On Being Assaulted by a Mad Old Frenchwoman in St Peter's Square
If my experience of being assaulted by an overweight, mentally ill Frenchwoman in St Peter’s Square has taught me but one thing, it is not to approach overweight, mentally ill Frenchwomen in St Peter’s square.
If it has taught me two things, they are, firstly: not to approach overweight, mentally ill Frenchwomen in St Peter’s Square, and secondly: to never engage in debate with anyone who does not share an approximate worldview.
The incident came about when I decided, crossing the square, to approach the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst which stands there. The sculpture, erected in 2018 to mark the centenary of the first general election in which women could vote, had (I later found out) more recently been the site of a fistfight between two groups of women.
This rumpus, which occurred the day before, may have occasioned the appearance of the mad Frenchwoman, who now sat guarding the statue. She had tied a purple neckerchief around the wrist of Pankhurst as a means to draw people to it, and I am ashamed to admit that it worked.
“Zis,” she said, gesturing to the fabric, “is to geev it couleur, zo zat ze people know, really know what she looked like when she was z‘ere. You know zat ze ‘istory, eet must not be read in books, but leeved!” — and she gestured here to the Peterloo memorial.
I understood only about half the words she spoke, and was in no mind to listen to anybody, having only approached the statue out of an absentminded curiosity as I ambulated, so my transcription will have its faults. I was also a little taken aback by her appearance: She was a woman of about sixty-five years, if not older, and dressed distastefully. She wore a sort of sickly-yellow poncho, and a green beret on her head. I deduced that she was an art teacher at a local sixth form.
She proceeded to tell me, in so many words, that we were in the midst of a class war, and that our museums, art galleries and libraries were in threat of closure due to the machinations of “upper class twats, the accountants, the lawyers,” and as she did this she gestured to the modest apartments which hung above us, or else she was gesturing symbolically to an imagined hierarchy, or to God.
I could see that the woman had confused her terms. Accountants and lawyers, as wealthy as some might become, are not members of England’s “upper class” but the most typical examples of its middle, and so I took none of what she said seriously, smiling in a way that I hoped would appear benevolent rather than mocking.
After describing herself as a révolutionnaire, and intimating that she would be prepared to murder anyone who stood in the way of whatever cause she had so far failed to specify, she said, not without some suspicion, that I appeared well-dressed. I assured her quickly that I had less than £300 in my checking account, and that I was on the dole.
I was irritated by the insinuation that, because I did not parade around in ponchos and sandals, but wore a second-hand suit and stood with my hands behind my back, that I should be better off than she. “Any woman of her generation,” I thought privately, “who has less money than I do, would have to be stupid or mental”.
“Go to ze museums,” she said. “See ze great art before zese upper class twats take it away from you. Zey want to destroy working class art, like Tracey Emin, and Grayson Perry.”
At this point she was dangerously close to me, and had begun waving her finger in my face. I said, hoping that she would take it in good humour, that I wouldn’t mind at all if they burnt down all the museums, if only it meant the destruction of Emin’s Unmade Bed.
I misjudged. The Mad Old Frenchwoman now moved even closer, and the finger she waved in my face appeared to sharpen. “Tracey Emin was a-raped by ‘er fazer,” she said, “and she made zat bed to show ze world all ze pain of zat experience. If you ‘ad been raped, you would understan’ wot zat bed means.”
I replied that being raped, as awful as it may be, did not qualify one to be an artist.
Sensing that the woman may receive this poorly, I widened my smile, hoping that its warmth might deescalate the situation — but it did not. She became hysterical, and every jab of her finger threatened to make contact with my face. She compared me to Emin’s rapist father, and accused me of having a bourgeois mentality. She did not frame it in this way, but rather gestured to my head, saying “up zere you are steel a leettle baby.”
“Circumstantial ad hominem,” I thought; “Appeal to motive, to spite, ipse dixit!” And I was about to open my mouth to tell her as much, when she raised her flat palm to my face and screamed:
“Ah-bah-bah-bah! I’m a-speakin’ right now!”
This was enough. The Frenchwoman, I realised, would not listen to reason, nor was willing to debate, and I was foolish to have thought so. Like Panchatantra’s Lion I retired, defeated by my own liberalism, and, telling the Frenchwoman that she ought to get some manners, I installed myself in a nearby coffee terrace to plan my next move.
The Madwoman remained by the statue, pouncing on anyone who got anywhere near it, and was tolerant enough to listen to her nonsense. These subsequent exchanges, like ours, were unidirectional, the Frenchwoman giving none of her interlocutors the opportunity to speak. While none of the exchanges became as violent as ours, it became clear that the Frenchwoman was not out to debate, but to proselytise. An Asian family who had approached the statue now stood by politely as the Frenchwoman indoctrinated their young daughter, encouraging her to touch the statue, and insisting that the parents take photographs in which — of course — the Frenchwoman would also appear.
If there is one thing that radicals understand, it is that you have to get them young. This was a woman who not five minutes ago had been calling for the deaths of the middle classes, who had accused me of being a rapist, and was now whispering murder into the ear of a five year old girl.
I took it as my moral obligation to intervene. Convinced that I was to meet this woman on her own terms, I approached her and, directing myself to the young family and their daughter, screamed:
“Elle est folle! C'est une pédophile raciste! Fuyez-la, fuyez-la!”
The young Asian family, intuiting the meaning of my intermediate French, took heed and, grabbing their daughter by the arm, fled from the Madwoman.
The Frenchwoman flew into a rage and began hurtling towards me like a Banshee. As I ran from her, I continued to scream my accusations to passerbys. “Elle est raciste! Elle a touché mon zizi!” but the pleasure of defeating her was bitter-sweet. I had done so with too little resistance, too great a facility. There had been no debate, no thesis, antithesis nor synthesis; I had achieved my aims via a simple unsubstantiated claim of sexual deviance.
But this is the grim reality of modern politics. The days of meeting one’s opponent on even terms have passed. There was nothing — no religion, no common view of humanity — which united the Madwoman and I, and that would allow us to sit down sensibly and talk. It is a pity that we should have to resort to such dirty tricks, but without them we would be drowned.
Support Reason and defeat Tyranny by becoming a Subscriber of The Pedestrian today.