Accordion Crimes

I’ve always liked accordions. They are so absurdly complicated-looking: a keyboard and a large array of buttons, separated by something resembling an inflatable radiator. Yet at the same time they are such beautiful objects, their varnished wooden cases trimmed in chrome and embossed with art nouveau flourishes, the keyboards set in mother of pearl or enamel. There are people who collect luxury cars, but I think an accordion collection might afford me more satisfaction.

My dad’s brother, uncle Mike, had one, and he was a dab hand at playing it. He and Auntie Sheila were regular visitors to our house, and at Christmas or Easter he would sometimes bring it along. A comic ritual had to be gone through so that he could be persuaded to play. He would first feign reluctance, and we, his audience, would temporarily turn into versions of Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle – ‘Ah, go on, go on … You will, you will’ – until he eventually agreed. (Even at the tender age of 9, I used to wonder why he had gone to all the trouble of lugging the heavy case on a bus from Wimbledon to Fulham if he didn’t want to play it.)

Once he started, we would be treated to a jolly session of jigs and reels. If we were lucky – it would require another round of Mrs Doyle-like encouragement – my dad would do his Sean-nós broom dance (the chap in the video is not my dad, but is almost as good a dancer). All the while, I would sit happily mesmerised by the blur of Uncle Mike’s hands dancing up and down the keyboards and pausing only briefly to reach for a fortifying sup of Guinness or whiskey.

Here in France, the accordion-playing busker is a stereotypical figure. When I lived in Paris, I learnt to recognise the ones who regularly worked lines 6 and 7 on the Métro. I used to think that Autumn Leaves was a particular busker favourite, until one day, en route somewhere, my friend Frank helpfully put me right:

Me: They all seem to like Autumn Leaves.

Frank: That’s not Autumn Leaves.

Me: What is it, then?

Frank: Fuck knows, but it’s not Autumn Leaves.

Anyway, to get to the point. For the past ten years, Sacha, a Roma from Serbia, has been playing the accordion in the streets of Poitiers, either in front of Notre-Dame church or in front of the Passage Cordeliers. He’s there almost every day, and is a popular local figure. My own relationship with him got off to a shaky start when I absent-mindedly shoved my hand in my pocket and scooped out my change. To my horror, just as I handed it to him I realised I was giving him the princely sum of 14 centimes. He looked at it and then bowed his head with a grave ‘Merci, Monsieur’. I’ve made amends since then, and we are now on good terms.

Last Wednesday, disaster struck. While taking a break from playing, Sacha stored his accordion, collection cap, and chair in Notre-Dame church, as he usually does, only to find on his return that the accordion had gone. Sacha speaks very little French, but Greg, a local resident who speaks Roma, took him to the police station to report the loss. Witnesses have since reported the presence of some young men hanging around outside the church that day, but searches have so far been unsuccessful.

© Photo d’archives : Dominique Bordier.

Sacha with his original accordion

A friend of Greg has lent Sacha another accordion, but it is a smaller instrument and nothing like Sacha’s Beltuna Piano, brought with him from Serbia and relatively rare in France. Meanwhile, an online fundraiser has been started, and in two days it has raised over €2,700 towards its target of €3,500.

You might think that a ‘hot’ accordion would be a difficult thing to dispose of, but it would seem that enough of them are pinched to merit a wanted list of stolen accordions, run by the website Accordions Worldwide. Sacha’s hasn’t been added yet.

In her 1996 novel Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx tells the story of one such instrument that travelled, with its Sicilian maker and his son, to New Orleans in 1890. The story follows the accordion over the next hundred years as it crosses several states of the USA. Given, sold, or stolen, it passes through the hands of numerous immigrant families, including Italians, Germans, Norwegians, and French Canadians. I hope very much that Sacha recovers his own accordion or, if not, that the fund will pay for a suitable replacement. If the latter, it would be nice to think that, for years to come, his original Beltuna continues to travel around the countries of Europe, playing something that may or may not be Autumn Leaves.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The Pope cannot be an organ donor, because his body belongs to the Church.

A jar of Nutella is sold somewhere in the world every 2.5 seconds.

Until the early twentieth century, left-handedness in a wife was grounds for divorce in Japan.

Free at last – more or less

Guess where we’ve been?

