A spot of turbulence

The mayor of Poitiers, Léonore Moncond’huy

Poitiers, peaceful little Poitiers, has been in the news, and it’s all thanks to our mayor, Mme Léonore Moncond’huy.

Regular readers may remember that at the end of last year, Mme Moncond’huy, a Green, got into a bit of bother when she announced that there would be no traditional Christmas tree in the main square. Some people felt that her stated reason for this – building work on the theatre in the corner of the square had left insufficient space for a tree – was merely a cover. They accused her of banning the tree on ideological grounds, and thus following the example of the mayor of Bordeaux, Pierre Hurmic, also a Green, who had stated that ‘a dead Christmas tree’ did not fit with his party’s green strategy and his planned Charter of Tree Rights. One of those to object was Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right-wing Rassemblement National (RN), who said that talk of a ‘dead tree’ showed that the Greens have ‘a visceral rejection of everything that makes up our country, our traditions, our culture’.

Christmas came and went. In the main square, there were lots of pretty lights, and even a small (artificial) tree; the story was forgotten. Mme Moncond’huy was off the hook. Until last week. Suddenly, what at first glance might appear as a minor matter of town hall book-keeping has become national, and indeed international, news.

It started with the announcement that, as part of a review of funding for local sporting clubs, Poitiers would be phasing out its subsidy to two flying clubs, cutting it from €8,800 to €4,400 this year, before withdrawing it completely in 2022. Given that the overall budget of the council is over €90 million, this would not seem particularly significant, unless you were a member of either club. The decision was defended on the grounds that public money ‘is not intended to finance activities based on the use of exhaustible resources’, a stated policy of the Green party.

However, when defending the decision at the next Municipal Council meeting after the announcement, the mayor used the phrase ‘L’aérien ne doit plus faire partie des rêves d’enfants’ (‘Air travel must no longer be part of children’s dreams’). It was at this point that la merde a frappé le ventilateur (French homework: translate this yourselves).

A Twitter storm swiftly broke out. From the right, Marine Le Pen was immediately on the attack again: ‘Wanting to destroy sectors of industrial excellence such as nuclear and aeronautics, attacking children’s dreams: this is the true face of these “greens”’.

For the government, Jean-Baptiste Djebarri, Minister Delegate for Transport, denounced the views of Mme Moncond’huy as ‘authoritarian and moribund rantings’. He was one of many people to quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of The Little Prince and himself a pioneering aviator): ‘Make your life a dream, and a dream a reality.’

From the left. Stéphane Le Foll, Parti Socialiste mayor of Le Mans and former minister, stated, ‘It was at Le Mans that Saint-Exupéry dreamed of flying, and that the Wright brothers made their first flights. Rather than preventing dreaming, we must invest and innovate so that our children continue to fly and dream.’ From the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise, chimed in with a more enigmatic, ‘Hi Poitiers, Dreams should always stay free, signed Icarus.’

Louder and louder it got, and more and more strident. Pierre Lescure, president of the Cannes Film Festival, felt duty-bound to chip in: ‘We would save a lot of time, if this elected official … admitted that it was bullshit.’ Daniel Cohn-Bendit (AKA ‘Danny the Red’, veteran of the Paris ’68 demonstrations and later a Green MEP) was more direct: ‘I cried when the first man walked on the moon, and now there’s an environmentalist who tells me to stop dreaming, she should go fuck herself.’ In the UK, the story even got as far as The Times.

It’s fair to say there was a considerable amount of support for the mayor and her decision, but this has tended to get drowned out by the hostile comments. One can’t help thinking that there is a strong whiff of political opportunism about all of this – we are, after all, warming up for a presidential election year. This can sometimes teeter over into farce. It was rumoured last week that the Minister Delegate for Transport had nominated the presidents of the two flying clubs for France’s highest decoration, la Légion d’honneur. This was quickly clarified – he had only nominated them for la Médaille de l’Aéronautique, which is awarded for ‘outstanding accomplishments related to the field of aeronautics’. So that’s alright, then.

Alain Martin, president of l’Aéroclub ASPTT (on the left), François Chargelegue & Jean-Marie Arnault, respectively treasurer and president of l’Aéroclub du Poitou (on the right).

Mme Moncond’huy has herself now broadcast a video on Twitter defending her actions, and I think she makes a very good job of it. She admits her words were unfortunate, but says they were taken out of context. She makes the point that the flying club decision was part of a general plan to support those clubs that have been most affected by Covid and to target deprived neighbourhoods. She also points out that in the council meeting itself when the matter was discussed, ‘the atmosphere was serene’, and that there has been far less negative reaction in Poitiers itself than there has been on social media.

The flying clubs themselves have received numerous offers of financial help to compensate for the withdrawn subsidy, so I suspect they will survive. As, I hope, will Mme Moncond’huy.

***

I had my first AstraZeneca jab yesterday. When I turned up at Dr L’s surgery, there was a reporter there from the radio station France Bleu doing a piece on the vaccine. We chatted for a while, and then he asked if it would be OK to come in and watch me getting injected. Dr L and I agreed, and the reporter did a sort of joint interview with both of us while I was getting vaccinated. You can read a bit of it here on the France Bleu website. In my view, the extract gives rather more prominence to Dr L than is really justified, and for some strange reason, my opinions on various matters of public interest appear to have been cut. I accept that this may be a technical error, but I feel a little hurt nevertheless.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1915, the lock millionaire Cecil Chubb bought his wife Stonehenge. She didn’t like it, so in 1918 he gave it to the nation.

Bricklehampton is the longest place name in the UK with no repeated letters.

More than one-third of men using dating sites are already married.

Time Regained

Easter is always a busy time for the Poitiers graffiti artists

Daylight Saving Time began last Sunday (as did British Summer Time in the UK). The clocks went forward overnight, and it was still dark when we got up, but that will change fairly quickly.

This should have been the last year for this. In 2018, the European Parliament drafted a law proposing that 2021 would be the last time that EU states applied the seasonal clock change. They would either now stay on summer time or move back one last time in October and then stay on winter time permanently. However, this is now unlikely to happen this year. Even if we weren’t all too busy dealing with Covid, there are a number of difficulties to overcome. Most northern states would prefer to remain on winter time, while most southern states would prefer summer time. Russia and Ukraine do not want to have the same time zone, and other countries that share borders have concerns. There is a possibility that Ireland and Northern Ireland would be on different times for six months each year. The debate will continue for a while yet.

