Commonplace Sunday, January 19, 2020

To the dumb question ‘Why me?’, the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply, ‘Why not?’

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

***

‘The General bade me discourse fair words to you, sir, anent traffic circuits.’
‘What the hell do you mean?’
‘I don’t know, sir,’ said Greening. ‘That’s exactly how the General put it.’

Anthony Powell, The Soldier’s Art

***

His own relations with the opposite sex took an exclusively commercial form. ‘I’ve never had a free poke in my life,’ he said. ‘Subject didn’t seem to arise when you’re talking to a respectable woman.’

Anthony Powell, The Military Philosophers

***

Phillip Larkin, bemoaning the sort of letters he didn’t receive:

Dear Mr Larkin , I expect you think its jolly saucy for a schoolgirl to …

Dear Mr. Larkin, my friend and I had an argument as to which of us had the biggest breasts and we wondered if you would act as …

Larkin on himself:

My sagging face, an egg sculpted in lard with goggles on … none of my clothes fit, when I sit down my tongue comes out.  

From an essay in Martin Amis’s The War against Cliché

***

No such thing
as innocent
bystanding.

Seamus Heaney, from Mycenae Outlook II. Cassandra

Bacon, leeks and haggis

Monday: Today is the feast of St Hilaire of Poitiers (c. 310 – c. 367) Hilaire (Hilary) was bishop of Poitiers and a writer of highly regarded theological texts. The handsome Romanesque church of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand is rightly seen as one of the jewels in Poitiers’ cultural crown . It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and, to this day, it’s a staging post for international pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Perhaps it was with the intention of marking the feast day that some bright spark at the hôtel de ville decided last week to install a decidedly non-Romanesque plastic bottle bank immediately outside the church.

Tuesday: Madame S and I have enrolled to take the DELF (Diplôme d’études en langue française) B2 intermediate level French exam in March. We both passed the pre-intermediate B1 exam in Cambridge before moving to France in 2018 and at the moment that’s the only level required when you apply for French citizenship – although there are rumours that the state may raise this in the future. This is slightly more important for madame because after 31st January she will no longer be an EU citizen, but in any case we are both very keen to improve our French just to make our social life a little easier.

With the exam in mind I have now arranged to have a weekly lesson with our friend Maryse, who has some experience as a French teacher. This is on informal basis in a local café; the only payment required is that I get the coffees and post-lessons beers. We had our first lesson this week and it went very well. For an hour I got to grips with the difference in pronunciation between é and è, and the subjunctive form of avoir and être. In the second hour, during which beer was taken, I found to my delight that my fluency had increased dramatically and I was able to quote lines from Verlaine and Rimbaud, neither of whom I’ve actually ever read.  

Wednesday: A visit to the local surgery to get a prescription renewed. We got Dr K’s name out of PagesJaune when we arrived, and we struck lucky. His English is not great, but on my first visit he managed to convey by mime that he has been on fishing trips to Cork and Kerry and likes Ireland a lot. An old-fashioned, no-nonsense family GP, he’s used to my rampant hypochondria (my suspected heart attack – ‘indigestion, monsieur’, meningitis – ‘an earache, monsieur, you have too much of the wax’) and we now get on very well. A visit costs €25, €17 of which is immediately reimbursed by the health service. The prescription will cost €2 at the pharmacy. Dr K, being a decent man, obviously feels a little embarrassed at my paying the fee for something that only takes five seconds, so he takes my blood pressure, checks my heart rate and asks if there is anything else I need. We watched The Bridge on the River Kwai on TV at the weekend and I’m now wondering if a slight chill I’ve developed recently might just be the start of blackwater fever. He looks me in the eye and I decide to wait a week before bothering him with it.

Thursday: Cycling home from Monoprix, I see a woman shouting out ‘monsieur, monsieur!’ and waving at me. One of the leeks I’d bought to make soup had somehow fallen out of my pannier bag. She hands it to me and, thanking her, I think about saying something about often having had ‘a leek’ in the street but feel it would lose something in translation.

