In the battle of the loo, France’s water wipes out England’s paper

A recent opinion poll has confirmed what the English have always known: the French smell. However, we Brits aren’t as hygienic as we like to think we are

Warning: this column contains scatological material, possibly from the outset, which some readers may find offensive. There: that should ensure above-average interest in what is to follow.

This week, my friends, we treat of two subjects from which the English shrink with a disquiet bordering on revulsion, namely the French and bottom-wiping. To which, while we are about it, we might as well add a third, public opinion pollsters.

Recently, a survey of the French revealed that the inhabitants of that vast and beautiful land were, to borrow a word from their own tongue, insouciant in the matter of personal hygiene. According to the findings only one in ten regularly used soap, almost one in 25 never showered or bathed, and one in 33 never brushed his teeth.

Seldom has anecdotage been so graphically confirmed by statistics. For it is an enduring opinion of those who do not much care for the French that, of the many alien odours that assail the nostril of the visitor to France, that emitted by the natives is the most disagreeable. Still, what could be expected of a nation whose idea of a lavatory was a hole in the ground with porcelain footprints on either side serving as an aid to positioning and aiming?

But before we English scoff and consider ourselves superior, I suggest that the survey is flawed. First, the French, who are known to be disobliging, may lie to opinion pollsters. If so, good luck to them. If only we were as bloody-minded in the face of impertinence. Secondly, let us not sneer at French plumbing.

I should like to produce two items of evidence. First, Andrex Moist Wipes. New to the market, these are designed to clean the parts which, the makers assure us, conventional lavatory paper fails to reach. How do they know? They cannot have conducted an examination of the nation’s bottoms without its consent, for that would be illegal. One assumes they established the existence of what we might with delicacy call personal dirt through opinion polling. So, a nation whose people confess to grubby anal orifices has no right to look down its (held) nose at its closest neighbour.

The second item, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is the bidet. This estimable example of the sanitaryware maker’s art was invented some 300 years ago. And by whom? By the French, of course. Yes, while we British were still wiping our bottoms on dead leaves, the French were sluicing theirs in water. Which, I ask you, is the cleaner nation?

Aha, you will say, there is a flaw. The French may have invented the bidet all those years ago, but it was used only by aristocrats and the rich. The sans-culottes peasant classes were just as mucky-bottomed as their counterparts on this side of the Channel.

But you must judge a nation not by its followers but by its leaders. Sadly, the inventor of the bidet has retreated modestly into the shadows of history and we do not know his name. But he was a true pioneer, a man who, like Napoleon who succeeded him in the annals, raised a banner, marched forth and changed, if not the face of Europe, certainly its backside.

He may have been forgotten, but the bidet is not. It is to be found all over continental Europe. Where men and women retire to attend to matters of personal cleanliness the bidet is their ever-present aid, an eloquent monument to a fastidious civilisation.

Why has the bidet been shunned by Anglo-Saxon nations, which for the sake of argument include the Americans? When confronted by this marvel, why do we scratch our heads in bafflement and ponder how it works, and with what purpose?

Is it, I wonder, because we are proud descendants of a rougher tradition? We know that the Romans wiped their bottoms on sponge, while the American pioneers who made their way westward, scattering rattlesnakes and indigenous peoples before them, used corn on the cob, though it made their eyes water. We, in this country, used pretty well anything to hand. Indeed, for many years newspaper was the preferred medium. This served a double purpose, the second being a comment on the worth of the popular press.

At the turn of the last century lavatory paper became widely accepted. It was harsh in texture as befitted a rugged island race on whose empire the sun never set. But as our international influence waned our lavatory paper became softer. Today, it is less substantial than gossamer and impregnated with aloe vera. We have already thrown in our lot with Europe. It cannot be long before we supinely submit to the bidet. Moist wipes are merely the latest steps on the road to subserviance.

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