Better read than dead

On Thursday, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced an extension to the couvre-feu (curfew) here in France. For the next 15 days at least, we all have to stay indoors from 18.00 to 06.00. One consequence of this, which I suspect Monsieur Castex hasn’t taken into account, is that it makes these weekly postcards increasingly difficult to write.

More and more, there is less and less to say. I go out in the morning to buy croissants and the newspaper. In the afternoon I go out for a stroll down by the river or around town. I take my camera and click away happily enough for an hour or so (the two pictures here are from the beautiful church of Notre-Dame-la-Grande in the market square). And that’s about it. The rest of the time, I am confined to barracks. A little treat used to be a trip out in the early evening for a hastily quaffed vin chaud at one of the stands that the more enterprising bar owners had set up. Now this too has gone. Nothing to do, nothing to see, nothing to report. I will soon have to start producing recipes, horoscopes, or ‘useful household hints’.

To alleviate the boredom, I’ve taken up a challenge/invitation offered on Twitter by Ian Leslie of the New Statesman. The aim is to read 50 books in a year. I’ve been slightly handicapped at the outset because, just before setting out on this project, I’d started reading Martin Amis’s Inside Story, which comes in at a hefty 522 pages. Once I’ve finished this, I aim to quickly read a couple of short books to get back on track – I can get through a Maigret or a Morse in a day or so.

For the last few years I’ve made a similar resolution – to try and read at least one book a week. Normally I do quite well till around the middle of March and then, with the arrival of warmer days and lighter evenings, things start to slide. In the summer, a month can go by without a book being finished. By the end of most years, I will have done well to get through half the target amount. The Twitter challenge is an attempt to formalise things a little and keep me at it.

While thinking about this, I’ve done a very quick, very rough stocktake of the books in the house that are waiting to be read. I’ve excluded ‘dipping-into’ books: reference works, anthologies, and books bought for study that were never going to be read all the way through. I stopped counting when I got to 250. There are lots more. Many of these came with us when we moved from the UK. Some have been accumulated over the years, to be read ‘when I’m old or retired’. Well, I suppose, to paraphrase the Walrus, the time has come to read of many things. If I stick to my new regime, I have the next five years’ reading lined up and ready to go. Plough through them steadily, one a week, and the backlog would be cleared. But of course it doesn’t work like that.

I now keep a record of books bought, and there have already been three this year. Ian Dunt’s How to Be a Liberal, PD James’s The Mistletoe Murder (a 99p Kindle special offer), and The Last Word (a collection of Graham Greene short stories, bought because it contains ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’, on which the film Went the Day Well? is based). Last year I bought 38 books, 15 hardback and 23 paperback (I don’t count the Kindle 99p ones – these are often books I’ve already got and the Kindle versions are handy for reference-searching). Most of the books bought were second-hand, and quite often the postage cost exceeded that of the book itself. As addictions go, it’s not an expensive habit.

Of the books bought last year, I have read 19. Thus the ‘waiting to be read’ pile gets ever larger. Does this matter? I don’t think so. The gloomy philosopher Schopenhauer once said, ‘Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them; but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.’ He’s probably right, but a more cheerful view was presented recently in the Guardian by Giles Oakley. He said that Jonathan Miller had once defended the piles of unread books in his home by explaining that he absorbed the contents ‘by osmosis’. For Mr Oakley, this was ‘the perfect excuse for me to buy more books’, and I’m happy to agree. Many people I know buy more books than they are ever going to read. Book-browsing and book-hunting may be secondary pleasures when compared to reading, but, for many of us, pleasures they undoubtedly are.

Moving to France has changed my perspective slightly. I accept that part of the price one pays for living here is that the prospects for pleasant book-browsing are significantly reduced, but that never quite removes the pang of staring blankly at shelves of interesting-looking covers in a second-hand shop and not recognising the name of a single author. This will, I hope, gradually diminish with time as my knowledge of French literature slowly improves, but the likelihood of discovering a hidden gem is small. Trips to Paris offer some solace. There are a couple of very good English-language second-hand bookshops, quite close to each other on the south bank: the Abbey Bookshop on rue de la Parcheminerie in the 5th and San Francisco Books on rue Monsieur-le-Prince in the 6th. I avoid the more famous Shakespeare and Co. nearby, because it is full of tourists taking photos of each other. For the rest of the time, there is always Abe Books, the online second-hand store, though this has lost some of its appeal since it was taken over by Amazon.

When I told Madame of my new challenge, she thought it an excellent idea and said immediately that she would take it up herself. ‘The more the merrier,’ I declared, with a sinking heart. The little swot will no doubt reach the target sometime in mid-June … unless of course some deeply unfortunate accident were to befall her reading glasses.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In boxing, the original Queensberry Rules forbade the use of boots fitted with springs.

The Sami people of northern Finland use a measure called poronkusema: the distance a reindeer can walk before needing to urinate (around 7.5 kilometres).

In the novel that the film Pinocchio was based on, Jiminy Cricket was brutally murdered, and Pinocchio had his feet burned off and was hanged by villagers.

Cobblers to maple syrup!

Monday

I can’t remember when I last got a pair of shoes soled or heeled. The development of synthetic materials means that shoe repair is probably not a growth industry. That said, Poitiers has a sprinkling of cordonneries that seem to be doing a reasonable trade. Good luck to them. In his book Uncommon Pursuits, historian Eric Hobsbawm devotes a chapter to shoemakers and menders and, having read it, I have a new-found respect for them

Throughout history, they have had a reputation for being political radicals. George Fox, one of the founders of the Quaker movement, was a shoemaker. Their role as working-class spokesmen and organisers in nineteenth-century England is well documented in studies of the anti-enclosure ‘Swing’ Riots of 1830 and of the Chartist movement. In France in 1789, twenty-eight shoemakers were involved in the Storming of the Bastille, and they were the most prominent group amongst those arrested for opposing the coup d’état of 1851. According to historian Jacques Rougerie, the workers involved in the Paris Commune of 1871 who suffered the highest proportion of deportations were, ‘of course, as always, the shoemakers’.

