On Beer (3)

  “Next to music beer was best.”  Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

“The new Beer Bill  has begun its operations. Everybody is drunk. Those who are not singing are sprawling. The sovereign people are in a beastly state”  (A letter from Sydney Smith.to John Murray referring to The Beer Act of 1830)

Lady Holland, A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith

The sergeant stated that the defendant staggered badly after getting out of the car and smelt strongly of drink. Defendant: I have not touched a drink for ten years. District Justice: Did you have any of this new ice cream? Defendant: Well, I had, your honour. District Justice: How much had you? Defendant: I had a twopenny wafer in Drogheda, your honour. District Justice: Is that all? Defendant: I felt a cold coming on me and had two cornets at Swords. District Justice said he was determined to put down the growing practice of people driving around in motorcars and pulling up at roadside sweetshops to consume ice cream. If such persons feel they need ice cream, they must leave their cars at home. The Sergeant said that the defendant had a small freezer in the back of the car which bore the traces of fresh ice cream; the cushions also had traces of wafer-crumbs. District Justice: No doubt he said ‘Crumbs!’ when he ran into the other car. (Laughter.) Defendant stated that he had bad teeth and did not like ice cream but took it as a tonic and also to prevent himself getting colds. He realised now that he had been foolish and was prepared to take the pledge and drink only whiskey in future.

Flann O’Brien on alcoholic ice-cream, Cruiskeen Lawn

They placed food in front of him,
they placed beer in front of him;
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
and of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The harlot spoke to Enkidu, saying:
“Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land.”
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
he drank the beer-seven jugs!– and became expansive and sang with joy!
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water,
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human.

from The Epic of Gilgamesh

You will not be able to stay home, brother

You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out

You will not be able to lose yourself on skag

And skip out for beer during commercials

 Because the revolution will not be televised         

 Gil Scott-Heron The revolution will not be televised

Genial and gladdening is the power of good ale, the true and proper drink of Englishmen. He is not deserving of the name of Englishman who speaketh against ale.

George Borrow, Lavengro

Brewery barge with export stout. England. Sea air sours it, I heard. Be interesting some day get a pass through Hancock to see the brewery. Regular world in itself. Vats of porter, wonderful. Rats get in too. Drink themselves bloated as big as a collie floating. Dead drunk on the porter. Drink till they puke again like christians. Imagine drinking that! Rats: vats. Well of course if we knew all the things…  

James Joyce, Ulysses

Suppose we go and try some lager-bier? … It is a new beverage, of German origin … you will not like it for some time, because it is quite different from Barclay and Perkins’s beer.

David W. Mitchell Ten Years in the United States: Being an Englishman’s View of Men and Things in the North and South, 1862

The snows of the Tyrol,

the clear beer of Vienna

Are not very pure or true.

From Sylvia Plath Daddy

Always be drunk.
That’s it!
The great imperative!
In order not to feel
Time’s horrid fardel
bruise your shoulders,
grinding you into the earth,
Get drunk and stay that way.
On what?
On beer, poetry, virtue, whatever.
But get drunk.

From Charles Baudelaire Be Drunk! (translator  unknown) 

The Green revolution

A couple of days spent on a jolly in Bordeaux mid-week and an exceedingly long birthday lunch party at a neighbour’s house put paid to any plans for the usual Sunday summary from Poitiers, but the extra day has given me time to catch up with the French municipal elections, which took place yesterday.

Many of the headlines this morning talk of a ‘green tsunami’ or a ‘green revolution’, and it’s fair to say that by winning here in Poitiers, as well as in Lyon, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Tours, and Grenoble, the environmentalist EELV (Europe Écologie les Verts) have established themselves as a leading political force. One of the most striking aspects of their various victories is the relative political inexperience of their candidates. Jeanne Barseghian in Strasbourg and Pierre Hurmic in Bordeaux are lawyers, and Grégory Doucet in Lyon works for a humanitarian aid organisation. They were unknown to the general public and had never previously been elected in any political capacity. Now they will be running some of the largest cities in France.

Léonore Moncond’huy.

Here in Poitiers, our new mayor is Léonore Moncond’huy, who has just turned thirty. She joined EELV in 2015 and was elected co-president of the party in 2017. Described in our local paper as ‘lively, fiery’ and ‘a young woman in a hurry’, the fact that relatively little is known about her may explain why her once being a Girl Scout seems to have been give an undue amount of attention.

