Out for a walk after lunch, in my permitted exercise hour. Poitiers is always quiet on a Monday, with most of the shops shut. This can be very pleasant – a gentle transition between the weekend and the working week. On a gloomy day, when I am a mile from home and it begins to rain, it is less appealing. Turning a corner near Place Leclerc, I pass a bunch of seven squaddies, wearing balaclavas and carrying submachine guns. They all look very young. The nearest couple make eye contact with me, and I wonder what they are thinking. They may be the same ones I saw patrolling alongside the police outside the Cathedral yesterday morning. A sight we will no doubt have to get used to for a while.
The soldiers’ presence is co-ordinated through Vigipirate, the national security alert system which was set up by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1978. It sounds vaguely swashbuckling, but is actually an acronym of Vigilance et protection des installations contre les risques d’attentats terroristes à l’explosif (‘vigilance and protection of installations against the risk of terrorist bombing attacks’). The system defines levels of threat represented by five colours: white, yellow, orange, red, and scarlet. The levels call for specific security measures, including increased police or police/military mixed patrols in subways, train stations, and other vulnerable locations. We are currently at scarlet (a definite threat of major terrorist attacks). In 2015, after the Bataclan attack in Paris, Opération Sentinelle was initiated. It is ongoing, deploying 10,000 soldiers and 4,700 police and gendarmes to protect ‘sensitive areas’. Right now, that probably includes every city centre in France.
It’s an ill wind. Having learnt from the first lockdown, many local shops have been quick to offer a click-and-collect service now that they are closed, including, thankfully, bookshops (why the **** are vape shops regarded as ‘essential’ but bookshops are not?) We are doing our best to support them all wherever possible.
An unexpected bonus is that the move online means that many things we would not otherwise have visited are now unexpectedly available. The most exotic of these that I have found so far is the Drouot Auction House in Paris – effectively the French Sotheby’s. They have been forced to close their doors during the lockdown but are continuing their auctions online. It took me just two minutes to register an account. Madame was quite alarmed when she realised that I had to give them my credit card details, and she has made me promise never to visit the site after lunch.
For me it’s a slightly more civilised version of fantasy league football. At the start of the month I allot myself a notional €500,000. I look through the items in the online catalogues, decide my maximum bid for anything that takes my fancy, and then we’re off to the races. Obviously, I don’t actually bid, but you’d be surprised at how tense it can get. If my maximum bid for any lot is higher than the hammer price, I claim it as mine. So far this month I’ve managed to pick up a bronze representation of an eleventh-century Ethiopian king for €120k (it reminded me of an old history teacher of mine), a nice Raoul Dufy oil painting of Deauville harbour (€210k), and a case of 2005 Mouton Rothschild at a very reasonable €11k. Sadly, I just missed out on a complete set of Ian Fleming first editions, which went for €22k, just over my limit. My only regret is paying €4,500 for a Cartier ‘tank’ watch. It’s very nice, but I could have got it for €3k. Goes to show you can’t always trust the estimates. Lesson learnt.
It still means I’m over €100k in credit this month. There’s a sale of erotic art next Tuesday, but the idea of Madame discovering me reading the catalogue does not appeal. I’ll probably settle for the Second Empire snuffboxes on Wednesday.
Another thing that hasn’t been affected by lockdown is construction work, and there’s quite a lot of it going on in the city centre right now. Two projects are council-funded. One is a new frontage for the central library, the Médiathèque François Mitterrand, where a landscaped garden is being built, and the other involves knocking down a rather forbidding wall in front of the old Banque de France building in Boulevard Solférino and putting a hanging garden in its place. Both will brighten up the city centre considerably, and they are another sign that the council doesn’t seem to be strapped for cash.
Growing up in London in the 1950s, I can remember a lot of building work going on to cover up old bomb sites from the Second World War. There would always be a few men hanging around watching the building work going on, and as a boy, hurrying by to play football or whatever, I used to think this an odd and boring thing to do. Not any longer; it is completely addictive. I try to arrange my daily walks so that I can see the progress at one or other of these sites. Sometimes nothing seems to happen for several days, and then suddenly, because of a minor alteration, some shrubs planted or some brickwork done, the whole layout seems transformed.
I am becoming a familiar sight to some of the workers, and I suspect they may think I am the Clerk of Works from the town hall. For a joke, I’ve toyed with the idea of turning up with a clipboard and stopwatch, but there’s a fair chance I’d have a brick hurled at my head.
Boulevard Solférino 2019
Early next year
It was sad to read the obituaries of both John Sessions and Geoffrey Palmer this week. John Sessions’ Life of Napoleon was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and Geoffrey Palmer’s line (in Reggie Perrin), ‘Bit of a cock-up on the catering front’, is now hardwired into my brain.
There’s a little piece about obituaries in The Times today. A reader asks why medical conditions are sometimes given as cause of death, whereas in other cases people are reported simply to have ‘died’. The paper’s obituaries editor says that they include the cause of death if it is known, but not if there is a continuing inquest or the family didn’t want to say.
Not all newspaper obituaries go into the cause of death. The Daily Telegraph briefly tried it as an experiment, but one of the first subjects under the new regime was a New Orleans jazz musician who had apparently died of an exploding penis implant. This was regarded as a little too much information for Telegraph readers.