Friday: Bacon and haggis may seem an odd reason for a trip to Paris, but it was why we were on the 07.15 train from Poitiers Gare arriving into Montparnasse at 08.34. We had our petit déjeuner in a café near the station, then a pleasant leisurely walk via the Luxembourg Gardens to the Pompidou Centre to see Bacon en toute lettres. We’d booked tickets but the Centre, currently going through a major refurbishment, seems to be operating some sort of triage system of queues, security checks, and misleading signage to ensure that only the fittest and most dedicated visitors will actually make it to the exhibition – I saw one large German gentleman being led away sobbing only a hundred yards or so from the final turnstile.

The exhibition is magnificent, with a number of rarely seen works, but I think that, like so many of these blockbuster shows, it is just too large and one’s eyes eventually start to glaze over. A subset of just three or four of the many triptychs on show would arguably have made for a more intense and satisfying experience. Nevertheless I’m very glad to have seen it.

After lunch (La Grille Montorgueil – recommended) we undertook the second part of our mission. To return some of the hospitality we have received from various friends and neighbours since arriving in Poitiers, Madame S has decided that we will have a Burns Night celebration next week. (I had suggested a St Patrick’s Day alternative, but she reminded me of my tendency to be a little overcome with emotion on those occasions.) Burns Night means haggis, something that most Poitiers butchers, understandably, do not supply. Le Comptoir Irlandais, our local Irish shop, does have a tinned version, but we decided this wouldn’t do at all. I had envisaged a fairly long trek around specialist épiceries in Paris, but we got lucky in our first port of call, the Marks and Spencer’s food store in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. We bought four, which probably means haggis curry or haggis and chips for a few days afterwards, but as we both love the stuff this is no hardship.

Heading back to the station we had to scurry across Boulevard Raspail in heavy traffic. For a second I had a vision of a headline in the following day’s Le Parisien:

Road accident: bizarre contents of victim’s rucksack

A city walk and galette des rois

Sunday. Out for a “round Poitiers walk” organised by a local cycling club Les Cyclotouristes Poitevins (worth joining, if only for their snazzy retro cycling caps). This New Year tradition has now been going for twenty-two years; about 3,000 people took part last year. You can do a variety of distances from 8 k to 17 k. Being wimpish we did the shortest route, but to be fair we also walked 4 k travelling to and from the start-point in the Parc des Expositions. It’s good fun and a great way for us to see parts of the city we haven’t yet visited. We were promised snacks at the halfway stage, which usual means a bottle of water and a cereal bar, but at Place Notre Dame we were greeted with mulled wine, rillette baguettes, goat’s cheese and chocolate. At the finish we ‘warmed down’ with a chilled glass of Chenin blanc at the oyster stand. Chapeau, Cyclotouristes! That’s my idea of an exercise regime.

A video clip of the walk from La Nouvelle République has unaccountably ignored me and Madame S.

Monday.

Poitiers galettes
A Parisian galette

Feast of the Epiphany. Like almost everyone else, we bought our galette des rois (kings’ cake) from the boulangerie. These are puff pastry cakes filled with frangipane and usually topped with a golden paper crown – eaten to mark the end of the festive season. They are much nicer than I had expected. A lucky person will find la fève, a tiny charm, buried inside one of the slices (a bit like the coin in a Christmas pudding). Being a hypochondriac, I had visions of choking to death on this (mourner at funeral: ‘It’s how he would have wanted to go – stuffing his face with cake’), but Madame S was the lucky recipient of a small plastic crown. 

The galette des rois is a very old tradition with its origins in the Roman Saturnalia. There was a brief period during the French Revolution when the idea of a kings’ cake, and indeed the feast of the Epiphany, became a little sensitive. The Convention tried to ban it, but good sense prevailed and soon, on the quickly renamed ‘Feast of the Good Neighbour’, the sans-culottes were happily munching their galettes de l’Égalité.

In the pics above, the one on the left is from Émile’s here, in rue Carnot. In Paris, of course, they do things differently. The one on the right is of Richard Legay, the patron of Legay Choc, the boulangerie in the Marais famous for its provocative patisseries.