The outgoing mayor, Alain Claeys,who is 71, was bidding to win a third period of office, having already served 12 years. In all, the Socialists have been in power here for the last 43 years, so this is a major shift. One noticeable aspect of the pre-election campaigning was that the two losing parties (the Socialists and LREM – President Macron’s La République en Marche) seemed very keen to establish their own green credentials, as if sensing the way the general mood was shifting. Turnout was very low at 33.2%, even lower than the first round back in March, when it was 36.4%. Turnouts nationally were generally low.

It isn’t clear yet, at least to me, how profound or sweeping the changes will be as a result of this election. The new council will no doubt want to make some sort of immediate impact, but dealing with the ongoing coronavirus problem is likely to occupy them for a while to come. As in the UK, the council administrative staff will continue in their posts, so life for most of us should go on as normal. For the time being, at least.

Elsewhere in France, in Marseille the environmental group Le Printemps Marseillais came first but without an overall majority, while the Socialists retained Paris, Nantes, Lille, and Rennes. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National claimed Perpignan.

About the only success for LREM was prime minister Edouard Philippe’s win in Le Havre, (which I suppose is the equivalent of Boris Johnson being elected Mayor of Southampton while still prime minister). Under a law of 2014, members of either house of the French Parliament can no longer carry out these ‘dual mandate’ roles, so Monsieur Philippe has nominated a deputy to serve as mayor until such time as he chooses to take up the role. This might be sooner than he anticipates, as there are regular rumours of tension between him and President Macron – something both have denied.

Twomey or not Twomey

Last Sunday evening President Macron appeared on TV announcing the latest changes to the lockdown regulations. As of Monday (the following day), all bars and restaurants would reopen again, including in Paris, where only terraces had been able to get back in business. All travel into European countries would again be allowed. That means everyone will be able to move freely inside Europe without having to show a valid international travel certificate. Quarantine rules would still apply for the UK. All schools will reopen from June 22nd, and attending school will be mandatory for all pupils in crèchesécoles (elementary and primary school), and collèges (secondary school).

In July the government will reveal plans for a significant restructuring of the economy, targeting in particular industries that have been hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak; aeronautics, the automobile industry, tourism, culture, catering, and hotels.

***

On Monday morning, the big news in the local paper is that McDonald’s are planning to open in the town centre, on the recently vacated Orange Téléphone site. This is right next to the Tour Maubergeon with its statue of Jeanne d’Arc. It’s difficult to think of a more inappropriate spot in the city centre for a fast-food joint, particularly when there are a number of very good French restaurants and cafés nearby. A petition has been started and has already garnered over 2,000 signatures, including mine and Madame’s. I am prepared to go further and stage a sponsored eat-in, where I will consume as many as possible of the delicious home-made burgers (100% boeuf Charolais) at Le P’tit Grillé in Rue de la Regratterie.

In the afternoon I get a phone call from Twomey, reminding me that the next day is Bloomsday (the day celebrating the events in James Joyce’s Ulysses, all of which take place on one day, 16th June 1904). He suggests that we mark the occasion by meeting for a pint of Guinness in Cluricaume. I agree but am a little uneasy. I mentioned last week that Twomey and I meet for the occasional drink. This is true to the extent that we meet from time to time, usually to celebrate some event or other, but on these occasions, drink, in the singular, can be something of an understatement.

The last such occurrence was on 26th January, Australia Day. Twomey told me that one of his great-grandparents was Australian, and invited me to join him at the Wallaby’s sports bar near Place Leclerc. Here we took advantage of their two-hour-long Happy Hour to consume several pints of Castlemaine lager with Bundaberg rum chasers. Eventually I managed to get away, leaving Twomey vainly trying to get the bewildered locals to join in a chorus of ‘Waltzing Matilda’. Some weeks later, when I mentioned his Australian ancestry, he looked completely baffled.

***

On Tuesday afternoon I went to Le Biblio Café. Now that things are slowly getting back to normal, I have resumed my weekly French lesson with our friend Maryse. We have started working on some of my blog pages with a view to producing them in French. Progress is slow, but she is very patient. Nevertheless, I think it is a relief for both of us when our agreed hour is up and we can reward ourselves with une biére at the end of the lesson.

On the way home my phone rings, and it is Twomey again. He tells me he’s had to go to Montmorillon unexpectedly on business and will not be able to make our evening rendezvous. I tell him that this is not a problem and that we can meet up some other time. He starts to say something, but I suddenly hear a woman shouting loudly in the background and what sounds like crockery breaking. He tells me he will call me again later and hangs up. Most odd.