Here in France, when we were all asked to express our opinion in 2019, the consensus was 59% in favour of staying on summer time. Madame and I voted for winter time, as permanent summer time means that in winter it wouldn’t get light in Poitiers much before 10 a.m. The darker mornings here in France were one of the few things I regretted about our move, and the favoured option would only make matters worse. Poitiers is more or less on the same line of longitude as London, and one could argue that France should have two time zones, with the western half moving to Greenwich Mean Time. Sadly, this ain’t going to happen.

Still, one can get used to anything, and I’ve come to terms with our new situation. The long summer evenings are certainly very enjoyable. As I get older, I need less and less sleep, so I’m usually up at around 5.30 a.m. these days, when it’s dark anyway, regardless of the season.

There is a certain amount of light available each day, and the trick is to use whatever is available regardless of whatever ‘o’clock’ people choose to call it. This was the thinking that led Benjamin Franklin, not entirely seriously, to make the first recorded proposal of a form of ‘daylight saving’. In a letter sent to the Journal de Paris on 26 April 1784, he describes how, having fallen asleep at around 3 a.m., he is woken by noise at 6 a.m. and is surprised at the amount of light in his room. Reading an almanac confirms that the sun will rise earlier and earlier until the end of June:

This event made me think of more important and serious things. If I hadn’t been awake so early in the morning, I would have slept six more hours in the sunlight, and, on the other hand, would have spent six hours the next night by candlelight.

He continues:

Assuming that there are 100,000 families in Paris … In six months between March 20 and September 20, there are 183 nights. 7 hours per night of candle use. The multiplication gives 1,281 hours. Those 1,281 hours multiplied by 100,000 is 128,100,000. Each candle requires 1/2 pound of tallow and wax, for a total of 64,050,000 pounds. At a price of thirty sols per pound of tallow and wax …

I can’t be bothered to work out what that amount is in new money, but it is obviously, as Franklin states:

a huge sum that the city of Paris could save each year!

Instead of clock changes, Franklin proposed:

(1) taxing residents who leave their shutters closed (one louis per window – about 45 euros);

(2) rationing candles to one pound per family per week;

(3) sounding church bells and, if necessary, canons at sunrise to inform all the inhabitants of the arrival of light.

Note that Franklin’s plan was to wake people up earlier and not to shift the hours of watches and clocks.

The growth of industrialisation and an increasingly busy world led to the idea of Daylight Saving Time gradually garnering more support throughout the nineteenth century. Port Arthur in Ontario, Canada was the first city in the world to enact DST, in 1908. However, the idea did not catch on globally until clocks in the German Empire and Austria were turned ahead by one hour on 30 April 1916 – two years into World War I. The rationale was to minimise the use of artificial lighting and thus save fuel for the war effort.

Within a few weeks, the idea was followed by the UK, France, and many other countries. Most of them reverted to standard time after World War I (though not the UK, Ireland, or France), and it wasn’t until the next World War that DST made its return in most of Europe.

The concept has always been controversial, and various countries have seen it withdrawn, adjusted, and reintroduced over the years. Whether changing it would save or endanger lives is always being argued over in the UK, particularly in Scotland.

I must admit that there is a tiny part of me that rather likes the idea of different countries going their own way on this. Now that globalisation is standardising everything, with most European cities looking increasingly similar, a lot of the romance has gone out of travel. A series of progressive time changes across Europe would add a little zest to things. Perhaps these could even be introduced at different times of the year so that one could never be quite certain what time zone one was in. What fun to arrive in, say, Prague at 9 a.m. and see everyone settling down for dinner.

As usual, Flann O’Brien has got there first:

My idea is to have the hours altered so that public houses will be permitted to open only between two and five in the morning. This means that if you are a drinking man you’ll have to be in earnest about it. Picture the result. A rustle is heard in the warm dark bedroom that has been lulled for hours with gentle breathing. Two naked feet are tenderly lowered to the floor and a shaky hand starts foraging blindly for matches. Then there is a further sleepy noise as another person half-wakens and rolls round. ‘John! What’s the matter?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘But where are you going?’ ‘Out for a pint.’ ‘But John! It’s half two.’ ‘Don’t care what time it is.’ ‘But it’s pouring rain. You’ll get your death of cold.’ ‘I tell you I’m going out for a pint. Don’t be trying to make a ridiculous scene. All over Dublin thousands of men are getting up just now. I haven’t had a drink for twenty-four hours.’

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In seventeenth-century England, effigies of Guy Fawkes were stuffed with live cats to make the figure scream as it burned.

A popular Roman hangover cure was deep-fried canary.

It is illegal in China to show TV ads for haemorrhoid cream at mealtimes.

***

QUIZ

There’s graffiti, and then there’s graffiti. Under the viaduct Voie André Malraux, Poitiers.

Monday

Always good to start the week with some good news. There’s a story in Le Parisien this morning about Félix, a homeless person (in France, an SDF – sans domicile fixe) who has just been awarded damages against the magazine Paris Match because of a photo that appeared in an article about crack addiction. The photo, taken in a metro station, shows some crack-smokers with their faces blurred out. Unfortunately, the face of Félix (not his real name), seated nearby, was left untouched. Friends of his had recognised him and alerted him to the photo. Félix, who has never smoked crack, was concerned that his family in France and Guyana might see it and be worried about his well-being. He was put in touch with a charitable association, whose lawyers sued Paris Match on his behalf. Félix was awarded €10,000 and the magazine was told to remove the image from their website and app or they would be fined a further €2,000 for every additional day it appeared. An administrative cock-up left it on the app for a couple of weeks, and Félix eventually received €40,000. Le Parisien gleefully points out that former Prime Minister Manuel Valls only received €8,000 when Paris Match published a front-page picture of him with a new partner.

It’s good to know that it’s not just the Beckhams of this world whose image rights are protected.

Tuesday

Through our patchwork of vaguely dodgy software, we watched the BBC’s Line of Duty last night. Madame is an addict, but I think it probably peaked around the third series. Nevertheless, now that Engrenages (Spiral) is finished, it’s better than anything currently on French TV.