On Thursday, we went to Paris to spend a couple of days celebrating our new-found freedom. The sun was shining, and although service is still confined to their terraces, there was no shortage of cafés, bars, and restaurants in which to while away the time very pleasantly. Because of the restrictions on foreign travel, the atmosphere was a little strange at times. We had a stroll through Montmartre, and the streets around Place du Tertre, normally full of people at this time of year, were eerily quiet.

Montmartre – eerily quiet

On Friday, we had a mooch around the 7th arrondissement and saw one or two exteriors that have given Madame food for thought when we next decorate the front of our house.

148 Rue de Grenelle

29 Avenue Rapp

Restaurant owners won’t agree with this, but I found that one unexpected benefit of the reduction in tourist numbers was that waiters and bar staff were noticeably more relaxed and happy to chat to customers. I don’t hold with the idea that service in France, and Paris in particular, is generally poor. Someone once explained to me that, in brasseries especially, staff tend to work long hours and are generally pretty stretched. They need to be quick, and this can sometimes be misinterpreted as rudeness. In my experience, if you are polite, they will be too.

The 21.00 curfew is still in force, but in practice this seems to mean that restaurants stop serving at 21.00. People were still ordering meals up to ten minutes before this. Customers then slowly drifted home over the next hour. It all seemed very relaxed, and the police were noticeably absent.

Masks still need to be worn in the street …

… though exemptions are sometimes granted.

As always, no matter what your cultural interests are, you will find plenty of things to see and do in Paris.

Still lost in France

Still game

***

I think French food is wonderful. Poitiers has umpteen good restaurants, and a trip around the local market is always a treat. And yet, I do worry sometimes.

After the opening of Chien Chaud (see January 10th), the hot dog bar in Rue Magenta, I couldn’t help noticing that a couple of other café-restaurants have added hot dogs to their menus. And now Casa Huet, a restaurant just up the road in Saint-Benoît, has installed a pizza vending machine in front of its premises in Rue de Naintré.

According to the owner, Christophe Huet, ‘We had been thinking about it for a while, but the first lockdown accelerated things because people could only leave their homes for a short time.’

M. Huet and his team with their pizza machine

The pizzas are 80% pre-cooked and stored in the machine at 5 °C. You make a selection from a touch screen offering a variety of eight toppings, including merguez, peppers and onions, four cheese, pizza aux saint-jacques (scallops), local speciality la Poitevine (goat’s cheese and honey) and the ‘burger pizza’ (the mind boggles). You pay by bank card, and after three minutes your pizza is cooked at 350 °C. You can also buy it cold for reheating at home.

According to M. Huet, it’s been a great success, and over two hundred pizzas were sold in the first week. All well and good, but apparently he now intends to ‘develop the concept’. Mark my words, before you know it there will be a bœuf Bourguignon dispenser in the main square.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1903, the three largest sports stadiums in the world were all in Glasgow.

At actor Derek Fowlds’s funeral in 2020, Basil Brush was amongst the mourners and read a poem.

Hairy-legged tights are sold in China to protect girls from unwanted male attention.

They’re open!

A welcome return to life on the terraces.

The first step towards déconfinement was taken on Wednesday. Non-essentiel shops were allowed to reopen, and bars and restaurants were allowed to open their terraces and gardens. The latter are taking full advantage of this, not only cramming as many tables and chairs as they can outside their own premises, but also colonising the frontages of adjacent shops and offices. The owners of these seem quite happy with the arrangement, and it occurred to me that they might be being offered free or discounted drinks as a quid pro quo. I have emailed the owners of Café des Arts and Le Gambetta offering to put the space outside our own house at their disposal. I have yet to receive a reply, and I accept that as they are two streets away, it’s a bit of a long shot. Still, nothing ventured …

A “colonized” Rue de la Cathédrale

The municipal council are doing their bit to promote trade by nominating certain main thoroughfares as pedestrian areas between 11.00 and 19.00 (when the current curfew starts) to allow for even more seating space. They’ve also promised that they will be laying on several street shows as part of their Culture à l’air libre initiative. (I have mixed feelings about this, having narrowly avoided being run down by a unicycling juggler back in January.)

It all helps to create a very festive atmosphere, the only dampener (literally) being the spell of showery weather we have been experiencing over the last few days. I’ve got used to seeing swarms of drinkers rushing for any available cover during a sudden downpour, then returning five minutes later to wipe down their tables and chairs and carry on drinking. Luckily, the forecast is set to change after tomorrow, and we are promised a long period of warm sunny days.