***

Another sign that things are returning to normal is that my Pilates classes have restarted on Thursday mornings at Studio Équilibre on Boulevard du Grand Cerf. I began these back in November because of a problem with my hip, and they have definitely helped. There are usually about six or seven of us in the group led by our tutor, Sandra. Being an English speaker, I am obviously something of a novelty, and they all enjoy it when Sandra adds the odd instruction in English, or better still when she has to ask me to translate a word. This week everyone found it hysterically funny that the English for nombril is belly button.

The exercises are enjoyable, and there is more than enough time to reflect on the various twists and turns in life that have led to my lying on a mat, surrounded by a bunch of elderly French men and women, all of us with our legs in the air pedalling imaginary bicycles.

***

One of my favourite buildings in Poitiers is the Post Office. The camera on my new phone has given me a chance to get a much closer look at it.

Dick Turpin

I’m slowly getting used to wearing my mask in public. Their use is now compulsory in many shops, and one is obliged to wear them when entering bars and restaurants, although they can be removed once you are seated.

Shop and restaurant staff tend to wear disposable masks, as they need to change then regularly, and many members of the general public also seem to favour this type. One unfortunate result of this is that you increasingly see discarded masks lying in the street. More worryingly, the French government has ordered two billion of these disposable masks for public sector workers, and there is growing concern about the fact that they are made of polypropylene and are not biodegradable.

We were sent some washable masks by the council, but these need tying behind your head and are a bit fiddly so we bought some that you can just hook over your ears. They came in two colours; I took the black one, leaving madame the white.  We make an odd couple walking down the street – like Dick Turpin and a State Registered Nurse.

***

Tuesday: Entering a shop, I stop to put on my mask and somehow in doing so I manage to knock off my glasses, which land on the pavement and end up with a crack in one of the lenses. Not so much Dick Turpin now, more the old lady on the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin. They are wearable, but I will get a new pair as soon as I can get an ophthalmologist appointment – not that easy, as there is currently a national shortage of them. I will probably need to go to nearby Niort or Angoulême – both a train ride away.

Sod it, sod it, sod it!

***

I bumped into Mr Twomey on Wednesday evening in the Cluricaume. He used to work with the British Council in Paris and is now retired. Lives near the station. It would be overstating it to say he’s a friend, but native English speakers are rare in Poitiers and we’ve got used to having the occasional pint together. I hadn’t seen him since before the lockdown, and he looked a little thinner. I wondered if he’d been ill.

‘Not at all dear boy. It’s my new regime. Want to know the secret? Sage and onion stuffing! Virtually living on the stuff. Found a little place in Montmorillon that sells it. Quite bizarre. Little Asian shop that I go to for vindaloo paste. And there it was, behind the chapatis and nan bread. Couldn’t believe my eyes. Paxo’s sage and onion stuffing! Add a spot of gravy – very tasty, nutritious and dirt cheap. Had it for lunch and dinner yesterday. Bit of flatulence but it’s a small price to pay. Can almost feel the pounds falling off.’

I could do with losing a little weight myself, and I thought of mentioning this to Madame, but she can’t stand Twomey so I’ll probably let it lie.

***

The mayor of Chauvigny and Laurent Jalabert

Thursday. The French cyclist Laurent Jalabert is in nearby Chauvigny today to help promote the coming Tour de France. The event should have been in July but has been postponed till September. We will have two chances to see it. The 11th stage, a 167 km run from Châtelaillon-Plage to Poitiers, is on September 9th, and the following day they go from Chauvigny to Sarran Corrèze; at 218 km this is the longest stage of the Tour. We are awaiting the exact details of the route to work out where to go for the best view. It should be fun, but of course, wherever it is, there will probably just be a blur of coloured shirts and it will be over in a couple of minutes. I mean it’s not as if it’s real cycling – like crossing the USA or anything.

Near Fairplay Colorado, April 25th 2010

***

Finally, spare a thought for our friend Véronique Dujardin, whom I mentioned in this blog a few weeks ago. Because of her pending operation, Véronique has been self-isolating since March 25th, and her only day out of her apartment since then was to attend a court hearing on May 28th. In this, Bayer Pharmaceuticals were appealing against the appointment of a panel of experts to investigate whether her brain tumours were the result of her having taken Bayer medication for twenty years.

Véronique has a hell of week ahead of her. She will be back in court on Tuesday to hear the result of the Bayer appeal. That same day she has a Covid19 test at the university hospital here in Poitiers. If that test shows no indication of the virus, she will then travel to a hospital in Tours on Thursday. On Friday, she will finally have the long-postponed two-hour operation to insert a titanium prosthesis into the orbit of her left eye to reduce the pressure from a tumour.  