The first episode was certainly gripping, but I was baffled throughout by a strange word being used. Was it ‘chiz’? Perhaps the writers were trying to get a new word into the dictionary? After all, according to some sources, this is how the similar-sounding ‘quiz’ is said to have been created. In 1791, a Dublin theatre owner named Richard Daly made a bet that he could introduce a word into the language within twenty-four hours. He then went out and hired a group of children to write the word ‘quiz’ on walls around the city. Within a day, the word was being talked about everywhere, and as nobody had a clue as to its meaning, it was taken to be some sort of test. Daly had won his bet.

Or maybe, God help us, it was ‘jizz’, now being relaunched as an item of police terminology. Maybe the writers were following the example set by the team working on the Daily Mail diary in the 1980s. They had dared each other to get the term ‘moist gusset’ into print, and eventually one of them invented the dashing Swiss playboy Moi St Gusset. Tales of Moi’s romantic escapades appeared regularly, until his creators killed him off in a skiing accident.

The truth is more mundane. The word was the acronym CHIS, which stands for Covert Human Intelligence Source. At least I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. People were googling frantically during the programme, trying to establish its meaning.

Two questions. If it’s so common (someone seemed to use it every couple of minutes last night), why had it never been heard in the previous twenty-nine hours of the programme? And what’s wrong with ‘snout’, anyway?

Thursday

Two extracts from letters recently read. The first is an illustration of how novelists can bring passion to the page. The second shows that they can also have a more practical approach to life:

I want to gorge you with all the joys of the flesh, until you faint and die. I want you to be astonished by me, to confess to yourself that you had never even dreamed of such transports. I am the one who has been happy, now I want you to be the same. When you are old, I want you to recall those few hours. I want your dry bones to quiver with joy when you think of them.

Gustave Flaubert, Letter to Louise Colet, 1846

My affectionate & most excellent wife is as you are aware still living—and I am proud to say her health is good. Nevertheless it is always well to take time by the forelock and be prepared for all events. Should anything happen to her, will you supply her place,—as soon as the proper period for decent mourning is over.

Till then I am your devoted Servant.

Anthony Trollope, Letter to Dorothea Sankey, 1861

Saturday

Every week there seems to be some new evidence that the current UK government is determined to destroy the BBC, aided and abetted by those who would benefit most from its demise. For now, though, we enjoy it while we can. One of its little gems is the charmingly eccentric Round Britain Quiz, which has been running since 1947. Two-person teams, mostly writers and broadcasters from different regions of the UK, compete with each other in answering absurdly complicated questions, most of which have been sent in by listeners. A new series started this month, and we listened to an episode last night.

Here is a sample question:

Who is missing from this list? Yellowcoat Gladys; the most recent Amy March; a Lindisfarne saint; Top Cat’s nemesis; and the maker of the Greenwich Observatory telescope?

Time’s up!

Yellowcoat Gladys is Hi-de-Hi!’s Gladys PUGH.

The most recent Amy March was actress Florence PUGH, in the film Little Women.

A Lindisfarne saint is St CUTHBERT.

Top Cat’s nemesis was Officer DIBBLE.

The telescope maker was Howard GRUBB.

Younger readers will of course realise that Pugh, Pugh, … Cuthbert, Dibble, and Grubb were members of Trumpton Fire Brigade.

So the missing person is ‘obviously’ BARNEY McGREW.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I realised that I actually knew the answer to this.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

There are six villages in France called Silly, twelve called Billy, and two called Prat.

During the 1962 World Cup match between England and Brazil, a dog ran onto the pitch and urinated on Jimmy Greaves.

The Brazilian player Garrincha adopted the dog after the game.

Spring!

The view south from Pont Joubert this morning

It’s officially springtime. Most of the people I know in England are currently in strict training for the reopening of pubs on April 12th, but here in France the gloom steadily deepens.

On Thursday night, Prime Minister Jean Castex said, ‘The situation is deteriorating,’ as he announced the new lockdown for the worst-hit parts of the country. Since midnight on Friday the country has been divided, as it was in the summer, with stricter rules for those areas where cases are highest. Sixteen départements have been placed back under lockdown because of high case numbers and severe pressure on local hospitals. The sixteen are in northern France, the Paris region, including the city itself, and the south east. In total, around 21 million people, about a third of the country’s population, are affected.

These areas are now in lockdown for a month, although it’s a more relaxed lockdown than we have had previously. All non-essential shops will close, but the government has expanded the definition of ‘essential’ to include bookshops, music shops, and hairdressers. Schools are staying open. The rules on exercise and getting fresh air have also been relaxed compared to previous confinements, with no time limit on trips out of the home, although you must stay within 10 km. On leaving home, you require an exemption certificate, or attestation, stating the purpose of your trip. Unlike non-lockdown zones, where meeting up with friends or family is allowed indoors or outdoors (with a recommended limit of six people), in lockdown areas, trips out for social purposes are not allowed.

Those who live in one of the lockdown zones have not been permitted to travel to another region since midnight on Friday, unless they have an essential or work-related reason. People living outside the lockdown zones can still travel freely around the country.

On Friday, main roads around Paris saw 400 km of traffic jams, and trains heading out of the capital were fully booked, as Parisians fled the city just hours before the new lockdown was set to come into force. Most were heading for areas free from the restrictions, such as Brittany, the southwest Atlantic coast, and Lyon in the southeast.

It is not immediately obvious, judging from this lunchtime scene by the Seine yesterday, that the new restrictions are having much impact.

Here in Poitiers, in the Vienne département, we are not affected, and one could argue that there was some positive news for us in Prime Minister Castex’s announcement. From Saturday, the curfew moved back one hour, so it is in force from 7pm rather than 6pm and runs until 6am. This change affects the whole of France, including those areas placed under lockdown. The PM said it was being done to take account of the clocks changing for ‘summertime’ on March 28th. This means that shops will be able to remain open until 7pm instead of having to close at 6pm.

We took advantage of the extra hour and went out for a stroll around the city centre yesterday. It was a bright sunny evening, and many others had obviously had the same idea. Somehow, the busy streets made the fact that all the bar terraces and restaurants were shut seem even sadder.