Since Wednesday, Madame and I have been playing our part in revitalising the local economy. There are those who might say our efforts have been above and beyond the call of duty, but I regard that as defeatist talk. Nevertheless, I think we are both quietly relieved that today is Sunday and all the local bars are closed.

On Thursday we are heading off to Paris for a couple of days, partly just to celebrate the fact that we can do so. Another welcome sign of déconfinement is that internal travel restrictions are being eased, and the train service is slowly getting back to normal. We plan to make the most of this.

Travel between France and the UK is still too difficult to contemplate, requiring a period of quarantine both on arrival in the UK (ten days) and on returning to France (seven days). There is also a requirement to provide negative Covid test certificates on both sides of the Channel.

Incidentally, I saw this from ex-diplomat Simon Fraser on Twitter this morning: “Had to go urgently to France last week. PCR test in UK to go there cost me £120. PCR test in France to return home cost me £0.” The tests are now free at pharmacies in France, and you can even get them at the airport.

***

Changing the subject completely: I’ve never tasted Benedictine. Nor, as it turns out, has Madame. We both think it could be minty, but we may be getting it mixed up with green Chartreuse. I know crème de menthe is minty; the name is a giveaway, but I also once drank nearly a pint of the stuff at a party in Hastings (nothing else left).

Anyway. I looked up Benedictine on Wikipedia and discovered that it’s made from a mixture of 27 herbs and spices, of which 21 are publicly known. These include red berries, cinnamon, lemon balm, tea, thyme, coriander, cloves, vanilla, and nutmeg. I am no wiser as to what it tastes like, and for all I know, mint may be one of the secret ingredients.

What I did find out, and the reason for all this waffle, is the fact that the United Kingdom is a significant market for Benedictine, and much of it is consumed in the Burnley area. That’s right, Burnley. Apparently it’s a result of soldiers of the East Lancashire Regiment acquiring a taste for the drink while stationed in France during the First World War. In Burnley, Benedictine is drunk with hot water, a mixture known as ‘Benny-and-hot’. Most remarkable of all, Burnley Miners Club is reputedly the largest single customer of the liqueur in the UK.

Now, Burnley may not have a lot going for it. Not an obvious holiday destination, and a football team whose style of play is quite a long way from that of Barcelona or Bayern Munich. But from now on, whenever I hear its name, I will mentally raise a glass to its Miners Club members and their sophisticated taste in cocktails.

***

Other things I’ve learnt this week:

Gambrinous means ‘being full of beer’.

In the USA, ransom payments to kidnappers are tax-deductible.

Enid Blyton liked to play tennis in the nude.

Church-going

Western front of Notre Dame La Grande

I’ve been going to church a lot recently. Not through any new-found religious zeal, but in order to take photographs. When I signed up for the photography course I am currently doing, my intention was to concentrate on street life and, in particular, night scenes. Sadly, the start of the course coincided with the reintroduction of the lockdown and the curfew, which means that the streets are unusually empty and I can’t go out to take photos at night.

So for the last week or so I’ve been scampering around looking for things to photograph, and in Poitiers an obvious choice is the three Romanesque churches that are the city’s principal tourist attraction: Notre-Dame-La-Grande, St Hilaire, and St Radegonde. They are all very different, and all provide lots of scope for photos. St Hilaire is a World Heritage Site and a stopping point for pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostela. Both it and St Radegonde are beautifully preserved. The intricate carving on the western front of Notre-Dame-La-Grande make it one of the most visited churches in France.

Side chapel in St Hilaire

I’ve visited all three churches on many occasions since we moved here, and one of the most striking things I’ve found is that they are nearly always empty. The same is true of the equally impressive St Peter’s Cathedral. I have got used to more or less having them all to myself, to the extent that I now get mildly irritated when I see a few tourists or a local coming in for a quick pray.

I’m quite puzzled by this. When I came to live here, I soon became aware that France, despite being officially a secular country, still has a strong Catholic tradition, and Poitiers is clearly a Catholic city. Every other street is named after a saint, a bishop, or an order of monks, and there are a number of (private) Catholic schools. The one around the corner from us has a nun at the gate ushering the children in each morning. As I go past, her look always suggests that I am on my way to help the police with their enquiries.