Véronique

We wish her well

Out and about

Out at 07.00 on Monday morning. I wanted to take some photos on the last day of confinement, which started on March 17th and has lasted 77 days. For us, it hasn’t been particularly difficult. We have plenty of room, more than enough books and DVDs, and good Wi-Fi to keep in touch with family and friends. Nearby there are pleasant walks, along the river or around the city, for our daily hour’s exercise. I am aware how lucky we are. For anyone living alone or with young children, in cramped accommodation, perhaps without Wi-Fi, things must have been pretty grim. Parks, libraries, cinemas, and museums have all been closed.

On a bright sunny morning, I walked around the city centre for an hour or so and saw just a handful of people, mainly joggers and street cleaners. The only sounds came from the occasional car passing and swifts squealing as they circled overhead. There are worse ways of starting the day.

***

Liberation day. On Tuesday morning we went for coffee and croissants at the Café des Arts. It was a treat to see both François the owner and Maria the serveuse again, even if they were both masked and looked like they were about to operate on someone. About half the customers sitting on the terrace were also masked. The rules are that you must wear one when entering the interior, but you can remove it when inside.

Dr François reassuring his patients

Out again on a warm sunny evening to find the whole city centre buzzing. All the bar terraces were packed with people who had some serious catching up to do. We visit Le Gambetta and Au Bureau and end up back at the Café des Arts, by which time I was feeling distinctly mellow and had to resist the temptation to tell various strangers that they were ‘my bestest friend ever’.

***

I remember many years ago my friend Terry, who had recently retired, telling me how busy he was and that he was amazed he had ever actually found time to go to work. Impressed, I asked him what he had done the previous day. There was a longish pause, and then he said, ‘Well … in the morning I posted a letter’.

I thought this very funny at the time, but I’ve just realised that, if questioned by a barrister as to my activities on Wednesday and Thursday, all I could really come up with is that I had a haircut on Wednesday and picked up my new mobile phone the following day. Of course there was other ‘stuff’, but it’s now just a blurred mass of the minutiae of daily life. This is far from a complaint. I’m increasingly a subscriber to Pascal’s dictum that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’. The lockdown period made it easy to follow this advice. Now that it’s over, my fear of missing out on things will probably have me scurrying about again like a mouse in a maze.

***

One curious sight this week. On three different occasions I’ve seen people carrying mattresses through the streets. Madame S had the explanation. House and flat moves were not allowed during confinement, and lots of students on short-term leases will now be sorting themselves out.

At the same time, the government has just extended the period of la trêve hivernale (the winter truce). This is a law which decrees that during the winter months, normally from November 1st to March 31st, tenants cannot be evicted, and the gas and energy companies are not allowed to cut off supplies to homes for non-payment of bills. This year, because of the coronavirus outbreak, the truce was first extended to 31st May and then to July 10th.

While this is clearly a humane statute, it means that at the end of the period evictions occur en masse, which inevitably puts a strain on social services and charities. According to an article in Le Monde in 2018, the number of compulsory evictions has risen significantly since the year 2000. In 2016 there were 15,222, an increase of over 50% on the 2013 figure. The extensions to the normal time period, along with the fact that many more people are liable to be in financial difficulties, means that this year is likely to be far worse. A reminder that the real impact of the virus is still to come.

***

 Saturday morning

A ‘stop me and buy one’ cart dispensing not ice cream but free hand sanitiser.

Saturday afternoon

A march then a rally in Place Leclerc for Black Lives Matter.

Keep Your Distance!

At last some good news. On Thursday night, the Prime Minster announced that June 2nd will mark the beginning of Phase 2 in the progressive lifting of the coronavirus lockdown imposed on March 17th by President Macron. Like Phase 1, Phase 2 will last for roughly three weeks, from June 2nd to June 21st.

From next Tuesday, bars and restaurants can reopen for the first time since they were closed on March 14th. The government will also accelerate the opening of schools. Cultural and sporting life will progressively return to normal.

These changes do not apply everywhere. The government has been using a traffic light system to monitor the spread and control of the virus,assigning each French département a colour depending on the results. Of the four regions that were originally red, mainly in the north-east, three are now green, and one, Île-de-France (which includes Paris), is currently classed as amber. Until it changes to green, certain restrictions will remain as to the opening of schools and places of entertainment. Restaurants and bars will only be allowed to serve customers in gardens and on terraces.

***

Obviously, here in Poitiers, many local bars have been badly hit by the enforced shutdown. I see it as my civic duty to pump some money back into the local economy and will try to do so as zealously as possible. I have told Madame S that I will be going out on Tuesday afternoon and, in the words of Captain Oates, ‘I may be some time’.

