Magazine article The Spectator

Beyond Boswell

Magazine article The Spectator

Beyond Boswell

Article excerpt

All I knew about Corsica before going there last week for a touring holiday was that it is a French possession, that Napoleon hailed from there and that James Boswell visited there once. Exactly where Corsica was in the Mediterranean sea, I was uncertain about. I remembered Boswell was there because not long ago I found a scrap of paper on which I'd copied out a paragraph from his Corsica journal. It's a mystery to me why I'd taken the trouble to do this. But before last week virtually my entire knowledge of the island was based on this one short paragraph, which goes:

19 October 1765. While I stopped to refresh my mules at a little village, the inhabitants came crowding about me. When they were informed of my country, a strong, black fellow said, 'English! They are barbarians; they don't believe in the great God.' I told him, 'We do believe in the great God, and in Jesus Christ too.' 'And the Pope?' 'No.' 'And why?' This was a puzzling question in these circumstances, for there was a great audience to the controversy. I thought I might try a method of my own and gravely replied, 'Because we are too far off.' A very new argument against the Pope's universal infallibility. Too far off? Why, Sicily is as far off as England. Yet in Sicily they believe in the Pope.' 'Oh,' said I. 'We are ten times further off than Sicily.' 'Aha,' said he, and seemed satisfied. I question whether any of the learned reasonings of our Protestant divines would have had so good an effect.

I'm unashamed of knowing so little about another country. Recent evidence suggests that even the Foreign Office has only the haziest of impressions about distant lands nowadays. I am always eager to learn about other countries, however, and on the hour-long ferry crossing from Sardinia to Corsica I whipped out the guide-book and boned up on the place.

It was disquieting reading. Adding to my previous impression, via Boswell's paragraph, of the Corsicans as a passionate, partisan people, was a chapter on Corsican culture. Two things characterise Corsican culture, I read. These are the exceptionally high murder rate and the wonderful food. Often, said the guide-book, the two combine to form a sort of quintessence of the Corsican world view, and a chef is stabbed to death in his kitchen for making a small error of judgment over the recipe for a revered local speciality.

Glancing up from the guide-book at Corsica, looming larger by the minute over the prow of the ship, I felt a twinge of anxiety. …

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