St Radegonde

Our friends sometimes use the phrase “très catho” when referring to an individual or family. I’ve come to realise that this is generally shorthand for “middle-to-upper class and conservative.” When we first moved in, our neighbour Colette used it to describe the family opposite her, whom we hadn’t yet met. Sure enough, the following Sunday morning we saw maman and papa in matching Barbour gilets, trooping off to Mass with their six young children in tow. They moved out shortly after we arrived; I don’t think the two events were connected.

Anyway, for the moment, in the unlikely event that I should bump into a Catholic clergyman, I can truthfully say that I seem to visit their churches far more often than most of their flock.

***

From the sacred to the profane. This, from the Times diary on Friday, made me laugh:

In a new book by Robert Sellers on the history of Radio 1, David Hamilton recalls the first day of the Jeremy Thorpe trial in 1979, when the Liberal politician was accused of conspiracy to murder his gay lover. James Alexander Gordon read the news headlines and told listeners that when Thorpe and Norman Scott met in court “it was the first time they had come face to face for four years.” As the studio staff fell about, Hamilton asked JAG if he realised what he had said. “I don’t think about the news, I just read it,” he said. Then he looked more closely. “Oh my God!” It was amended for the next bulletin.

***

The swifts are back in Poitiers! Always a sign that summer is on its way. They are amazing creatures. They eat, drink, and mate while flying, and only stop to raise their young. It’s estimated they fly more than 500 miles each day. As soon as they arrive, they visit the nest they built the previous year. Often these are in small cavities they find under roof gables in some of the older houses around here. If you are lucky, you can sometimes see them darting in.

We had a shock on Wednesday. We found one lying on the path in our garden. There is a large French window there, and birds occasionally fly into it. For a swift at speed, this could be fatal. I was about to grab a dustpan and brush to perform the last rites when Madame said excitedly, “It’s still breathing.” She hurried off to the RSPB website, which advised her to put the creature in a cloth-lined box and let it rest there. We did this and laid it on the garden table. To our delight and amazement, we discovered shortly afterwards that it had recovered and flown off.

The only slight drawback is the effect this has had on Madame, who has developed what I can only describe as an Assisi complex. There are now several bird-feeders and drinking bowls dotted around the garden, and she is talking of building a hedgehog sanctuary. She stops to pat and exchange a few words with every dog we pass in the street (Christ knows what they make of her French), and I now discover that on 19th May, the day the lockdown ends, instead of a glorious bar crawl around the city centre, we are off to visit La Vallée des Singes, a monkey colony fifteen miles away.

The next time I see a concussed swift, it’ll be worm food before you can say “David Attenborough.”

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The man who wrote “I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside” killed himself after being booed off stage in Glasgow.

Whoopi Goldberg got her nickname from her childhood flatulence.

Buckingham Palace is built on the site of a brothel.

***

Not that anyone cares, but this blog will not be appearing next week. I need to finish my course work. Normal service will be resumed the following week.

In the meantime, here is some music.

A route map

The choice I’ve been struggling with all my life.

***

On Friday, President Macron announced the government ‘route map’ to the end of the current confinement. This will be a four-stage process. The main points are these:

From tomorrow, 3rd May: Travel restrictions will be lifted. We will no longer need an attestation document if travelling more than 10 km. Secondary schools will reopen. All other rules, including the 7pm curfew, remain in place.

On 19th May: Cafés, bars, and restaurants will be able to reopen their outdoor terrace spaces only, with a maximum of six people per table. ‘Non-essential’ shops can reopen. Cinemas, theatres, and museums can reopen with restricted numbers, as can open-air sports facilities. The curfew will be pushed back from 7pm to 9pm.

On 9th June: Cafés, bars, and restaurants will be allowed to reopen indoor spaces, with a maximum of six people per table. A pass sanitaire will be implemented – a ‘health passport’ showing either a vaccine certificate or a recent negative Covid test, which will be compulsory to access certain areas or events. Public events, including concerts and sports matches, with a maximum of 5,000 people, may be possible – but those attending will need a pass sanitaire. The border will be open to non-EU tourists and visitors, but they too will need a pass sanitaire. The curfew will be pushed back to 11pm.

On 30th June: The curfew will end. Events of more than 1,000 people, indoors or outdoors, may be permitted, but those attending will need a valid pass sanitaire.

Full details of exactly how the ‘health passports’ will work have not yet been revealed, but a prototype that is currently being tested would allow individuals to upload either a vaccine certificate or a recent negative Covid test onto their mobile phone or tablet.

