Walking down the street the other day, I felt a familiar pressure under my left foot. Merde! At that precise moment, I’d have happily signed a decree authorising the public execution of every dog-owner within a hundred kilometres. As I morosely slid the sole of my shoe backwards and forwards on a nearby patch of wet grass, I reflected on the fact that more depressing than my immediate predicament was the realisation that this was almost certainly not the last time that this would happen.
People’s reluctance or inability to efficiently deal with the toilettage of their ‘best friends’ is one of the few areas I’ve found where France compares unfavourably with the UK. Recent events, however, have made me think that perhaps I have been looking at this in the wrong way.
France’s upper House, the Senate, has just passed into law a bill to provide statutory protection for the ‘sensory heritage’ of the French countryside. Regional authorities will need to define precisely what ‘sensory heritage’ actually means (not an easy task, I suspect), but the legislation is specific that what it has in mind are the ‘sounds and smells’ of rural France.
There has been a spate of stories in recent years about these sensory issues. Almost invariably, the complainants are new arrivals in a small town or village; they are often second-home owners staying for only a couple of weeks at a time. The rows can sometimes end up in court and usually cause a lot of bad feeling in the local community. In the past, there have been objections to the noises made by crickets and mating bullfrogs in the Dordogne. Smelly sheep and noisy cows have been the problem in the French Alps. Other auditory irritants have included church bells, farm machinery, and even a town’s pétanque players. One French mayor responded by putting up a sign at the entrance to his village, warning holidaymakers to ‘enter at your own peril’ because of the sounds they might encounter.
The most recent case to make the news is that of Maurice, a cockerel from the Île d’Oléron off France’s Atlantic coast. Saint-Pierre-d’Oléron, where Maurice and his owner Corinne Fessau live, is home to 7,000 locals, but the population soars to 35,000 when temporary residents arrive in summer. Mme Fessau has lived on the Île all her life, while the complainants, Jean-Louis and Joelle Biron, were holiday-home owners who visited now and again. They had complained about Maurice’s dawn wake-up call, which they regarded as noise pollution.
The story caught the public imagination, and 140,000 people signed a ‘Save Maurice’ petition. Locals started wearing Maurice-themed T-shirts, adorned with the cockerel’s picture and the words ‘Let me sing’ or ‘cocorico’ (French for cock-a-doodle-doo). This campaign worked. The court not only threw out the case, but ordered the Birons to pay Mme Fessau €1,000 in damages.
Sadly, Maurice has since gone to the great Coq au Vin in the sky, but his life was not in vain. Shortly afterwards, an MP from Lozère introduced the ‘Law Protecting the Sensory Heritage of the French Countryside’. It gained the backing of Rural Affairs Minister Joël Giraud, and now it has become law.
Back here in Poitiers, it’s occurred to me that, as a relative newcomer myself, I should perhaps regard my recent mishap as an encounter with the urban version of France’s sensory heritage. After all, Poitiers is sometimes referred to as la ville aux mille cloches (the city of a thousand bells), and the sound of countless church bells as you walk around of an evening (pre-curfew, obviously) never ceases to please. But after that I begin to struggle. Other ‘heritage’ sounds could include perhaps the clatter of the skateboarding kids in the market square, and the ten-minute engine-revving from some twat down our street at 07.00 every morning.
For smells, there is the delicious aroma of baking croissants from the boulangeries … again, though, I begin to falter. In Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom is said to like grilled kidneys because they ‘gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine’. That being the case, he would no doubt enjoy an early morning stroll through one or two of the back streets off Grand’ Rue. There are probably more uplifting examples.
I tried to discuss the subject with Madame, explaining how my unfortunate accident had led to an interesting meditation on life in the city. Sadly, her thoughts seemed elsewhere, and she restricted herself to telling me that I should bloody well look where I was going.
Sound advice, and no doubt kindly meant.
It is St Valentine’s Day and, being a romantic at heart, I offer two extracts from letters that I came across recently. I think, between them, they cover the full spectrum of connubial bliss.
You might think about me a bit & whether you could bear the idea of marrying me. Of course you haven’t got to decide, but think about it. I can’t advise you in my favour because I think it would be beastly for you, but think how nice it would be for me. I am restless & moody & misanthropic & lazy & have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve. In fact it’s a lousy proposition.
Evelyn Waugh, Letter to Laura Herbert 1936
I’m writing to let you know I’m releasing you, I’m amputating you. Be happy and never seek me again. I don’t want to hear from you, I don’t want you to hear from me. If there is anything I’d enjoy before I die, it’d be not having to see your fucking horrible bastard face wandering around my garden.
Frida Kahlo, Letter to Diego Rivera 1953
Things I’ve learnt this week:
In the 1960s, 3% of all films featured someone sinking in quicksand.
For its Chinese release, the film The Full Monty was retitled Six Naked Pigs.
In 1811, crimes punishable by death in Britain included stealing cheese, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner, and ‘strong evidence of malice’ in children aged 7–14.