One slight problem I have is getting the hang of this social distancing business. It’s reminded me of George, whom I used to work with years ago at the BBC. Came from Dunfermline. Pleasant enough chap, seriously good chess player, liked a pint. One thing George lacked, however, was an understanding of the concept of personal space. When talking, he tended to stand almost toe to toe with you, and as he was a big chap, this could be quite intimidating until you got to know him. Usually one could make a joke about it and he would obligingly step back a little, but on the not infrequent occasions when drink had been taken, he would gradually forget this and inch forward again. The only option then would be to retreat a couple of steps yourself and wait for his next advance. I can remember several occasions when, in the course of an evening, George and I would perform what looked like a slow courtship ritual around the bar of the BBC Club, to the bewilderment of everyone there.

With the best will in the world, I can see similar scenes, multiplied many times, happening in bars here next week. The French are generally law-abiding folk, so everyone will start out correctly distanced. Gradually though, those more susceptible to alcohol will either forget, or get bored by, the rules and start to move closer; their more sober companions will move backwards, and before you know, there will be a strange sort of alcoholic line dancing going on. Furniture will get knocked over, small children will be trampled on. The more I think about it, I may wait a day or two to let things settle down a bit.

One other thing that had been bothering me was how to actually measure the correct social distance when I went to a bar of an evening. I want to do the right thing when I go out, and this has proved more difficult than I had imagined.

In the UK, people are told to keep two metres apart, and my daughters sent me a useful guide to how this can be achieved. Unfortunately, cardboard cut-outs of Richard Osman are in short supply in Poitiers at the moment.

A pointless exercise

I was kindly sent this leaflet by Tobias, a reader in Kenya. It’s fascinating, but hardly practical in Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

Out of Africa

Harvey, an old pal from Wisconsin, sent me this, which was a lot more useful and I could see a possible solution.

All I need is two dogs.

The only dog owner I know is our slightly bonkers neighbour Madame Boissier, who has two old and rather arthritic Labradors. I could tell her how much I had admired the creatures from afar and that I would regard it as an honour if she would allow me to take them for a walk in the evenings. This might seem a bit odd, as I have hitherto carefully avoided any contact with these malodorous beasts, but she’s getting on and would probably be glad of the offer. I’m no expert on canines, but I don’t see any problem in persuading them to stand nose to tail. As far as I can see, most dogs seem to do little else.

Then, on Friday, to my alarm, I discovered in the local paper that the recommended distance here in France is in fact one metre, which meant that I only needed one dog. How could I go to the old bat and tell her that I actually adored only one of her sodding mutts? Or that I adored them both but only one at a time? My heart sank.

I needn’t have worried. Out for a walk yesterday morning, I found that, with typical French ingenuity, our local boulangerie has come up with the perfect solution:

The bars are opening. I’ve got plenty of bread. Look out world. Here I come!

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, the feast day of the Ascension, was a public holiday (un jour férié) in France. I’m half-glad, half-disappointed to see that here, as in the UK, most people don’t quite know what to do on these days. This is even more true at present, when everyday life for many of us has a ‘permanent bank holiday’ feel to it. In Poitiers, shops and most restaurants and places of entertainment don’t open on public holidays. You can’t currently invite people around to share some charred burgers and sausages, so generally the wisest thing to do is stay indoors and read or watch TV.

We have eleven public holidays in France, three more than in the UK. Neither Good Friday nor Boxing Day are holidays here, but we celebrate Victory in Europe Day (May 8th), Armistice Day (November 11th), and Bastille Day (July 14th). The other holidays are all religious: the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost, both movable and dependent on Easter, the Assumption (August 15th), and All Saints’ Day (November 1st).

In the UK, the late Spring Bank Holiday broadly equates to Pentecost, as it used to be the Monday after Whit Sunday but is now fixed as the last Monday in May. The UK August Bank Holiday has no religious antecedent, It was introduced by the Banking Act of 1871, a piece of legislation championed by Sir John Lubbock, a member of Parliament and a social reformer. One of his intentions was that bank staff should have time off to play and watch cricket, which seems fair enough to me. For a while, these Bank Holidays were called St Lubbock’s days and, by and large, Lubbock does seem to have been a very decent sort of chap; he studied ants and tried to teach his poodle to read.

It’s perhaps odd that France, officially a secular country, has the extra religious holidays, although I have heard profoundly atheist trade unionists getting quite misty-eyed when defending the right of their fellow workers to follow their religious beliefs. Of course, if this means that, despite being non-believers, they too (malheureusement) have to take a day off work, then so be it.

