Where is Poiters (Part Two)

A piece about Poitiers at the regional level.

The administrative geography of France is complicated. It is easy to get lost in the tangle of régions, départements, communautés d’agglomération, communautés urbaines, arrondissements, cantons and quartiers. To complicate things further, in the last forty years there have been significant changes in the administrative structure, and it is clear that some of these changes are still in the process of implementation. Using the internet to try and navigate one’s way through this maze is made more difficult by the fact that websites relating to organisational entities that are now defunct or moribund are still littered around all over the place. Similarly, any publication that tries to present a clear picture of the current structure is likely to be out of date very quickly. I’m learning as I go, and what follows is as much an aide-memoire for myself as anything.

The highest level of local administration in France is la région. Regions are a relatively new development in French territorial organisation. They came into being as part of a sweeping process of functional and territorial decentralisation initiated by the government in 1982, following François Mitterrand’s election to the presidency the previous year. The 1982 law set up directly elected regional councils with the power to elect their executive and manage the region’s finances. They levy their own taxes and, in return, receive a decreasing part of their budget from the central government, which gives them a portion of the taxes it levies. Regions lack separate legislative authority and therefore cannot write their own statutory law, but the 1982 law also devolved to the regional authorities many functions hitherto belonging to the central government, in particular economic and social development, regional planning, education and cultural matters.

Between 1982 and 2015, there were twenty-two regions in metropolitan France and five overseas regions (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion and Mayotte, the latter becoming a region in 2011). Corsica is classified as a metropolitan region. In this original regional configuration, Poitiers was part of the region of Poitou-Charentes.

In 2014, the French parliament passed a law reducing the number of metropolitan regions from twenty-two to thirteen with effect from 2016. This meant the merging of several regions into new larger regions. (The ‘Avant/Après’ map from Le Nouvel Observateur has a clever little slider gizmo that shows the before and after status of the regions.) The new law formed interim names for the larger regions by combining the names of their constituents, thus the region created by combining Aquitaine, Poitou-Charentes and Limousin was temporarily called Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes. Catchy, isn’t it? Permanent names were confirmed in 2016, at which point Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-CharentesbecameNouvelle-Aquitaine.

This reorganisation is reminiscent of the UK county reorganisation undertaken by the Heath government in 1972–74 and, as far as I can tell, it is about as popular. There was a lot of resentment about the new name from the residents of Limousin and Poitou-Charentes. It probably doesn’t help to remind them that both Aquitaine and Grande-Aquitaine were at one point seriously considered as the new region’s name. At the time, Alain Rousset, the president of the new region, pointed out that when the old Aquitaine had previously subsumed the identities of Périgord and Pays Basque, they had not disappeared, a remark that must have gone down really well with Basque separatists. For me, one problem with something like Nouvelle-Aquitaine is that, apart from in administrative terms, it is difficult to visualise it as an entity. It’s just too big. Culturally, and historically it seems meaningless.

Nevertheless, as they say, here are some facts. Nouvelle-Aquitaine, the largest of the eighteen regions of France, is located in the southwest of the country. It is the largest region in France by area, with a territory slightly larger than that of Austria. It covers 84,061 km2 (32,456 sq. mi.) – or ​one-eighth of the country. It has approximately 5.9 million inhabitants, putting it fourth in size after Île-de-France with 12.1 million. There’s an interesting French regional population breakdown here.

Nouvelle-Aquitaine comprises twelve departments: the four that used to make up Poitou-Charentes (Charente, Charente-Maritime, Deux-Sèvres and Vienne) along with Haute-Vienne, Corrèze, Creuse, Dordogne, Gironde, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne and Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Its main cities are its capital, Bordeaux (population 1.14 million), Bayonne (283,000), Limoges (282,000), Poitiers (254,000), Pau (240,000) and La Rochelle (205,000).

I think that’s enough about le région, for now at least.

