There and Here

London: No mean city

A few days in London last week, visiting family and friends. Two long walks through the centre of the city made me realise that I am increasingly seeing it as a tourist. The first was one of the nicest London walks I know: from Waterloo station along the South Bank to the Millennium Bridge, and then across to St Paul’s and on to Leadenhall Market in the City. Normally I would walk back via Fleet Street and the Strand, but it was cold and I was knackered so I took the tube back to Charing Cross and strolled over the railway bridge to Waterloo.

Nice to see a Waterloo sunset again

The second walk, from Victoria station, took me through St James’s Park, Green Park, Piccadilly Circus, and Trafalgar Square to Soho.

“You looking at me?” A pelican in St. James’s Park

The purpose of this second walk was a rendezvous with friends at the Photographers’ Gallery in Ramillies Street to see the Helen Levitt exhibition. This was an impressive display, but in the end I got museum fatigue. There were just too many images, many of them very similar. I thought the Vivian Maier exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg, though smaller, was much more effective. A very nice lunch afterwards at the Wigmore in Langham Place, as recommended by Jay Rayner in The Observer.

The rest of my time was a wonderful hectic blur. There was fish and chips and bangers and mash. There was an ocean of bitter beer and a lake of Laphroaig whisky. The gastronomic highlight was probably the enormous toasted cheese sandwich at the Wigmore (‘a foot long, but only if you have size 24 feet’, according to Mr Rayner).

The Wigmore toastie.  I will be sending my arteries off for a complete decoke in January.

***

While in London, I was struck again by the number of people not wearing masks in public. On trains on London Underground there were regular recorded messages saying you must wear masks in trains and stations, but the enforcement of this is non-existent. It seemed strange to go into a pub and not be asked for my pass sanitaire (health pass). Marks and Spencer’s, like most major stores, recommends that you wear masks, but again it is optional, at least in England. It is now compulsory in Scotland and Wales.

For some time now in France, the pass has been required in order to visit bars and restaurants, cinemas and sports grounds, and all other places of entertainment. They are compulsory if you work in the health sector or public services, and you need one if you travel by intercity train or aeroplane or go shopping in a mall. The pass proves that you have received both doses of the vaccine or are protected from Covid by other means. There have been angry protests throughout France, but 75 per cent of the population now carry one, a higher percentage than in any other European country.

Generally speaking, the passes have proved very effective, and this has done much to quieten down the protests. There was no post-holiday surge this autumn in France, and the numbers of cases and deaths from July to mid-October have been significantly lower than in the UK. Since then, however, the daily infection rate has risen rapidly, not just in France but across Europe.

While I was in London, President Macron appeared again on television in France. The 27-minute broadcast from the Elysée Palace was the president’s ninth since the onset of the Covid pandemic. Someone, I forget who, has described his tone in these broadcasts as that of a kindly family solicitor imparting bad news with regretful directness. This time, the president’s message was clear: ‘Get vaccinated to live normally’.

France had anticipated the so-called fifth wave by offering boosters – the third vaccination – to over-65s and those in other vulnerable categories. The take-up has been slow. Only a third of those eligible had booked appointments by the time of the president’s latest broadcast.

It was clearly time to up the ante. M. Macron did this. From December 15, people in the eligible group will need to show the third injection on their pass sanitaire or it will become invalid. No third injection will effectively mean getting locked down.

On Thursday this week there was a follow-up government announcement: the booster injection will now be offered to all adults from five months after their second injection, and from January 15 booster doses will gradually become a compulsory part of all adult health passes. After this date, any adult who has not received their booster seven months after their final dose will see their pass expire. This gives people two months after they become eligible for the booster to go for their extra injection. The health pass app will also be adapted to include an alert system warning someone when they are reaching their booster-dose deadline.

In a further ratcheting-up of pressure, PCR and antigen tests will only be valid health pass proof for 24 hours. Test results can currently be used to create a health pass valid for 72 hours, but the recent rise in case numbers has pushed the government to tighten the time frame. This change will come into force on Monday (November 29). I think these are sensible tactics by the government. Slowly but surely, without being legally compulsory, getting inoculated will be the only way to avoid lockdown

More by luck than judgement, I had booked my booster jab on Tuesday a couple of days before the new regulations were announced. Since then, all the local centres have been flooded with calls, and Madame will have to travel to Montmorillon, over thirty miles away, in a week’s time. However, she’s not complaining. Before the announcement, she was looking at waiting until January before she would be eligible.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

Heinz baked beans were first sold in Britain at Fortnum & Mason as an exclusive luxury imported from America.

There are only two mentions of sneezing in the Bible.

At the end of Roman mime plays, audiences could demand that the female lead strip on stage.

 ***

Stop press: The UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid has announced today that face masks will be compulsory in shops and on public transport in England from Tuesday in response to the new Omicron variant. This seems sensible, but I don’t envy the London Underground staff whose job it will be to police it.

A postcard from Perth

The view from Dunkeld Bridge looking south to Dundee

Our trip did not start well. It was depressing to get to Gare du Nord in Paris on a Sunday evening and find that the train line to Charles de Gaulle airport is currently closed at weekends. Being directed to take metro line 4 to Stalingrad then line 7 to Aubervilliers to pick up the replacement bus service was unlikely to raise our spirits, especially when it turned out that the said bus service did not exist. By the time we had taken line 7 back to Opéra (14 stops) to get the alternative bus service, some gentle weeping could be heard. We finally checked into our airport hotel four hours later than expected. Luckily, I always travel with my prescription for large glasses of Pinot Noir – a life-saver on such occasions.

The rest of the journey was straightforward. A decent night’s sleep, a smooth flight to Edinburgh, a tram to Waverley station, and then the train to Perth, via the Forth Bridge, a journey I always enjoy. We were met at the station by Madame’s parents, who drove us to Blairgowrie, about 20 kilometres away. Total journey time, door to door, 23 hours.

