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ON THE face of it, it was a very flattering invitation. They wanted me to go and read them an extract from one of my own books.

 "We're a ladies' cultural association," the organiser said. "Once a year we hold evenings d

ON THE face of it, it was a very flattering invitation. They wanted me to go and read them an extract from one of my own books.

 "We're a ladies' cultural association," the organiser said. "Once a year we hold evenings dedicated to the literature of different nations. In previous years we've done Mexico and Algeria. Now we'd like to do England. We're calling it 'Qui sont les Anglais?' Who are the English? We'd like to offer you a 20-minute slot."

Some discussion followed about language, and clearly there was going to be some difficulty. The expected audience would number about 120. Very few would understand English. As I write in English, at this stage the exercise seemed pointless. However, we got round the problem by trimming the passage down to 15 minutes and by commissioning beautiful blonde Barbara to make a special, one-off translation. We agreed with the organisers that I would read first, in English, and then Barbara would read exactly the same passage in French.

This doubled the time allowance, to no one's advantage:

 1.  Those who had no English would have to sit through about 15 minutes of meaningless jabber. (They might have felt like that about it even with perfect English, of course.) Yawn, yawn.

 2. Ditto those English present who had no French. Yawn, yawn.

 3. Those who spoke both languages would know exactly how the story was going to develop in the repeat. Yawn, yawn.

 So the whole thing was going to be a recipe for - well, not disaster, because the cultural ladies were much too polite to condone unseemly behaviour, but for pretty concentrated boredom. The basic proposition was flawed: unless you've studied the languages concerned to degree level, you can't do much more than pick up what seems to be the general drift. Mostly you just switch off. Or drop off. Or just gaze vacantly round the room. There was plenty to see.

We drove for about 2 hours to reach the venue, the Palais des Sports in a well-heeled suburb of  the regional capital. At the door a cardboard cutout English policeman pointed us towards the Salle VIP, a conference room bright with Union Jacks and cardboard cutouts of the Queen and cups of tea.  (In fact there were so many cardboard cutouts that I'm going to shorten it to cc.) A cc. of a Beefeater flanked the speaker's platform on one side, a bearskinned Guardsman on the other. The cultural ladies had obviously invested a lot of time and effort in creating an 'English' ambience. You can't make a cc. Beefeater before you can say Jacques Robinson.

If you had to make a list of ten icons that represented England, what would you choose? Would there be any point in trying to be original, or would you feel obliged to fall back on cliché and stereotype? While you're thinking about this - no obligation, of course: feel free to do exactly as you please - I can't do better than list the icons quoted by another contributor to the cultural ladies' literary scene, the author and journalist Jonathan Miller, certainly no cc., who in any case got them out of a January issue of Private Eye:

 1. Big Ben
 2. Tony Benn
 3. Chicken Tikka Massala
 4. Thierry Henry
 5. Sudoku
 6. Budweiser lager
 7. Jamie Oliver's 'Cooking the Italian Way'
 8. The M25 Motorway
 9. Princess Michael of Kent
 10. The Ikea Furniture Centre, Brent Cross.

 On the way home Josephine and I pieced together the various icons the cultural ladies came up with. You've had some of them already, the guarantors of public order at home and abroad, but in addition to the Queen and an outsize cc. cup of tea, there was indeed the predictable Big Ben as well as
 A red telephone kiosk
 The Prince of Wales
 A pint of beer.

I don't know what you would have added. A cricket bat, maybe? James Bond? A country pub with roses round the door? However, one icon that would have been apparent ten years ago was missing, airbrushed out of history and English cliché: a cc. of Princess Diana were nowhere to be seen.

The clue to this stereotyped vision of England was there, but well hidden. Among the huge, blackboard-sized charts of English history (no mention of  Crecy, Agincourt, Trafalgar or Waterloo, of course) there was a time-line of English writers, those outstanding men and women who through the ages have defined, moulded and polished Englishry. The 20th century was well represented: among those well-known English authors Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad and George Bernard Shaw were Virginia Woolf, H.G.Wells, Barbara Cartland and, lurking unsuspected next to D.H.Lawrence. . . Agatha Christie.

I was distracted from exploring the idea that the popular French view of England really derives from Agatha Christie by the appearance of two actors from a local amateur theatre group. In homage to the Western world's most outstanding literary genius they gave us a short scene, in French, not from The Mousetrap but from The Taming of the Shrew, which comes out as La mégère apprivoisée, not a play that advances the cause of women very far. So through a craven mixture of wheedling, bullying and abuse Petruchio won his Kate, and throughout all this the actress playing Kate kept her wedding ring on, which suggested a very different agenda from the one Shakespeare intended, and maybe one more associated with the traditional English view of French morality.

At the end the cultural ladies, Agatha Christies or Miss Marples every one, served a snack supper of what they imagined to be English party fare. This included lemon curd tarts and tarts filled with unheated mincemeat straight from the jar, so that the shreds of suet looked like little grubs, and - a memory to be cherished - red jelly cubes straight from the packet. The ladies were surprised to be told that jelly cubes need to be broken up, dissolved in boiling water and left to set. Maybe jelly doesn't figure in Agatha Christie, I wouldn't know. Clearly there's a lot to learn about us. We'll have to keep flying the flag for some time yet.