Monsieur L Guichard, Rue Carnot

There are various theories as to how these craftsmen got their reputation for radicalism, too many to go into in any detail here. The work was, at least to some extent, selected by men not capable of being involved in more conventionally valued physical activities. Small, weak, or physically handicapped boys were habitually put to this trade, and this may have provided an incentive to acquire other kinds of prestige. Shoemakers working together in workshops were among those crafts (which also included tailors and cigar-makers) that developed the institution of the ‘reader’: one of the men taking turns to read newspapers or books out aloud. The shoemaker’s work thus permitted thinking and discussion while working. The journeyman shoe-repairer travelling from village to village would be exposed to the culture and politics of a wider world, and the lightness of his toolkit made it easier than in some other trades to carry books with him. He was self-employed and needed by all. He did not rely on wealthy patrons or clients, so he could express his opinions without the risk of losing his job or his customers. There is much more in Mr Hobsbawm’s book, which is well worth seeking out.

Monsieur P. Mallet, Rue de La Tranchée

Tuesday

One of the joys of living in France is, of course, the food; the wonderful fresh produce available in the markets, the wine, the wide range of restaurants. There are, however, some odd little quirks in the French food world. I still can’t get my head round the fact that you can buy tinned Brussels sprouts here. Tripe is regarded as a luxury, and as for the ingredients (and smell) of andouillette sausages … According to Wikipedia, an andouillette has ‘a strong, distinctive odour related to its intestinal origins and components’, which is a diplomatic way of saying they smell of … er … faeces. ‘Although sometimes repellent to the uninitiated, this aspect of andouillette is prized by its devotees.’ They are welcome to them.

It’s artisanal, innit?

Here in Poitiers, the latest gastronomic quirk is the opening of Chien Chaud, an ‘artisanal hot doguerie’ on Rue Carnot. They offer a wide variety of hot dogs, including the Classic New York (onions, mustard, and ketchup), El Gringo (peppers, guacamole, and jalapenos), and Don Corleone (sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, and parmesan crisps). They come in at about €7 each, and you can have nachos or coleslaw with them. Purely in the interests of research, Madame and I have tried them (a Don Corleone for me and a Classic for her). The verdict: very tasty, but maybe not quite enough for a meal.

Do you want relish with that?

Wednesday

A strange dream last night. I’m in a pub in Wandsworth with Sir Anthony Hopkins and Steve McQueen. I’d been doing some sort of clerical job for Sir Anthony and he’d suggested a drink when we’d finished. Over pints of bitter, he is telling a funny story about how he once managed to lose his ticket while travelling on the Isle of Wight ferry. As is the way with dreams, we suddenly move on. It’s now late evening, and we are walking in Fulham, looking for another pub. Sir Anthony abruptly decides that he wants to go home. This turns out be a flat nearby that he’s renting from my aunt. He says goodbye and leaves me and Steve McQueen standing in Fulham Palace Road. At this point I wake up.

Later this morning, I remembered reading an article in yesterday’s Times about Sir Anthony Hopkins (he’s just celebrated his 83rd birthday), which probably accounts for his presence in the dream. However, I haven’t a clue as to what Steve McQueen was doing there. He didn’t say a single word throughout the whole thing. Mind you, he always struck me as a bit of a miserable sod.

Thursday

Do you want syrup with that?

Another strange new food outlet has opened: a Canadian shop in the Cordeliers shopping mall. It sells sirop d’érable (maple syrup), which is fair enough; the maple leaf is, after all, Canada’s national symbol. It also sells a variety of confectionery, along with Canadian rum, brandy, and whisky, nearly all which are steeped in, or infused with, sodding maple syrup. It reminds me of the Two Ronnies sketch about the restaurant that only sells rook. They even sell tins of baked beans in the stuff. (Again, for research purposes, I have bought one of these.) Our neighbour Natalie tells us that the Canadian shop is a boutique éphémère (sounds so much classier than ‘pop-up shop’, doesn’t it?)

Friday

Prime Minister Jean Castex announced the new Covid-related measures at a press conference last night. The ban on people travelling from the UK will remain in place until further notice to minimise spreading the variant britannique. Bars, restaurants, and cafés will remain closed until at least mid-February. Eight additional departments (mainly located in the east of the country) have had their curfew brought forward to 18:00. For the rest of us, the existing 20:00 curfew will be maintained, and reviewed on January 20. According to the Prime Minister, ‘the health situation has become more fragile in the past few weeks … I cannot rule out that we will have to take additional national measures in the coming days if needed.’

Meanwhile in the UK, the predicted end-point is slowly but steadily being moved on. On Monday, in his press conference confirming the lockdown, Boris Johnson spoke of February. By Wednesday, this had become April. I’m now more or less resigned to it being June or July before we will be able to visit the UK.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The national anthem of Bangladesh includes the lines: ‘The fragrance from your mango groves / Makes me wild with joy.’

Kummerspeck (‘grief bacon’) is German for the weight put on from eating too much when feeling sorry for yourself.

The French for a walkie-talkie is un talkie-walkie.

Colour or black and white?

9.00 yesterday morning. The view south from Pont Joubert, five minutes’ walk from our house.

***

There are times when you become aware, if only dimly, that you are living through history; when you realise that current events will be closely studied and speculated on for generations to come. They become ‘a thing’. I think the last such ‘thing’ was the attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001. An event of such significance that, very quickly, its date was sufficient to identify it and give it a name. Like an earthquake, 9/11 had an epicentre, in New York City, but the seismic waves spread rapidly throughout the world, and one can argue that they continue to do so.

The current ‘thing’ is different. The events of 2020, and now 2021, are more like an eclipse than an earthquake: an unscheduled eclipse slowly spreading over the world, catching people unawares at first, but gradually becoming a new normality. In films, sometimes, the transition of time, or some other form of progress, is marked by changing from black and white to colour. At present we seem to be going through the reverse process: everything slowing down as days become increasingly dull and repetitive with, for many of us, little or no reason to bother leaving home. The colour gradually drains from life.