This plan has been announced against a background of encouraging statistics in terms of both case rates and vaccinations (all the figures quoted here are from John Lichfield’s excellent weekly updates).

In terms of cases, all the statistics in the last week moved in the right direction, the first time this has happened for two months. The daily average number of cases was 27,857 – a fall of 16.6%. The number of deaths was down, as were the numbers for acute cases and hospital bed occupancy.

With regard to vaccinations, in the last week France delivered an average of 410,120 jabs a day, including 254,167 first jabs. Both are records (for France). By comparison, the UK, with almost exactly the same population, is delivering 533,807 jabs a day, including 118,207 first jabs. Overall, the UK is still way ahead, but France is now delivering twice as many first jabs. The target of 20 million first jabs by 15th May might not be met, but the result will not be far off.

President Macron’s reopening strategy is undoubtedly a gamble, The South African variant is still causing problems in some areas, and the identification of the first cases of the Indian variant (five so far) is a worry. The hope is that the vaccination strategy will win out. Quite what happens if it doesn’t is not clear.

Come what may, Madame and I have ring-fenced 19th May in our diaries. ‘We are just going outside and may be some time.’

***

Things that remind you that you are no longer living in the UK. A couple of months ago, in nearby Charroux, residents were alarmed to be woken one morning by gunshots. It turned out that the mayor had arranged for a group of local hunters to go shooting pigeons in the street (there’s a video clip of one of them in action here). The local paper, La Nouvelle République, regularly has articles about wolves being spotted in Vienne, and last week there was a warning that 1st May sees the start of Tiger Mosquito Alert, which runs till the end of October. This mosquito first appeared in France in 2019, and Vienne is one of the departments on red alert for the insect, which is a transmitter of the very nasty dengue virus.

As if that weren’t enough to worry about, this week La Nouvelle République reported that a wild boar had been seen on Île de La Glacière, a tiny island in the river Clain, about half a mile from our house. The local Lieutenant de louveterie, a sort of state-sponsored gamekeeper, deemed it accidentogène (hazardous) and said that attempts to capture it alive would be too dangerous.

A team of hunters was sent to ‘despatch’ it. The report doesn’t say if these were the same ones as the pigeon-shooting gang from Charroux, but whether they were or not, they were unsuccessful this time.

One of the Poitiers boar-hunters.

Apparently, the boar somehow got off the island and is now roaming through the undergrowth on the city’s outskirts. Who knows where or when it will reappear?

To cap it all, this week, both Madame and I have separately seen a mouse scurrying across the path in our garden. There is only so much of this one man can take.

***

Spotted just by Parc Blossac, this must be the longest street name in Poitiers, perhaps the longest in France. Imagine the poor bugger who lives at no. 99 …

Poor bugger: ‘Hello. I’d like to order a pizza.’

Pizza parlour person: ‘Certainly, sir. Can I take the address?’

Poor bugger (with a heavy sigh): ‘Quatre-vingt-dix-neuf, rue de cent vingt-cinquième régiment d’infanterie.’

A pause …

Pizza parlour person (with a barely suppressed snigger): ‘Would you mind spelling that for me, sir?’

Poor bugger: ‘Q … U … sod it, I’ll open a tin of baked beans.’

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

When George W. Bush, 43rd president of the USA, arrived in the White House, he found the Clinton administration had removed the ‘W’ keys from all the computers.

Rhinotillexomania is the scientific term for being unable to stop picking your nose.

The 1978 chess final at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs was between ‘Moors Murderer’ Ian Brady and disgraced MP John Stonehouse.

The writing’s on the wall

It’s not clear, at least to me, why there is so much more graffiti in France than there is in the UK. By this, I mean not only the ‘street art’ – murals and other forms of building decoration – that is condoned, and even encouraged, to a much greater extent by the authorities here, but also basic tagging and slogan writing. Poitiers has always had its fair share of this, but in the past month, well, to quote Harold Shand, the Bob Hoskins character in The Long Good Friday, ‘Now there’s been an eruption.’

I came out of our house the other morning to see this on the wall of our neighbour Nicole:

It’s a call for Jean-Michel Blanquer, the current Minister of Education, to resign. M. Blanquer is the target of quite a lot of the current outbreak. I saw Nicole later in the day, and when I commiserated, she just shrugged and smiled. It’s the second time in a couple of months that she’s been done, probably because her patch of white wall is the most inviting ‘canvas’ in the street. With luck it will be gone in a week or so.