From the outside, the parents’ bungalow looks no different from the others in its quiet little cul de sac, not far from the town centre. Inside, however, it is like being in an indoor safari park. In every room there are wildlife paintings and artefacts. There are stags, hares, otters, frogs, voles, pigs, and more bird varieties than I could possibly identify. Pride of place in one room is given to a magnificent trout, stuffed and mounted, caught by Madame’s dad a few seasons ago.

Now, all this is well and good, but these are inanimate objects. Delightful to look at, but in no way are they any preparation for the whirlwind that hits you when an outer door is opened and the dogs are allowed in. Hazel, the dachshund, is now getting on a bit and rather sedate, but Ozzy the pug and Banjo the Brussels griffon are both adrenalin-charged pups who give the impression that their sole purpose in life is to leap on your lap and lick your face off. As if that weren’t enough, there is Scooby the parrot, grey with a dazzling splash of red for a tail. He has an impressive vocabulary, with ‘Cup of tea!’ and ‘Attaboy!’ amongst the few printable items.

Hazel

Ozzy
Banjo

Scooby

For me, this takes some getting used to, as we never really had pets when I was a child. There was the occasional goldfish won at a funfair, and we once had a rabbit, but it went mad and started attacking people, so we gave it away. Nevertheless, it’s surprising how quickly one does get used to living in a house with animals. After the initial excitement, things settle down very quickly. Short energetic spells are balanced by periods of lying in front of the fire dozing (I’m talking about the dogs here, not myself – though it does seem quite a civilised approach to life).

Let sleeping dogs lie

Our stay was all too brief. We had two nice meals out in Blairgowrie, and we visited the House of Bruar, a sort of Scottish Harrods, near Blair Atholl. I love coming here: vast arrays of tweed, tartan, and haggis, as far as the eye can see. They have now opened a separate whisky showroom, where pride of place is given to a bottle of Dalmore Constellation 1971, which can be yours for a mere £20,500. Tasting samples were not available.

For me, the high spot of our stay was a trip to nearby Dunkeld, on the north bank of the River Tay, just opposite Birnam (as mentioned in Macbeth). It’s a fine-looking town, and on a bright wintery day the countryside around us was a riot of autumn colours. The photos here can’t possibly do it justice.

The view from Dunkeld Bridge, looking north to Inverness

A sign in the cathedral grounds tells you that most of the original town was destroyed during the Battle of Dunkeld when, on 21 August 1689, the Cameronian Regiment successfully fought the Jacobites shortly after the latter’s victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie. On a happier note, another sign outside the Old Rectory nearby tells you that ‘Fiddler Niel Gow and poet Robbie Burns entertained here in 1787.’

They do themselves well in Dunkeld. To provide some ballast, the Palmerston Coffee Shop offers Carrot, Turnip and Potato Soup and ‘5 kinds of Scones’. Once that is digested, the Whisky Box sells an impressive range of malts and has regular tastings, while TasteTalk offers ‘Scotland’s finest chocolate truffles paired with superb malt whiskies’.

The Palmerston

There is an endearing sense of honesty about a very faded sign outside the Scottish Deli, which advertises ‘The Finest Port Procurable’.

The Scottish Deli

One can imagine an unhappy customer being told, ‘I’m awfully sorry, sir, but it was the finest we could procure.’ Maybe they blamed a shortage of delivery drivers.

We had an overnight stop in Edinburgh on the way back, but it was bitterly cold, so we restricted ourselves to a visit to the Scott Monument and a quick tour of the bars in and around Rose Street.

My dinner was the Haggis Tower (‘MacSween’s haggis, bashed neeps, and mashed potato in a whisky sauce’) in Whiski Bar in the High Street.

The Scott Monument

Our journey home started well, with a tram to the airport and another easy flight, but there was a sting in the tail. We had not taken into account that the 11th of November is a bank holiday in France. This meant that the passport desk was run by a skeleton staff, and we had to wait 45 minutes to get through. Then we found that the train line to Paris was again closed. We were taken by coach to Stade de France and put on a different line back to Gare du Nord, from where we got metro line 4 to Montparnasse. We arrived just in time to see the Poitiers train disappearing into the distance. Enough to make a parrot swear. Still, a steak frites and a carafe of Morgon in Café Odessa across the road from the station and suddenly the two-hour wait for the next train didn’t seem too bad.

Total journey time, door to door, 31 hours. All in all, an excellent adventure.

The Auld Alliance

We are off to Scotland tomorrow morning to visit Madame’s parents. Flight times dictate that this means a trip to Paris this afternoon and an overnight stop at a hotel in Charles de Gaulle airport. Ryanair used to fly direct from Poitiers to Edinburgh, but that awfully nice Mr O’Leary stopped this service a few months after we arrived.

Because of Covid, this will be the first time we’ve seen them in over two years, and we are really looking forward to it. They live in Blairgowrie, just on the edge of the Highlands, and an added bonus is that the scenery there is particularly stunning at this time of year.

We have our own little bit of Scotland here in Poitiers, in the oddly named Rue des Écossais (Street of the Scots) not far from the main square. It has the Prefecture at one end and the police station at the other, but I have learnt to my cost that any remarks about needing to keep an eye on the Scots are best avoided at home.

In view of our trip, I’ve been looking into why the street is so called, and it turns out that it’s all due to a man called Robert Irland. Born in Scotland, he was a professor of law at the University of Poitiers, and in 1502 he bought the land on which the street now stands. He planted it with trees and vines and built a house which he called ‘Les Écossais’.

The only other remotely Scottish link in the street I can find is that the building now housing the police station was once La Collège des Écossais. Built in 1923, it was a college for young girls, dedicated to teaching them what used to be known as domestic science. Above the door of the police station, one can still see the initials VP for Ville de Poitiers and the words Enseignement ménager (Home education). I quite like the idea of a Madame Jean Brodie teaching her crème de la crème how to bake scones.

I also discovered that during the last war, the SS set up their local headquarters at no. 13 Rue des Écossais but, again, I think it best not to make any flippant remarks about this at home.