I once thought that Brexit might be the next ‘thing’ I would live through. It is, of course, a significant event, but it’s been overshadowed by what is being increasingly referred to, with some justification, as ‘the plague’. On January 1st, whatever your view of Brexit, you were probably more interested in the latest set of hospital statistics or news about the roll-out of vaccines. If nothing else, the current situation helps give one a sense of perspective. This ‘thing’ will pass eventually, and a different sort of normality will slowly emerge. Time will tell how different it will be from the pre-2020 world. Hopefully, it will be in colour.

***

Oddly enough, in an attempt to escape from the current gloom, I’ve been immersing myself in old black and white films, in particular French films of the 1940s. I’ve been interested in finding out how French filmmakers coped during the Occupation and to compare their work with that of their British counterparts working under very different conditions.

The first film I’ve been looking at is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (The Raven), made in 1942.

Contemporary poster for Le Corbeau

The story centres around a doctor who starts receiving poison-pen letters accusing him of carrying out illegal abortions and having an affair with the wife of another doctor. Similar letters are then sent to numerous people throughout the town. The situation becomes increasingly serious when a hospital patient commits suicide after receiving one. In a skilfully depicted atmosphere of mounting tension and increasing malevolence, suspicion falls on various people before the truth is revealed. The film is a gripping Hitchcockian thriller that stands up very well today. There’s a trailer on YouTube, and the DVD, with English subtitles, can be bought for about a tenner.

I’d started looking into the actual making of the film in more detail, but I’ve the attention span of a moth, and I got completely sidetracked when I discovered that the plot is based on a series of events that occurred in a town called Tulle about 130 miles from Poitiers.

In 1917, during the Great War, many of the town’s prominent citizens began to receive luridly detailed anonymous letters accusing them of immoral behaviour. The letters were signed ‘l’Œil du Tigre’(the Eye of the Tiger). Over the next six years, more than 300 of these letters arrived. A town clerk is said to have killed himself after receiving one.

In 1922, a letter appeared in front of the municipal theatre, charging fourteen prominent married citizens with carrying on illicit affairs. Efforts to find the sender were stepped up. A hypnotist and a medium were brought into the investigation. Embarrassed, the Tulle police proposed taking fingerprints. (They received a mocking letter: ‘The Eye of the Tiger wears rubber gloves’.)

Eventually, suspicion fell on Angèle Lavale, an unmarried woman in her thirties. Both she and her mother, Louise, had received letters. Angèle’s had claimed that Jean-Baptiste Moury, a previous employer of hers, was ‘a seducer’. It was rumoured that Angèle had a crush on Moury, who had spurned her and was planning to marry another woman. The police suspected that Angèle wanted revenge on Moury, and that the other letters, including the ones to herself and her mother, were merely camouflage.

Finally, Angèle agreed to be examined by a handwriting expert.

A still from Le Corbeau

After hours of her copying block-printed letters, he concluded she was indeed the Eye of the Tiger. She was charged with writing most of the letters (some were obviously written by cranks). Angèle and her mother became social pariahs and were booed and hissed at in the street. People refused to share their church pew. Finally, tragically, Angèle and her mother made a suicide pact and tried to drown themselves. Only the mother succeeded, and Angèle was rescued by two passers-by. There is some doubt as to whether she actually intended to honour the agreement.

Angèle left town. When she reappeared in a nearby village some weeks later, Tulle’s citizens demanded that she return to face trial. Some months later, she did so, wearing a black mantilla over her face in mourning for her mother. She maintained her innocence but was found guilty, given a suspended one-month prison sentence, and fined a total of 300 francs.

Slowly, public opinion began to shift. The whole affair was a tragedy; Angèle was a pitiful creature who never really meant to hurt anyone. The Paris newspaper Le Matin described her in the dock as ‘a poor bird who has folded her wings’. The affair brought her celebrity status throughout France, and numerous Frenchmen ‘of good position’ offered to marry her. She accepted none of them. After an appeal against her sentence was denied, she went to live with her brother in Tulle. Apart from a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital, she rarely left the house until her death in 1967.

It’s a terrific yarn, and in reading about it I’ve discovered various other interesting strands to follow, but for now I want to get back to the making of Le Corbeau. I will pick up that story in a future blog.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

From 1912 to 1948, painting was an Olympic event. In 1924, Jack Yeats, brother of the poet W. B. Yeats, took the silver: Ireland’s first-ever Olympic medal.

In the film industry, a ‘mickey’ is a gentle camera move forwards. It’s short for ‘Mickey Rooney’ (a ‘little creep’).

In 2012, a missing woman on a vacation in Iceland was found when it was discovered that she was in the search party looking for herself.

Reasons to be cheerful

Christmas Eve 2020, Place Leclerc, Poitiers

I started writing this blog on the fourth of January this year. I was in an optimistic frame of mind. We were coming up to the second anniversary of our arrival here in Poitiers. We’d made several new friends and had settled in well. Our thoughts were turning to holiday plans for later in the year; possible trips to Ireland, and Italy, along with weekends exploring the many areas of France we had yet to visit. There would, of course, be the usual regular comings and goings, as we visited, and were visited by, friends and family in the UK.

Well, they say that if you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans. It was raining heavily the day I wrote the first entry of 2020, and it’s raining heavily now as I write the last. A miserable grey day at the fag end of this most peculiar year. Of the time in between, about five months has been spent in a form of benign house arrest. In late spring and for the last couple of months, we could only leave our home for certain specified reasons and we needed to carry a piece of paper saying why we were out and about. We were only allowed one hour’s exercise a day, and this had to be carried out alone. Bars, restaurants, and places of entertainment have all been closed. Travel outside one’s immediate area has been severely restricted.