A major difference between the UK and France is that, in the former, Bank Holidays are usually fixed on a Monday but in the latter they can be on any day of the week. This means that if they land at the weekend many workers don’t see much benefit. On the other hand, if they land on a Thursday or a Tuesday, then one can faire le pont: take the intervening Friday or Monday off and have a five-day-long break. In some years, this can be exploited very effectively, and a recent newspaper article showed that this year twenty-five days of annual leave could yield sixty days en vacance.

In both countries, public holidays are, from time to time, the subject of political debate. In the UK, the Early May Bank Holiday was introduced in 1978 by the then employment secretary Michael Foot, before he went on to be leader of the Labour Party. It’s never been popular with many Tories, the idea of ‘a workers’ day’ being seen as subversive if not downright revolutionary. There are regular rumblings about replacing it with either Trafalgar Day on October 21st or Waterloo Day on June 18th (both of which would, I’m sure, go down really well here in France). In the run-up to the 2019 general election, Jeremy Corbyn proposed four new bank holidays on the four national saints’ days. Sadly, as with his monorail to the moon and free beer for the over-fifties, the proposal did not prove to be an electoral game-changer.

From time to time here in France, MEDEF, the major employers’ federation, pushes to make public holidays a fixed attachment to the weekend, as in the UK, to remove the temptation to faire le pont, though I don’t see how that would make much difference to overall productivity. More significantly, MEDEF is also pushing for the gradual elimination of ‘one or two’ public holidays. They currently have Ascension Day in their sights, pointing out that May already has two fixed holidays and that both Ascension and Pentecost can also fall within the month. They point approvingly to the UK’s eight holidays and Germany’s nine, and argue that the elimination of one holiday is equal to a gain of 0.9% of GDP. At one point, President Macron seemed receptive to this idea, but he has noticeably backtracked on it recently.

Some changes have been made over the years. VE day, inaugurated as a public holiday in 1953, was downgraded to a day of commemoration by de Gaulle in 1959. Giscard d’Estaing went further in 1978 and abolished the commemoration of the Allied victory, instead declaring May 9th as a day of commemoration of the 1950 Robert Schuman speech that led to the foundation of the European Union. One of Mitterrand’s first acts on becoming President in 1981 was to reinstate the original May 8th holiday.

More recently, the Pentecost holiday has been the object of some controversy. This dates back to 2003, when some 15,000 elderly French people died during a summer-long heatwave. In an attempt to improve care for the aged, the Chirac government declared that, from 2005, Pentecost would no longer be one of France’s eleven annual public holidays. Instead, employees would go to work as normal but they would not earn anything, their wages being handed over to a fund that would be spent on care for the elderly and disabled. The day was to be known as Solidarity Day. The move proved deeply unpopular and was denounced as the imposition of a salary tax. Pentecost Monday became a public holiday again in 2008, with the Sarkozy government introducing other fiscal measures to raise money to support the elderly and persons with disabilities. 

Whilst the objection to Solidarity Day might seem an indication of mean-spiritedness on the part of the general populace, it’s fair to say that the deaths in 2003 were not caused by any lack of funds. It’s possible, too, that people might be a little uneasy about being reminded of those whose deaths started the controversy. As the ever-succinct Madame S. puts it, ‘they died because their families all buggered off to Corsica on holiday’.

***

An unexpected lockdown victim spotted in a house in Rue de la Cathédrale

The Market re-opens

Johnny Hallyday, the One-Armed Man, and the Lady with the Hat.

As part of the gradual process of lockdown easing, shops were allowed to reopen in France on Monday. As luck would have it, this was the start of a three-day spell of very nasty weather. We went for a walk on Monday afternoon, just to see how life had changed, but were forced home again by cold, sleety rain. Our neighbour Catherine told us that this is an annual occurrence – les saints de glace (the Ice Saints), a period of three days of cold weather from the 11th to the 13th of May, named after the three saints whose days it covers, St Mamertus, St Pancras, and St  Servatius. Apparently this is a widely held belief across Europe (it’s known as ‘the blackthorn winter’ in some countries), and there is some meteorological evidence to suggest that this period is often a time of inclement weather.

It actually got noticeably warmer on Thursday and Friday, but the streets were still relatively quiet. Yesterday however, on a bright sunny day, the main market in Place Charles de Gaulle opened for the first time in two months, and it brought home to me the fact that the thing I’d missed most during the confinement was other people – not individually, but en masse – crowds, the general buzz of city life. It’s true that the market can’t match the pleasure of sitting in a bar or café, gossiping, arguing, telling jokes, or sometimes just observing (including the underrated pleasure of watching a couple of strangers having a ‘domestic’ – une dispute conjugale in French). Nevertheless, it was still a treat to be able to wander around, checking out the stalls and people-watching.