It’s difficult at this stage, certainly for a newcomer, to decide how beneficial or otherwise the regional reorganisation will be for the people of Poitiers. The city was the capital of Poitou-Charentes, and inevitably there is bound to be some leakage of status and influence to Bordeaux. A friend has mentioned a drift of people towards Bordeaux for work reasons. Instinctively one feels that being a big fish in a smaller pond had its advantages. On the other hand, small can be beautiful. Poitiers has its heritage sites and its prestigious university. The mixture of tourists and students gives the place a lively atmosphere. Its housing is relatively cheap (certainly compared to Bordeaux), and it has fast rail links to Bordeaux, Paris and La Rochelle on the coast. All of these, to me, make it a very attractive place to live. Time will tell.

Commonplace Sunday, 23rd February, 2020

He was a Frenchman, a melancholy-looking man. His aspect was that of one who has been looking for the leak in a gas pipe with a lighted candle.

 P.G. Wodehouse, The Girl in Blue

Only take this for a corollary and conclusion; as thou tenderest thine
own welfare in this and all other melancholy, thy good health of body
and mind, observe this short precept, give not way to solitariness and
idleness. “Be not solitary, be not idle.”

Richard Burton, the final lines in The Anatomy of Melancholy  

Early in their careers, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise are said to have stood outside the Glasgow Empire after one of their shows, listening to the comments of the departing audience, one of which was, “I suppose they were all right – if you like laughing”. 

Where is Poitiers? (Part One)

Regular readers, an ever-dwindling number now so small that the proprietors are considering sending handwritten letters of thanks to each one individually, will no doubt be wondering where this circuitous discourse is heading. We are all busy people, what with e-mail, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram … and that’s before one’s even had a first look at the crossword and the sports pages. Why waste one’s time on the ramblings of some geriatric holed up in a French backwater wittering on about dead philosophers and his drinking habits, when one could be settling down with a nice cup of tea and Poirot on ITV3?

Well let me reassure you. I share your concern! It’s time to get a grip. ‘Wake up and smell the coffee’, ‘Fail to plan and you plan to fail’, ‘It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark’, ‘Coughs and sneezes spread diseases’ … where was I? Ah yes …

I learnt very little at school. Those middle-class Jesuits and a guttersnipe like me were never really going to hit it off. However they did manage to beat two things into me: the equal importance of ‘defining one’s terms’ and ‘showing one’s workings’. With these in mind, I thought I would try to clarify the present situation for our mutual benefit. As I see it, what I am attempting to do is nothing less than to produce the Idiosyncratic Encyclopaedia of Poitiers in English. I have checked on Amazon, and no such volume currently exists; a clear gap in the market that I intend to fill before Dan Brown or JK Rowling spots it. My work will cover every aspect of the place, its history, geography, economic and political development. The ‘idiosyncratic’ element will allow numerous digressions on everyday life here in the city (and sometimes beyond its boundaries), and indeed anything else I want to add to the mix. The nature of a blog lends itself perfectly to showing my workings. The whole thing should be considered as a loose-leaf binder of work in progress. While I am front of house producing elegant essays on whatever takes my fancy, a team of backroom staff will be working on these as they are produced, sifting them into a coherent classified structure to be eventually published, probably in several volumes. There has been talk of some accompanying CDs and possibly even a Netflix series, but these are early days.

So there we are. I hope that by setting out my stall I can persuade you to accompany me on what I am sure will be a fascinating journey of discovery.

