On Bicycle

When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race. . . H.G.Wells .

The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.

 Iris Murdoch, The Red and the Green

Being dangerous without being fun puts bicycles in a category with open-heart surgery, the war in Vietnam, the South Bronx, and divorce. Sensible people do all that they can to avoid such things as these.

P.J. O’Rourke, Republican Party Reptile

I really handled it with ease, except one time I crashed into a dog and another time I collided with two women, and I was very happy.

 Simone De Beauvoir, Wartime diaries

It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.

 Ernest Hemingway, Battle for Paris. Colliers magazine September 1944

Bicycles are almost as good as guitars for meeting girls.

Bob Weir, Grateful Dead  in Dave Hunter The Fender Telecaster  

‘I do not believe in the three-speed gear at all,’ the Sergeant was saying, ‘it is a new-fangled instrument, it crucifies the legs, the half of the accidents are due to it.’

Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman

To ride a bicycle is in itself some protection against superstitious fears, since the bicycle is the product of pure reason applied to motion. Geometry at the service of man! Give me two spheres and a straight line and I will show you how far I can take them. Voltaire himself might have invented the bicycle, since it contributes so much to man’s welfare and nothing at all to his bane. Beneficial to the health, it emits no harmful fumes and permits only the most decorous speeds. it is not a murderous implement?”

Angela Carter, Vampirella

…bright-shirted racers of the Tour de France zoomed by like fantastically bicycling macaws.

 Joseph O’Neill, Netherland

“But Holmes was shaking his head, and his face was puzzled and expectant rather than joyous. “A bicycle, certainly, but not the bicycle,” said he. “I am familiar with forty-two different impressions left by tyres. This, as you perceive, is a Dunlop, with a patch upon the outer cover. Heidegger’s tyres were Palmer’s, leaving longitudinal stripes. Aveling, the mathematical master, was sure upon the point. Therefore, it is not Heidegger’s track.”

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Priory School

The man who is learning how to ride a bicycle has no advantage over the non-cyclist in the struggle for existence: quite the contrary. 

George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah

Still I am not thoroughly convinced yet that I was not killed. Anybody but a vegetarian would have been.

Shaw learning to cycle in  Michael Holroyd,  Bernard Shaw: The New Biography

I think it is just terrible and disgusting how everyone has treated Lance Armstrong, especially after what he achieved, winning seven Tour de France races while on drugs. When I was on drugs, I couldn’t even find my bike.

Willie Nelson, in Al Wiggins, In the World

Notre-Dame Des Dunes

“every statue tells a story”

We watched The Lion in Winter on Monday evening. If you haven’t seen it, don’t bother. Awful film. Over-theatrical, with Hepburn and O’Toole hamming it up outrageously (a minority view admittedly – Hepburn got an Oscar and O’Toole was nominated for one).

I’d bought the DVD a while back because Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hepburn) is a bit of a star here in Poitiers. Heiress of the Duchy of Aquitaine, she held court in the ducal palace, later to become the Palais de Justice, which was, until last year, the law court of the département of Vienne. She commissioned the building of the city walls and organised the construction of the original marketplace. She also commissioned the building of Poitiers Cathedral, and it was here that her marriage to Henry Plantagenet (later Henry II of England) was celebrated. The cathedral still has a fine stained-glass window which depicts her, Henry, and four of their sons. She died in Poitiers in 1204 and is buried nearby in Fontevraud Abbey.

To my disappointment, none of this gets a mention in the film. I’m getting used to this. I’ve become a big Maigret fan and got very excited a while back when I heard about a Georges Simenon novel called The Couple from Poitiers. I managed to track down a copy only to find that the couple get married on page 2 and go to live in Paris. Poitiers is never mentioned again.

There is no statue of Eleanor in the city. In fact there are very few statues at all – the city’s significant architectural reputation is largely built on its impressive collection of Romanesque churches. That said, there is the fine statue of Joan of Arc in Rue des Cordeliers (pictured last week). From time to time, alert passers-by will notice that Joan has suddenly started wearing red lipstick. Those wishing to attribute a miraculous significance to this would struggle to explain the empty beer cans which are placed on the end of her lance whenever the lipstick appears. There are two other statues of significance in Poitiers, both of women, and I went to take a closer look at one of these, Notre Dame des Dunes, the other day.

I’ll come back to that, but just to return to The Lion In Winter for a moment, something that is mentioned in the film, albeit briefly, is the murder of Thomas à Becket and Henry’s involvement in it. Henry always denied this, and after some dodgy dealing with the Pope (the Compromise of Avranches, if you’re interested) in which he promised to go on a crusade, he was cleared of any complicity. Despite this, Henry decided it would be politically sensible to do public penance in England. At Canterbury in 1174 he confessed his sins, received five symbolic blows with a rod from the bishop and then three each from the eighty monks present. He then offered gifts to Becket’s shrine and spent a night’s vigil at the martyr’s tomb.