There were some signs that things weren’t quite normal. There were slightly fewer stalls than usual. Either the council is keeping the numbers down or some stallholders are waiting a while before reappearing. All the stallholders that were there, and many of the customers, were wearing masks. Customers were separated from the stalls by red and white tape, so that buying something entailed reaching across, a little awkwardly, to hand over your money and receive your purchases. Entry and exit from the covered market area was by separate doors controlled by security men in masks encouraging us to use the hand gel dispenser. Despite all of these things, it was a welcome return to something resembling normality.

Centre-ville in Poitiers is quite a compact little quartier, and one soon begins to recognise people who live locally. I saw several faces yesterday that I hadn’t seen for weeks – people I wouldn’t claim to know but am on nodding terms with. Seeing some of them, I thought, ‘Oh, I’d forgotten about you’,and they no doubt thought the same. There are a few such individuals, however, not seen since the start of the confinement, whose absence has actually registered with me. I will hopefully bump into them soon, if only to reassure myself that they have survived. In particular I’m thinking of Johnny Hallyday, the One-Armed Man, and the Lady with the Hat.

Johnny Hallyday, who must be in his seventies, is a smaller, slightly dilapidated and even more leathery-looking version of the original. He’s obviously spent some time getting the look just right. He has a shock of bleached blonde hair and is deeply tanned – in the interests of accuracy I once googled a colour chart, and he’s somewhere between cherrywood and light walnut. His outfit never varies: denim jacket and jeans, t-shirt, and elaborately painted cowboy boots. The only concession to the seasons is that in summer the denim jacket is sleeveless, or abandoned completely, and the jeans are replaced by rather skimpy denim shorts. The boots remain, and I am beginning to think he never takes them off. I’ve never seen him actually do anything. He usually sits having a beer or coffee on one of the bar terraces in Place Leclerc, or else he strolls around town appearing not to have a care in the world. He seems a happy man.

The One-Armed Man is a very different character. He is a slightly demented speed-walker with a semi-permanent frown. In his mid-fifties with thinning grey hair and a stubbly beard, he usually wears a baseball cap and either a tracksuit or a singlet and shorts. His daytime activities – going to the shops, the bank, or the post office – are incorporated into what seems to be a permanent high-speed training session, racing around the town centre, with other pedestrians merely a set of slalom poles to be avoided. He actually has a full set of limbs but has acquired his nickname from his practice of continually working one or other arm up and down like a piston when he is walking, as if he’s stamping passports on an invisible conveyor belt. When he has to stop, in a queue for instance, the frown temporarily disappears and he seems quite happy to talk to anyone he knows. I’ve noticed, however, that after a minute or two, one of his arms will twitch and slowly start to move upward, as if to remind him that the passports are piling up and he needs to be off again.

The Lady with the Hat, who lives just around the corner from us, is a mystery. Every day she walks very determinedly backwards and forwards across town. She is of average height and build, rather severe-looking with black horn-rimmed glasses. Invariably dressed in black, usually a shift-like dress and, if the weather dictates it, a black coat, she always carries a briefcase, or a shopping bag that could pass as one. On her head is a small toque hat festooned with brightly coloured flowers. This is so out of kilter with the rest of her outfit that, on first seeing it, you might think that someone has placed it there without her noticing, like a traffic cone on a statue. But, no, it is always there. I haven’t yet worked out where exactly she is going or why. I have seen her a few times near the post office at the other end of town, so perhaps she is collecting or delivering something. But what? Depending on my mood, I see her sometimes as a character like Connie, the ageing codebreaker in John le Carré’s Smiley novels, regularly sending and receiving highly secret documents. At other times, I have her despatching poison-pen letters on an industrial scale. Then again, perhaps she could be bringing a packed lunch for one of the elderly post office clerks, who accepts it every day with a formal merci but after all these years still shows no indication of wishing to take the relationship any further. I fear that in the latter case, if or when she finally accepts the situation, we will have seen the last of the floral hat.

***

Poitiers Confiné

A bird’s-eye view of Poitiers

A local film-maker, Henri Guillon, has used a drone to made a two minute video of Poitiers under confinement: Poitiers Confiné. The city is completely deserted and looks very peaceful. Those who have been to Poitiers might like to see this – and it may tempt those who have yet to visit. There’s an article about the making of the video here which you can run through Google Translate if necessary.

The first stage of deconfinement starts today in France. We can now go out whenever we like and don’t  need our notes of attestation. Shops are open but not bars and cafés. This means I can buy a pair of gloves but not a pint of Guinness.  I don’t need gloves.