Tuesday. In the Café des Arts for a coffee this morning. Marie, one of the serveurs, is complaining to our friend Maryse that she does not see enough of her boyfriend because of the irregular hours he works at the boulangerie.

Me, in an unexpectedly jocular mood: ‘It’s like that Joy Division song, ‘Loaves Will Tear Us Apart’.

Madame S: a sigh, a sniff, silence.

***

‘Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?’ said Wilfred. 
‘ffinch-ffarrowmere,’ corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.

P.G. Wodehouse Meet Mr Mulliner (1927)

Wednesday. Today is the start of les soldes, the sales, which in France are regulated by the state. This year the winter sales period is from January 8th to February 4th, and the summer one runs from June 24th to July 21st. There are strict rules about what can be classed as sales items and how they can be advertised, and these restrictions apply to online retailers as well as shops. I vaguely approve of these attempts to keep everyone honest, but it’s interesting to notice cracks appearing in the system, with the government trying to boost the economy by allowing stores to have promotions or soldes exceptionnels.

***

‘Surely: the adverb of a man without an argument.’

Edward St Aubyn, Bad News

Thursday. We have a decent choice of cinemas in Poitiers. There is a CGR (Circuit Georges-Raymond), which shows all the mainstream stuff. It has eight screens, the smallest of which isn’t much bigger than our telly. Then there are two arthouse places, Le TAP and Cinéma Le Dietrich. Le TAP is the cinematic element of the arts complex Le Théâtre Auditorium de Poitiers. This shares some of the CGR screens and shows a good range of recent independent films from all over the world. Cinéma Le Dietrich is a lovely old fleapit in the grounds of Poitiers University. They tend to have seasons of films, and two recent ones have been on British ‘kitchen-sink’ films of the 60s and American B-films – both excellent.

Today we went to the CGR. We’d planned to see L’Art du Mensonge (The Good Liar) with Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, but we’d got the times wrong and settled for Les Filles du Docteur March (Little Women). It’s well acted and visually attractive, but I found it a saccharine affair. Things look up briefly when one of the Little Women crashes through the ice while skating on a pond, but this is only so that she can be rescued by her older sister, who at that moment realises how selfish she has been to have fought with her previously and vows that from that moment on she will etc. etc. In the end they all marry and live happily ever after, apart from the musical prodigy, who naturally dies of consumption or something.

I have been asked told, in an unusually forthright manner, to state that the above is my own personal view of the film and that it in no way represents that of the household as a whole.

Friday. Darts is for wimps … a recent article in La Nouvelle République announced the opening, by former blacksmith Stéphane Potdevin, of L’Hachez-Vous, an axe-throwing centre here in Poitiers. Apparently there are already branches in Nantes and Lyon. According to the owner, ‘it is an activity that allows you to let off steam, there is no danger, everything is very safe’. There are three sorts of axe available, and a loyalty card scheme allows you to progress from being a Viking to a Log and then a Zombie Hunter. According to Stéphane, he has had bookings from companies who see the activity as a potential team-building exercise (make up your own jokes about being for the chop, reducing the headcount, etc.) Here’s a clip of the owner demonstrating his skill. Warm, inviting-looking place, isn’t it?

Saturday.

Worth reading. A very good piece from the Scottish Review on the commercialisation of Edinburgh. It reminded me of Johnson’s proposed ‘Garden Bridge’ for London, which would have been privately owned.

For cricket fans, there’s a nice piece in the Guardian on Sydney Barnes (1873–1967). Apparently he had ‘hands the size of frying pans’ and, after the 1911/12 Ashes series, The Times reported that ‘Australian mothers frighten children with the name of Sydney Barnes’.

***

The problem of keeping a sense of perspective in life …

On the one hand:

‘… birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.’ Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot.

On the other:

‘Trousers should shiver on the shoe but not break.’ Advice to Arnold Bennett from his tailor.