***

Although trips to and from Paris are now off limits, I have managed to beat the lockdown, in spirit at least, by signing up for an online French language course at the Alliance Française school there. Madame had already signed up for one at their Bordeaux school and spoke highly of them, so I thought I’d give it a go. The dates at Paris suited me better, so now, for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening, we go to rooms just a few yards apart, to attend classes in schools several hundred kilometres away from each other. This internet thing is really very clever.

I had previously been enrolled on a course at a London university, but this was attended mainly by people of my own age, who were, and I don’t mean this unkindly, approaching it as hobbyists, happy to try a little French conversation once a week, gently steered by a friendly teacher. The new class is very different. Nearly all the other students, of various nationalities, are under thirty and need French because they are living or working in France, most of them in Paris. The pace is brisk, and there is lots of emphasis on speaking and pronunciation. It’s a very refreshing change.

In a moment of madness, I’ve also enrolled on a digital photography course with the Open University. This is turning out to be fascinating, and I am enjoying it hugely, though Madame has warned me that the first mention of glamour shots will lead to instant confiscation of my camera. (The Poitiers pictures here are part of this week’s homework.)

The two courses combined mean that suddenly there don’t seem to be enough hours in the day, and I’m starting to feel a little manic. Maybe it’s an OAP version of the midlife crisis – at least it’s not a Harley Davidson.

Poitiers Rooftops

***

At the start of my French course a couple of weeks ago, I’d mentioned to our teacher, Anne, that I wrote this blog, and she told me on Tuesday evening how much she enjoyed reading it. I felt quite chuffed, until she added, ‘What I really like is those funny little pieces you put at the end.’ The correspondence that comes pouring in each week (sometimes as many as two emails) all tells the same story.

So there it is. The considerable effort I put into writing this deathless prose is a complete waste of time, and I might just as well fill the pages with more of the vaguely salacious titbits garnered from Twitter and the gutter press. Thank you all very much.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

Andy Warhol always wore green underpants.

When Wal-Mart was attempting to open stores in Germany, they had to withdraw their policy of requiring staff members to smile at customers, because German customers found it weird and off-putting   

.Sir Walter Raleigh’s devoted widow, Elizabeth, kept his decapitated head with her in a velvet bag for twenty-nine years.

Your hair grows quicker when you are anticipating sexual intercourse.

Strange encounters with women in chemist’s shops

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the local pharmacie collecting a prescription. While an assistant was away preparing it, I was joined by another customer, a large lady in an expensive-looking tweed coat and a toque hat. She looked me up and down briefly, and having established that I was a guttersnipe meriting no further attention, she turned to a male assistant behind the counter and demanded imperiously, ‘Avez-vous du rhino horn?’

I can’t remember, but I suspect that my jaw actually did drop open at this point. I’ve generally found the French to be a reserved lot, and had begun to think that all the stories about them and their predisposition to l’amour were something dreamt up by the French Tourist Board. Yet here was a grande dame, bold as brass, demanding a well-known aphrodisiac, in the local chemist’s. If that wasn’t enough to stun me, the assistant’s reply almost had me demanding smelling salts.

‘I am so sorry, we are out of stock. The recent cold weather has meant that demand has been higher than usual. We expect some more in next week.’ At this point, my prescription arrived, and I scuttled away.

Once home, I thought of telling my little story to Madame, but I had an uneasy feeling about the direction the conversation might take, so I thought I would let it lie. Instead, I decided to google rhino horn to find out a little more about it. An article in Scientific American entitled ‘The Hard Truth about Rhino Horn’ (I see what they did there) was quite interesting, and there were several pieces about the threat to the rhino population from poachers.

Then I saw it. A picture of a woman with a strange plastic device shoved up one nostril and a thin trickle of water descending from the other.

Nasal cleansing! Surely that’s what fingers are for? I should have known, of course, that it was too good to be true. The image I’d built up of Madame Tweed Coat slipping a powder into Monsieur Tweed Coat’s cocoa just before retiring for the night was replaced by one of her shoving this miniature watering can into her conk while Monsieur tries desperately to get off to sleep before she emerges from the bathroom. C’est la vie.

***

Notwithstanding the above, I’ve come to love French pharmacies, though it’s taken me a while. At first I resented the idea that you couldn’t buy paracetamol or cough medicine in a supermarket and that there was no equivalent to Boots (pharmacy chains are not allowed here). Slowly, though, I’ve come round to them. For all the talk of restrictive practices (which undoubtedly do exist), I think I’d rather keep small, often family-run businesses going than let the supermarkets gradually destroy all the pharmacies, newsagents, and other high-street shops. This process, long-developed in the UK, is not nearly as well established in France, but there are worrying signs that it is spreading.

As well as selling over-the-counter products, pharmacists dispense medication prescribed by doctors, and French doctors certainly keep them busy – a study in 2019 showed that 90 percent of doctors’ appointments result in a prescription, and the average prescription is for three or more items. The French health system means that most prescriptions are reimbursed, so patients are quite happy to receive them.

Pharmacies in France also sell a wide variety of homeopathic products to cater for the seemingly insatiable appetite the French have for these. One of the biggest eye-openers when one first starts watching French TV is the nightly stream of adverts for slimming pills and energy boosters, as well as cures for that particular French obsession, ‘heavy legs’.

They offer a number of extremely useful services, such as dispensing the winter flu vaccine and now the Covid vaccine. Also, if you have been mushroom picking, you can take your haul to the local pharmacy to check that you haven’t picked anything poisonous. I thought at first that this must be a joke, but apparently it’s true.

I’ve found that the staff are always friendly and helpful, and quite often, in the older family businesses, the premises have been beautifully preserved, The pictures here are from Pharmacie Carnot in rue Carnot and Pharmacie Trouche in Grand’rue. It was while taking these photos that I had my second slightly bizarre pharmacy experience.

I had decided to go into Pharmacie Carnot on Monday afternoon. It would be quiet then, and taking snaps would cause minimal disruption. I entered the shop, and an elderly man with glasses, clearly the proprietor, emerged from the back. I was just about to explain, in my pidgin French, the purpose of my visit, when the door opened, and a tall middle-aged woman entered. She looked at me coldly; there was no tweed coat or toque hat, but she was clearly off the same assembly line as the rhino-hunter. I burbled, ‘Après vous, Madame’, and tried to indicate, by waving my hands around ineffectually, that I would prefer to wait to speak to the proprietor.