***

Quite by chance, on Monday I came across another Poitiers/Scottish link in the church of Saint-Porchaire in Rue Gambetta. I’d gone in to take a photo of the confessional box, as I’ve lately become slightly obsessed by these bizarre little structures. Looking both quaint and oddly sinister, they bring back memories of a Catholic childhood, when from the age of nine or ten, you were expected to enter one of them and ‘admit your sins’ to a man behind a screen. I can remember frantically trying to come up with two or three things that were sufficiently reprehensible to earn my penance of an Our Father or three Hail Marys but innocuous enough not to require any further cross-examination – ‘swearing’ and ‘losing your temper’ were always reliable. It was about that time that I first came across the phrase ‘having impure thoughts’. At that age I wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but I figured it was best avoided in the confessional.

‘Impure thoughts! Moi?’

Anyway, there I was in Saint-Porchaire taking my photo, when I noticed this stone set into the wall just by the confessional.

It’s a memorial to Adam Blackwood, who was born in Dunfermline in 1539. Orphaned when very young, his education was sponsored by his great uncle, Robert Reid, Bishop of Orkney. He studied at the University of Paris and then, thanks to the patronage of Mary, Queen of Scots, became a practising lawyer in Poitiers. He was a loyal servant to Mary and published various works criticising her treatment in England, along with volumes of poetry and religious meditation.

Robert Irland died in 1561, while Blackwood was still studying in Paris, so it’s unlikely they will have met, but I’m beginning to wonder how many other links there may be between Scotland and Poitiers. According to the memorial stone, the Blackwood line survived in Poitiers till 1754, so I think a trip to the archives in Rue Blaise Pascal might be interesting.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The medieval French made up their own saints, such as St Coquette, the patron saint of talkative women, and St Jambon, the patron saint of ham.

General Franco kept the mummified hand of St Teresa of Avila on his bedside table until his death.

The word papa means ‘pope’ in Italian, ‘shark’ in Swahili, ‘potato’ in Quechua, and ‘arse’ in Maori.

John Banville and me

To Paris on Tuesday. An event at the Centre Culturel Irlandais to publicise the French edition of John Banville’s last book, Mrs Osmond. For some years now, I’ve been busily not writing a PhD thesis on Mr Banville. In doing this, I’ve read all his published works several times, and I’ve accumulated a substantial library of critical books and papers on him – everything from Partial Bodies, Ephemeral Subjects: Uncanny Corporeality in John Banville’s Eclipse, Shroud, and Ancient Light by Mehdi Ghassemi of Université de Lille, to What’s in Your Basket?, a Guardian article in which a doctor analyses someone’s weekly shopping and delivers a verdict on its suitability. (Banville drinks too much red wine but gets bonus points for liking dark chocolate, fish, and unpasteurised cheese.)

I have recordings of TV and radio programmes devoted to his work, and I have spent happy hours in the National Library in Dublin poring over microfiches of now-defunct magazines in order to access his earliest reviews and articles. If I went on Mastermind and were to get through to the second round, my chosen subject would be ‘The Novels of John Banville’. (In the first round, it would be ‘The Public Houses of South-West London, 1970–2000.’)

I admit that, up till now, the results of all this might seem less than impressive; an unkind person might say non-existent. But what people don’t realise is that the more one explores one’s subject, the more paths open up for new research (further trips to Dublin will definitely be required).

Equally, there has been a shift in emphasis in thesis writing – textual analysis is seen as old hat, and the tendency now is to write a first-person account of one’s relationship with the subject’s work and its effect on one’s life. I’ve noticed that, in their own writings, some established authors have had commercial success with this; for instance, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage (on his admiration for D. H. Lawrence) and Nicholson Baker’s U and I (on John Updike) have both sold well.

With this in mind, I am currently mulling over a new approach – a lightly fictionalised account of my relationship with Mr B. in which he and I meet by chance in Mulligan’s bar in Dublin. We discover that we get on extremely well, and then we embark on a trip around European cities discussing literary matters and helping the local police to solve crimes.

To date, no biography of Banville has been published. Given the amount of material I have amassed, I am increasingly tempted to start not writing a biography alongside my thesis, though I fear that might be biting off more than I could chew.

Anyway. There I was in the Centre Culturel on Tuesday evening. It’s a lovely building in Rue Irlandais, close to the Panthéon, in the heart of the Latin Quarter. As we mill around in the courtyard waiting for the lecture room to open, it’s clear that many of the audience are regulars who know each other; as an outsider, I am glanced at with mild curiosity. They are predominantly female. Clusters of two or three well-dressed, middle-class women of a certain age who would be quite at home in Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. Their slightly less soigné male counterparts, usually on their own, might be more comfortable in one of William Trevor’s seaside boarding-houses. A couple of them look as if they, too, are not writing something – probably a novel.

Banville spoke for half an hour, without notes, on James Joyce and his time in Paris. He was, as always, witty, self-deprecatory, and wise. There were anecdotes about Beckett, Yeats, and Joyce’s wife, Nora. At the end there were surprisingly few questions from the audience, so I asked one about his current writing plans. He said that in 2022 he hopes to finish a book that he has been working on for five years; he thinks it may be his last, as he is 75 and his memory is not what it was. Referring to a passage from Birchwood that had been read out when he was being introduced: ‘For the life of me, I don’t remember writing that at all.’

A glass of wine was being offered at the end, but I decided to leave the regulars to it. I strolled down to Place Saint-Michel and headed for Corcoran’s in Rue Saint-André des Arts.

Place Saint-Michel

Dinner was a pint of Guinness and a croque-monsieur, eaten with one eye on my scribbled notes from the talk, the other on Arsenal vs Leeds on the TV. Over the years, much of my research work has been done in this fashion, which probably explains quite a lot.

***

Earlier in the day, I’d spent a pleasant few hours flâneuring around the city. I popped into the Bibliothèque Nationale in Rue de Richelieu to see the wonderful reading room, which looks a little like the one in the old British Library before it moved to St Pancras. (If you click on the photos, they will open in a new window.)

***

Nearby, at no. 10 Rue des Petits Carreaux, you can see (though perhaps not for much longer) this controversial sign above a long-closed coffee shop. It shows a scantily-clad slave serving coffee to his master, who is comfortably seated on sacks of coffee beans.