Having spent a little time last week on the ‘local’, I thought I would step back for a moment and look at the bigger picture. Going back to my school days again, but primary school now, I remember that in amongst the first books that I read, somewhere between Janet and John and the William series, I was given a copy of the Catholic Truth Society’s Catechism of the Catholic Church. From the age of seven, for a couple of years, we were drilled regularly in class until most of its questions and answers were known by heart. (Now that I think of it, it was a small red book, very similar to the Thoughts of Chairman Mao, which was to prove so popular a decade or so later. Rather apt, really.) Over the years I have forgotten all but the very first question in the book, the diabolically deceptive ‘Who made me?’ This has given me so much fascinating food for thought ever since, each one of its three little words having lost me untold hours of sleep. So, by way of starting off my encyclopaedic research, it struck me that it would be interesting and useful to ask myself the equally simple ‘Where is Poitiers?’ I say simple, but a little delving reveals that by posing this question I have opened a metal receptacle of Lumbricus terrestris just as tricky to deal with as the CTS starter for ten. Nevertheless, let us begin.

Poitiers is in France (as any fule kno), but within France …

Alas! The dinner gong! The signal that Madame S. has the decanter of amontillado raised and ready to pour. I am afraid we must leave it there for now (the question about Poitiers, that is, not the decanter, obviously). I shall return to this topic at the earliest opportunity. Do feel free to do your own individual research but, if I may, I would offer a small piece of advice. Use the expression ‘Poitiers NOT Sydney’ when employing search engines, You will thus avoid the many tedious cul-de-sacs that I have found myself exploring, The man is undoubtedly a fine actor, but he brings very little to the table in our current endeavours.

Le Café des Arts

Once, when describing how he’d spent his previous evening, my brother Brendan said, ‘I ended up drinking in some rat-hole in Harlesden … you’d have loved it’. He was probably right. The truth is, I love bars. Always have done, always will. I love them far more than the alcohol they dispense. It’s not just the rat-holes. I’ve spent happy hours in such stately pleasure domes as the Philharmonic in Liverpool, the Café Imperial in Prague and the New York Café in Budapest. The most delicious beer I’ve ever tasted is the eponymous ale in McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York’s East Village. I’ve drunk whisky in the Pot Still in Glasgow, dry martinis in Harry’s Bar in Venice and daiquiris in El Floridita in Havana. There are too many good pubs in Dublin to mention here, but I think Grogan’s in South William Street would be my luxury item on Desert Island Discs.

Rat-holes of course do have their place. I’ve found that there’s nourishment for the soul in sitting alone for a time in a grimly lit, poorly furnished room, surrounded by a few other solitary individuals, one or more of whom may be asleep. The barperson is leaning on the counter, engrossed in the racing pages; the slow ticking of a clock is the only sound to be heard until, as if in a Quaker Meeting, someone feels impelled to say a few words: ‘Raining again’, perhaps, ‘Nine o’clock. He won’t come now’, or ‘This beer’s off’ (the last usually uttered when the speaker has reached the final half-inch of liquid in his glass). The silence then returns. One seldom leaves such places without thinking that life can only get better.

I lived for a while in Hastings, where I used to frequent a poky backstreet dive whose clientele consisted mainly of individuals whom the social services would have described as having a ‘chaotic lifestyle’. The pub’s saving grace was a jukebox that had everything from Captain Beefheart to Billie Holiday. For my first few visits I sat quietly on my own reading the paper, ignored by all. I couldn’t help noticing that no-one seemed willing even to engage me in eye contact. Then one evening, an elderly woman with a broad smudge of pink lipstick, who was clearly over-relaxed, leaned over and told me that the general company had assumed from the outset that I was a DHSS spy. Once my credentials were satisfactorily established, I was fine and it became my local.

There is always a local, a place where the bees in one’s bonnet can buzz freely and one’s anecdotes are listened to politely, no matter how often they are trotted out. After Hastings there was the Chapeau Rouge in Prague, À La Bonne Cave in Paris, the Grapes in Wandsworth and the Prince Albert in Ely. For me they are part of an arcane alcoholic ley line, the full significance of which is yet to be revealed. Madame S. remains unconvinced of this theory.

