Don't Mention the Wars!
Garbhan Downey reviews Tony Connelly's irreverent trek through stereotypical Europe
Books from foreign correspondents fill me with dread. With the exception of John Pilger’s, they tend to be self-serving exercises in name-dropping, their sole purpose to make us understand that the author single-handedly stopped World War III by interviewing some over-plucked lame duck.
So when this new volume from Tony Connelly, RTE’s Antrim-born and Derry-educated Europe correspondent, landed on the mat, my heart sank. But the feeling lasted less time than it took me to read the back cover. And after two days of being unable to put it down, I came away fully convinced that this is one of the funniest, most intelligent and intelligible books about Europe ever written. Indeed, remove The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest from the argument, and it is the book of 2009.
It takes a few seconds to grasp what exactly Connelly is doing here. It has nothing at all to do with his own life or his time in Europe; none of that '‘I’-shite' reportage, as another great journalist once described it. Instead, Don't Mention the Wars! A Journey Through European Stereotypes is a not-entirely-serious though not-entirely satirical examination of national stereotypes in a bid to establish if there’s any truth in them. It is a highly-informed, though conversational discourse on how we view different cultures and how these views were formed.
Wars also looks at where our prejudices might be valid and where they’re badly misplaced. Not an easy concept to sell on a cover (which, to be honest, does this book little justice), but by page 14 you’re laughing so hard at Der Bild’s brutally Anglophobic description of David Beckham’s sister that you no longer care.
Connelly tackles ten countries in all, from southern Spain to eastern Poland, giving potted histories of what defines them and their national character. To add to the colour, he then canvasses dozens of natives and ex-pats for their views on the accuracy of stereotypes. And while this process, he admits, is entirely random and unscientific, it is also hugely enlightening.
The stoic Germans, he reveals after a stint following a stand-up comedian, can be very funny but still suffer from 'respectable racism' at the hands of the British. The BBC’s John Motson, he notes, thought it witty to remark, when the German football team were flagging during the 2008 European Championships, that their supporters weren’t singing 'Deutschland Uber Alles' any more. (The anthem was never called that, and the references to 'Germany above all' have been long dropped.)
On his tour of France, Connelly studies its politics, the wine culture, rude waiters, armpit hair and, naturally, romance. But the French, far from being the 'louche lovers' of Europe, can be quite a prim lot. One returned student told Connelly: 'I went to London and felt very conservative. They’re so open, so vulgar; the girls are practically naked under their miniskirts.'
A fellow Irish man, now living in Paris, warned him that the demoiselles take their affairs very seriously, 'If you get off with a French girl, her suitcases will be on your landing the next day.'
Down in Spain, a clearly uncomfortable Connelly writes in gruesome detail about bull-fighting. Yet for all his distaste, he clearly understands its huge attraction: 'Whether one abhors or adores, bullfighting remains the primal image of Spain, suffused as it is with the supposed vices and virtues of the Spaniards: bravery, death, cruelty and, above all, honour.'
But he has a lot of fun in Italy, where he considers fashion, ice-cream, the mafia and mammy’s boys. (The average mammoni doesn’t leave home until he’s 36.)
He also explains the country’s fascination with Berlusconi and the widespread admiration for his sexual braggadocio. Not that Silvio gets it all his own way, mind. Connelly recalls how when the prime minister appeared in public wearing a bandana after a hair-transplant, the left-wing joke was that he’d been circumcised...
Connelly’s humour, and wry eye for detail, whether he’s in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Finland, Denmark, Sweden or Poland, ensures this book is always a rollicking ride. It can be read joyfully by tourists, students, historians or even serious political scientists. And at the end, whether your prejudices have been confirmed or debunked is of little import, because, just like RTE’s man in Europe, you will have relished the journey.
Don't Mention the Wars! is out now, published by New Island.