She seemed very reluctant to do so, but eventually she went ahead of me to the counter. She and the proprietor were now looking at me oddly. It dawned on me that they were both thinking that I wanted to purchase something unsavoury, possibly an appliance, almost certainly involving rubber. She spoke to him quietly. He retreated to the back of the shop, and came back with a small package which he placed on the counter. She scooped it up quickly to put it in her bag, but there was just time for me to see the label. It was haemorrhoid cream. The look she gave me as she left still haunts me.

After she’d gone, I explained the purpose of my visit to the proprietor. He stared at me for a moment, then silently shrugged in a gesture of consent. As I was leaving, he said, ‘Anglais?’ In the circumstances, I thought he’d earned the right to have all his prejudices confirmed, so I simply nodded and left.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

During Hitler’s years in power, Mein Kampf was given away free to every newly-wed couple.

Entrance to the Tower of London used to be free if you brought a dog or a cat to feed to the lions.

A bite from the Brazilian wandering spider results in an erection that lasts for several hours.

It’s a funny old game…

The big news in France this week is that ex-President Sarkozy has been sentenced to three years in jail – two of them suspended – for bribery and influence-peddling. He is the first former President to receive an actual prison sentence since France’s collaborationist leader Marshal Pétain in 1945. (Jacques Chirac received a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for embezzling public funds when he was Paris mayor.)

The good news for Sarkozy is that the appeal he has launched is probably going to take years to be resolved. Even if this fails, it’s likely that his sentence will not be spent behind bars but under house arrest with an electronic tag. The bad news is that he is due to appear in court again later this month over the so-called Bygmalion affair, in which he is accused of having overspent on expenses in his unsuccessful 2012 re-election campaign. If found guilty, he could face another one-year prison sentence. As Oscar Wilde might have said, ‘to be sent down once may be regarded as a misfortune; to be sent down a second time makes you look a very dodgy geezer indeed’.

I still find it difficult sometimes to remember that the French President, being the head of state, equates to the Queen in the United Kingdom, rather than to the Prime Minister. The problem being that the equation doesn’t really work, the Queen’s role being largely ceremonial, whilst that of the President is anything but. Whatever one’s view of the UK monarchy, it needs a superhuman stretching of the imagination to picture Her Maj being accused of slipping backhanders to Privy Councillors. (Picturing other members of the Windsor clan being so accused requires less-demanding mental gymnastics.)

In very broad political terms, I think it’s easier to see the position of the French President as being closer to that of the UK Prime Minister, and here, at least, the UK would appear to have the moral edge. No Prime Minister has ever even been prosecuted, let alone convicted of any crime. In 1848, there was an attempt to impeach Lord Palmerston for having taken money from the Tsar of Russia, but it came to nothing. More recently, there have been attempts to get a case going against Tony Blair for going to war in Iraq, but they never get anywhere. Finally, just to bring us right up to date, whilst the current Prime Minister may be a serial adulterer who has twice been sacked for lying to his employer, none of this, as he would be the first to point out, is any business of the boys in blue.

Right now, for the first time in a while, Johnson has grounds for feeling a little bullish, as the Covid-19 crisis and its management in the UK and France only serve to underline the ephemeral nature of political reputations. For much of the past year, he and his government have been roundly berated for their mishandling of the situation: too slow to impose lockdowns, too quick to lift them, an expensive test and trace fiasco, unimpressive ministerial press conferences, it seemed like a masterclass in incompetence.

In France, on the other hand, the government appeared cool, calm, and in control: clear countrywide rules, quickly imposed lockdowns, compulsory mask-wearing in public, curfews where necessary. In quietly assured TV broadcasts, President Macron made us all feel we were in good hands.

Then came the vaccines. To its credit, the UK moved swiftly and decisively. A comprehensive vaccine programme got under way quickly, and the results are now obvious; the numbers of cases and deaths are falling steadily. June 21 has been set as a target for the end of all restrictions.

Here in France, the roll-out of vaccines has, in comparison, been painfully slow. There are a number of reasons for this. The need to act at an EU-wide level in terms of some administrative and distribution processes didn’t help, and neither did an element of rigidity in the workings of the French health system. President Macron chose, perhaps for his own political reasons, to highlight some elements of uncertainty about the AstraZeneca vaccine and said it would not be used on those under the age of 75 (a decision since reversed).

Whatever the reason, the result is that France continues to see rising numbers of cases and deaths in parts of the country. So far, another nationwide lockdown is being resisted, but more and more areas are having weekend lockdowns introduced. Hopefully, the slow but steady increase in the number of vaccinations will eventually lead to a return to normality, but whether it will be as quick as that hoped for in the UK is debatable.

One thing worth pointing out is that the UK took a significant risk in two areas. Its regulatory agency authorised vaccines more quickly than the EU’s, and its government adopted a single-shot policy, allowing it to roll out first doses faster so that more people could have some protection quickly. Both these gambles, at the time of writing, seem to have paid off. Speaking personally, if faced with a similar situation again, I would still be inclined to endorse the EU approach.

It’s fair to say that, while the Macron market is suddenly a little uncertain, Johnson shares have risen in value quite a bit over the last couple of weeks. I would not be in too much of a hurry to invest, though. The impact of Brexit will become a little more noticeable in April, and, as Chris Grey says in his excellent Brexit and Beyond blog, the response ‘yes, but vaccines’ to any new setback will quickly become extremely irritating.

***

This tweet from Paul Eggleston made me laugh:

[Roadside cafe]

I’ll have a hotdog please, with onions.

Sure. You travelling far?

I’m just going to recover a van that’s broken down and take it to a museum. It contains the skeleton of a stallion that belonged to Joan of Arc.

The martyr’s horse?

Yes please, and mustard.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

Schimpf-los is a 24-hour German hotline that allows customers to release pent-up aggression by swearing at telephone operators.

In France, it is illegal to name a pig Napoleon.

Vatican City is the only place in the world where cash machines offer instructions in Latin.

It’s all there in black and white.