Splattered with black paint, the sign, like the recently toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, is a reminder of nineteenth-century colonialism. There is an ongoing debate about whether it should be pulled down or not.

***

An exhibition will soon be under way at the Hôtel de Ville to mark Paris’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 2024.

The logo for the Games is meant to depict the Olympic flame within a gold medal, and the hair and lips of Marianne, the personification of the French Republic since the 1789 revolution. However, some say it looks more like an advert for a hairdressing salon or a dating website.

***

Just before going to the talk, I stopped to take a photo of PLATHEON, a lovely little shop around the corner from the Centre Culturel that sells ceramics, jewellery, and knitwear; it’s well worth a visit if you are in the area.

To my surprise, the owner, a charming woman by the name of Serpil Utebay, asked me in for a chat. She said that events at the Centre are always welcome, as they are likely to bring potential customers in. It turns out the shop is really her husband Cem’s project, and Serpil devotes most of her time to philosophy research. As I left, she called me back and presented me with an attractive canvas bag with the shop’s logo on it. Inside was a stylish pair of Aegean-blue socks. I thanked her and promised to mention the shop in my blog. So here it is, my first ever venture into commercial sponsorship.

I am very receptive to suggestions for more of this, particularly from vineyards and distilleries.

Presidents and painkillers

President Macron at the Palais De Justice

President Macron came to visit Poitiers on Tuesday. All very exciting – helicopters overhead, police cars everywhere. He was visiting the Palais de Justice to announce the opening of États généraux de la justice, a major review of the justice system in France – a headline-catching exercise, probably not unconnected with the coming presidential election.

There is growing concern about recent violent attacks targeting magistrates, but it would seem from their comments afterwards that the local judiciary were not particularly impressed by the President’s visit. ‘He says one thing and then the opposite – he tells us that justice must be faster but also that it must take time to reflect,’ complained one magistrate. ‘We are told that everything must be broken, and we are then given four months to rebuild it all. It is not serious,’ declared another.

The President had a more sympathetic reception when he took part in a charity football match last week. Watched by his wife Brigitte, he took to the pitch in Poissy, outside Paris, alongside former international defender Marcel Desailly and ex-Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. Some ‘highlights’ of the game can be seen here.

Macron, who played football at university and is a keen tennis player, played midfield and had a fairly easy time of it, with overawed opponents retreating deferentially as he advanced with the ball.

Unsurprisingly, when a penalty was awarded, he was chosen to take it, and the goalkeeper didn’t seem too bothered about saving it. Still, I have to say he looks more convincing in football kit than one of his predecessors, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was showing off his own sporting prowess by jogging while at the recent Tory party conference, though with true British decorum he decided to do this while wearing a formal white shirt and a pair of black brogues.

Somehow the photo seems more credible if you imagine him being chased from Downing Street by a crowd of angry voters, just out of shot.

***

I have mentioned in the past that Poitiers is a relatively quiet place. Even though students make up a significant element of the local population, there is a general lack of boisterousness in the air, and many of the local citizenry seem to live a quiet, almost hobbit-like existence behind closed doors. I used to put this down to an innate conservatism, but recently I have started to develop another theory – half of the population are permanently stoned.

There are several reasons for thinking this. Firstly, a recent survey has shown that, as a nation, France is the largest consumer of cannabis in Europe. According to the newspaper Aujourd’hui, there are about a million daily cannabis users, and 18 million people say they have taken the drug at some time: these are people ‘at all ages and in all walks of life. Whether you are unemployed, a student, a senior executive, a manual worker, a policeman, or a journalist, whether you live in the [upmarket]16th arrondissment in Paris or in a village in the Aisne, the joint is everywhere.’

Secondly, recent analysis shows that the decriminalisation of cannabis is now supported by a majority of French people: 51% are in favour, nearly twice as many as when the first study was carried out (27% in 1977).

Thirdly, in almost every city in France there has recently been a sudden rush to open shops offering cannabis-related products. In the past six months, at least five have opened up here in Poitiers. Some of these are franchised outlets, such as Deli Hemp in Rue Saint-Nicolas.

Others are small local shops, like Le Bistrot des Graines in Rue des Vieilles Boucheries.

They all sell a variety of cannabis-based oils, infusions, and mixtures that claim to reduce anxiety and depression, ease pain, and inhibit the symptoms of arthritis.

The sudden influx is due to a change in French law in November 2020, which makes it legal to sell products that contain the cannabis molecule cannabidiol (CBD) as long as they contain less than 0.2% of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ‘stupefying’ ingredient that is found in other (still illegal) forms of cannabis.

While these shops are careful to promote the health-enhancing aspects of their products, I can’t help thinking that shops with names like ‘High Society’ and ‘Dream Flower’ may have a slightly wider customer base in mind.

One thing that is interesting is that CBD products are also legal in the UK, but as far as I am aware, there has been nothing like the spread of new outlets for them there. One might think that, given the steady resurgence of Covid cases, the fuel shortages, and the emptying supermarket shelves, anyone selling a product that reduces stress and anxiety would be on to a sure-fire winner.

***

A recent tweet on Twitter asked, What’s your most tenuous claim to fame? My dad’s godfather was Bruce Forsyth’s dentist.

Some of the responses:

Ronnie Corbett once held me as a baby.

My great-grandad was converted to Catholicism by the priest who was the inspiration for Father Brown.

My grandfather met Johnny Weissmuller. Also, Brian Eno once called our house.

My dad went to the same school as Prince Charles, but not at the same time.

I had pie and chips with Gloria Gaynor in a Coventry pub.

I sang at Fidel Castro’s niece’s wedding.

Richard Burton told me to ‘fuck off’ when I was about 13.

Tom Jones once came to my parents’ country pub for a pint. I was in Belgium at the time.

Mum’s cousin Dave’s dog, Pickles, discovered the Jules Rimet Trophy after it was stolen just before the 1966 World Cup.

My dad – a dentist – once threw Fanny Craddock out of his surgery for being bolshy. My dad was a horrible bloke, so my loyalties lie with Fanny.

My own claim to fame is that I once stood next to (Lord) Melvyn Bragg in the gents’ toilets at the Almeida Theatre in London. We did not speak.