The more acceptable form of street art: Voie André Malraux

In Poitiers, more than 2,000 tags were deleted in 2020, and according to Benoît Texereau, responsible for urban cleaning in the city, 600 have already been removed since January, more than half of them in the city centre. The city allocates €100,000 each year to tagging removal, and two men, Yohan Prior and Christophe Giraudon, are employed full-time on the task. They have been working together for fifteen years and have become good friends.

The statistics include only painted tags removed and do not take stickers and fly-posters into account. On average, between five and twenty tags are removed every day. According to Yohan, ‘We erased nearly 245 tags between mid-March and mid-April. It’s a mixture of feminist tags and tags against the government.’ Removing each one ‘can take between 30 seconds and 3 hours, depending on the size of the tag and the fragility of the building’s construction material’. One worrying development is that, during the previous lockdown, the taggers hardly damaged the walls, if at all. ‘Now that doesn’t bother them anymore.’ Yohan and Christophe have recently been equipped with a new machine, a hydrogommeuse, specifically to deal with more fragile surfaces.



Stencils are quick and effecive

M. Texereau says that, while all graffiti will be removed, the ‘prettier’ ones are left till last. The priority is to remove racist tags and other offensive ones that target individuals and communities as quickly as possible. Christophe explains the process: ‘We mask them very quickly with white Meudon [a primer] and then come back to erase them in the following couple of days.’ I’ve seen this in action, and their success rate is quite impressive. However, they appear to have missed the one around the corner from us, which accuses the current Minister of the Interior of being a rapist. It’s been there for over two weeks.

Posting graffiti can incur heavy fines, ranging from €1,500 to €7,500. The way the content of a specific item is worded may also constitute a separate offence in itself. The council provide the police with a regularly updated map of the tags. They occasionally catch the perpetrators in action, but the odds are against them. The current curfew means that, for long periods, the streets are empty of pedestrians, potential witnesses who might act as a deterrent.

Finally, one odd fact. According to Yohan, the feminists tend to tag early in the morning, while other groups do it at night. Suggestions for why this might be are welcome.

Graffiti of yesteryear. A wall near Parc Blossac


***

There we were, having a pleasant Saturday morning stroll by the river …

And then I saw …

Haven’t slept a wink since.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1905, the city of Birmingham banned rifle shooting in pubs.

The ancient Greek city of Megara held a version of the Olympic Games that included a kissing contest. Only boys were allowed to enter.

The Japanese word kareishu describes the smell of old people.

***

Tweet of the Week:

‘Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and make up your mind for fuck’s sake, you were laughing a minute ago.’ (Paul Bassett Davis)

A glimmer of hope

Lockdown? What lockdown? Seen on a riverside walk yesterday morning.

We are now at the midway point in the current lockdown, the third that France has gone through. When announcing the new restrictions at the end of March, President Macron said, ‘From mid-May, we will start to open again’, and it looks increasingly likely that there will be some relaxing of measures by the middle of next month. According to the magazine Le Point, the government’s plan is to allow café terraces to begin to reopen from Monday 17th May, with cultural venues such as museums and tourist sites also opening at this point. The opening of café interiors and restaurants is provisionally set for some time between 1st and 15th June. If this plan comes to pass, it will put us almost exactly a month behind the UK, who saw their own current lockdown gradually coming to an end with the opening of schools, ‘non-essential’ shops, and pub gardens on 12th April.

Comparisons between the two countries are complicated, because the UK’s third lockdown, which started in January, was much more stringent than France’s current one. One sensed then that the French government were pleased that their own handling of the situation (for instance, by not having a Christmas easing of restrictions as in the UK) had enabled them to avoid a similar January close-down. However, four months is a long time in politics, and the situation is very different today. The vaccine campaign in the UK led to a significant drop in the numbers of both cases and fatalities, whilst the relatively slow vaccine roll-out here, coupled with the arrival of several new variant strains of Covid-19, has led to figures going in the opposite direction.

M. Macron is reported to have been reluctant to impose a third lockdown until the worsening statistics made one clearly unavoidable. Faced with a disenchanted electorate and a long re-election campaign, he was keen to administer an effective medicine without making it too difficult to swallow. The current ‘partial’ lockdown is the result.