I’d been looking forward to visiting the Grand Palais in Paris last November, to see Noir et Blanc, a black-and-white photography exhibition, but the virus, of course, put paid to that. The exhibition never even opened. Now it’s been relaunched online, and a fine job they’ve made of it. A €4 ticket allows you to ‘visit’ as many times as you like in a week, and tickets can be bought from now till mid-June. The website offers a 3D tour of the exhibition; all the prints can be seen, and an audio guide is available. There are more than 300 prints from the nineteenth century to the present day, taken by some 200 photographers from 30 different countries. The website software takes a little getting used to, but after a few minutes it’s fairly straightforward. I’m particularly interested in photographers who specialised in Paris street life, such as Willi Ronis, Brassaï, and Robert Doisneau, and all of them are represented here.

Probably the most famous work in this field is Doisneau’s Le Baiser de l’hôtel de ville (The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville).

It was taken in March 1950, on the corner of rue du Renard and rue de Rivoli, with the Hôtel de Ville clearly visible in the background. Published in Life magazine in June of that year, it was then more or less forgotten until 1986, when Doisneau gave a publisher permission to use it. It became hugely successful, appearing on posters, postcards, and T-shirts all over the world. For many, the image captures the very essence of romance, but its history also perhaps serves as a reminder that the course of true love doesn’t always run smooth.

Despite its sense of spontaneity, the image is in fact staged. Doisneau had gone out in the streets with some young actors he knew, following them around as they held hands, talked, and kissed. According to his daughter Annette, ‘His models weren’t models, in the sense that they didn’t pose. Doisneau was simply catching them flirting and kissing, in a very natural way.’

Following the success of the published image, many couples came forward claiming to be the ones in the picture. When one such couple, Denise and Jean-Louis Lavergne, visited Doisneau and his daughter in 1990, he chose not to tell them of their error. ‘He said nothing,’ said Annette. ‘I asked him why he hadn’t told them the truth. He said he didn’t want to shatter their dream.’

This kindness was to prove costly for Doisneau. In 1993, the Lavergnes took him to court, claiming that they were the couple in the picture and demanding $100,000 compensation for taking the picture without their knowledge.

The lawsuit forced Doisneau to admit that the shot wasn’t spontaneous, and the case was dismissed. However, his legal trouble didn’t end there. Françoise Bornet, the actress who appears in the photo with her then-boyfriend, Jacques Carteaud, came forward and sued for a portion of the poster sales, claiming that Carteaud was paid 500 francs by Doisneau and hadn’t shared the money with her. This case was also dismissed, though for Mme Bornet there was a happy ending of sorts. In 2005 she sold the original signed print that Doisneau had sent her a few days after taking the shot. A Swiss collector paid €155,000 for it at a Paris auction, more than ten times what it was expected to fetch.

At the time of the sale, Mme Bornet, by then in her seventies, revealed that her and Jacques’ relationship only lasted around nine months. Even though they are forever linked in the picture, they didn’t stay in touch. ‘I now think of it as a picture that should never really have existed,’ she said. ‘The photo was posed. But the kiss was real.’

***

A few black and white photos of my own. There are more at https://photos.app.goo.gl/9M9esBtjP7K8RXGV8

Poitiers Cathédral
Le Tabac, Pont Joubert
Grand’ rue
Christmas lights in Place Alphonse Lepetit

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The word ambisinistrous is the opposite of ambidextrous; it means ‘no good with either hand’.

Bovril was originally called ‘Johnston’s Fluid Beef’.

When customers visited the first supermarkets in the UK, they were afraid to pick up goods from the shelves in case they were told off.

Our Intangible Cultural Heritage

Food to die from for

It has been a quiet week, so, in a desperate attempt to hold your attention, I will start with some vulgarity.

For thirty years, the writer Iain Pattinson, who died last Sunday, wrote scripts for the presenters of Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. His scripts, described by presenter Humphrey Lyttleton as ‘blue-chip filth’, were defended by Pattinson, who said they were perfectly clean on the page and ‘could only appear filthy to someone with a dirty mind’.

The scripts often featured anecdotes about the show’s scorer, Samantha. Here is a typical example: ‘Samantha has recently taken up beekeeping with a small hive, housing just three dozen or so. This evening she has an expert beekeeper coming round to show her a few tricks of the trade, and he says he’ll quickly have her 38 bees out and flying round his head.’

***

In 2008, UNESCO established its Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage, with the stated aim of ‘ensuring better protection of important intangible cultural heritages worldwide and the awareness of their significance’. There are now over 584 items on the lists, collected from 131 countries. You can see them all on the official UNESCO site, which I discovered last week.

At first glance, the lists seem a commendable attempt at providing a global overview of national cultural characteristics. I’d heard of Japanese Kabuki theatre and the Mexican Day of the Dead, but not of Botswana’s Seperu folk dance or the Tamboradas drumming rituals in Spain. Each entry has a couple of paragraphs of explanation, along with pictures and video clips. Going through them seems vaguely like wandering around an international theme park.

Gradually, however, I began to become confused. Italy’s ‘Art of Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo’ turned out to be pizza-making – which, in case you didn’t know, is a ‘culinary practice comprising four different phases relating to the preparation of the dough and its baking in a wood-fired oven, involving a rotatory movement by the baker’. Fair enough, I suppose, they did invent them. But then there is ‘Beer Culture in Belgium’, from which we learn that, in Belgium, beer ‘plays a role in daily life, as well as festive occasions’ and that it ‘is used for cooking, including in the creation of products like beer-washed cheese and, as in the case of wine, can be paired with foods to complement flavours’. I mean, no shit, Sherlock?

Slowly a picture was forming in my mind.

It is a Friday afternoon, and we are in the offices of the French Ministère de la Culture. Bertrand Dubois, a director responsible for matters of Patrimoine (Heritage), has returned from a good lunch and is settling down to put the final touches to one of his pet projects. Since 2008 he, along with his counterparts in various other EU countries, has been involved in a (strictly unofficial) annual tournament to see who can get the most ludicrous entry into UNESCO’s Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage. They each put €100 in the pot, and it’s winner take all.

M. Dubois chuckles as he remembers his last win, back in 2010 with Gastronomic Meal of the French. He and his wife Louise had composed this over a long boozy dinner in a bistro in Rue Mouffetard. He would look around and, in gushing theatrical tones, describe what he saw; she would write it down, occasionally snorting with laughter.

