Joyeux Noël de Poitiers !

We had planned to spend the Christmas weekend in Paris, but for various reasons, not least amongst them the fear that the government might ‘cancel’ Christmas at the last minute, we changed our plans and spent last weekend there instead. This turned out to be a good move. It was cold but dry and sunny, and there was a festive atmosphere, with Christmas markets everywhere. Despite the cold, bar terraces were crowded – customers making the most of the overhead terrace heaters, which are scheduled to be banned after this winter, although the hospitality industry, already suffering from the effects of Covid, may appeal for an extension to this period.

While in Paris, we went to the Musée d’Orsay, which I last visited about thirty years ago. Then, I had to queue for about half an hour despite having a reserved ticket. This time, we walked straight in and were able to stroll around almost-empty galleries – a real treat.

Musée d’Orsay

It’s still a wonderful place to visit, but so many Impressionist images have now been commercialised that it sometimes seems as if you are looking at an exhibition of table mats and screensavers.

We also visited Victor Hugo’s house in Place des Vosges, finally reopened after being closed for nearly three years. It’s a fine place to pass an hour, it’s free, and once again it was noticeably quiet when we visited.


There are seven rooms decorated with Hugo’s furniture and artwork as well as paintings and sculptures depicting scenes from his work. In one room, whichever way I looked, Quasimodo seemed to be staring at me. When I pointed this out to Madame, she said she often felt like that at home. The Scottish sense of humour is still something of a mystery to me.

Quasi : “The bells! The bells!”

The rest of the weekend was spent, as they nearly always are, happily mooching around the streets of the Marais, the Île Saint-Louis, and Saint-Germain. Much as we love Poitiers, if we were ever to win the lottery, I think we’d buy a large first-floor appartement here, ideally somewhere along the Quai des Grands-Augustins, with a view of Notre Dame. Actually there’s a three-bedroom one for sale there, right now, a snip at €3.7 million. I shall buy an extra lottery ticket this weekend.

The view from what will ‘almost certainly’ be our new appartement

Actually, if I wait a little while, I might save myself a euro or two. Property prices are dropping in Paris, not by very much, but it’s the first fall in many years, the reason being that the recent rise in teleworking has led many Parisians to seek a change in lifestyle. They have been selling up in order to go and settle elsewhere: on the coast, in the countryside, or in cities where the air is cleaner.

Not that it was required, but this has given the rest of France yet another reason for loathing Parisians. Since the start of the health crisis, wealthy Île-de-France residents have been criticised for taking advantage of their gargantuan purchasing power to buy or rent in the provinces, sometimes without even bothering to visit the property. This drives up prices and prevents locals from finding affordable accommodation. The website recently published a study on the rise in prices in destinations popular with Parisians. In Saint-Malo, for example, they have shot up by 39 per cent in three years. In Biarritz and Bayonne, where they’ve risen 35 per cent, banners have been appearing at roundabouts: ‘Parisians, go home, you are the virus of the Basque Country.’ Not very Christmassy, I grant you, but you can see their point.


So, Christmas will be spent quietly at home here in Poitiers. A wise choice, as it turns out, even if it was more luck than judgement. I feel very sorry for those whose plans involved people travelling between France and the UK, as this is now only possible for ‘essential’ reasons. Sadly, these do not include wanting to pull Christmas crackers while eating your own weight in Quality Street.

In France the big festive meal is eaten tomorrow evening, Christmas Eve. Madame and I have taken the easy route and ordered ours from L’Essentiel, a local restaurant. Normally I would grumble about having a takeaway for Christmas, but we’ve had several meals from them before, and they’ve never let us down. Here’s the menu:

There will be fizzy stuff and red wine. There may well be digestifs. Midnight Mass remains an option but will probably be avoided on social distancing grounds.

The rest of the holiday period will be spent trying to get through mountains of unread books and magazines, and watching things on TV, preferably British, in black and white, and featuring Alec Guinness, Terry-Thomas, or Alastair Sim (ideally, all three). There may be walks before lunch; there will definitely be naps afterwards.

It could be a lot worse.


What I’ve learnt this week:

Victor Hugo made detailed erotic drawings of all the women he slept with.

A human liver can grow back even after 75 per cent of it has been removed.

Locust swarms move so fast because each locust is trying to eat the one in front and avoid being eaten by the one behind.

No one knows why shower curtains cling to you.


A very merry Christmas to everyone. Hopefully, I will see you all next year.

