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.

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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.

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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.

Raising One’s Spirits

The above flyer dropped through our letterbox on Wednesday and is just another illustration of the superiority of the French health system over that of the UK. Professor Bobohera’s services include mending broken relationships, curing impotence, and the lifting of evil spells. He can also ensure success in exams and financial investments. Apparently, he operates on a ‘payments on results’ basis, which should serve as an example to some of the Harley Street scoundrels I’ve had to deal with in the past. Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is that results can be achieved by post, on provision of a photo and a stamped addressed envelope.

Flyers like this show the admirable proactive nature of the French system. When I lived in Paris, one would occasionally come across similar specialists, usually clad in colourful national costume, handing them out, outside Metro stations in the 20th arrondissement. I wish Professor Bobohera every success. If I ever meet him, he will no doubt be amused when I tell him that he bears a very strong resemblance to Monsieur Abubakar who, until recently, sold spare parts for vacuum cleaners in the Saturday Notre-Dame market.

***

One positive aspect of the current enforced inactivity is that I am on track with my fifty-books-a-year challenge. In January I’ve read Inside Story by Martin Amis, The Last Word, a collection of short stories by Graham Greene, On Seamus Heaney by Roy Foster, and Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia (a story of political corruption in Sicily). I’ve just started re-reading Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd, which I first read when it came out in 1987. It’s a good start, but I’m not deluding myself. The crunch will come if and when the current restrictions ease and we are able to get out and about more. For the time being, though, reading is a welcome escape from day-to-day reality.

One other book I’ve read in January is The Correct Order of Biscuits by Adam Sharp. I feel that this doesn’t really count, because I read it on my Kindle and it only took thirty minutes from beginning to end. It consists of a set of lists compiled by Mr Sharp, which, admittedly, makes it sound pretty dull. In fact it is hilarious. Like Mr Sharp, I am a bit of a list-obsessive (I even make lists of lists of things to do), but he is the James Joyce of list-making and brings it to a completely different level.

Here is one of my favourites:

The best ‘be quiet’ phrases I’ve heard around the world:

5. Shut your pie hole. (English)

4. Save your breath to cool your porridge. (Scots)

3. Shut your fountain. (Russian)

2. Close your beak. (Spanish)

1. If you don’t shut up, I’ll climb into your mouth and shit myself. (Hungarian)

***

Alan Clark, the Tory politician and diarist (and, according to his wife, ‘an S, H, one, T’), was also a historian. His first book was The Donkeys, a history of the British Expeditionary Force’s campaigns at the beginning of the First World War. Clark was strongly critical of several of the generals involved in the heavy loss of life that occurred. He took his title from the phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’, which has been widely used to compare British soldiers with their commanders. The book was well received at the time, but its accuracy has since been questioned, and it has come in for considerable criticism for its one-sidedness.

I mention this because, while casting around on the internet, I came across the following. It is a page from a 1956 edition of Owl Pie, the British Army Staff College Magazine, and outlines the fate of thirty-two members of the 1896 college intake – most of whom would have taken part in the First World War. It’s not for me to decide whether they were donkeys or not, but I imagine a conversation over a drink with the last man on the list might have been interesting.

***

After weeks of rumours that a new, more severe lockdown was in the offing, with every option, including the removal of our belts and shoelaces, being considered, Friday night’s announcement was something of a soggy soufflé.

In a televised broadcast, Prime Minister Castex said that, from Sunday (today), all non-food shopping centres larger than 20,000 square metres will close. There will also be a ban on all travel in and out of France from outside the EU, and all arrivals into France from within the EU must present a negative Covid test (previously this rule had only applied to arrivals by air and sea). The protocol on home-working will be reinforced so that everyone who can work from home does so, and the police will be stepping up checks on curfew compliance and cracking down on illegal parties and restaurant-opening. Monsieur Castex added, ‘The question of another lockdown is legitimately raised in view of the latest data. We want to do everything we can to avoid another lockdown. The coming days will be decisive. Let’s be very vigilant.’

For most of us, this means very little change for now, apart from making travel to and from the UK even less feasible. The threat of a complete lockdown is clearly still there, and there are many who think it would have been more sensible to go with that option right now, on the basis that the sooner it starts, the sooner it will be over. It’s difficult to avoid the sense that there is an element of fudging in the current government tactics. Coupled with the recent row over the supply of vaccines, this has not been the best of weeks, politically, for either France or the EU in general.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The French for window-shopping is faire du lèche-vitrine, or ‘window-licking’.

After the battle of Waterloo, the Marquess of Anglesey had his leg amputated. It was buried with full military honours in a nearby garden.

Areodjarekput is an Inuit word meaning ‘to exchange wives for a few days only’.

Chaos!

How it looks from here. A headline in Friday’s Le Parisien, a sort of less politically-slanted Daily Mail:

Variant du Covid-19: le chaos au cœur de Londres

En Angleterre, le nouveau variant du coronavirus fait des ravages. Dans la capitale, les autorités sont dépassées, les hôpitaux à l’agonie, mais les sorties restent autorisées et le port du masque n’est pas obligatoire !

(Chaos in the heart of London. In England, the new variant of the coronavirus is wreaking havoc. In the capital, the authorities are overwhelmed, the hospitals in agony, but travel is still authorised and mask-wearing is not compulsory!)

***

However, there is no need to panic.