08/01/20 Last of the summer wine

At present the number of things I miss about life in the UK is fairly small. One of these is a ritual I got involved in when living in Ely. On the last Friday of each month a small group of men, all of a certain age, get on a train mid-morning, and head for a nearby town. They visit two or three pubs and return home. The time restriction means that these trips are limited to East Anglia, but that still leaves lots of scope. There are plenty of decent pubs around if you know where to look.

I was aware that we were acting out an episode of Last of the Summer Wine, but the trips were good fun and I do sometimes miss them. I get a regular reminder of them, as my friend Pete, one of the attendees, provides a list of the topics of conversation covered during a particular outing. This was found to be necessary as some of those present would find they had quite significant gaps in their memory of various stages of the trip, and arguments would sometimes break out. Pete kindly includes me on the mailing list for these documents.

Here is a recent example which should give you a reasonable idea of the calibre of the individuals involved.

Stamford

  • The problems of remembering things in general
  • Driving farm vehicles
  • Wisbech
  • Defibrillation
  • Care homes
  • Pork pies
  • Marie Curie
  • India, China and global pollution
  • Stuffed animals
  • Problems associated with walking upstairs
  • The Scottish question
  • The University of the Third Age
  • The virtues of foot massages
  • Shingles
  • The pleasures of bad weather
  • England cricket captains
  • The Bash Street Kids
  • Douglas Bader
  • The Great Escape
  • Carp fishing
  • Likely imminent deaths of various members of the royal family
  • Richard III
  • Mick McManus
  • Bob-a-job week
  • Catford
  • Dwarf-throwing
  • The use of mirrors in gents’ toilets
  • Anne Widdecombe

Why am I telling you this?

Well, to eke out my modest pension I created a small theatrical piece entitled Eastward Ho! (Un hommage à Samuel Beckett).In this Madame S and I appear, unannounced, on a darkened stage clad only in white sheets and wearing bowler hats. We wait for absolute silence, then a gong is sounded and a voice from the wings announces the location of one of the Ely trips. We then take it in turns to read out, as sonorously as possible, the items on that trip’s agenda. The work has evolved over time. Now when certain regularly recurring items appear, a sound effect is deployed, e.g. Beccles (discordant violins), the problems of remembering things in general (a ship’s foghorn). We have also found it effective to occasionally introduce accents or voices. For instance, Madame S shrieking “Jeffrey Archer” loudly will be met by my “Andy Pandy” delivered with Pinteresque menace.

Somewhat to our surprise, the piece is going down a storm. We have bookings for several weeks ahead in a number of cafés and bars in Poitiers and nearby towns. Not only that, we have developed a small group of fans who follow us around and have started to join in on some of the readings. The announcement of “Stowmarket” or “Kings Lynn” inevitably brings the stamping of feet and a loud cheer, and it is oddly moving to hear a crowd of Frenchmen bellowing “Desperate Dan” or “ Ruth Archer” (“Root Arr-chére!”) at the appropriate moment.

In these difficult days of Brexit, I like to think that we are, in a small but significant way, helping to strengthen cross-Channel cultural ties.

Here and now

“I thought I’d write a blog…”

… well. I say a blog, but really I’m hoping that it will be spotted by a sharp-eyed editor at a tiny publishing house in, I don’t know, Suffolk or the Lake District, who will ring me to say how much they liked it and had I thought about turning it into a “sort of epistolary novel” for which they will pay me hardly any advance but which will turn out to be one of the unexpected hits of the year, so much so, in fact, that an American company will offer a very generous sum for the film rights, but when the film is made I will be horrified to find that they’ve moved the story from Poitiers to Wyoming and given me two zany teenage kids and an irascible grandmother, leading me to disown it in a bitter interview in the Guardian, who will follow it up with a piece about other book-to-film problems and then get readers’ letters, most of which accuse me of being either ungrateful or stupid for not having read the small print in the contract. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself…

There are sixty-seven million people in France, of whom six million are in Nouvelle Aquitaine and ninety thousand here in the city of Poitiers. I’ve worked out that there are about a hundred people in our street, but only my wife and I live at no 19. She is in bed downstairs, so I am alone here in the top-floor room we facetiously call the Scriptorium. It’s where she works as a copy-editor and proofreader and I pretend to work on my PhD on John Banville.