There were a few bright spots in the period between the two lockdowns. We had a jolly weekend in Paris to celebrate my birthday and another in Tours to celebrate Madame’s, just days before the shutters came down again in October. We also managed to attend one of the few major sporting events that survived the Covid year, when the Tour de France raced through Poitiers in September. On the whole, though, like most people, we’ve had better years.

Still, ‘mustn’t grumble!’ Looking ahead, there are some grounds for cautious optimism. Trump is going (even if he seems intent on making his last month in office a particularly egregious finale to his presidency). There is a deal on Brexit (though its full ramifications still need to be examined). Covid-19 vaccines are being rolled out quickly (but only time will tell if they are fully effective against new strains that have started to emerge). For a much more positive verdict of the current global state of play, I recommend this piece by Philip Collins (not that one) from the London Evening Standard a few days ago. There are always reasons to be cheerful.

In Poitiers, we have had a change of regime at the town hall, with the Greens, in the form of Mme Léonore Moncond’huy and the Poitiers Collectif, taking over from M. Alain Claeys and the Parti Socialiste. The Covid crisis has so dominated events since they took office that it has been difficult to assess the impact of the new executive on day-to-day life here. However, one noteworthy new development is also cheering news. The council have launched a scheme to plant 10,000 trees in the city over the next five years. Between 2008 and 2020, the town hall undertook an extensive plan of pedestrianisation in the city centre. While welcome in itself, this led to complaints of ‘over-concreting’ in certain areas. This is one of the first things that struck me about Poitiers; lots of beautiful streets and buildings, but a surprising lack of greenery in the centre. In particular, the removal of two rows of lime trees in the main square, Place Leclerc, has left it looking distinctly arid. I’ve seen old Poitiers postcards showing the trees, and I think a return to something similar will be a distinct improvement.

Whatever happens, I hope to keep these Poitiers postcards coming for a little while yet.

Here’s to a happy new year, wherever you are!

***

The final few things I’ve learnt this year:

In 1928, the Solomon Islands pidgin for ‘adjustable spanner’ was spanner he go walkabout, and a ‘saw’ was this fella pull-him-he-come-push-him-he-go brother belong axe.

Someone who is cock-throppled has an extremely prominent Adam’s apple.

Chinese citizens hearing the national anthem are advised to stand still but be full of energy.

Fred Baur (1918–2002), the designer of the Pringles can, had his ashes buried in one.

A Little Outing

The view from the roof garden, Galeries Lafayette, Paris

I’d more or less given up on the idea of a pre-Christmas trip to Paris once I knew that bars and restaurants were remaining closed. By Wednesday, however, I was getting a little stir-crazy. I figured that a day of walking in Paris, taking some photos, would make an attractive alternative to doing the same thing in Poitiers, which has been my daily routine for the last few weeks. I could grab something to eat en route and, if the weather changed or I got tired, I could duck into a church for a while. So, on Thursday, I got the 07.15 train, normally full but today half-empty, arriving at Montparnasse at 08.35. My plan was to go to Montmartre in the north and then work my way back on foot. Even allowing for dawdling and snapping, I would have more than enough time to catch my 16.08 train home.

I went by metro to Gare du Nord, where I encountered a minor setback to my cunning plan, in that all the station toilettes were closed. The employees of Derichbourg, the company that services the WCs at Gare du Nord, Gare d’Austerlitz, and Gare de Lyon, were on a 24-hour strike. My first reaction was ‘they’re taking the piss!’, but I realised the inappropriacy of this and headed on. I gulped down a double espresso and pain au raisin while standing outside La Mie Caline boulangerie in Bvd Magenta, then moved along to Bvd Rochechouart, crossing from the 9th to the 18th arrondissement.

I’m always a bit wary of walking around here, ever since I nearly had my pocket picked some twenty years ago. On a busy street, a man behind me on my left had made an elaborate show of brushing away his cigarette ash, which had apparently landed on my shoulder. As I turned to face him, his accomplice, on my right, was just not quite quick enough at reaching into my jacket pocket for my wallet. Realising what was going on, I spun around, shouting, just in time to see the two of them melting quickly into the crowd. I’m normally against capital punishment, but at that moment …

Back in the present, I felt decidedly uneasy at first, seeing a group of grim-faced young men hanging around a street corner, watching the passers-by, occasionally glancing at their phones and muttering to each other. But then the truth dawned on me. It was the pushbikes nearby that gave them away. That, and a couple of tell-tale green rucksacks. They were all working for Deliveroo or one of the various other food delivery outfits that have sprung up everywhere in the last few years. A little calmer, I walked on towards Sacré-Cœur. I was even more relieved a few minutes later when I found one of those fully automated WCs in a street near the cathedral. Even in winter, this area of Paris is normally packed with tourists, along with clusters of hawkers selling souvenirs and novelty trinkets. Today there was just a handful of people taking photos of each other and the city skyline. I joined them for a few minutes of clicking under a baleful sky

Looking over the city from the steps of Sacre-Coeur

I thought about going into the cathedral, but didn’t, and walked on to the Place du Tertre, just to its left. Here again, one would normally be surrounded by a throng of tourists having their portraits sketched by artists of variable ability, watched by fellow tourists sitting outside the cafés around the Place. Today it was a ghost town. At one point I was the only person there. It felt distinctly eerie.

Calvaire Stairs, Montmartre

I travelled down to Abbesses, the pretty little quartier that is the setting for the film Amélie. There is a lot more life, as all the shops are still open. It is very attractive, but they have obviously cottoned on to their selling point, and there is more than a touch of tweeness here and there. It reminded me of Wimbledon Village, Southwold, and Stamford.

I started back towards the centre of the city, down rue Lepic to Clichy with Place Pigalle and Le Moulin Rouge on my left and on down rue Blanche towards Opéra. It was now lunchtime. I knew there was a little square in front of Sainte-Trinité church where I could sit and eat, so I had another boulangerie pit stop, this time for a small quiche Lorraine and a bottle of water. The woman who served me was a dead ringer for Hattie Jacques. I thought of mentioning this, but explaining Carry On films is way above my current level of French. As I left the boulangerie, it started to rain, and I ended up eating my quiche while standing in the doorway of a closed-down sweetshop. It’s not the image I like to project. I was worried at one point that benevolent passers-by might start placing coins on the ground in front of me.