A busy week

Monday. My Pilates class finally restarted after a long Covid-influenced break. Several new members have joined, and we were all introduced to each other by Sandra, our tutor. When it came to my turn, she said, ‘C’est Mick … comme Mick Jagger!’ I assumed she was referring to my name rather than my gymnastic ability – the looks on the faces of everyone else told me they had quickly come to the same conclusion. We do lots of basic stretching, with a few yoga exercises added. My Downward Dog (la posture du chien tête en bas) is coming on a treat.

Tuesday. I went along to the Banque Alimentaire (food bank) in South Poitiers to be shown around and to see if I could be of any use to them. With six paid employees and around a hundred volunteers, it’s a much larger operation than the one I used to work at in Ely. There is a 1,200 m2 warehouse with four cold rooms. Five mornings a week, three refrigerated trucks collect food from local supermarkets and hypermarkets. This is sorted and then distributed each afternoon to around sixty charitable associations. There are also contributions from the EU, the French state, and local manufacturers and farmers. During the recent lockdown, the municipal council had a scheme for buying unsold goods from local markets to give to the food bank – helping both suppliers and consumers. In total, around 105 tonnes of food passed through the warehouse last year.

I was assured that my limited French would be no problem, and we agreed that I would do a Friday morning each week, helping out on one of the truck runs. I regard this as a promotion from my shelf-stacking duties at Ely, and I felt a surge of pride as I was handed my gilet orange (hi-vis tabard), happy in the knowledge that I can now add International Food Bank Specialist to my CV.

Wednesday. I’ve joined a local photography club, and we meet once a week in a community centre in Buxerolles. It’s good fun, and they are a jolly bunch. In my first couple of meetings I’ve been getting a crash course in French photographic vocabulary – a camera is un appareil photographique (they do use the word camera, but only for a video camera), a lens is un objectif, and a shutter is un obturateur. Confusingly, a photographer is un photographe. French vocabulary is usually more limited than English, but they do have a word for the button you press to actually take a picture – un déclencheur. As far as I am aware, there is no English equivalent.

Canon and Nikon owners predominate in the group (I have an Olympus), and there is a comic rivalry between the two, vying to demonstrate the superiority of their own particular models, often using fairly arcane debating points such as whether or not one’s camera is ‘PictBridge compatible’ and the number of ‘dual cross-type AF points’ it has. It’s all way above my head at the moment and reminds me of the Not The Nine O’Clock News Hi-Fi Shop sketch.

Thursday. To Paris to see the Vivian Maier exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg.

Maier’s story is a fascinating one. Born in 1926 in New York, she lived there till she moved to Chicago in 1956. While working as a children’s governess, she enjoyed walking around the city, particularly the working-class areas, taking photos of urban life. Her mother was French, and she also travelled and photographed extensively in France.

Vivian Maier, Self-portrait

The general public only became aware of Maier’s work in 2007, two years before her death. By now her health was failing and she had little money. However, three of the children she had nannied earlier in her life came to the rescue. They pooled resources to pay for an apartment for her and settle her medical bills. Unbeknownst to them, one of Vivian’s storage lockers had been auctioned off to repay some outstanding debts, and it was here that the massive hoard of over 100,000 negatives that she had accumulated throughout her life was discovered. Fame quickly followed. The exhibition is wonderful: beautiful photographs full of humour, pathos, and compassion. I defy anyone to go and see it and not come out feeling better about life generally.

I spent the rest of a fine sunny day happily clicking my way around the city.

At the exhibition
A quiet moment in Jardin du Luxembourg
A quiet moment on the Metro

A café near Blvd. Saint-Michel introduced these bears to assist with social distancing, but they seem to have become a permanent feature.

A protest against rail privatisation at Gare de l’Est

Polish buskers at Châtelet

Friday. I arrive at 08.00 for my Banque Alimentaire shift. René, slightly older than me, is the driver. He has been with the food bank for a year. I am the accompagnateur. My main objective for the day is to not make a complete arse of myself. We visit several large supermarkets and hypermarkets on the periphery of Poitiers, loading plastic crates of fruit, vegetables, and refrigerated food. For the latter we have to record the temperature using a hand-held device that looks like a water pistol. Each stop takes about twenty minutes. I am clearly doing ok, because after the second supermarket I am given full responsibility for the water pistol. On the way back to base, we pass Poitiers airport, and René tells me that he was general manager there, back in the 1970s. Other volunteers I’ve already met include a charted accountant, an IT consultant, and two teachers. We unload at the depot and go out for a second, shorter trip to collect from a fruit and vegetable warehouse to the north of Poitiers. Back to unload again, and we are finished by 11.30. I’ve had worse jobs.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The South Korean equivalent of ‘looking for a needle in a haystack’ is ‘looking for Mr Kim in Seoul’.

The average person produces enough saliva in their lifetime to fill two swimming pools.

In 1577 in Aylesbury, England, seven men and a woman were sentenced to be hanged after being found guilty of ‘keeping company with Egyptians’.

Alarms and excursions

Les parapluies de Poitiers. Pink umbrellas are festooning the streets of Poitiers throughout the month to support the October Rose breast cancer awareness project.

***`

We had a pleasant few sunny days in Toulouse and Bordeaux last week. I’ve always liked both cities. Bordeaux is the grander of the two, but I marginally prefer Toulouse, with its wonderful rose-red buildings and its slightly scruffier, more laid-back air. It was a gentle relaxing trip, with the odd jerk to keep us awake – literally, in one case.

On the journey to Toulouse on Friday, our train stopped at Montauban, where we were told we would be delayed for an hour. A case had been left on the train, and the bomb squad had been called. In our carriage there was a collective groan, and then we all went back to looking at our phones and tablets.