A person wearing a costume

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Pope Julius II, Raphael

Now, this idea of public expiation has always interested me. There is a painting by Raphael in the National Gallery of a very sad-looking Pope Julius II. The picture was painted between 1511 and 1512, and we are told that the beard the Pope has grown is a sign of penance for the loss of the city of Bologna in a war. This is all well and good of course, but growing a beard is hardly putting yourself out, is it? It’s certainly not in the same class as getting whacked by eighty-one members of the clergy, symbolically or otherwise. I suppose if you are Pope you can do what you like, with advisors too scared to tell you otherwise:

We’ve lost Bologna. I’m going to grow a beard.

(A long pause) Very good, your Holiness. But if we were to lose another city?

I’ll stop eating cheese.

And another?

No more sex.

And another?

**** off!

Anyway.

Moving forward a few centuries, we see that public penance becomes more corporate. After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the debacle of the Paris Commune, the Catholic hierarchy in France was quick to interpret these events as divine punishment for a century of moral decline since the French Revolution, in which French society had divided into Catholics and legitimist royalists on one side, and secularists, socialists, and radicals on the other.

On 24 May 1873, François Pie, Bishop of Poitiers, declared that the nation yearned for spiritual renewal – ‘the hour of the Church has come’. The most immediate and obvious manifestation of this was to be the building of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Montmartre (the site of the Commune’s first insurrection). The proposal was fiercely debated in the National Assembly, but the Church got its way and in July 1873 the construction was approved ‘to expiate the crimes of the Commune’.

Closer to home, Bishop Pie decided that another act of expiation would be appropriate in his own diocese of Poitiers, and he took the initiative to have a statue, Notre Dame des Dunes (I told you I’d come back to it) built on the rock escarpment to the east of the city. Ideally placed to observe and dominate the whole city, it is located not far from the ‘Coligny rock’, where the Admiral de Coligny and his Protestant troops were posted during their siege of the city of Poitiers in 1569.

By night
By day

As in Paris, the decision to build was not met with unanimous approval. Republicans and members of the local masonic lodges were bitterly opposed to it. Nevertheless, the archbishop got his way, and the statue was inaugurated with a torchlit procession and fireworks on 6 August 1876.

The statue, including its pedestal, is over 6 metres high and weighs more than a ton. It depicts the Virgin Mary holding Jesus and standing on a terrestrial globe. It’s floodlit at night and, from a distance, it is impressive, like a golden beacon high on the hill. Unfortunately in daylight the effect diminishes the closer you get to it. (To be fair, I did go on a dull overcast day.) It is a sickly mustard colour, and the Virgin’s arm, described in most travel guides as being extended in greeting or blessing, begins to look distinctly fascistic. I suppose it could have been worse. It’s been pointed out that the arm points directly at the town hall in the city below. Given the original opposition to its being built, one might have expected two fingers to be raised.

So there you have it. Every statue tells a story. Alert readers will have noticed that I mentioned two statues of significance, and there is an interesting connection between them. However, Madame S has just indicated that dinner is about to be poured, so I’m afraid that will have to wait till another day.

A week in Poitiers

“J’aime mon bistrot”

This town…

We are about to enter our seventh week of le confinement and one senses that people are starting to get a little fidgety, partly because the days are getting longer and sunnier and partly because what happens next is still far from clear.

Hopefully this situation will change on Tuesday, when Prime Minister Édouard Philippe will present the national strategy for emerging from the lockdown. Some priorities have been identified for this process, which is due to start on May 11th. These include reopening schools, companies returning to work, getting public transport back to normal, the supply of masks and sanitiser, testing policy and support for the elderly. Finance Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher has already announced that distribution of washable fabric masks to everyone in France will begin on May 4th. At present the place of distribution is still not clear, with town halls, pharmacies, tabacs and websites all being considered. From May 11th, face masks will be crucial for workers, in schools and on public transport.