‘The careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes … specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table … the gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses.’

‘Stop, Bertrand, please, or I will wet myself!’

Still, that was ten years ago. All France’s entries in the list in the intervening years had been worthy genuine cultural entities, usually from overseas departments like Guadeloupe and Martinique. Bertrand hadn’t managed to smuggle in a single ringer since then. Mind you, everyone was finding it more difficult. There had been no winner for the past two years, so the pot was definitely worth winning. In 2018, it had been shared by Klaus in Austria and Eric in Switzerland with their clever joint entry, Avalanche Risk Management. Calling snow your heritage was a stroke of genius! Who said they had no sense of humour?

This year, Bertrand was going to have two attempts. Firstly, he was going to resubmit last year’s entry – The Grey Zinc Rooftops of Paris. This was an idea that had come to him while idly looking out of his office window one afternoon and which Louise had turned into a nice little piece about them being the inspiration of countless painters over the years. His second contender was actually Louise’s idea and was again the result of a boozy restaurant meal. While nibbling at some Camembert, she had picked up a piece of bread and said suddenly, ‘Why not do “The Baguette”? … quintessentially French, artisanal, a cornerstone of family meals … blah blah blah!’

The next day, she had turned this into a little hymn of praise to the ‘Gallic staff of life’ and Bertrand had his second entry. He had added a genuine contender about a traditional wine festival in Arbois to make the two ringers look a little less obvious when he submitted them to the Minister. Calling in a favour, he had got an old friend at France 24 to put together a film clip about the three items which he could show her. She would then select one of these to take to President Macron. He knew that the Minister had strong views about drinking, so that should knock out the wine festival. Bertrand was increasingly confident that this was going to be his year.

Getting ready to go home, he again reflected on how odd it was that the UK had never bothered to nominate anything for the Intangible Heritage Lists. That famous British reserve, no doubt. He and his wife had visited London the previous year, and it had struck him that if Clive, his English opposite number, were to enter the Ludicrous Items competition, he would win it easily. What was the name of that strange place where they had eaten the ‘all-day breakfast’ with the cold eggs and rubber sausage … Waterspoons? Wetterspoons? And that odd little boulangerie (Dreggs?) where Louise had ordered the … what was it … ah, yes … ‘the sausage, cheese and bean melt’. UNESCO would lap both of them up.

***

I close with another example of Ian Pattinson’s ‘perfectly clean scriptwriting’. Apparently, Samantha had a gentleman friend who loved cooking and was particularly renowned for his offal dishes. He would often invite her round for dinner. ‘While she’s very keen on his kidneys in red wine and his oxtail in beer,’ Pattinson wrote, ‘Samantha says it’s difficult to beat his tongue in cider.’

Where angels fear to tread

Walking down the street the other day, I felt a familiar pressure under my left foot. Merde! At that precise moment, I’d have happily signed a decree authorising the public execution of every dog-owner within a hundred kilometres. As I morosely slid the sole of my shoe backwards and forwards on a nearby patch of wet grass, I reflected on the fact that more depressing than my immediate predicament was the realisation that this was almost certainly not the last time that this would happen.

People’s reluctance or inability to efficiently deal with the toilettage of their ‘best friends’ is one of the few areas I’ve found where France compares unfavourably with the UK. Recent events, however, have made me think that perhaps I have been looking at this in the wrong way.

France’s upper House, the Senate, has just passed into law a bill to provide statutory protection for the ‘sensory heritage’ of the French countryside. Regional authorities will need to define precisely what ‘sensory heritage’ actually means (not an easy task, I suspect), but the legislation is specific that what it has in mind are the ‘sounds and smells’ of rural France.

There has been a spate of stories in recent years about these sensory issues. Almost invariably, the complainants are new arrivals in a small town or village; they are often second-home owners staying for only a couple of weeks at a time. The rows can sometimes end up in court and usually cause a lot of bad feeling in the local community. In the past, there have been objections to the noises made by crickets and mating bullfrogs in the Dordogne. Smelly sheep and noisy cows have been the problem in the French Alps. Other auditory irritants have included church bells, farm machinery, and even a town’s pétanque players. One French mayor responded by putting up a sign at the entrance to his village, warning holidaymakers to ‘enter at your own peril’ because of the sounds they might encounter.

The most recent case to make the news is that of Maurice, a cockerel from the Île d’Oléron off France’s Atlantic coast. Saint-Pierre-d’Oléron, where Maurice and his owner Corinne Fessau live, is home to 7,000 locals, but the population soars to 35,000 when temporary residents arrive in summer. Mme Fessau has lived on the Île all her life, while the complainants, Jean-Louis and Joelle Biron, were holiday-home owners who visited now and again. They had complained about Maurice’s dawn wake-up call, which they regarded as noise pollution.

The story caught the public imagination, and 140,000 people signed a ‘Save Maurice’ petition. Locals started wearing Maurice-themed T-shirts, adorned with the cockerel’s picture and the words ‘Let me sing’ or ‘cocorico’ (French for cock-a-doodle-doo). This campaign worked. The court not only threw out the case, but ordered the Birons to pay Mme Fessau €1,000 in damages.

Sadly, Maurice has since gone to the great Coq au Vin in the sky, but his life was not in vain. Shortly afterwards, an MP from Lozère introduced the ‘Law Protecting the Sensory Heritage of the French Countryside’. It gained the backing of Rural Affairs Minister Joël Giraud, and now it has become law.

Back here in Poitiers, it’s occurred to me that, as a relative newcomer myself, I should perhaps regard my recent mishap as an encounter with the urban version of France’s sensory heritage. After all, Poitiers is sometimes referred to as la ville aux mille cloches (the city of a thousand bells), and the sound of countless church bells as you walk around of an evening (pre-curfew, obviously) never ceases to please. But after that I begin to struggle. Other ‘heritage’ sounds could include perhaps the clatter of the skateboarding kids in the market square, and the ten-minute engine-revving from some twat down our street at 07.00 every morning.

For smells, there is the delicious aroma of baking croissants from the boulangeries … again, though, I begin to falter. In Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom is said to like grilled kidneys because they ‘gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine’. That being the case, he would no doubt enjoy an early morning stroll through one or two of the back streets off Grand’ Rue. There are probably more uplifting examples.