The rain was continuing, so I took shelter in Galeries Lafayette, a French Harrods and Selfridges rolled into one. It’s a fine store, and I’d like to pay particular tribute to their excellent cloakroom facilities, which probably don’t get much of a mention in company advertising. The Christmas lights aren’t too bad either.

Chrstmas lights, Galeries Lafayette

When the rain stopped, I started walking down Avenue de l’Opéra, but about halfway down fatigue began to set in, so I hopped on the metro at Pyramides to go a couple of stops to Pont Neuf (come on, just two stops, it’s hardly a mortal sin).

The view from Pont Neuf looking west

I walked over the bridge and up rue Dauphine to Saint-Germain. It was now 14.50, so as I was nicely on schedule, I had another ten-minute sit-down in the wonderfully gloomy church of Saint-Sulpice – as seen in The Da Vinci Code.

And now it is confession time, dear reader. Taking photos was not the only purpose of my trip. It’s Christmas Day on Friday, and one tradition, entirely of my making, is that we always have a bacon sandwich for breakfast on Christmas Day morning. The French don’t really do bacon, but there is an M&S food store just a few hundred yards from Saint-Sulpice, and they sell some very good Wiltshire smoked back …

 ‘… well, while I’m here I might as well get some Cumberland sausages … lime pickle, chapatis, those double chocolate ginger biscuits, two of those mini Christmas puddings, some shortbread, mince pies …’ Ho ho ho indeed.

I trudged slowly but happily up rue de Rennes (I am beginning to understand why one of my heroes, the historian Richard Cobb, described it as the most boring road in Paris) and reached the station at 15.50. On the corner of rue Odessa, I saw the one thing I’d been keeping an eye out for all day – a café selling takeaway vin chaud. But it was too late – there was a queue. At the station I just had time to get another double espresso and a cereal bar for the train. My Fitbit told me that I had done over 26,000 steps and walked twelve miles. I know it’s a long way to go for a bacon sandwich, but it’s a very scenic route.

***

Three things I’ve learnt this week:

Glasgow is twinned with Bethlehem, Nuremberg, and Havana.

In 1672, an angry mob of Dutchmen killed and ate their prime minister.

The Dyslexia Research Trust Clinic is in Reading.

Let there be lights

Monday

When I started this blog back in January, I imagined wandering around both in Poitiers and in the rest of France, meeting interesting people and seeing lots of fascinating things to write about. Hah!

A few weeks ago, our permitted ‘exercise period’ was extended from one hour to three hours a day, just as it got cold and wet enough to deter one from leaving the house at all. When you do go out, the people that you see walking around look about as cheerful as you feel. If you meet anyone you know, the conversation is usually limited to ‘Ça va?’ … ‘Oui, ça va’ and a mutual shrugging of the shoulders. No one has any news. It struck me the other day that it’s been a long time since I heard anyone shouting or laughing in the street.

Still, ‘mustn’t grumble’. The Christmas lights were switched on at the weekend, along with the piped music in the main streets, and they do help to make the place a little more cheerful. Although cafés and bars cannot open, they can sell drinks to take away. Until recently, this meant bottles of wine or beer for home consumption, along with cups of coffee and hot chocolate. Now, however, some of the more resourceful ones are selling vin chaud (mulled wine) – a large cup for €3.50 is the going rate. I was never a great fan of the stuff, but needs must, and I’m beginning to get a taste for it. I’ve now worked out the route of quite a decent ‘vin chaud crawl’ around the city centre. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Madame gets suspicious of my increasingly regular evening walks, to ‘see the lights’, from which I return considerably more cheerful than when I left, but I’ll enjoy it while I can.

Wednesday

This is not what I came to France for. Our local paper, the Nouvelle République, has an article about COVI, a French canning company in nearby Deux-Sèvres, who are now promoting their own brand of corned beef. Hereford, as it’s called, comes in tins that are of ‘singular trapezoidal shape with a key to open’, and it’s recommended, cold or hot, as an aperitif, in a shepherd’s pie, as a gratin, or with stuffed tomatoes. Hmm … not sure about corned beef aperitifs.

Fair play to them, they are having a real go at promoting it. There is even a YouTube video in which five GIs land on a French beach armed only with tins of the stuff. Luckily, someone has left an attractive picnic table on the sand for them. I wish COVI well, but can’t help thinking the company name is a little unfortunate in these troubled times.

I have to confess that corned beef has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. However, Madame, being health-conscious and having a more discerning palate, has added Hereford corned beef to the list of foodstuffs that are banned from the house (it slots in neatly between faggots and kippers).

Thursday

Today we learnt of the latest government proposals for dealing with the virus. They had initially hoped to be able to lift many of the lockdown rules on December 15th – allowing people to travel to visit friends and family over the holidays – and follow this with a reopening of bars and gyms on January 20th. However, this all depended on new cases falling to 5,000 a day, a target that the government now judges ‘impossible’. Instead, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced on television this evening that while some restrictions will be lifted, others will stay in place, and an 8pm (rather than 9pm) curfew will be introduced.

The curfew will be lifted on December 24th, but not on December 31st as had previously been suggested. Cinemas, theatres, and other cultural centres, which had been scheduled to reopen on December 15th, will stay closed until at least January 7th. Bars, restaurants, and gyms will still stay closed until at least January 20th. The important ‘concession’ that will still take place next Tuesday is that the lockdown will be lifted, and trips out of the home will no longer require an essential reason or an attestation (permission form). One can now travel out of one’s region without restriction. While this is welcome, in practice it makes little difference to us. We had planned a trip to Paris next week, reasoning that even if bars and restaurants were closed, we could go for a walk, visit a museum or a cinema, possibly both, and grab a snack lunch on the go. With cinemas and museums shut, this seems a lot less attractive. Ah well, Poitiers it is then, at least for the foreseeable future.