It’s beginning to feel a little like Christmas

Place Leclerc

The spirit of Christmas Present is cautiously creeping into Poitiers. The festive lights came on last weekend, and merry ditties are being played through the speaker system lining the streets of centre-ville (‘courtesy of DJ Johnny Bionic’, according to the local paper). I quite like this on the whole, though I could probably do without George Michael’s ‘Last Christmas’ as I go out to get the paper in the morning.

The Big Wheel has returned to Place Leclerc – it was absent last year because of building work at the old theatre – and there is also a (fairly small) Christmas tree. The Christmas market, another absentee last year, has also returned. Chalets gourmands offer such delights as pommes d’amour (toffee apples) and barbe à papa (literally daddy’s beard – candy floss). One chalet has some very attractive novelty sweets: convincing replicas of artisan tools. I was tempted to buy one till I saw the price. €25 for a chocolate spanner is a bit steep, even at Christmas.

DIY with Chocolate

The streets are crowded, and shops, bars, and restaurants seem to be doing well. But it’s difficult to avoid the shadow of Covid that hangs over everything. Masks are now compulsory in most of the town-centre streets, and you need to show your health pass to get into the Christmas market or onto the Big Wheel. From Friday night, the city’s clubs and discos, like those throughout the country, were closed for four weeks, and the government has warned that this four-week closure period is renewable. Many bar owners fear that that the spread of the Omicron variant will mean that they too may soon be forced to close, and some worry they will not survive. Hugues Fournier, co-manager of the Biblio Café in Rue de la Cathédrale has said that the next government decision will be decisive. ‘There is concern, if there is another administrative closure and the aid system is the same as during the first lockdown, we risk going out of business … we received €1,500 in aid per month, but the rent is €1,000 on its own.’

At the moment, the future is unclear. The Omicron variant is spreading rapidly through the UK, but as yet it is still to hit France significantly – only 59 cases have so far been identified, although there are almost certainly more. Nobody knows for certain the impact that it will have. Booster jab figures are going well. They are currently averaging 550,000 a day, and the government target of 20 million by Christmas should be reached. The UK has already passed the 20 million mark.

The UK government’s handling of the crisis is being attacked for being both too prescriptive and not prescriptive enough, and there seems to be a significant difference of opinion among members of the Cabinet as to what to do next. The current shambolic farce being played out in Downing Street doesn’t inspire confidence in the prime minister’s ability to steer a wise course through the crisis.

For now, at least, the French government’s policy is being broadly endorsed, inasmuch as there are no significant demands for a change of direction. There are still gilet jaune and anti-vax demonstrators, but their numbers have dwindled significantly. Once the Omicron variant starts spreading, this may change. President Macron has yet to say whether he is running in next year’s presidential election, but it’s hard to believe he won’t. It will be interesting to see how the Covid crisis and its management have a bearing on the various candidates’ campaigns.

Some functional Christmas lighting in Place Lepetit


Our trip to Scotland in November involved two days of travel in each direction, so this week’s announcement that Ryanair will be restarting its Poitiers to Edinburgh service next year is certainly food for thought. From March to October, they will be offering flights to and from Edinburgh, on Monday and Friday each week. They are also starting a Poitiers to Lisbon service on Tuesdays and Saturdays, again from March to October. I have mixed feelings about this. I loathe flying anyway, and Ryanair aren’t exactly noted for their customer service. Madame and I had more or less agreed that, as the journey to Edinburgh took two days anyway, we might as well get the Eurostar to London and get the train from there. We can also get to Lisbon by train, though it would take a while. We shall see. Fear of flying would be my main incentive, but there would also be the opportunity to drone on endlessly about my carbon footprint saving – CO2 emissions per kilometre by domestic flight are 133 g, by domestic train 41 g, and by Eurostar 6 g. I’ve always fancied being an eco-warrior.


Things I’ve learnt this week:

Until 1916, Harrods sold heroin and cocaine.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s full name is Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro. He was named after Ronald Reagan.

In AD 320, the Catholic Church made it a sin to eat sausages.

Josephine Baker at the Panthéon

Just over a year ago, I wrote about President Macron taking part in a ceremony to mark the admission of the writer and First World War veteran Maurice Genevoix into the Panthéon. Genevoix had fought at the battle of the Marne and had been seriously injured, losing the use of his left hand. He went on to write a series of five books, now collected as Ceux de 14 (Those of 14), based on notes recorded in the trenches. These are now regarded as one the greatest testimonies of the First World War.

On Tuesday this week, the president was again at the Panthéon to celebrate the admission of a war veteran, one whose contribution to French culture and history, like that of Maurice Genevoix, went far beyond their efforts during the war itself. However, the lives and careers of the two could hardly be more different.