I tried to discuss the subject with Madame, explaining how my unfortunate accident had led to an interesting meditation on life in the city. Sadly, her thoughts seemed elsewhere, and she restricted herself to telling me that I should bloody well look where I was going.

Sound advice, and no doubt kindly meant.

***

It is St Valentine’s Day and, being a romantic at heart, I offer two extracts from letters that I came across recently. I think, between them, they cover the full spectrum of connubial bliss.

You might think about me a bit & whether you could bear the idea of marrying me. Of course you haven’t got to decide, but think about it. I can’t advise you in my favour because I think it would be beastly for you, but think how nice it would be for me. I am restless & moody & misanthropic & lazy & have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve. In fact it’s a lousy proposition.

Evelyn Waugh, Letter to Laura Herbert 1936

I’m writing to let you know I’m releasing you, I’m amputating you. Be happy and never seek me again. I don’t want to hear from you, I don’t want you to hear from me. If there is anything I’d enjoy before I die, it’d be not having to see your fucking horrible bastard face wandering around my garden.

Frida Kahlo, Letter to Diego Rivera 1953

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In the 1960s, 3% of all films featured someone sinking in quicksand.

For its Chinese release, the film The Full Monty was retitled Six Naked Pigs.

In 1811, crimes punishable by death in Britain included stealing cheese, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner, and ‘strong evidence of malice’ in children aged 7–14.

Deluge!

The view from Pont Joubert
Moulin De Chasseigne

It’s been raining for ten days now. The river Clain, five minutes’ walk from our house, is rising steadily. Normally calm and clear enough to see the fish beneath the surface, it’s been transformed into a fast-moving, mud-churned current. Looking at it now, it’s hard to believe the level was so low back in the summer that people were walking across the river bed a few yards from Pont Joubert. More rain is forecast for the next few days, but then it should ease. There is no immediate risk to the houses along the river near us, and we live up a short but steep hill. If flooding ever reaches our house, most of western France will be under water.

***

Life goes on. I cast my net ever wider, in vain attempts to find things to write about. Given the weather, I was amused to discover that Monday (February 1st) was Imbolc, one of the four fire festivals held on quarter days in Irish mythology, the others being Beltane, Lughnasa, and Samhain (Halloween). Imbolc is meant to herald the arrival of longer, warmer days and the early signs of spring.

Now, in Irish mythology there is a fire goddess, Bridget, and as is often the way with these things, the Catholic Church has sought to ‘de-paganise’ all of this by making the day St Bridget’s Day. Along with Patrick and Columba, Bridget is one of Ireland’s patron saints. She was apparently an early Irish Christian nun, although there is some speculation as to whether she actually existed. Be that as it may, she is kept prodigiously busy, being the patron saint of babies, bastards, blacksmiths, boatmen, and battered wives. And that’s just the Bs.

Over the centuries, celebrations of Saint Bridget’s Day have seen a fusing of the Christian and pagan traditions. One that continued into the twentieth century is that of Brigid’s Bed. The girls and young unmarried women of the household or village create a corn dolly to represent Brigid, called the Brídeóg (‘little Brigid’, ‘young Brigid’, or ‘Biddy’) and make a bed for the Brídeóg to lie in. On St Brigid’s Eve (January 31st), the girls and young women gather together in one house to stay up all night with the Brídeóg. The following day, the girls carry the Brídeóg through the village or neighbourhood, from house to house, where this representation of the saint/goddess is welcomed with great honour.

In recent years, the tradition has morphed into a somewhat more rumbustious affair. In 2017, Brigid’s Day parades were revived in Killorglin, County Kerry, very close to where my parents grew up, and the town now has an annual Biddy’s Day Festival. These festivals are gradually spreading throughout Ireland. In them, men and women wearing elaborate straw hats and masks parade through the town carrying a Brídeóg, to ensure good luck for the coming year. There is music and dancing, and a torchlit Parade of the Biddies followed by a singing competition and the election of the King of the Biddies. You can see a clip of one of the Killorglin events on YouTube. It all seems very jolly and is similar to Morris or Molly dancing festivities in the UK. When I lived in Ely, several of my friends used to take part in these, and two or three times a year I had to endure used to enjoy watching a bunch of Catweazle lookalikes cavorting around the town’s hostelries, getting steadily plastered.

In a second YouTube clip from the Killorglin festival, there is a brief shot of a young man doing a lively dance with a broom. For me, this brought back happy memories. At Christmas when I was young, my dad, normally a shy, quiet man, could sometimes be persuaded to give an impressive demonstration of the broom dance.

***

Tuesday (February 2nd) was a similar day of celebration here in France, being La Chandeleur, or la fête des chandelles. I had never heard of it before we moved to France, but I knew of Candlemas, which is the British equivalent. It is exactly forty days after Christmas, and again there is a pagan–Christian crossover. La Chandeleur is thought to be linked to an old pagan fertility ritual, which was then adopted in Roman times and became known as the ‘festival of Lupercales’ in honour of Faunus, god of farm animals and fertility. Halfway between the winter and spring solstices, people would celebrate the return of the light with torchlit processions and with candles placed around the house. (It seems quite possible that this has links with the Celtic-Gaelic festival of Imbolc.) Around the fifth century it became a Christian festival, with the fertility element associated with Christ as a baby.

For the French, La Chandeleur means crêpes and is their equivalent of the English Shrove Tuesday pancake day. The supermarkets have special offers on non-stick frying pans and crêpe ingredients in the days beforehand, and you can pick up ‘ready-mades’ in the boulangeries. Very tasty they are, too.

There is a saying here, Si la Chandeleur pleure, l’hiver ne demeure. If it rains at Candlemas, winter won’t hang around. Well it did, so I hope there is some truth in that. But I would point out another significance of February 2nd. It is Groundhog Day in the USA, and right now that seems like a much more accurate prediction for the coming weeks.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The Irish name for jellyfish is smugairle róin, which literally translates as ‘seal’s snot’.

Sir Charles Isham, a vegetarian spiritualist, introduced garden gnomes to England in 1847. He hoped they would attract real gnomes to his garden.

Meupareunia is a term for sexual activity enjoyed by only one of the participants.