Here is the response of the UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, when she was asked at the latest government press briefing why the UK had the worst daily death rate in the world:

We’ve been in this virus pandemic for about a year now um and it’s a global pandemic across the world and governments respond you know very differently, we’ve seen that, across the world but based on the fact society evidence that have effectively been presented to us as decision makers. Now I think the fact of the matter is we’ve seen just deaths around, around the world, harrowing death tolls around the world. Government has responded as facts change, information changes, working with scientists, working with medics, working with the professionals who have been guiding us throughout this, so there is no one reason as to why we have, you know, an appalling death toll. The numbers are deeply tragic and this is a human tragedy across the world and at home but as I’ve said you know they’ll be a wide range of reasons and I’m sure you know in the future we’ll all look back and you know we’ll all look and with a degree of humility I would say as well as to measures that could have been taken, some measures we may not have even taken right now and understand and look at why that may have been the case.

That’s the Home Secretary, one of the senior ministers of state, doing an uncannily good job of channelling Donald Trump.

***

Life is a little chaotic here at home at the moment, because we’re having our bathroom redone. Bath out, shower cubicle in. It’s being done by Monsieur Eric Touillet, our all-purpose builder and decorator, who is gradually renovating the entire house. It’s painting work mainly, but he did a magnificent job fitting the bookcases into our joint office, and the bathroom is taking shape nicely. We’re very lucky to have found him.

I had some bad experiences with builders when I lived in Paris. First I hired Luka, a Serbian, to do a similar renovation in a small shower room in my flat in the 13th arrondissement. I’d got his name from FUSAC, an English-language magazine, thinking that getting an English-speaker would be a smart move. His English was certainly very good, but he mainly used it to tell me long stories about how much he missed his wife and daughter back in Serbia. His eyes would fill with tears as he showed me pages from the photo album that he carried in his tool bag.

My own tears came later as I realised, after two days of watching him haphazardly bashing away at the old tiling, that he knew bugger all about building work or plumbing. I should perhaps have twigged earlier. Apart from the photo album and hammer, his tool bag was curiously light on basic equipment. On the morning of the third day, I summoned up the courage to tell him his services were no longer required. Luka smiled and nodded slowly, for all the world as if he’d come to more or less the same conclusion and was about to suggest it to me. He departed cheerfully, without payment, presumably to wreak havoc somewhere else. God knows how he made a living.

I replaced the cowboy with some Indians: two Sikh brothers, again booked through FUSAC, again proficient in English but totally deficient in the required artisanal skills. If you can imagine the Chuckle Brothers in turbans and overdubbed by Peter Sellars, you’ve more or less got them. They, too, lasted only a couple of days, and they achieved little apart from increasing the pile of rubble collecting in the kitchen. They left, walking backwards and bowing, offering profuse apologies for having let me down.

Now desperate, I went around the corner to a small French firm run by a Monsieur Solomon. His English was non-existent, but we got by well enough. I explained my problems, and he came around the next day. When he saw his predecessors’ efforts, he just smiled and shook his head. He finished the job in a week, and I had learnt a valuable lesson.

Since moving to Poitiers we have, so far, been very lucky in choosing people to do work on the house. When we first moved in, we needed an electrician to do some computer network wiring. We found Monsieur Cédric Moreau through the internet, where his site had plenty of good references. In his youth, he had spent a year in Ireland, and not only did he do an excellent job but he kept us amused by every now and then adopting an uncannily accurate Cork accent. It was M. Moreau who recommended M. Touillet, and from then on we were up and running.

The only slight drawback with M. Touillet is that he’s the fastest speaker I’ve ever met and he speaks hardly any English. I’m not qualified to judge if he has any particular French accent, but I find him almost impossible to understand. Every now and then I say doucement (“gently”) and he will briefly slow down to 100 words per minute, but then he forgets and I’m lost again. My big worry is that he will one day ask me a question and Madame will not be here to translate. I will blurt out a “yes” and find that I’ve agreed to a mini-jacuzzi or his ’n’ hers bidets.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

Handschuhschneeballwerfer is German slang for ‘coward’. It means someone who wears gloves to throw snowballs.

Victorian guidebooks advised women to put pins in their mouths to avoid being kissed in the dark when trains went through tunnels.

In 1999, a gang of thieves was forced to do community service along a road in Rotherham. The next spring, the daffodils coming into bloom spelt out the words ‘shag’ and ‘bollocks’.

Better read than dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

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

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

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

Cobblers to maple syrup!

Monday

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

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

Monsieur L Guichard, Rue Carnot

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

Monsieur P. Mallet, Rue de La Tranchée

Tuesday

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

It’s artisanal, innit?

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

Do you want relish with that?

Wednesday

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

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

Thursday

Do you want syrup with that?

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

Friday

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

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

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

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

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

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

Colour or black and white?

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

Contemporary poster for Le Corbeau

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

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

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

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

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

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

A still from Le Corbeau

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

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

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

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

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

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

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

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

Reasons to be cheerful

Christmas Eve 2020, Place Leclerc, Poitiers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

The final few things I’ve learnt this year:

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

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

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

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

A Little Outing

The view from the roof garden, Galeries Lafayette, Paris

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

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

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

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

Looking over the city from the steps of Sacre-Coeur

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

Calvaire Stairs, Montmartre

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

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

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

Chrstmas lights, Galeries Lafayette

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

The view from Pont Neuf looking west

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

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

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

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

***

Three things I’ve learnt this week:

Glasgow is twinned with Bethlehem, Nuremberg, and Havana.

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

The Dyslexia Research Trust Clinic is in Reading.