Having neither a job nor children of school age, a more pressing concern for me right now is when I can go out and do my bit to support some of the hard-hit bars and restaurants of Poitiers. President Macron said in his last broadcast that it would be some time after May 11th before places of entertainment would be allowed to open, but ‘some time’ is presumably up for negotiation.

is coming like a ghost town…

Here in Poitiers, one or two places are straining to be let off the leash and have now started offering takeaway and delivery services. It must be a very difficult time for them all. According to an article in Libération, only 5% of France’s cafes and restaurants are currently open (for delivery or takeaway), and turnover is only 10% of last year’s. Now two new initiatives, Bar solidaire and J’aime mon bistrot,have been launched to support them. Both are sponsored by brewery chains, and they operate in a broadly similar way. Consumers are invited to support their favourite establishments by purchasing a credit note to use when they reopen. Both schemes offer incentives. With J’aime mon bistrot,the restaurant increases the value of the amount the customer pays by 50% – if you buy a voucher for €50 you will have €75 to spend. This offer is limited to the first 20,000 credit notes. With Bar solidaire,you get the equivalent amount of your credit note as an additional beer credit (there is an overall limit of €3 million of additional credit). There is a caveat, in that in both schemes, if your chosen restaurant were to fail to reopen, you would not be reimbursed. It’s an interesting idea. As far as we can tell, none of the bistros in central Poitiers have so far registered in either scheme. I think it’s very likely that if any of the ones we frequent were to get involved, we would support them.

Meanwhile, we make our own entertainment. It’s now a novelty to have a conversation with anybody face to face, one slight problem, of course, being that there is little to talk about apart from the current situation. On Tuesday, we bumped into Maryse, one of those people who normally ricochets around town like a human pinball, chatting to everyone and getting involved in all sorts of local activities. At the moment she spends her time organising pop music quizzes and umpiring ping-pong matches for husband, Vito, and their sons, Pablo and Diego. I’ve been signed up to join in as soon as the restrictions are eased. Can you play doubles in ping-pong? Neither Vito nor I are particularly slim, so it might be a bit tight around the table.

On Wednesday, we bumped into Jay, an American who has been living in Poitiers for over twenty years. He’s a painter who is stymied at present because he needs some new paper of a particular sort and the art store in Poitiers is closed. He has a source in Paris whom he hopes may be able to send him some. Jay asked us if there were any news as to when the lockdown might end, and did so in a way that suggested that he is neither reading the newspapers nor watching TV. He lives alone, and when not painting he spends a lot of his time playing chess with some old boys in the library, something else that is currently not available to him. It struck me that they may be his main source of news, so what with missing them and not being able to paint, life must be quite frustrating for him at the moment. I suddenly got a glimpse of what real self-isolation might be like. Still, he is very cheerful. He lives right by the river and has a kayak. He asked us if we thought he would be allowed to use it for his hour’s exercise. A good question, to which we didn’t have the answer.

…this town…

On a warm sunny Friday evening we joined our neighbours in a little street party, about ten of us carefully spread out drinking beer and wine and chatting. It was very pleasant. Most of my family’s parties end up with the entire company dancing unsteadily in a circle and ‘singing’ Come On Eileen or Daydream Believer. On Friday, after an hour or so, we clapped the care workers and politely bade each other bonne nuit. Next week, social distancing or not, I might open a window and put Dexys Midnight Runners on Spotify.

***

One of the many gifts bestowed on me by my parents was the gene that gave me a healthy head of hair. It has always grown at a prodigious rate. As a young man I used to make a steady income by letting it grow long and then selling it to Pierre’s Perukes, a firm of theatrical wigmakers in Covent Garden. It gave me quite a thrill one day when Pierre himself told me that I was currently appearing simultaneously in Richard III at the National and Cinderella at the Adelphi.

It still grows very quickly, and I was overdue for a cut before the lockdown came into force. Now, a month later, it is quite unmanageable. I have tried various ways of making it look presentable, including pigtails and a ponytail, with limited success. For now I have settled on a sort of coiled bun/top-knot affair, which I rather like, though Madame says it looks like a walnut whip. She has rather unkindly suggested getting wooden rings and using me as a human hoopla stall. Seeing as how she has rebuffed all my suggestions for lockdown entertainment (Scalextric, Subbuteo, karaoke machine), I’m not inclined to indulge her.

On Beer (2)


“The sacred pint alone can unbind the tongue…” James Joyce, Ulysses

They are particular about their drinking vessels at the Moon Under Water, and never, for example, make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass. Apart from glass and pewter mugs, they have some of those pleasant strawberry-pink china ones which are now seldom seen in London. China mugs went out about 30 years ago, because most people like their drink to be transparent, but in my opinion beer tastes better out of china…

… to be fair, I do know of a few pubs that almost come up to the Moon Under Water. I have mentioned above ten qualities that the perfect pub should have and I know one pub that has eight of them. Even there, however, there is no draught stout, and no china mugs.

George Orwell , The Moon under Water

Thirstily he set it to his lips, and as its cool refreshment began to soothe his throat, he thanked heaven that in a world of much evil there was still so good a thing as ale.”