Saturday

Wandering aimlessly around Carrefour this morning and, blow me, there it was.

Those boys at COVI certainly don’t muck around. I bought a couple of tins, and they are currently stashed behind a toolbox in our cave. I’ll have to be careful, but if you are walking around the city centre of an evening, don’t be surprised if you see a furtive-looking character struggling with a tin opener and a cup of vin chaud.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In Germany in the eighteenth century, there was a secret Catholic society called the Order of the Pug. Members wore dog collars and had to scratch at the door to be let in.

Racehorse names that managed to escape the Jockey Club censor include Hoof Hearted, Peony’s Envy, Wear the Fox Hat, and Sofa Can Fast.

While English children’s stories begin ‘Once upon a time …’, Korean ones begin ‘Back when tigers used to smoke …’.

Au revoir, Giscard

The main news in France this week has been the death of ex-president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing at the age of 94. All the obituaries, both here and in the UK, have been respectful, if a little restrained, the words ‘haughty’ and ‘aloof’ appearing regularly. Apparently Margaret Thatcher regarded him as patronising and condescending – which, frankly, seems a bit rich.

This image of d’Estaing may seem a little paradoxical considering the fact that in 1974 he became the Fifth Republic’s youngest president, an intellectually gifted politician who introduced a number of liberal reforms including reducing the voting age to 18, the introduction of divorce by common consent, and the legalisation of abortion. He also oversaw the creation of France’s high-speed TGV rail network and promoted its nuclear power strategy. Nevertheless, the image of aloofness was something he found difficult to shake off – claiming to be descended from Louis XV probably didn’t help. To boost the idea that he had the common touch, he was photographed playing football and the accordion (though never at the same time).

These were, of course, just staged for the press and nothing like the genuine displays of working-class solidarity from Tony Blair playing keepy-uppy with Kevin Keegan or David Cameron eating a hot dog (with a knife and fork).

If I’m honest, my immediate reaction on hearing about Giscard’s death was surprise at the fact that he had still been alive. I’m probably not alone in that, at least amongst those of us who aren’t French. At 94 he had outlived his two immediate successors, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, both of whom served two full seven-year terms. There are now only two ex-presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, both of whom served a single five-year term (the period was reduced during Chirac’s reign).

The situation is very different in the UK, where ex-prime ministers have started to accumulate at an alarming rate. There are currently five – John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Theresa May – and you wouldn’t get very long odds on the current incumbent joining then fairly soon. There is a similar situation in the USA, with Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama about to be joined by Donald Trump.

It’s quite interesting to look at how each of these countries treats its former leaders. When doing so, it is of course important to remember that in France and the USA the president is not just a ‘here today gone tomorrow politician’ but is also the head of state and on a par with the Queen.

In France, a former president receives a pension equivalent to that of a State Councillor, i.e. around 6,000 euros gross per month. If he decides to sit on the Constitutional Council, as he has the right to, he also receives around 11,500 euros net per month; in recent years, only Giscard has done this. They have a furnished and equipped official apartment, along with a staff of seven, including a chief of staff, assistants, and secretaries (this is reduced to three after five years). Should they wish it, two national police officers are available to them on a permanent basis for protection duties. A car is provided with two drivers (only one after five years), and they get free travel on Air France and SNCF, the French rail system. When they travel abroad, they can stay in the residences of the ambassador or the consuls.

In the USA, ex-presidents receive similar benefits. There is a lifetime annual pension of just over $200,000 a year, and the government pays for office space, furniture, staff, and supplies. They are also reimbursed for the move out of the White House and any work-related travel they do. All former presidents get lifelong Secret Service protection for themselves, their spouses, and any children under the age of 16.

In the UK, the situation is slightly different. Once a prime minster leaves office, he or she is not only out of a job but also, in theory, homeless, as 10 Downing Street has to be vacated and there is no state provision for any accommodation. They are, however, provided with an official car and driver, and they continue to have a police security guard. They are entitled to a pension of half their prime ministerial salary (which is currently just over £150,000). They can also claim a Public Duties Cost Allowance ‘to assist former Prime Ministers with the costs of continuing to fulfil duties associated with their previous position in public life’. This is worth £148,500 and is technically available for a lifetime. According to a cabinet office minister in 2016, Major was still claiming this twenty years after leaving office.

In the UK, there have been occasional calls for ex-prime ministers’ salaries to be ‘means tested’. It’s certainly true that there are plenty of opportunities for money to be made once out of office, and most of those qualified are adept at taking them. A few examples. Major was a board member of the Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest investment firms, and has numerous other directorships. Blair has amassed a property portfolio estimated to be worth £35 million. Cameron was paid £800,000 for his autobiography. Rather commendably, Brown tends to concentrate on advisory roles with organisations like the World Wide Web Foundation and the United Nations. His earnings from his directorship at the investment firm bank PIMCO go to the Gordon and Sarah Brown foundation for charitable works. Meanwhile, for now, May continues as an MP and can often be seen sitting on the back benches looking lovingly at Boris Johnson.

Our French ex-presidents have had mixed fortunes. François Hollande is still a member of the Parti Socialiste and has announced that, although he will not run for office, he plans to take an active part in the 2022 presidential election.

Meanwhile, poor old Nicolas Sarkozy is currently on trial in Paris for corruption. This raised a small but significant point of etiquette. On television last week, M. Sarkozy was shown on his way into the courtroom with various policemen standing at ease. By the end of the day, word had come down from Didier Lallement, the Paris chief of police: on trial or not, the man was an ex-president. As M. Sarkozy left the court, the soldiers stood stiffly to attention and saluted. I wonder if they will still do this if he is found guilty?

***

Three things I’ve learnt this week.

Until 1913, children in America could legally be sent by parcel post.

In the nineteenth century, before the Famine, an Irish labourer ate on average ten to fifteen pounds of potatoes a day.

