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A HISTORICAL INTERLUDE
In Which a Misspoken word brings up Ancient Rivalries
"I was there. I saw it. It all started, as
these things do, in a tea party being held in the reception room at Whitehall,
London. Disraeli was giving Gladstone dirty looks over crumpets-- he had been
saddled with the German cultural minister, Pappenheim, all bloody day and had
stretched the bounds of civility putting up with the bloody bore-- What with
"Der glories uf Prussian engineering..." and the "natural
superiority uf our Teutonic peoples..." it had stretched the boundaries
of civility. The French toff, Déclassé, showing a tact that belied his usual
oily self, had turned the subject of discourse from sport to the latest advances
in transportation. In particular, he waxed enthusiastic over the latest French
rage for cycling... "Oh, mes Amis! If you could but see it, the fresh air,
the, how you say it, the manful exercise! A supremely Gallic pastime, no?"
Later pundits suggest this is the moment where it all happened; they are probably correct. Pappenheim had been paying only a desultory attention to Déclassé's comments; it was the "supremely Gallic" tidbit that set him, terrier-like, onto his prey. Looking down his veiny red nose, he flung back a Teutonic Bombast: "Und what do the French know of the so-called manful exercises, hein? After all, you are not masters of Die Schlager or the Boar-hunt, what mecks you zo sure of yourself?" Déclassé, normally very diffident and amiable, turned beet red. "I was merely commenting on my country's great technical advances in the field of personal transportation, my dear Baron... take it as you will." The Prussian's return sneer was almost palpable. "My dear Count Déclassé, I was not aware there were ANY technical advances out of France these days... especially in these... bicycles?" The Frenchman goggled, obviously stung to the point of near incoherence. "Why.. why... we are leagues beyond any paltry accomplishments of you... BOCHE!! Feagh!".
They would have grappled, then and there, were it not for the timely intercession of a burly American invited to the same affair. The American, who went by the name of Barnum, had a curious and intriguing proposal for the diplomats. Why not stage a race? The Frenchman's bicycle against whatever conveyance the Prussian could devise? A young infantry captain, Oliphaunt, who had been particularly useful in diffusing the Vera Cruz evacuation during the Maximillion Affair, was given charge of organizing the affair d'honneur. As it turned out, the Frenchman soundly beat the Prussian's crude attempt at a steam-powered velocipede. Though this has never been officially admitted, the Prussians pulled out of Denmark shortly afterward. Coincidence? I know some who would say different. I imagine every schoolboy knows about our annual competition by now. Is the rest history? Perhaps, perhaps not. I suspect, however, that the more friendly rivalries of the Annual Grand Circuit Race (Which the besotted French persist in calling "Le Grand Cirque") may have prevented a war or two in our day... and that's good enough for me.
Lord Palmerston, Introduction,
Memoirs of the Steam Age London, 1890