Rafael Sabatini, Fortune’s Fool

 ‘I see,’ said Karl, staring at the quickly emptying basket and listening to the curious noise which Robinson made in drinking, for the beer seemed first to plunge right down into his throat and gurgle up again with a sort of whistle before finally pouring its flood into the deep.    

Franz Kafka, Amerika

Oh, this beer here is cold, cold and hop-bitter, no point coming up for air, gulp, till it’s all–hahhhh.”

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

Here’s to your health, said Kelly. Good luck, I said. The porter was sour to the palate, but viscid, potent. Kelly made a long noise as if releasing air from his interior. I looked at him from the corner of my eye and said: You can’t beat a good pint. He leaned over and put his face close to me in an earnest manner. Do you know what I am going to tell you, he said with his wry mouth, a pint of plain is your only man. Notwithstanding this eulogy, I soon found that the mass of plain porter bears an unsatisfactory relation to its toxic content and I became subsequently addicted to brown stout in bottle, a drink which still remains the one that I prefer the most despite the painful and blinding fits of vomiting which a plurality of bottles has often induced in me.”

Flann O’Brien, At Swim-two-birds

Fill with mingled cream and amber,
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber

Through the chambers of my brain.
Quaintest thoughts Queerest fancies,
Come to life and fade away:
What care I how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.

Edgar Allan Poe   Lines on Ale

There is an ancient Celtic axiom that says ‘Good people drink good beer.’ Which is true, then as now. Just look around you in any public barroom and you will quickly see: Bad people drink bad beer. Think about it. 

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Beer’s intellectual. What a shame so many idiots drink it.

 Ray Bradbury The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse

I don’t think I’ve drunk enough beer to understand that.

 Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent

“[Barnabas speaks] “I will drink water.”

“Water? But water is not fit for men to drink. For the cattle, for birds and beast, but a man needs ale . . . or wine, if you are a Frenchman.” [William answers]”

Louis L’Amour, To the Far Blue Mountains

“There is this advantage about German beer: it does not make a man drunk as the word drunk is understood in England. There is nothing objectionable about him; he is simply tired. He does not want to talk; he wants to be let alone, to go to sleep; it does not matter where— anywhere.”

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel

I’d tried to straighten him out, but there’s only so much you can do for a person who thinks Auschwitz is a brand of beer

 David Sedaris  Naked

A week in Poitiers

Work in progress

I’m far from being bored. I read an interesting piece about Spanish flu on the internet last week. Staggering statistics. Over 500 million cases. Between 50 and 100 million fatalities worldwide. It gave me an idea for a little project – a detailed comparison of the effects of Spanish flu and coronavirus here in Poitiers. Spent an hour or two on it on Monday. Absolutely fascinating. Will come back to it when the lockdown is over and I can visit the library.

You can’t be bored if you have something to read. I’ve been dipping into Kenneth Williams’ Diaries. Very entertaining. His first breakthrough as an actor was appearing as the Dauphin in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan in 1954. Of course, Joan of Arc was put on trial right here in Poitiers, and this started me thinking about another interesting project – representations of Joan of Arc in twentieth-century literature. Spent Tuesday evening on this. A very promising start. Will come back to it when the lockdown is over and I can visit the library.

Joan of Arc, Poitiers

There are plenty of things to watch to pass the time, and we’ve been catching up on French films. On Wednesday, we watched A Man Escaped, Robert Bresson’s gripping story about a captured French Resistance fighter held in a Nazi prison in France. It suddenly struck me that there’s a really intriguing project here. How is the Second World War represented differently in British and French films? Loads of scope. By way of research I spent Thursday watching The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Battle of the River Plate, Ice Cold in Alex and Whisky Galore! Continued on Friday with The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky, The Cockleshell Heroes and I Was Monty’s Double. I feel I’ve probably got as far as I can for now. Will come back to it when the lockdown is over and I can visit the library.

Bored? I’ve no time to be bored.

In total we’ve got  231 DVDs (including a set of twenty-four Classic British War Movies given away free with copies of the Daily Mail that I used to get one of my daughters to buy for me.) We still haven’t watched The Shawshank Redemption, and I suspect we never will. We have a box set of Series 1–6 of Howards’ Way, bought at the Friends of Ely Museum summer fête in 2011. I may watch this next week with a view to a possible project on French and British soap operas.

Not bored in the slightest.

I’ve started cataloguing our books. This will take some time. We have over thirty dictionaries, including six English, three French, two German, one Spanish, two Latin, one Greek, one Homeric, one Anglo-Indian, four crossword dictionaries and two dictionaries of slang, as well as dictionaries of classical history, British history, phrase and fable, business English, linguistics, euphemisms, idioms, pronunciation and spelling. The spelling dictionary contains no definitions; it’s just a list of words. If there is a typo in this and a word is misspelt, how would you know?