In 2008, a man in Ohio was arrested for having sex with a picnic table.

This and that

Poitiers has gone for a decidedly minimalist approach to its Christmas tree this year

***

The Daily Mash on Sir Philip Green’s reaction to recent events

***

Brian Bilston is a poet who regularly appears on Twitter and is always interesting. If you replace Liverpool with Fulham, his latest poem so accurately reflects my life at the moment, that I think he might be spying on me through my webcam:

TODAY I SHALL LISTEN TO THE NEWS

Today I shall listen to the news and the football scores
and the tally of the dead. Intermittently, I shall pick
at the crossword and the biscuit tin, and stare out
of my back window at a squirrel as he scurries along
my fence. Later, there may be a film to watch. But for now
I shall listen to the prospects for a Liverpool team

looking to bounce back from a disappointing midweek defeat,
the rising unemployment figures, and the tally of the dead,
while attempting to make inroads with the north-west quadrant.
It is thought likely for there to be some changes made
to the side which started on Wednesday evening. I shall
be brought team news from all the featured grounds today

amid continued concerns over travel this Christmas, and
the failings of Test and Trace. It is regretted that in the present
circumstances, my newspaper is unable to process
crossword prize entries. Tomorrow, I shall buy some
more biscuits and possibly a pint of milk, and listen
to the news and the football scores and the tally of the dead.

The Clarkson Verses on his website https://brianbilston.com/ are also worth a read.

The wait goes on…

The Cluricaume

“Hoo-oo ha-a ha-a hoo-oo
Precious moments
When will I see you again?
When will we share precious moments?”

This week both England and France set out their plans for the next stage in dealing with Covid-19. It is interesting to compare the two. (Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have their own schedules.)

In England, the lockdown period will end on December 2nd, and there will be a return to the three-tier system first announced on October 12th but with significantly tighter rules.

In Tier 1, the rules are minimal, but this only covers a few isolated areas, like the Isle of Wight and Cornwall.

In Tier 2 (which is most of the country), you can’t socialise indoors with anyone you do not live with or who is not in your support bubble. You can meet in a group of up to six outside – including in a garden or a public place.

Shops, gyms, and personal care services (such as hairdressing) can reopen.

Pubs and bars can only open if they serve substantial meals. They must shut at 23:00 GMT, with last orders at 22:00 GMT.

Sports can resume with up to 2,000 spectators, or at 50% capacity (whichever is smaller).

In Tier 3 (which includes large parts of northern England), additional restrictions apply. Hospitality venues such as bars, pubs, cafés, and restaurants must stay closed, except for delivery and takeaway services. Spectator sports cannot resume.

More than 23 million people in England – 41.5% of the population – will be living under Tier 3 measures.

The first review of the tiers is set for December 16th, but it has already been announced that restrictions will be relaxed in all tiers from December 23rd till December 28th to allow three households to celebrate together indoors, outdoors, or in a place of worship.

France has adopted a very different approach to that of England. The new rules apply uniformly to the entire country.

As of yesterday, shops can open. This includes libraries, bookshops, clothes shops, toy shops, flower shops, etc. Also included are hairdressers and beauticians. 

Not included are cinemas, theatres, museums, cafés, restaurants, or bars. 

The system of exemption certificates (attestations de déplacement) will remain, meaning that anyone going out to exercise or shop will need to complete one and take it with them. 

People will now be allowed to exercise each day for up to three hours within 20 kilometres of their home. This does not allow people to visit family members or friends at their homes.

From December 15th, France’s lockdown will end if the average number of daily cases falls below 5,000 and the number of patients in intensive care units drops to between 2,500 and 3,000 or lower. Cinemas, theatres, and museums can reopen. Cafés, restaurants, and bars must remain closed. People will be able to move around freely, but a curfew will be in place from 21:00 to 07:00.

On January 20th, if the average number of daily Covid-19 cases remains below 5,000, France will move to phase three of its easing of lockdown measures. The curfew will end, and restaurants and cafés will be permitted to reopen.

Arguably, in France we are under a stricter regime. In particular, the non-opening of bars and restaurants until January 20th is hard to take. The curfew will last for over a month, with only a two-day relaxation for Christmas. However, the general impression I get is that most people are fairly resigned to the new regime (apart, obviously, from restaurant and bar owners). The government strategy has the advantage of being clear, logically argued, and applying equally to everyone.

We had a curfew during the first lockdown, and it didn’t seem to bother people. More and more restaurants are offering a takeaway service. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. The Christmas restriction is not quite as draconian as it might seem. Christmas here is a low-key private affair. You won’t see any Santas or reindeer on people’s lawns. There are no office parties, and pools of festive vomit in the streets are mercifully absent. The emphasis is on two meals – on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. By Boxing Day, people are returning to work and life to normal. All shops are open and busy. I have to say, after three years, I find this a perfectly acceptable way of doing things.

I could be wrong, but I get the impression that people are less happy in England. The tier system is complicated and inevitably throws up a number of anomalies. For example, Kent villages with very few virus cases now find themselves in Tier 3. People in Manchester (Tier 3) say they are being punished for previous disputes between their mayor and central government.

The proposed long Christmas break is dividing opinion. The government argument is that banning Christmas was never going to work; as people were not going to follow the rules, providing guidance to help them celebrate safely is a better way of managing the situation. However, many scientists are against it, saying it increases the risk of a third spike. Various newspaper surveys find that the majority of their readers think that relaxing rules for Christmas isn’t worth an additional month of lockdown later. Underlying everything there seems to be a sense that the overall strategy management is a bit flaky. Just today, the papers are reporting that Boris Johnson is preparing to make concessions to head off a revolt in his own party. There may be more twists and turns before the year is out.

***

When I said that people in France are resigned to the new regime, that doesn’t mean that everything always runs smoothly. In Joinville-le-Pont, on the outskirts of Paris, earlier this month, police officers were called to break up a rave involving over 300 people. They were met with a shower of bottles, which, I suppose, at least indicates that the partygoers were mindful of maintaining a safe physical distance.