It is 07.00 on Saturday 4th January. Before getting up, I’d been lying awake for a while listening to the wind and the heavy rain, which is still continuing. I learnt a new word for this yesterday, gluggavedur. It’s Icelandic and means “window-weather” – nice to observe from indoors but nasty to actually experience. All well and good but, as my wife will point out, I’m meant to be learning French.

We moved here 20 months ago. We had been thinking for some time about leaving England, and Brexit meant that we needed to make a decision. I have an Irish passport, but my Scottish wife has a UK one and foresaw possible difficulties if we wanted to settle here in the post-Brexit future.

Why did we leave? It’s complicated.

I was born in London of Irish parents. For most of my life I was happy enough to call myself London Irish. Then, ten years ago, for work reasons, we moved to Cambridgeshire and something odd happened. East Anglia is very English and I slowly began to realize that I wasn’t … English, that is. This is not to denigrate England or its people, merely to acknowledge a difference, or rather a number of infinitesimally small differences in behaviour, attitude and opinion, which passed largely unnoticed in the cosmopolitan melting pot that is London but came into much sharper focus in our new home. It’s certainly true that the national Brexit debate initiated in 2016 served to intensify this. When I discussed it with my wife I was relieved to find that she had similar feelings.

The idea of moving began to appeal to us, but where? Ireland and Scotland had their attractions but in the end, the climate in both countries was a major factor in deciding against them. At 67 I’m a lot warier of the cold and rain that I once scornfully disdained. I had spent five years teaching in Paris at the start of the new millennium and had been very taken with the French way of life. My wife, too, had greatly enjoyed time spent on many visits there, so we embarked on a period of research looking for a possible new home, ideally a medium-sized town or city with good rail connections (neither of us drives). We were keen to avoid places with large expat communities. If we were going to live in France we would do it properly. We would not be complaining (in English) about the lack of availability of HP Sauce. There were several contenders, but eventually Poitiers’ close proximity, and TGV links, to both Bordeaux and Paris meant that it just pipped Angers on points. Expecting to live in an apartment, we were delighted to find a house we could afford right in the centre of the city. The process of buying and moving turned out to be far less arduous than we had feared, and we arrived on 7th April last year.

There is an obvious irony here. A feeling of not being English has led to our coming to a country where we are, and will always be, far more clearly identifiable as outsiders. But for me there is something positive in this. In England, the feeling of being a misfit was starting to be mentally abrasive; here, I find that my outsider status suits me extremely well. There is something of this in Philip Larkin’s “The Importance of Elsewhere”, in which he describes his feeling of otherness while living and worked in Dublin:

… since it was not home,

Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch.

We’re clearly something of a curiosity to people we meet here. At first most of them assume that we’re here temporarily, to teach or study at the university, and they’re surprised when we say that we have come to live here. Even more so when their “Pourquoi?” is greeted with a smile, a shrug, and a “Pourquoi pas?” Many seem oddly pleased by this, as if reflects well on Poitiers, and thus indirectly on them, that we have made this decision. Another positive aspect of our new status is how it brings a sense of novelty to mundane aspects of everyday life, a trip to the barber’s or buying a train ticket, for instance. No doubt this will gradually wear off, and sometimes misunderstandings can be frustrating, but for now I am enjoying it and trying to continue wearing my “outsider’s spectacles” for as long as possible.

I’ve kept both a diary and a commonplace book for many years. This blog is intended to be an extension of both of these. An attempt to record what it is like for an elderly outsider coming to live in a medium-size French city. I want to learn as much as I can about Poitiers’, and thus France’s, history, its people and its everyday life. Committing to writing a blog is, I suppose, a way of keeping me at it, keeping me focused. At this stage I have only a very vague idea as to how to structure the blog and it will no doubt change shape over time. There will be many rambling digressions. I don’t think this matters too much. I am uneasily aware that it is an infinitesimally small brick in the internet Tower of Babel, but at the very least it might help wean me off the afternoon Maigret repeats on C8.