I can honestly say I’m not in the least bit bored.

I have twenty-seven pairs of socks: nine are thermal and five are sports socks, including two pairs of those silly little ones that you wear with trainers so that you can pretend you’re not actually wearing socks. I also have kept three odd socks which may eventually find partners. This is the same sort of logic that stops me throwing away my old tweed jacket because I can use it for gardening, even though we don’t have a garden.

Bored? Don’t know the meaning of the word.

Our spice rack (actually a plastic container on top of the bread bin) contains eighteen jars: thirteen have orange lids, five have green. Only two jars have exceeded their use-by date by more than six months. We have two jars of oregano and two of cumin. The French for cinnamon is cannelle, turmeric is curcuma and fennel seeds are graines de fenouil. They use the same name as the English for herbes de Provence.

Boredom is a sign of mental laziness.

There are forty-two steps in our house, eleven down to the cave, sixteen up to the first floor (eleven to the bend outside the bathroom and then five) and then another fifteen to the second floor. I think the third from the top between the first and second floors is the squeakiest but I need to check this again.

I admit I can get a little listless from time to time.

The earliest time the postman has delivered so far this month was Thursday 2nd at 11.50. The latest was yesterday at 12.43. Interestingly, he has delivered at exactly 12.10 on three separate occasions: Friday 3rd, Tuesday 7th and Thursday 9th. Unfortunately, I forgot to check his time on Monday. I’ve thought about asking him if he can remember, but Madame S says I must be off my ******* rocker.

I think the lockdown may be getting to her.

On Beer (1)

For a quart of Ale is a dish for a king .

Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale

He tells me … that I must drink now and then ale with my wine, and eat bread and butter and honey—and rye bread if I can endure it, it being loosening.

Samuel Pepys, Diary,17 November 1663

It was of the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire; full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang; luminous as an autumn sunset; free from streakiness of taste; but, finally, rather heady. The masses worshipped it, the minor gentry loved it more than wine, and by the most illustrious county families it was not despised. Anybody brought up for being drunk and disorderly in the streets of its natal borough, had only to prove that he was a stranger to the place and its liquor to be honourably dismissed by the magistrates, as one overtaken in a fault that no man could guard against who entered the town unawares.

Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet-Major

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The Rat, meanwhile, was busy examining the label on one of the beer-bottles. ‘I perceive this to be Old Burton,’ he remarked approvingly. ‘SENSIBLE Mole! The very thing! Now we shall be able to mull some ale! Get the things ready, Mole, while I draw the corks.’

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

‘Only a pint at breakfast-time, and a pint and a half at eleven o’clock, and a quart or so at dinner. And then no more till the afternoon; and half a gallon at supper-time. No one can object to that.’

R. D. Blackmore, Lorna Doone

—Open two bottles of stout, Jack, said Mr O’Connor. —How can I? said the old man, when there’s no corkscrew? —Wait now, wait now! said Mr Henchy, getting up quickly. Did you ever see this little trick? He took two bottles from the table and, carrying them to the fire, put them on the hob. Then he sat down again by the fire and took another drink from his bottle. Mr Lyons sat on the edge of the table, pushed his hat towards the nape of his neck and began to swing his legs. —Which is my bottle? he asked. —This lad, said Mr Henchy. Mr Crofton sat down on a box and looked fixedly at the other bottle on the hob … In a few minutes an apologetic Pok! was heard as the cork flew out of Mr Lyons’ bottle. Mr Lyons jumped off the table, went to the fire, took his bottle and carried it back to the table.

James Joyce, ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’, Dubliners

And twice a day he smoked his pipe,

And drank his quart of beer:

His soul was resolute, and held

No hiding-place for fear;

He often said that he was glad

The hangman’s hands were near.

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Abdul Kadir had tried to make things go, as he always did. He had emptied most of the bottled beer, a quart of stout, a flask of Beehive Brandy, half a bottle of Wincarnis and the remains of the whiskey into a kitchen pail. He had seasoned this foaming broth with red peppers and invited all to drink deep. This had been his sole contribution to the victualling of the party.

Anthony Burgess, Enemy in the Blanket (The Malayan Trilogy)

‘You must have seen great changes since you were a young man,’ said Winston tentatively. The old man’s pale blue eyes moved from the darts board to the bar, and from the bar to the door of the Gents … ‘The beer was better,’ he said finally. ‘And cheaper! When I was a young man, mild beer – wallop we used to call it – was fourpence a pint. That was before the war, of course.’ ‘Which war was that?’ said Winston. ‘It’s all wars,’ said the old man vaguely. He took up his glass, and his shoulders straightened again. ‘’Ere’s wishing you the very best of ’ealth!’