Then at 3.20 a.m. on Saturday we were roused by a fire alarm in the hotel. Oh, how we laughed. Mind you, it was almost worth it to see the other guests assembling in the hotel reception area. Madame and I had sleepily put on our jeans and tops, but I was surprised to see how many people bring nightwear with them when travelling – everything from old-fashioned stripey jim-jams to funky modern ‘loungewear’. An elderly Japanese couple in thick woolly dressing gowns, the woman in curlers, were taking no chances and had brought all of their luggage with them. The stars of the show were two middle-aged French gentlemen, who had arrived first and were standing at the reception desk. One, in what looked like a black posing pouch, had a towel draped over his shoulders, and the other was wearing nothing but a pair of dark green Y-fronts. The former was talking to the receptionist, while the latter stood looking sternly at the rest of us as we sheepishly shuffled in. Whether this was because we were late to arrive or had failed to match his sartorial expectations was difficult to say.

The emergency was over in about five minutes. The alarm had been set off by some twat lighting a cigarette in their room. I suggested to the receptionist that they be identified at breakfast so that we could all thank them personally, but the idea was politely declined. We were back in bed fairly quickly, but the images of the friskily clad Frenchmen was etched on my brain and it made getting off to sleep difficult.

***

What’s in a name?

I occasionally treat myself to a pastry with my coffee, but one has to be careful when travelling in France. There is a line one crosses, I’m not exactly sure where, but Bordeaux is definitely on the other side of it from Poitiers. Once over this line, ordering un pain au chocolat is asking for trouble. Here, it is most definitely une chocolatine, and the difference is much more important than the English question of whether scone rhymes with John or Joan.

A recent survey found that about 60 per cent of the population would ask for a pain au chocolat, with Paris being the strongest in favour, whilst 40 per cent would demand a chocolatine. Apparently, Bordeaux and Toulouse feel particularly strongly about this. So much so, in fact, that getting the name wrong here might cost you – as this sign from a Bordeaux boulangerie indicates:

Be careful what you ask for

This is not the only form of punitive price adjustments one comes across in France. We are constantly reminded of the importance of saying ‘Bonjour’ when entering a shop or café, and journalist John Lichfield recently came across this sign in a café-brasserie in Clécy, just south of Caen.

Un café! 2€50. Bonjour, un café! 2€. Bonjour un café, s’il vous plaît 1€10.

***

Two years ago I discovered a wonderful website, Pepysdiary.com, which, once you are registered, sends you a daily email with an extract from Samuel Pepys’s diary. This quickly became addictive, and it is usually the first thing I read each morning. There is now also a Twitter feed containing daily extracts.

It turns out that comedian Bill Bailey is also a Pepys fan, and the Pepysdiary website recently provided this transcript of part of his live show, Larks in Transit, a recording of which can be seen on BBC iPlayer.

I look for the little sort of glimmers of hope, and sometimes you find them, right? Someone has taken the trouble to set up a Twitter account in the name of Samuel Pepys, the seventeenth-century London diarist. The Twitter feed is just genuine extracts from Pepys’s diary, which is a beautiful thing.

But, of course, this being Twitter, there’s a lot of people who have never heard of Samuel Pepys, so they just think it’s some old bloke talking in a weird way. So you get these fantastic exchanges, like this one. This is an entry from 1665:

‘I was mightily troubled with a looseness, and feeling for the chamber-pot, there was none, I having called the maid up out of her bed, she had forgot I suppose to put one there; so I was forced in this strange house to rise and shit in the chimney twice.’

And somebody’s replied, ‘Been there, bruv. Been there.’ So, if you know of anybody called Adam Hodgkiss, don’t let them stay in your spare room, that’s my advice.

***

September’s Tweet of the month from @jackbern23:

“I’ve spent 25 years designing wedding dresses in west London, one stop on from Warwick Avenue.”

“Maida Vale?”

“I’ve done thousands, mate.”

La Rentrée 2021

A quiet few weeks since my last postcard. A trip to Orléans. A flying visit to the UK to see family and friends. The most interesting thing to occur here in Poitiers was probably my encounter with a delightful lady called Emmanuelle, whom I bumped into when she was walking her pet pig, Banda, down Rue de la Chaîne.

Actually, looking back, I’m not sure who was walking whom. Whichever it was, Banda certainly looked at peace with the world.

***

September means la rentrée here in France, a time when the whole country seems to wake up and get back to work. Smaller independent businesses, including boulangeries, florists, pharmacies, and clothes shops, which have been closed for some or all of August, reopen. Students return to schools and universities. Parliament resumes its sessions, in what is going to be a busy period leading up to next year’s Presidential election. La rentrée littéraire sees hundreds of new books published. There is a general sense of renewal in the air, and it is heightened this year, as we now appear to be over the latest surge of Covid cases, the ongoing vaccination programme giving cause for cautious optimism.

Here in Poitiers, an aspect of this process is the annual Journée des Associations, which was held at the weekend in Parc Blossac. Charitable organisations, sports, and social clubs set out their stalls to try to attract new members. The word association is a bit of a mouthful in French, having six syllables: ‘ah so see ah see yon’. For convenience, it’s usually abbreviated to asso. When I suggested visiting the Journée to Madame, she would only go on condition that I promised not to make any jokes using this abbreviation. It turned out to be good fun, and I have put my name down as a volunteer for the local banc alimentaire (food bank). I must admit I was slightly disappointed that my previous experience at the Ely Food Bank (assistant in charge of baked beans and other tinned tomato-sauce-based products) didn’t seem to count for much.

***

Some organisations have had a more successful rentrée than others, Supermarket chain Monoprix got themselves into a spot of bother by selling rentrée orange juice, which sounds pretty innocuous until you look more closely at the bottles.

They are covered with drawings and phrases more normally seen on public convenience walls: things like … well, I’ll let you read them yourselves. As with all images, if you click on it, it will appear in another window (only do this if you are over 18, obviously). A complaint from the police union Alliance Police Nationale,objecting to the acronym ACAB, has led to the bottles being withdrawn.

***

Much in the news last weekend about 18-year-old Emma Raducanu winning the US Open tennis championship, but it was another sporting story that caught my eye. Tyrone clinched the All-Ireland Football Championship title by beating Mayo 2-14 to 0-15 in the final at Dublin’s Croke Park stadium, the first time Tyrone have beaten Mayo in the past thirteen years.

