We are now near the end of our third week of home confinement and an improvement in the weather adds a subtle refinement to the irritation this causes. It’s far less of a hardship to be stuck indoors on a rainy day; once the sun starts shining you instinctively feel that outside a bar somewhere there is a seat with your name on it. Still, ‘mustn’t grumble’, as they say – a ridiculous piece of advice in my view, grumbling being one of the few real pleasures left in life.
As we can only leave the house for shopping trips and exercise each day, I’ve increasingly been resorting to various forms of virtual travel, one advantage of which is that you can move through both time and space. Quite by chance, just before we were told to stay at home, I’d ordered a box set of Granada’s The World at War series. It has been digitally remastered, with each frame restored and the sound upgraded and enhanced. The results are extremely impressive. There are over twenty-two hours to watch – some of which is background material – and at present we are watching one forty-five-minute programme an evening. In the six we’ve seen so far, the action footage is clear and sharp and the interviews, with everyone from Sir Anthony Eden to a group of East Enders reminiscing about the Blitz, look as if they might have been made last year instead of nearly half a century ago. It is compelling viewing and has stood the test of time remarkably, a painless way to absorb history. The series cost £900,000 to make, the equivalent of £11 million today. By comparison, according to Peter Morgan, its producer, the combined cost of series one and two of Netflix’s The Crown was £97 million.
Another form of time travel is provided by www.pepysdiary.com/, a fascinating website that is updated each day with an annotated extract from Pepys’ Diary for that day. If you register with them (it’s free) they send you an email with the day’s entry. Along with the extracts themselves, the site provides an encyclopaedia of information about people and places in Pepys’ time, with maps and a host of articles on broader aspects of seventeenth-century history. At the moment we are in April 1667, Pepys’ mother has just died, and everyone at court is getting twitchy about the prospect of war with the Dutch. The sudden appearance of a phrase in Latin or French usually means that Samuel has been trying to take his mind off things by indulging in some form of naughtiness or other.
My last virtual journey is more local and will, I hope, eventually be replaced by the real thing. I have discovered a book called Les rues de Poitiers by the magnificently named Raoul Brothier de Rollière. It was written in 1905 and is a biographical dictionary of all the streets in Poitiers. Obviously it is out of date: streets have disappeared, new ones have sprung up, and some have changed names. Nevertheless the potted descriptions are a fascinating insight into the history of Poitiers. Take for example, our own Rue des Carmes, a fairly quiet backstreet. It merits a whole page in the book and, amongst other things, one learns that it was an interior pathway between two of the main gates in the original Roman settlement. It got its current name from the ancient Convent des Carmes built here in 1367, and in the religious wars of the sixteenth century, cannons were placed on a platform a few doors away from our house to fire on the Protestant forces laying siege to the city from the hill on the other side of Pont Joubert.
The convent is long gone, replaced by a small block of flats, and this has given me an idea. Once the current crisis over, if I am spared, I intend to slowly start translating and updating M. Brothier de Rollière’s book, or at least the entries for the main streets. It will be a fine way to get to know the city better, and I will repay the debt by making amendments where necessary. I don’t think there are any new convents, but I will dutifully add details of all the vape shops, tattoo parlours and fast food establishments I come across.
You cannot buy bacon in France. Well, that’s not strictly true; there are online suppliers from the UK, and in Paris you can buy bacon at Le Bon Marché (the French equivalent of the Harrods Food Hall) or the very handy M&S food stores that are dotted around the city. We usually pick some up from one of the latter whenever we visit. What I mean is you can’t pop into your local supermarket and buy half a pound of back or streaky. It’s odd. One or two of them sell something they call bacon, but the slices are perfectly circular, leathery and taste like salty beermats.
What they do sell here is lardons, and one day last week I bought some of these for cooking our evening meal. When opening the packet, it occurred to me that the various small bits inside might once actually have been slices of bacon which were then chopped up. Out of curiosity, I sprinkled the contents onto a chopping board and started absent-mindedly moving them around with my finger trying to get some sense of how they had arrived in their current state. While doing this, I looked up and saw Madame S standing in the doorway. She stared at me thoughtfully for a few seconds and then left the room. I thought no more of it until later, when I passed the living room where she was on the phone to her mother in Perth. I’m increasingly deaf, but I am almost certain I heard ‘… and now it’s bacon jigsaw puzzles …’.