George Orwell, 1984

… you can’t be a Real Country unless you have a beer and an airline—it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.

Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book

Morse poured himself a can of beer. ‘Champagne’s a lovely drink, but it makes you thirsty, doesn’t it?’

Colin Dexter, The Way Through The Woods

A week in Poitiers

“droning on and on”

Happy Easter.

These days I seem to have a senior moment every year, somewhere around mid-April to mid-May, when I suddenly have to ask myself, ‘Have we had Easter yet?’ I will, however, have no trouble in remembering this year’s Easter Sunday.

By rights we should have been at a family gathering at my younger daughter’s house in Walton-on-Thames. I had bought Easter eggs (Cadbury Chocolate Buttons, ‘buy one get one free’ at Carrefour) for my grandchildren Tom and Phoebe, but I had an additional treat in store for them. A couple of months ago I’d seen some youngsters playing with toy drones down by the river and they looked great fun. Checking on Amazon, I was surprised at how relatively cheap they were and, knowing Tom and Phoebe’s love of gadgets, I thought I would get them one. It arrived last week, and a few experimental flights in our back garden convinced me that I’d made an inspired choice. It was easy to use and fascinating to watch; I knew they would love it.

The coronavirus has of course put paid to our travelling plans, and we were resigned to celebrating quietly at home. Yesterday afternoon, while looking sadly at the Easter eggs and drone sitting on a shelf in the living room, I started reflecting on Easters from my own childhood. Being brought up as Roman Catholics, we were taught at school about the importance of self-sacrifice at Lent, and for children the most obvious form that this should take would be the giving up of sweets. I remember the growing excitement and sense of anticipation as Easter Sunday drew nearer and we could break our abstinence with a gargantuan chocolate binge. The Easter eggs our parents would provide were nearly always augmented by gifts brought by numerous doting aunts and uncles who had come to visit over Easter. To a child’s delighted eyes the house would seem briefly to have turned into a chocolate warehouse. Everywhere one looked there were chocolate eggs, along with any number of Rowntree’s Selection Packs, boxes of Black Magic, Milk Tray and the like. What innocent joy it all conjured up.

It was then I had my grand idea. Across the street, a couple of doors up from us, live the Boissier family, Jean-Claude, Bernadette, and their daughter Matilde, who is 9. They’re rather quiet and reserved, but they are nice people who have always been very friendly to us. I knew, because Bernadette had told me, that they were devout Catholics and that Matilde went to the Sacré-Coeur Convent in rue de la Cathédrale. There was, I thought, a strong chance that the child would have given up sweets for Lent and, even if not, she would no doubt be delighted to have an additional Easter egg. The coronavirus restrictions meant that they would not be having visitors, and I thought it possible that her parent’s own offering might be relatively modest, as they were very careful about their health and monitored her diet carefully. However, they could surely not object to her having one additional little treat on this special day – particularly given the unusual times we are going through.

I knew that they would not welcome my calling at their door, but why not a special delivery by drone? It took a matter of minutes to confirm that by using a couple of large safety pins I was able to attach the egg, which was actually quite light, to the device, which was powerful enough to lift it. I launched it in the back garden and easily managed to raise it above our roof and move it somewhere over the middle of our house. At the appointed time it would be relatively straightforward to move through the house and then, from the upstairs front window, guide it down to land on the Boissiers’ doorstep, or perhaps even into the delighted child’s hands.

Jean-Claude and I exchange regular bilingual emails as a way of improving my French and his English, so I sent him one telling him to be sure to stand at his front door with Bernadette and Matilde at exactly three o’clock the next day to see something truly magnifique and incroyable. Perhaps I was getting a little carried away but, what the hell, it should at least cheer us all up a little. He was clearly intrigued and said they would be there.

Today at ten to three I went out in the back garden to prepare for lift-off. Once the egg was securely attached to the drone, I decided to try a little practice manoeuvre. I flicked the switch on the remote. Nothing happened. I flicked it several more times. Nothing. The horrible truth dawned on me; the battery was dead. I could have wept. By now it was two minutes to three. Too late to recharge it. There was nothing for it but to go out and explain ruefully to the Boissiers my good intentions. Drone and egg in hand I went to open our front door.

For the next few minutes, everything seems to happen in slow motion. The Boissiers are at their doorway as instructed. Madame and Monsieur Boissier are standing stock-still with their mouths open, Matilde is in front of them with Bernadette’s left hand covering her eyes. In the middle of the street, directly outside their house are two dogs engaged in something that an animal-lover would probably defend as perfectly natural. I stress that I am not trying to excuse myself in any way (after all it was hardly my fault), but it is quite likely that the sudden spell of unseasonably hot weather and the fact that our streets are currently strangely deserted may well have had something to do with it.