What makes it fascinating is that this is another example of the ‘Mayo Curse’ that has prevented the county from winning the title since 1951. The curse was placed as the Mayo team were returning home having beaten Meath in that year’s final in Dublin. They were being driven through the village of Foxford when they passed a church where a funeral was under way. The players did not get out to pay their respects, and the enraged priest uttered the fateful words: ‘For as long as you all live, Mayo won’t win another All-Ireland.’

And so it has come to pass. Despite its small population of 130,000, Mayo has reached the final ten times since 1951, but to no avail. The curse endures, as there is one member of the 1951 winning team still alive – Paddy Prendergast, aged 94. Paddy should probably tread carefully if Mayo do well next year.

I sympathise with Mayo supporters but, judging by Fulham’s measly trophy collection, I suspect their team bus has been racing past funerals throughout their history.

***

Overheard on my trip to the UK:

In the Alexandra pub, Wimbledon. Two men in their forties, dressed identically like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, baseball caps, white polo shirts, shorts, and trainers. One eating fish and chips, with condiments in small ramekins:

Non-eater: ‘Don’t do that.’

Eater: ‘What?’

Non-eater: ‘You’re double-dipping, ketchup and tartare.’

Eater: ‘So?’

Non-eater: ‘You can’t do that. It’s turning my stomach.’

In M&S Wimbledon. Elderly couple:

She: ‘I think we’ve still got that tin of custard open in the fridge.’

He: ‘Yeah, and the haddock.’

Young girl to a friend in Pret a Manger, King’s Cross station:

‘I like cheese and onion, but it always makes me …’ [she puts her hands around her mouth and silently says ‘fart’].

On the Paris–Poitiers train home. One of a group of four Englishmen eating their own weight in hot junk food:

‘There was this sushi place in Edinburgh. All you can eat for 12 quid. Fuck me, did me and Eric tear into it.’

A conspicuous absence

Where is everyone ? La Gazette , Rue Gambetta

We have a new neighbour. A young woman, whom we’ve yet to meet, has moved into no. 22. She replaces the two young women who moved in about a year ago. Neither we nor any of our other neighbours really got to know them, and they have now gone to live in Canada. We got this from Jacqueline, the actress and theatre director who lives directly opposite us at no. 20. At no. 24, on the other side of the new neighbour, is Brigitte, who is retired, though I’m not sure what she actually did for a living. Opposite Brigitte and two doors up from us is Colette, the 80-year- old grande dame who is livelier than many women half her age. She is an active member of Les Soroptimistes, a sort of French Women’s Institute, and is forever gadding about on little jaunts around France. Between Colette and us live Jean-Claude and Bernadette, whom I’ve mentioned before in these pages. On our other side, at no. 17, lives Inès, a shy, polite Spanish lady who keeps herself very much to herself. We all get along well, and I think we’ve been generally very lucky in our neighbours.

Alert readers will have noticed something a little unusual in the above account. Apart from myself, Jean-Claude is the only male living in our immediate vicinity. There are a couple of others, further up and down the street, but I’ve never spoken to any of them. At the occasional neighbourly get-together we attend, it is always just Jean-Claude and myself. In fact, at the last two such gatherings, a drinks party in Jacqueline’s garden and a small soirée at Colette’s to celebrate her birthday, Jean-Claude was away for some reason, and I was the only male present. This doesn’t bother me particularly, but it is a symptom of a more general trend here in Poitiers and something that has puzzled me for some time – a seemingly general shortage of single men.

Now, this needs qualifying. A widely quoted Poitiers statistic is that one in four of the population is a student, and in term-time it is easy to believe. The bars and cafés are full of young people, and amongst them it is normal to see groups of young men sitting and drinking together. It is older men I am referring to, in particular those over the age of 40. When out and about, these seem nearly always to be in the company of their female partners. What is noticeably missing are the clusters of men that I’d got used to seeing in bars wherever I’ve lived in the past. I said ‘single men’ earlier, but these groups usually consist of both bachelors and men who are or were once married. They meet a few times a week, sometimes more, for a couple of drinks, sometimes more. They are a feature of most English pubs, sitting or standing at the bar, chatting, arguing, reminiscing, telling and retelling anecdotes (‘talking bollocks’ in Madame’s succinct phrase). I had no trouble finding bars containing similar groups when I lived in Paris and Prague. On trips to other French cities, I’ve identified bars which, even if empty at the time, had something about them that indicated they were the sort of place where such groups regularly congregate.

Here in Poitiers, these individuals are conspicuous only by their absence. The nearest thing I have found are the two sports bars, the cavernous and slightly soulless Wallaby’s in Rue du Plat d’Étain, and the much more convivial Drop ’n Shoot in Rue du Chaudron d’Or. The latter is run by a very amiable Bill Murray lookalike, and I sometimes go there to watch a French Ligue 1 game. I sit with a few others (the French are generally more interested in the English Premier League than their own) watching the big screen, drinking beer, and eating the complimentary crisps.

The age range is from about 20 to my age. Conversation is usually limited to the occasional shout of derision, delight, or disgust at what is happening on screen. It rarely goes beyond asking which team one wants to win. I attempt the odd conversational gambit, one of many such tried and tested standbys for when conversations flag: ‘How important do you have to be to be assassinated and not just murdered?’, ‘What was Rembrandt’s first name?’, but with limited success. I’ve been working on some more suitable French equivalents: ‘Vous préférez le camembert ou le roquefort?’ Not great, but it’s a start. I know that in the overall scheme of things this is not very important, but I do sometimes get nostalgic for those occasions where a companionable silence is suddenly broken by ‘Leslie Phillips, dead or alive?’

A recent series of articles in the local paper may have offered a clue to the reason for this odd state of affairs. They have been focusing on Poitiers residents and their hobbies. Noticeably, all of the ones I’ve seen so far have been male and over 40. Here are a few examples.

This is Jean-Claude Paumier, a former maths teacher at the Lycée Victor-Hugo who collects sabliers (hourglasses).

© Photo NR

Jean-Claude and the sands of time

Jean-Claude now has over 3,000 of these. I imagine it must be fun to set the largest one going and then see if he can turn all the others over before it runs out.