Like most people, I was glad of the lighter restrictions, with no documents to fill in whenever you leave the house, and more freedom to travel and exercise. At the same time, there is the nagging suspicion that it might have been better to bite the bullet now and have a complete lockdown, in order to benefit later on. There is also the feeling that the new rules are illogical. I can weave my way through the crowded street market but not sit in a cinema with carefully separated seats. I can stand with other people eating at a fast food kiosk but not sit on a terrace eating a proper meal. I can drink a Coke in the street but not a beer. I can buy books and records and patio furniture (garden centres are open) but not clothes or a kitchen table. Any business that does repairs can stay open, so you can have your shoes mended, but you can’t buy a new pair.

These are all minor inconveniences, and hopefully all of this will pass fairly soon. However, the future is far from clear. The journalist John Lichfield does an excellent job analysing the progress of Covid-19 in France and its treatment. In his latest bulletin, he talks of steadily improving vaccine roll-out figures and a dramatic drop in care home deaths, from 1,300 a week in November to 50 a week now. Overall, there are signs that a plateau has been reached. Numbers in acute care have been stable at around 5,900 for five days.

However, the third wave of the pandemic in France – 82% UK variant – is still at a high level, with over 30,000 cases and 300 deaths a day. The grim statistic of 100,000 Covid deaths in France was passed during the week. New scare stories about vaccine risks and variant strains appear almost daily. The government will have to balance very carefully the political desirability of relaxing current restrictions against the risk of increasing the spread of the disease.

***

Food for thought

***

One evening this week, we rewatched Peeping Tom, the film that more or less finished the career of director Michael Powell. On its release in 1960, the critics queued up to express their outrage. Caroline Lejeune in The Observer described it as a ‘beastly film’, whilst the Daily Express, subtle as always, said it was ‘more nauseating and depressing than the leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay, and the gutters of Calcutta’.

Since then, the film has been reassessed and is now regarded as a classic of British cinema. It all seems very tame now, and it’s difficult to see what all the fuss was about. I’ve watched it several times and nearly always see something new to appreciate in it. This time it was a shot of the newsagent in Rathbone Place, where Mark, the eponymous peeping Tom, works.

29 Rathbone Place W1.

When I was young, every corner newsagent looked like this, festooned with adverts for cigarettes and ice cream. If you click on the image above, it should open in another window. Enlarge it, and you can just about make out a cigarette machine above the Wall’s sign on the right of the picture. These were once very common, as were machines which for a pre-decimal sixpence would dispense a carton of milk.

The pub that features in the film is the Newman Arms in Rathbone Street, a place where I’ve wasted many a happy hour. As well as Peeping Tom,it’s noteworthy for two other reasons. First, it was the pub on which George Orwell, once a regular there, based the Proles’ pub in 1984. Second, in about 2010, it was the first pub in London where I came across the vile practice of allowing people to ‘reserve’ tables. In a public house! I was outraged!

Mind you, I had the last laugh. I stormed out, and ten years later left the country, never to return. That’ll teach them. 

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The symbol of the Alzheimer Society of Canada is the forget-me-not.

In 1986, Michael Foot MP was made the Chair of a disarmament committee. The Times headline ran: ‘Foot Heads Arms Body’.

The Swedish expression ‘Skita i det blå skåpet’ is used to describe someone who has embarrassed themselves or has taken something too far. It literally means ‘to shit in the blue cupboard’.

A spot of turbulence

The mayor of Poitiers, Léonore Moncond’huy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

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

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

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

Time Regained

Easter is always a busy time for the Poitiers graffiti artists

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

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

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

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

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

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

He continues:

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

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

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

Instead of clock changes, Franklin proposed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

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

A popular Roman hangover cure was deep-fried canary.

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

***

QUIZ

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

Monday

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

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

Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday

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

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

Gustave Flaubert, Letter to Louise Colet, 1846

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

Till then I am your devoted Servant.

Anthony Trollope, Letter to Dorothea Sankey, 1861

Saturday

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

Here is a sample question:

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

Time’s up!

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

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

A Lindisfarne saint is St CUTHBERT.

Top Cat’s nemesis was Officer DIBBLE.

The telescope maker was Howard GRUBB.

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

So the missing person is ‘obviously’ BARNEY McGREW.

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

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

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

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

The Brazilian player Garrincha adopted the dog after the game.