Fortunately Fred made a full recovery and was gamely asking questions at the end. Haven’t yet thought of working him into a novel but you never know – thanks for the suggestion!

  8. I love Debbie’s suggestion of working poor old Fred into the next novel! I’ve had dealings with the AF in many parts of the word, always trying to improve my French but I didn’t know about its approved list of speakers! . I think 30 is a very respectable number for a cold December evening, well done. Thanks for linking with #AllAboutFrance

    • Thanks, Phoebe, and thanks also for hosting. I need to find out more about the AF speaking gigs – now that I’ve got the talk ready, might as well use it!

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