Next is Philippe Breton, who has turned his basement into a museum of Bruce Springsteen artefacts.

© (Photo Mathieu Herduin)

Phililppe. Born To Run. Maybe.

There’s a nice little film here in which he tells of his years of following Bruce in France and the USA. His ultimate ambition is to invite ‘The Boss’ home to see the museum and share a whisky and cigar with him. All well and good, but it did rather remind me of the Alan Partridge episode where he meets his biggest fan.

Finally, there is Pascal Audin, a local artist and what I would call a collector’s collector. Pascal proudly declares himself a chionosphérophile, sibilumophile, tupiphiliste, arctophile, pyrophiliste, and signopaginophile, which, in old money, means that he collects snow globes, whistles, spinning tops, teddy bears, cigarette lighters, and bookmarks.

© Photo NR

Pascal with some of the 89,000 snow globes in his collection

Now, these fine chaps and their ilk are to be commended for their zeal and devotion to their pursuits. Somehow, though, I have a hunch you won’t be seeing them sitting in a bar together, trying to remember the names of all the actors in the Magnificent Seven. It would appear, then, that Poitiers is a city of hobbyists. Maybe I should give in gracefully and start collecting garden gnomes.

***

This will be the last Postcard from Poitiers for a few weeks. I need to do some work on the website, and I am trying to start a French version – mostly consisting of photographs initially. I plan to restart this site in mid-September.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The official retirement age for Russian men is two years above their average life expectancy.

In 1930, a radium-infused jockstrap called the Scrotal Radiendocrinator went on the market, claiming to boost sexual virility.

The ploughman’s lunch was invented in 1956 by the English Country Cheese Council.

There’s a riot goin’ on

Place Leclerc 24th July

I don’t know. You turn your back for five minutes and all hell breaks loose.

Last Saturday (July 24th), while we were still in Paris, about 700 people staged an anti-health pass demonstration in Place Leclerc, the main square in Poitiers. A few dozen demonstrators, taking advantage of a wedding that was being held there, broke into la mairie. A flag was stolen, and a portrait of President Macron was taken from the wall and thrown down into the street. Somebody helpfully filmed the whole thing (https://twitter.com/​dystoman/​status/​​1419674069436338180?s=20).

The Poitiers protestors were not alone. On that day, an estimated 160,000 protesters took part in more than 200 demonstrations across France, a 30% increase on the week before. Another series of demonstrations took place nationwide yesterday (July 31st), and the overall number of protestors has risen to more than 200,000. About 1,000 marched through Poitiers, but this time the protest passed off peacefully. (The figures here are provided by John Lichfield, who writes for The Local magazine in France and provides a weekly analysis of the virus and vaccination situation in France and the UK.)

According to an IFOP poll for the Journal du Dimanche, support for the anti-passers is heavily concentrated on the hard left (57% support) and the hard right (49%), and overlaps to a large degree with the Gilets Jaunes movement. It can thus be seen as part of a more general anti-Macron movement supported by the most extreme Macron-hating sections of the population.

At the same time, support for the movement among the young is quite strong – 51% among 18-to-35s. As John Lichfield points out, ‘The people who marched on the last two Saturdays were not all anti-vaxxers or conspiracy theorists (although many were).’ While some banners said ‘Masks make children autistic’ or ‘Vaccines create variants,’ there were others saying ‘Pro-vaccine but also pro-liberty.’ While some were wearing yellow stars similar to those imposed on Jews by the Nazi occupiers of France and complaining of a vaccine-regulated ‘apartheid’, others were arguing against Macron’s decision to make vaccination more or less compulsory. Macron himself had at first been reluctant to do this.

For all the protests, the government’s recent initiatives to promote vaccination have been highly successful. Since the president first gave notice of the introduction of the health pass two weeks ago, the average number of first shots given daily has doubled. In this period, almost 5 million people have had their first vaccination, and in each of the past four days more than 400,000 first jabs have been administered. At the same time, the vaccination programme in the UK has slowed down dramatically. As things stand, France (now averaging 330,000 first shots a day) could overtake Britain (averaging 40,000 a day) in the total number of first vaccinations, in about three weeks’ time.

At the moment, it is difficult to assess what impact the anti-pass protests will have, or indeed what it is that the protestors are hoping to achieve. From August 9th, the health passport will be required for access to bars, restaurants, and cafés, larger shopping centres and malls, hospitals, medical centres, and retirement homes. It will also be needed for long-distance travel within France – domestic flights, interregional bus travel, and TGV or Intercité trains.

A recent poll shows that two-thirds of the French population support the president’s policy. At the same time, in John Lichfield’s view, the demonstrations will continue and may even get larger: ‘The nutters and the diehards and the weekend hobby-protesters will go on indefinitely. The more moderate, sensible protesters will melt away as the peak August holiday season begins.’ We shall see.

***

The British government has now opened its borders to fully vaccinated travellers from its ‘amber list’ countries. These include the USA and nearly all of mainland Europe. The glaring exception is France, which for some bizarre reason has been singled out and put on an ‘amber-plus’ list. On the Today programme on Friday, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, set out the thinking behind this decision. According to him, it was the high number of cases of the Beta variant on the island of Réunion, a French Overseas department.

There are two tiny flaws in this argument. Firstly, Réunion is actually 6,000 miles from mainland France (where the number of Beta variant cases is low and declining rapidly). Secondly, Réunion itself is on the amber list, which means that people arriving in Britain from the island containing the Beta variant the government is worried about don’t have to isolate.

The Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs of the United Kingdom

It is worth remembering at this point that France probably wouldn’t be Raab’s specialist subject on Mastermind. In 2018, during the Brexit negotiations, he admitted that he ‘hadn’t quite understood’ how reliant UK trade in goods is on the Dover–Calais crossing.

The word is that France might be admitted back into the fold next Thursday. I’m not holding my breath.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The Irish for ‘escalator’ is staighre beo, ‘living stairs’.

In 2013, a stolen prosthetic arm was found in a second-hand shop in Bournemouth.

In 2004, a boat in Texas capsized because everyone ran to one side to look at a nudist beach.