I stand transfixed for a second and then I am suddenly pushed aside. Madame S, who has no doubt observed the scene from the window, emerges into the street with a red plastic bucket of water which she aims in the direction of the distracted canines. This is partly successful, because they immediately cease what they are doing and scurry off. Unfortunately, she has underestimated her own strength and has also managed to drench Matilde. With a loud shriek Madame Boissier yanks the child indoors. Jean-Claude stares at me as if hypnotised for nearly a minute before following them and quietly closing the door.

It is now 7 p.m. Madame S has not spoken to me since and has retired to bed. She has also confiscated the drone. Jean-Claude has sent me a long, rather uncivil email which, amongst other things, refers to ‘the bizarre sense of English humour’. I thought about replying, pointing out his syntactical error but decided to leave that for another day. Instead I am watching The World at War (Battle of Stalingrad), eating chocolate buttons and reflecting on the wisdom of Oscar Wilde’s: ‘No good deed goes unpunished’.

On Cheese (1)

Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. 
G.K.Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions

A silence fell at the mention of Gavard. They all looked at each other cautiously. As they were all rather short of breath by this time, it was the camembert they could smell. This cheese, with its gamy odour, had overpowered the milder smells of the Marolles and the Limbourg; its power was remarkable. Every now and then, however, a slight whiff, a flute-like note, came from the Parmesan, while the Bries came into play with their soft, musty smell, the gentle sound, so to speak, of a damp tambourine. The Livarot launched into an overwhelming reprise, and the Géromé kept up the symphony with a sustained high note.

Émile Zola, The Belly of Paris

I do like a little romance—just a sniff, as I call it, of the rocks and valleys. Of course, bread-and-cheese is the real thing. The rocks and valleys are no good at all, if you haven’t got that.

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her?

You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now? No? Well, many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese—toasted, mostly—and woke up again, and here I were.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

The train was crowded, and I had to get into a carriage where there were already seven other people. One crusty old gentleman objected, but I got in, notwithstanding; and, putting my cheeses upon the rack, squeezed down with a pleasant smile, and said it was a warm day.

A few moments passed, and then the old gentleman began to fidget.

‘Very close in here,’ he said.

‘Quite oppressive,’ said the man next him.

And then they both began sniffing, and, at the third sniff, they caught it right on the chest, and rose up without another word and went out. And then a stout lady got up, and said it was disgraceful that a respectable married woman should be harried about in this way, and gathered up a bag and eight parcels and went. The remaining four passengers sat on for a while, until a solemn-looking man in the corner, who, from his dress and general appearance, seemed to belong to the undertaker class, said it put him in mind of dead baby; and the other three passengers tried to get out of the door at the same time, and hurt themselves.

Jerome K Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

I’m as bad as anybody. Down at Bournemouth, I kicked a tray of cups up into air and one hit Luther Blissett on the head. He flicked it on and it went all over my suit hanging behind. Another time, at West Ham, I also threw a plate of sandwiches at Don Hutchison. He’s sitting there, still arguing with me, with cheese and tomato running down his face. But you can’t do that any more, especially with all the foreigners. They’d go home.

Harry Redknapp, Independent, 10 October 1999

Clerk (suddenly): What about peace? Yes peace. I’m from Bohemia. I’d like to get home once in a while.

Chaplain: Oh you would, would you? Dear old peace! What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?

Berthold Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children

Je me souviens d’un fromage qui s’appelait la Vache sérieuse (la Vache qui rit lui a fait un procès et l’a gagné).

I remember a cheese called Serious Cow (Laughing Cow sued it and won.)

Georges Perec, Mi Ricordo

Isn’t it the natural condition of life after a certain age? … After a number of events, what is there left but repetition and diminishment? Who wants to go on living? The eccentric, the religious, the artistic (sometimes); those with a false sense of their own worth. Soft cheeses collapse; firm cheeses indurate. Both go mouldy.

Julian Barnes,  Flaubert’s Parrot

A corpse is meat gone bad. Well and what’s cheese? Corpse of milk.

James Joyce, Ulysses

Sometimes I think I’m liquefying like an old Camembert.

Gustave Flaubert in Susannah Patton, A Journey into Flaubert’s Normandy

A week in Poitiers

The World at War

We are now near the end of our third week of home confinement and an improvement in the weather adds a subtle refinement to the irritation this causes. It’s far less of a hardship to be stuck indoors on a rainy day; once the sun starts shining you instinctively feel that outside a bar somewhere there is a seat with your name on it. Still, ‘mustn’t grumble’, as they say – a ridiculous piece of advice in my view, grumbling being one of the few real pleasures left in life.