Josephine Baker (born Freda Josephine McDonald) was an American-born French entertainer, Resistance agent, and civil rights activist. Her mother, Carrie, was the daughter and grand-daughter of slaves; her father’s identity has never been confirmed. Carrie married Josephine off to an older man when she was 13. She divorced him and married again two years later, this time to a man called Baker. He too was quickly divorced, but she kept the name for the rest of her life.

Starting her career in a chorus line in a St. Louis vaudeville, she later worked in Broadway revues in New York before sailing to Paris in 1925. An instant success at the age of 19, she was famed for her erotic dancing, including the ‘Danse Sauvage’, unthinkable today, in which she wore only a beaded necklace and a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas.

She was an iconic image and a symbol of the Roaring Twenties, and quickly became the highest-paid performer in Europe. Happy to play up to her image, she would walk her pet cheetah on a lead, and she drove through Paris in a convertible car upholstered in lizard skin. Her lovers were said to include Fidel Castro, Ernest Hemingway, Georges Simenon, Colette, and Frida Kahlo. Referring to reports of her bisexuality, President Macron said, ‘Next to a man one night, in the arms of a woman another … In just a few years, Josephine Baker creates her legend.’

Josephine Baker in 1940

Her popularity in Europe was not replicated in the USA. When she was touring there in 1936,   Time magazine referred to her as a ‘Negro wench … whose dancing and singing might be topped anywhere outside of Paris’; other critics said her voice was ‘too thin’ and ‘dwarf-like’. Desperately disappointed, she returned to France. In 1937, she married French industrialist Jean Lion and became a French citizen

When war broke out, Baker joined the Resistance, saying, ‘France gave me everything. I am ready to give my life for her.’ In September 1939, she was recruited by the Deuxième Bureau, the French military intelligence agency. Her fame allowed her to gather information while socialising with Germans and Italians at embassies, ministries, and nightclubs. As an entertainer, she had an excuse for moving around Europe and South America carrying information for transmission to England. Later, in 1941, she visited the French colonies in North Africa. The stated reason was Baker’s health (she was recovering from pneumonia), but in reality the travelling enabled her to continue helping the Resistance. For her war efforts she was awarded the Resistance Medal and the Croix de Guerre and was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General de Gaulle.

In 1947, she married her fourth husband, the French composer and conductor Jo Bouillon. They lived at the Château des Milandes in the Dordogne with what she referred to as her ‘rainbow tribe’, twelve adopted children from all over the world. On Tuesday the president listed their names: ‘Akio and Teruya from Japan; Luis from Colombia; Jari from Finland; Jean-Claude, Moise, and Noel from France; Brian and Marianne from Algeria; Koffi from the Ivory Coast; Tara from Venezuela; and Stellina from Morocco.’

While her career continued to flourish after the war, Baker also became increasingly active in promoting the Civil Rights movement in the USA. When Martin Luther King made his ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington in 1963, Baker stood next to him wearing her French air force uniform and medals. It was, she said, the happiest day of her life.

Forty-six years after her death in 1975, Josephine Baker is only the sixth woman to enter the Panthéon, and the first black woman to do so. A coffin holding earth from four places dear to her – St. Louis, Missouri, her birthplace; Paris; the Château des Milandes; and Monaco, where she is buried near her close friend Princess Grace – was carried up the red-carpeted Rue Soufflot by six pall-bearers from the French air force. (Baker held the rank of second lieutenant during the Second World War.) Her military decorations were carried behind the coffin.

In his eulogy, President Macron said that with Josephine Baker ‘for the first time, a certain idea of liberty, of the fête’ entered the Panthéon: ‘You enter our Panthéon because, born American, there is no one more French than you.’ He summarised her life: ‘War heroine. Fighter. Dancer. Singer. Black defending blacks, but above all a woman defending human beings.’

There are various clips of the Panthéon ceremony on YouTube, but I would recommend these two, the first for the singing, and the second for the impressive lightshow on the facade of the Panthéon:


There was a grim irony in the fact that the day of Josephine Baker’s entry into the Panthéon was also the day when Éric Zemmour, the far-right journalist and broadcaster, once convicted for incitement to racial discrimination, finally declared his candidature for the presidency. Bad cess to him, as my dad used to say.


Things I’ve learnt this week:

Pope John XII was killed in the act of committing adultery by a jealous husband.

There’s a carpet shop in Dublin called ‘Lino Ritchie’. Cardiff has a tiling supplies outlet called ‘Bonny Tiler’. Bristol has a mobile kebab truck called ‘Jason Donervan’. Portsmouth has a locksmith called ‘Surelock Homes’.

Richard Wagner only ever wore pink silk underwear.

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.




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,, 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.”