Then on Monday, in Lannion, Brittany, a man was fined €135 for filling out his attestation form incorrectly. He had correctly given his name, address, and time of leaving home, but a policeman found that instead of ticking one of the boxes stating a legitimate reason to go outside – shopping, exercising, visiting the doctor, etc. – the man had written ‘aller péter la gueule à un mec’ (to smash a guy’s face in), an activity not covered by the form. He was fined an additional €150 for being drunk.

***

Three things learnt this week.

In France, it is legal to marry a dead person, so long as they had the intention to marry you while they were alive.

The word ‘his’ appears in the Bible 8,472 times. The word ‘hers’ features three times.

The average person farts 15–25 times per day.

Bye Bye Boulangerie

Sadly, La Pâtisserie Blossac in Rue de la Tranchée closed last Sunday. The proprietors, Serge and Isabelle Richefort, are finally retiring, thirty-seven years after Isabelle, an accountant by training, joined up with her brother to start the business. A group of customers gathered together for a small celebration at the shop on the Friday before the closure.

This is the third boulangerie we’ve seen closed since we moved here in April 2018, and it follows a pattern that is being seen throughout France. One reason for this is the general decline in bread consumption. According to the National Association of French Millers (ANMF), people in France are shunning baguettes in favour of healthier options. French people are now, on average, eating 120 grammes of bread per day, compared to 150 g in 2003 and a hefty 325 g in 1950.

But there is another aspect to this story. Serge and Isabelle belong to an endangered species. The term boulangerie is reserved for bakeries where the bread is prepared and baked on site; frozen or pre-baked products are not allowed. There are still around 32,000 traditional boulangeries in France, but the number is decreasing at a rate of about 1,200 a year. Young people are no longer drawn to the lengthy hours of the traditional bakers who live above the shop. Shopping malls have taken root on the periphery of rural areas, drawing in people who are content to buy at supermarkets or chains, such as Paul, La Panetière, and La Mie Câline – companies that get their products from mills which supply ‘mixes’ (mixtures of flour, improvers, and various ingredients) which simply require reheating. There are even baguette vending machines. All well and good, but for many people, particularly in more isolated areas, the loss of a boulangerie is also the loss of a community hub, a place to meet and chat while waiting in line for the daily baguette or the weekend eclairs. The decline in numbers is reminiscent of that of village pubs in England.

Quelle horreur !!

For all the decline in bread consumption, the French still take their baguettes very seriously, They consume a staggering 10 billion of them every year, which averages out at about 150 per head of population. In 1993, in an attempt to combat the creeping industrialisation of the bread-making process, the government, under prime minster Édouard Balladur, passed a law saying that the only ingredient allowed in a “baguette tradition” are wheat flour, water, salt, and yeast or sourdough. It must be baked on the premises and nothing must have been frozen in its preparation. If you can buy “une tradition” you know you are in a genuine boulangerie.

At, the same time as the Balladur act, in another attempt to garner support for traditional boulangeries, the city of Paris created an annual Best Baguette Prize. One of the privileges give to the winner is the right to supply the Elysée Palace with baguettes. Paris is still well provided for, in terms of boulangeries, so the prize is highly sought after. When I lived there, in Place D’Italie, there was a lot of local excitement when the nearby La Fournée d’Augustine in Rue Raymond Losserand, won the competition.  The owners were obviously delighted, the regular customers slightly less so, as the queues that used to form outside got even longer as people came from all over Paris to try the baguettes.

 La Fournée d’Augustine 

In doing what I laughingly call research for this little piece, I am slowly beginning to appreciate that, for all that they moan about it, the French secretly love bureaucracy. They keep statistics about everything. So I suppose it’s natural enough, in a country where bread shortages helped trigger a revolution, they keep such an extensive amount of data about bakeries.  Half the country lives less than 1.4 miles of a bakery, “as the crow flies”, according to one government report. In cities, 73 per cent of the population lives within less than a half-mile.

How long do the French take to reach their bakery? According to a national bakery association, the average boulangerie run, including all modes of transport, takes just over 7 minutes. To be more precise, it’s five minutes in a city or just over 9 minutes in the countryside… I could go on but I’m boring myself now.

 I had a strange experience when we came to Poitiers. M. Cousson our estate agent had recommended L’Atelier du levain ( literally “the sourdough workshop”)in nearby Rue Augouard as a particularly good boulangerie, and indeed it was. When we first moved in, I would reguarly buy our bread there, being as polite and smiley as possible in a pathetic attempt to ingratiate myself with the rather severe-looking female proprietor. My efforts seemed to be largely wasted. Every day, she would took my money with a curt, unsmiling “merci”,

Then, one Saturday, as I put out my hand for my change as usual, she suddenly delivered a heartfelt little speech. How she now regret not learning English at school. Her wonderful teacher, M. Durande. What an opportunity! Wasted! Wasted! How stupid she had been!  

Somewhat alarmed, I mumbled something about it being never too late and got out as quickly as I could. From then on we were on good terms. She always greeted me with a smile and restricted herself to the occasional sigh and “Oh, how I wish I could speak English ”. Something instinctively told me that not to reveal that I was an English teacher. One morning, about a month later, the shop was unexpectedly closed.  There was a note of apology in the window saying this was due to family illness and that they would re-open on the following Saturday. On the Saturday there was another note of apology and a promise that they would “définitivement” open the following Tuesday. They didn’t. The shop remained closed and I never saw here again. 

Victor Hugo would get a 1000 page novel out of that.   

***

Three interesting things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1871, lawyer Clement Vallandigham accidentally shot himself while demonstrating how a ‘murder victim’ may have accidentally shot himself. His client was found not guilty.

Most sex between giraffes is homosexual: in one study, same-sex male mounting accounted for 94 per cent of all sexual behaviour observed.

The total cost of rescuing a stranded Matt Damon in all of his films (including Saving Private Ryan, Interstellar, and The Martian) is an estimated $900 billion.