Place de la Liberté

“suppositories and exploding mules”

Place de la liberté today

One of my favourite places in Poitiers is Place de la Liberté, a tree-lined square just off Rue René Descartes. Although it is only a few hundred metres from the site of the main market in Place Charles de Gaulle, it’s a peaceful little place in which to sit and while away a few minutes. If you are lucky you can watch a game of boules being played. There used to be an attractive-looking bar, L’Auberge du Pilori, in one corner of the square, but this closed just months before we got here and at present shows no sign of reopening. While the closing of a bar is nearly always a cause for regret, I suspect that my guardian angel might have had something to do with this, as a few minutes might too often have turned into a few hours sitting on its terrace.

The rest of the square consists mainly of private housing. The Poitiers conservatoire is nearby, which probably accounts for the one or two places offering music lessons. At no. 3 there is the workshop of Laurent Gayraud, a luthier (a stringed instrument maker).

Despite its tranquil air, Place de la Liberté has had its share of excitement over the centuries. Designated as the city marketplace by Eleanor of Aquitaine in the mid-twelfth century, it was given the name Place du Pilori in 1307 to mark the spot where common criminals were paraded for public humiliation and, quite often, physical abuse. During the Hundred Years War, the whole area was razed to the ground by the English in 1346.

In the accounts I’ve come across so far, there is some disagreement about the date of the next significant event in the Place’s history – that of the exploding mule. In either 1733 or 1775, depending which report you read, a mule driver who was transporting sacks of gunpowder had stopped for a drink in L’Auberge du Pilori. The animal, waiting outside, had grown impatient and started pounding its feet on the cobbles. Unfortunately, a spark from one of its hooves ignited the gunpowder, sending the poor beast sky-high. All the reports agree that, almost miraculously, the mule was the only casualty of the disaster. They also record that one of the animal’s legs went through a window and landed in the bedroom of the Provost Marshal – a police superintendent in today’s terms. It presumably made a good story down at the nick. ‘There I was, lying in bed minding my own business when …’

A horseshoe was embedded into the wall of the house as a memorial to the incident and it is still there to this day.  I have to say that this this seems a little uninspired to me. You would think the least they could have done would be to change the name of the Auberge to The Flying Horse.

With the coming of the Revolution in 1789, the Place du Pilori became the site of the local guillotine, and some thirty people met their death there over the next five years. However, the most famous execution, the one that was to give the Place its current name, happened some time later, in 1822.

Jean-Baptiste Breton was one of Napoleon’s most respected generals, serving throughout all his major campaigns from 1805, up to and including Waterloo in 1815. After Napoleon’s defeat and exile, Breton was a leading member of a group of ex-officers plotting first for the return of the emperor and then, after his death, for the enthronement of his son, the Duke of Reichstadt, as Napoleon II. In February 1822, Breton was tricked by agents provocateurs into leading an abortive coup attempt at Saumur. He was then tried and condemned to death by a royal court in Poitiers, and guillotined on October 22nd.

Vive la liberté! Vive la France!

Breton’s dying words were Vive la liberté! Vive la France! and in 1900 the municipal council put up a commemorative plaque and renamed the square Place de la Liberté in his honour. A fund was started by republicans and the local masonic lodge in order to erect a monument, and on Bastille Day 1903 a scale replica of the original Statue of Liberty was erected in the centre of Place de la Liberté. This is generally seen as a riposte to the Catholic Church’s building of Notre Dame des Dunes in 1876, itself a political act of expiation for the republican ‘sins’ of 1870 (see last week’s blog). One thing that can be said for conducting politics by statuary is that it does tend to slow things down to a leisurely pace.

I think the statue, which stands 2.9 metres high, is very handsome in this setting. On the front of its pedestal is a dedication: Aux défenseurs de la liberté and on its side a quote from Montesquieu: Quand l’innocence des citoyens n’est pas assurée, la liberté ne l’est pas non plus (‘When the innocence of the citizens is not guaranteed, neither is their freedom’). While this is obviously of relevance to Breton, the words will have a greater resonance to a France still coming to terms with the consequences of the Dreyfus affair.

It’s seen some changes in its 117 years of existence, as the following pictures (mostly supplied by my friend Véronique) will show. Its original globe disappeared for many years, and this was replaced for a while by a strange suppository-like device. In 2014 the local council funded a replacement globe, which is a definite improvement, though I think it’s just a little too large. Sadly, it doesn’t light up at night, and I have pledged that if ever I win the Lottery jackpot I will personally fund its illumination.

The unveiling 14th July 1903
The original globe
The suppository
There’s always one….
Sadly no longer with us
The sign of the Flying Horse