Do you remember Norman Lamont? Chancellor of the Exchequer in John Major’s government in the 1990s. Looked a bit like a panda. Got involved in a series of farcical, sometimes fabricated, press stories: not paying his hotel bill for ‘champagne and large breakfasts’ at a party conference, renting a flat he owned to a prostitute called Miss Whiplash, getting into arrears on his credit card, late-night visits to Threshers to buy cheap cigarettes and champagne. He’s nearly 80 now. If he was forty years younger, Boris Johnson would almost certainly appoint him to a cabinet post.
Anyway … One of the things he is remembered for is declaring in October 1991 that ‘the green shoots of economic spring are appearing once again’. Eleven months later, on ‘Black Wednesday’, 16 September 1992, the UK crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, costing the Treasury an estimated £3.5 billion (and that was when a billion pounds was worth something).
All of this is just a clumsy lead-in so that I can announce that the green shoots of post-Covid recovery will be clearly visible here in the centre of Poitiers very soon. Work has started on planting nine trees in the town’s main square, Place Leclerc, a symbolic step in the eco-friendly council’s Plan Canopée, which aims to plant 10,000 new trees in Poitiers by 2026. The trees, four field maples and five hackberry trees, species chosen because they are local and for their ability to adapt to drought, should be planted by the end of March. Until then, archaeologists from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research will be rummaging around under the dug-up cobblestones to see what they can find.
In a separate Plan Canopée development, the mayor, Léonore Moncond’huy, has launched the project Une naissance, un arbre pour votre enfant (‘A birth, a tree for your child’). The parents of every child born in Poitiers are now entitled to receive a tree sapling, which they can either plant in their garden or have planted in one of several designated sites in the city. The sapling will be tagged with the child’s name and date of birth, and the child will receive a small book with information about the tree.
I think both of these initiatives are to be welcomed; the more trees the better, really. The ones in Place Leclerc will form two new lines inside the existing trees and help to distract the eye from the vast expanse of cobblestones in the centre of the square. However, the tree planting is not going down well in some quarters. The estimated cost of the Place Leclerc work is €130,000, and people are pointing out that it is actually returning the Place to a state very similar to the one it was in before 2011, when it was totally repaved as part of another eco-initiative, theCœur d’agglo project carried out under the previous administration.
This turned the entire centre into a pedestrian zone and led almost immediately to complaints about excessive ‘mineralisation’.
When we arrived here in 2018, this pedestrianisation was complete, and so it’s how we have always known the city. As we aren’t car drivers, the pedestrianisation generally suits us fine, but there are areas where I can see the justification of the ‘mineralisation’ complaint, For example, Place Charles VII, seen in the photos below, was recently repaved.
Leaving aside the dubious aesthetic merit of the metallic crocodile wrestling with two naked women, why on earth didn’t they put grass over the area rather than granite cobblestones? I can think of one or two similar areas that, particularly on hot summer days, have an arid feel about them.
When I ask locals about the pedestrianisation, opinions are mixed. Some talk of the city’s shops, bars, and restaurants being increasingly under threat as people are reluctant to come to Poitiers if they can’t drive right into the centre. Others point out that the air is now much cleaner and how pleasant it is to be able to stroll around on foot. Everyone seems to accept that the pedestrianised centre is here to stay, and looking at this 1950s snapshot showing Place Leclerc as a massive car park, I’d say that is no bad thing.
This week, there have been reports in British newspapers of a recent survey which showed that certain once-familiar phrases are gradually disappearing from common usage. Examples given included ‘pearls before swine’, ‘know your onions’, ‘a nod is as good as a wink’, ‘ready for the knacker’s yard’, and ‘pip pip’. Of the 2,000 people surveyed, aged from 18 to 50, a high percentage didn’t recognise many such phrases, which strikes me as rather sad.
For the moment, it’s all I can do here in France to get by in the basics of the language without mastering many colourful idioms, but when I come across them I make a note of them for possible use at some stage in the future. Recent examples include ce n’est pas tes oignons (‘it’s not your onions’, equivalent to the English ‘mind your own business’) and quand on parle du loup (‘when you talk about the wolf’, equivalent to the English ‘speak of the devil’).
More colourfully, il y une couille dans le potage (‘there’s a testicle in the soup’) means ‘there is a big problem here’, and my current favourite is the French equivalent of ‘wanting to have your cake and eat it’, vouloir le beurre, l’argent du beurre et l’cul d’la crémière (wanting the butter, the money for the butter, and the milkmaid’s arse).