Our latest local, here in Poitiers, is neither pleasure dome nor rat-hole. The Café des Arts, on the corner of Grand’ Rue and Place Charles de Gaulle, is such a stereotypically French café you wouldn’t be surprised to find it in London’s Covent Garden. It is small, rectangular in shape, its front a large French window that opens out onto the terrace in summer. The ceiling is heavily nicotine-stained and lined with wooden beams. There is a wood-framed bar area on your left as you enter; opposite this, running round the room in an L-shape, is a battered red leather banquette and a line of small Formica tables, each topped with an Art Nouveau image of a winsome young woman. There is one wooden chair per table, and it doesn’t take many people to make the place seem crowded. Above the banquette, on exposed brickwork, small blackboards are dotted around, describing the various cafés, thés, vins et bières available. Around these is the usual bric-à-brac that accumulates over time in such establishments. Here this includes a very dusty-looking French horn and tuba, a clock that is only accurate at ten to seven, a road sign saying ‘La Rochelle 120 KM’ and a number of ancient enamelled drink advertisements. In my favourite of these, a woman in an evening dress is reclining on a sofa with a Coca-Cola in one hand and a cigarette-holder in the other.

Set into the wall, behind the tables at the back, is a small alcove in which there is a tableau of a jazz band, four wooden figures each about a foot high depicting black musicians in dinner suits playing the bongos, clarinet, guitar and trumpet. Madame S. and I have had a long, intermittent, inconclusive conversation about the appropriateness or otherwise of this.

In a passageway at the back of the café, there is a flight of stairs leading to an upstairs room which is used infrequently. Its only regular occupants are Café-Philo, a group of amateur philosophers who gather for two hours every Wednesday to discuss … well, according to their website, last Wednesday’s topics included Is luxury good for social progress?, What is nobility? and Should one love oneself so that one can love others? I suppose it makes a change from the weather and last night’s TV.

The bar is popular and often very busy. During the day, from 08.00, there is a steady stream of customers popping in for a coffee or a glass of something, often bringing a croissant or pain au chocolat from the boulangerie a few doors away. On Friday mornings there will be a cluster of brocanteurs from the flea market in the square, flat-capped old men who seem to spend much more time over their glasses of sauvignon and plates of peanuts than they ever do at their stalls. On Saturday, the town’s main market day, small groups of shoppers have a regular rendezvous at the café.

During term time, from early evening till the bar closes at 02.00, there are groups of university students in the bar or on the terrace. Some will drink steadily throughout the evening, others can make a coffee or a small beer last well over an hour. It can get noisy, but one rarely sees any drunkenness.

Madame S. and I have got used to popping in at various times of the day, for coffee in the morning, post-market pick-me-ups, apéros and post-dinner digestifs – or various combinations of these. We’ve been made very welcome by the regulars and now feel quite at home. Every now and then, the owner François greets us with mock solemnity and a slowly intoned ‘Good evening … ’ow are yoouuu?’ We laugh dutifully; it’s a small price to pay.

I always like the general buzz of the place, but a favourite time is during the student vacations in autumn and winter. The window at the front is the only source of natural light, and the interior can be a little on the dark side. In the evening, when the lamps are on and there are only a couple of customers in, there is a pleasing, crepuscular atmosphere, as if one were sitting in a painting from Edward Hopper’s hitherto-unknown European period. I sometimes slip in quietly for a pint on my own, knowing that if I wait long enough I will eventually hear ‘Il pleut encore’, ‘Neuf heures. Il n’arrivera pas maintenant’ or ‘Cette bière est mauvaise’.

Miscellany

Overheard on a trip to the UK February 2020

On a train to Liverpool St. (two women talking):

‘Two miles. That’d be like mine to Tesco’s.’

(describing a mobile phone) ‘Not like that farty little thing of mum’s.’

At Clapham Junction station:

‘…I went to Slough today to get a seal for my oven door, and they were all in Sainsbury’s. Slough’s over-run with them.’

In a Brighton pub:
‘Who?’
‘Kenneth Branagh!’
‘What, the actor?’