As we can only leave the house for shopping trips and exercise each day, I’ve increasingly been resorting to various forms of virtual travel, one advantage of which is that you can move through both time and space. Quite by chance, just before we were told to stay at home, I’d ordered a box set of Granada’s The World at War series. It has been digitally remastered, with each frame restored and the sound upgraded and enhanced. The results are extremely impressive. There are over twenty-two hours to watch – some of which is background material – and at present we are watching one forty-five-minute programme an evening. In the six we’ve seen so far, the action footage is clear and sharp and the interviews, with everyone from Sir Anthony Eden to a group of East Enders reminiscing about the Blitz, look as if they might have been made last year instead of nearly half a century ago. It is compelling viewing and has stood the test of time remarkably, a painless way to absorb history. The series cost £900,000 to make, the equivalent of £11 million today. By comparison, according to Peter Morgan, its producer, the combined cost of series one and two of Netflix’s The Crown was £97 million.

Another form of time travel is provided by www.pepysdiary.com/, a fascinating website that is updated each day with an annotated extract from Pepys’ Diary for that day. If you register with them (it’s free) they send you an email with the day’s entry. Along with the extracts themselves, the site provides an encyclopaedia of information about people and places in Pepys’ time, with maps and a host of articles on broader aspects of seventeenth-century history. At the moment we are in April 1667, Pepys’ mother has just died, and everyone at court is getting twitchy about the prospect of war with the Dutch. The sudden appearance of a phrase in Latin or French usually means that Samuel has been trying to take his mind off things by indulging in some form of naughtiness or other.

My last virtual journey is more local and will, I hope, eventually be replaced by the real thing. I have discovered a book called Les rues de Poitiers by the magnificently named Raoul Brothier de Rollière. It was written in 1905 and is a biographical dictionary of all the streets in Poitiers. Obviously it is out of date: streets have disappeared, new ones have sprung up, and some have changed names. Nevertheless the potted descriptions are a fascinating insight into the history of Poitiers. Take for example, our own Rue des Carmes, a fairly quiet backstreet. It merits a whole page in the book and, amongst other things, one learns that it was an interior pathway between two of the main gates in the original Roman settlement. It got its current name from the ancient Convent des Carmes built here in 1367, and in the religious wars of the sixteenth century, cannons were placed on a platform a few doors away from our house to fire on the Protestant forces laying siege to the city from the hill on the other side of Pont Joubert.

The convent is long gone, replaced by a small block of flats, and this has given me an idea. Once the current crisis over, if I am spared, I intend to slowly start translating and updating M. Brothier de Rollière’s book, or at least the entries for the main streets. It will be a fine way to get to know the city better, and I will repay the debt by making amendments where necessary. I don’t think there are any new convents, but I will dutifully add details of all the vape shops, tattoo parlours and fast food establishments I come across.

***

You cannot buy bacon in France. Well, that’s not strictly true; there are online suppliers from the UK, and in Paris you can buy bacon at Le Bon Marché (the French equivalent of the Harrods Food Hall) or the very handy M&S food stores that are dotted around the city. We usually pick some up from one of the latter whenever we visit. What I mean is you can’t pop into your local supermarket and buy half a pound of back or streaky. It’s odd. One or two of them sell something they call bacon, but the slices are perfectly circular, leathery and taste like salty beermats.

What they do sell here is lardons, and one day last week I bought some of these for cooking our evening meal. When opening the packet, it occurred to me that the various small bits inside might once actually have been slices of bacon which were then chopped up. Out of curiosity, I sprinkled the contents onto a chopping board and started absent-mindedly moving them around with my finger trying to get some sense of how they had arrived in their current state. While doing this, I looked up and saw Madame S standing in the doorway. She stared at me thoughtfully for a few seconds and then left the room. I thought no more of it until later, when I passed the living room where she was on the phone to her mother in Perth. I’m increasingly deaf, but I am almost certain I heard ‘… and now it’s bacon jigsaw puzzles …’.

Biblical Wisdom

On Grand National Day:

Zechariah 12:4 “In that day,” declares the LORD, “I will strike every horse with bewilderment and his rider with madness.

On drinking:

Proverbs 20:1 –  “Wine [is] a mocker, strong drink [is] raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.”

Proverbs 23:20 – “Be not among winebibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh.”

Isaiah 28:7 – “The priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink, they are swallowed up of wine, they are out of the way through strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgement.”

On people to avoid:

Deuteronomy 23:1  – “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.

2 A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.

Ezekiel 23: 19-“Yet she became more and more promiscuous as she recalled the days of her youth, when she was a prostitute in Egypt

20 There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.”

On Self Isolation:

Hebrews 13.8 –  “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever.”