On a bus:
‘Even when I’m on a diet, Wednesday night is curry night … and Friday night is pub night.’

On a Wimbledon-bound train:
‘That’s why he is where he is today.’
‘What?’
‘Living by himself in Colliers Wood.’

On a bus:
‘It was the best Scotch egg I’ve ever had … I couldn’t finish it.’

At Stansted Airport:
‘I’m with Diabetes UK now.’
‘I thought you were with RN…?’
‘RNIB? Yes, I was, until November. Then I joined Diabetes UK. I’m with the major donors team. Lots of untapped sources. Lots of wealthy people with diabetes. I’m very excited.’

The problem of keeping a sense of perspective in life …

On the one hand:

‘… birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.’ Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot.

On the other:

‘Trousers should shiver on the shoe but not break.’ Advice to Arnold Bennett from his tailor.

Miscellaneous quotes that will need sorting out at some stage

‘Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?’ said Wilfred. 
‘ffinch-ffarrowmere,’ corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.

P.G. Wodehouse Meet Mr Mulliner (1927)

‘Surely: the adverb of a man without an argument.’

Edward St Aubyn, Bad News

To the dumb question ‘Why me?’, the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply, ‘Why not?’

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

‘The General bade me discourse fair words to you, sir, anent traffic circuits.’
‘What the hell do you mean?’
‘I don’t know, sir,’ said Greening. ‘That’s exactly how the General put it.’

Anthony Powell, The Soldier’s Art

His own relations with the opposite sex took an exclusively commercial form. ‘I’ve never had a free poke in my life,’ he said. ‘Subject didn’t seem to arise when you’re talking to a respectable woman.’

Anthony Powell, The Military Philosophers

Phillip Larkin, bemoaning the sort of letters he didn’t receive:

“Dear Mr Larkin , I expect you think its jolly saucy for a schoolgirl to …”

“Dear Mr. Larkin, my friend and I had an argument as to which of us had the biggest breasts and we wondered if you would act as …”

Larkin on himself:

My sagging face, an egg sculpted in lard with goggles on … none of my clothes fit, when I sit down my tongue comes out.  

Both from an essay in Martin Amis’s The War against Cliché

No such thing
as innocent
bystanding.

Seamus Heaney, from Mycenae Outlook II. Cassandra

He was a Frenchman, a melancholy-looking man. His aspect was that of one who has been looking for the leak in a gas pipe with a lighted candle.

 P.G. Wodehouse, The Girl in Blue

Only take this for a corollary and conclusion; as thou tenderest thine
own welfare in this and all other melancholy, thy good health of body
and mind, observe this short precept, give not way to solitariness and
idleness. “Be not solitary, be not idle.”

Richard Burton, the final lines in The Anatomy of Melancholy

The ten commandments should be treated like an exam; only six should be attempted.

Bertrand Russell

The World is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.

Horace Walpole

There is infinite hope, but not for us.

Franz Kafka

Chotto monoganashii A Japanese term for the small tug of sorrow at things passing and changing.

Some favourite misprints

She had a small cruel moth.
I look forward to seeing you shorty.
I’ve been off work with a swollen prostitute.

For lunch I had Scotch, eggs and salad.

The police found the rugs in the back of the accused’s car.                     

***   

Mid-air refuelling is as easy, according to one Vulcan pilot, as ‘sticking wet spaghetti up a cat’s arse’.

Early in their careers, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise are said to have stood outside the Glasgow Empire after one of their shows, listening to the comments of the departing audience, one of which was, “I suppose they were all right – if you like laughing”. 

                                     

Michel Foucault

The Voie André Malraux is a 325-metre concrete flyover built over the river Clain in the 1970s to connect Poitiers city centre with the rapidly developing banlieue area of Couronneries. The large concrete supports of the flyover are covered with some impressive graffiti, and a year or so ago I came across a striking image of Michel Foucault along with a stencilled quote, ‘Il est laid d’être punissable, mais peu glorieux de punir’ (It is ugly to be punished, but there is no glory in punishing). I think this stark, rather edgy portrayal would have appealed to him.

Michel Foucault

Foucault is one of Poitiers’ most illustrious sons; in most lists only Rabelais comes close, then you’re quickly amongst some not particularly well-known politicians and sporty types. He is regarded by many as one of the twentieth century’s most significant figures in the world of philosophy. His major works, including Discipline and Punish and Madness and Civilization,raise questions about the nature and use of institutional power and control, and suggest that certain ideas, such as madness, delinquency and sexuality, are transformed by society to serve the convenience of social systems. At the same time, he is denounced by some as a fraud, a charlatan with nothing new to say – a division of opinion probably due in part to Foucault’s flamboyant lifestyle and political activism.

Paul-Michel Foucault was born on 15th October 1926, the second of three children in a prosperous and socially conservative upper-middle-class family. The contrast between this start in life and the controversial figure he was to become may go some way to explaining Poitiers’ strangely ambivalent attitude towards him. True, there is a small plaque on the wall of his birthplace, the family home at no. 10 rue de la Visitation (now renamed rue Arthur Ranc), a sedate, genteel thoroughfare near the city centre. There’s also a rue Michel Foucault, a small street of newly built houses, tucked away behind the hospital on the outskirts of the city, the sort that is normally named after some senior town hall employee approaching retirement. In truth though, one could easily visit Poitiers and be completely unaware of any link to Foucault. Nonetheless, apart from the image on the flyover, I’ve found some odd Foucaultian echoes in the city, and two are in the street where he was born.

La Poste

Poitiers’ central Post Office stands at the top of the street, a large imposing building with some impressive statuary over the doorway. However, in the past this has been the site of two very different institutions, both of confinement, one voluntary, one less so. In 1633, the Order of the Visitation established the convent which was to give the street its original name. In 1793, the nuns were summarily ejected, and the site became a prison for le tribunal révolutionnaire. From here, prisoners would be taken by cart to the guillotine in the nearby Place du Pilori.

Then in 1901, rue de la Visitation was the setting for a grisly scandal. On 23rd May, the Attorney General of Poitiers received an anonymous letter, the text of which could be translated as follows: Monsieur Attorney General: I have the honour to inform you of an exceptionally serious occurrence. I speak of a spinster who is locked up in Madame Monnier’s house, half-starved and living on a putrid litter for the past twenty-five years – in a word, in her own filth.

A search of no. 18 was ordered. Here Blanche Monnier was discovered, tied up on her bed, undernourished and extremely weak. She was 52. Investigations revealed that she had been secretly confined in the family home for twenty-five years. Various reasons were put forward. A love affair with a republican lawyer to which her profoundly royalist family would not agree. A psychiatric disorder, probably anorexia, which would have led to internment in a mental asylum, tarnishing, the family feared, their honour and reputation. On being discovered, Blanche was interned in a psychiatric hospital and later transferred to a sanatorium in Bois, where she died in 1913. Her mother was imprisoned but died fifteen days later. Her brother was sentenced to fifteen months in prison for ‘non-assistance to a person in danger’ but released on appeal. There is some suggestion that it was he who had written the anonymous letter.

In 1930, André Gide published a book about the incident, La séquestrée de Poitiers, changing little but the names of the protagonists. According to Hervé Guibert, a close friend, this book was a great influence on the young Michel Foucault. I’m not particularly a subscriber to the theory of psychogeography, but there does seem to be a certain resonance between Foucault’s birthplace and the two nearby places of incarceration.

I went back to look at his portrait on the viaduct recently, but sadly the graffito has been removed and replaced with the image of a young woman. I doubt if this would have worried Michel. As he says in The Archaeology of Knowledge, ‘Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same. More than one person, doubtless like me, writes in order to have no face.’