Spring!

The view south from Pont Joubert this morning

It’s officially springtime. Most of the people I know in England are currently in strict training for the reopening of pubs on April 12th, but here in France the gloom steadily deepens.

On Thursday night, Prime Minister Jean Castex said, ‘The situation is deteriorating,’ as he announced the new lockdown for the worst-hit parts of the country. Since midnight on Friday the country has been divided, as it was in the summer, with stricter rules for those areas where cases are highest. Sixteen départements have been placed back under lockdown because of high case numbers and severe pressure on local hospitals. The sixteen are in northern France, the Paris region, including the city itself, and the south east. In total, around 21 million people, about a third of the country’s population, are affected.

These areas are now in lockdown for a month, although it’s a more relaxed lockdown than we have had previously. All non-essential shops will close, but the government has expanded the definition of ‘essential’ to include bookshops, music shops, and hairdressers. Schools are staying open. The rules on exercise and getting fresh air have also been relaxed compared to previous confinements, with no time limit on trips out of the home, although you must stay within 10 km. On leaving home, you require an exemption certificate, or attestation, stating the purpose of your trip. Unlike non-lockdown zones, where meeting up with friends or family is allowed indoors or outdoors (with a recommended limit of six people), in lockdown areas, trips out for social purposes are not allowed.

Those who live in one of the lockdown zones have not been permitted to travel to another region since midnight on Friday, unless they have an essential or work-related reason. People living outside the lockdown zones can still travel freely around the country.

On Friday, main roads around Paris saw 400 km of traffic jams, and trains heading out of the capital were fully booked, as Parisians fled the city just hours before the new lockdown was set to come into force. Most were heading for areas free from the restrictions, such as Brittany, the southwest Atlantic coast, and Lyon in the southeast.

It is not immediately obvious, judging from this lunchtime scene by the Seine yesterday, that the new restrictions are having much impact.

Here in Poitiers, in the Vienne département, we are not affected, and one could argue that there was some positive news for us in Prime Minister Castex’s announcement. From Saturday, the curfew moved back one hour, so it is in force from 7pm rather than 6pm and runs until 6am. This change affects the whole of France, including those areas placed under lockdown. The PM said it was being done to take account of the clocks changing for ‘summertime’ on March 28th. This means that shops will be able to remain open until 7pm instead of having to close at 6pm.

We took advantage of the extra hour and went out for a stroll around the city centre yesterday. It was a bright sunny evening, and many others had obviously had the same idea. Somehow, the busy streets made the fact that all the bar terraces and restaurants were shut seem even sadder.

***

Although trips to and from Paris are now off limits, I have managed to beat the lockdown, in spirit at least, by signing up for an online French language course at the Alliance Française school there. Madame had already signed up for one at their Bordeaux school and spoke highly of them, so I thought I’d give it a go. The dates at Paris suited me better, so now, for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening, we go to rooms just a few yards apart, to attend classes in schools several hundred kilometres away from each other. This internet thing is really very clever.

I had previously been enrolled on a course at a London university, but this was attended mainly by people of my own age, who were, and I don’t mean this unkindly, approaching it as hobbyists, happy to try a little French conversation once a week, gently steered by a friendly teacher. The new class is very different. Nearly all the other students, of various nationalities, are under thirty and need French because they are living or working in France, most of them in Paris. The pace is brisk, and there is lots of emphasis on speaking and pronunciation. It’s a very refreshing change.

In a moment of madness, I’ve also enrolled on a digital photography course with the Open University. This is turning out to be fascinating, and I am enjoying it hugely, though Madame has warned me that the first mention of glamour shots will lead to instant confiscation of my camera. (The Poitiers pictures here are part of this week’s homework.)

The two courses combined mean that suddenly there don’t seem to be enough hours in the day, and I’m starting to feel a little manic. Maybe it’s an OAP version of the midlife crisis – at least it’s not a Harley Davidson.

Poitiers Rooftops

***

At the start of my French course a couple of weeks ago, I’d mentioned to our teacher, Anne, that I wrote this blog, and she told me on Tuesday evening how much she enjoyed reading it. I felt quite chuffed, until she added, ‘What I really like is those funny little pieces you put at the end.’ The correspondence that comes pouring in each week (sometimes as many as two emails) all tells the same story.

So there it is. The considerable effort I put into writing this deathless prose is a complete waste of time, and I might just as well fill the pages with more of the vaguely salacious titbits garnered from Twitter and the gutter press. Thank you all very much.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

Andy Warhol always wore green underpants.

When Wal-Mart was attempting to open stores in Germany, they had to withdraw their policy of requiring staff members to smile at customers, because German customers found it weird and off-putting   

.Sir Walter Raleigh’s devoted widow, Elizabeth, kept his decapitated head with her in a velvet bag for twenty-nine years.

Your hair grows quicker when you are anticipating sexual intercourse.

Strange encounters with women in chemist’s shops

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the local pharmacie collecting a prescription. While an assistant was away preparing it, I was joined by another customer, a large lady in an expensive-looking tweed coat and a toque hat. She looked me up and down briefly, and having established that I was a guttersnipe meriting no further attention, she turned to a male assistant behind the counter and demanded imperiously, ‘Avez-vous du rhino horn?’

I can’t remember, but I suspect that my jaw actually did drop open at this point. I’ve generally found the French to be a reserved lot, and had begun to think that all the stories about them and their predisposition to l’amour were something dreamt up by the French Tourist Board. Yet here was a grande dame, bold as brass, demanding a well-known aphrodisiac, in the local chemist’s. If that wasn’t enough to stun me, the assistant’s reply almost had me demanding smelling salts.

‘I am so sorry, we are out of stock. The recent cold weather has meant that demand has been higher than usual. We expect some more in next week.’ At this point, my prescription arrived, and I scuttled away.

Once home, I thought of telling my little story to Madame, but I had an uneasy feeling about the direction the conversation might take, so I thought I would let it lie. Instead, I decided to google rhino horn to find out a little more about it. An article in Scientific American entitled ‘The Hard Truth about Rhino Horn’ (I see what they did there) was quite interesting, and there were several pieces about the threat to the rhino population from poachers.

Then I saw it. A picture of a woman with a strange plastic device shoved up one nostril and a thin trickle of water descending from the other.

Nasal cleansing! Surely that’s what fingers are for? I should have known, of course, that it was too good to be true. The image I’d built up of Madame Tweed Coat slipping a powder into Monsieur Tweed Coat’s cocoa just before retiring for the night was replaced by one of her shoving this miniature watering can into her conk while Monsieur tries desperately to get off to sleep before she emerges from the bathroom. C’est la vie.

***

Notwithstanding the above, I’ve come to love French pharmacies, though it’s taken me a while. At first I resented the idea that you couldn’t buy paracetamol or cough medicine in a supermarket and that there was no equivalent to Boots (pharmacy chains are not allowed here). Slowly, though, I’ve come round to them. For all the talk of restrictive practices (which undoubtedly do exist), I think I’d rather keep small, often family-run businesses going than let the supermarkets gradually destroy all the pharmacies, newsagents, and other high-street shops. This process, long-developed in the UK, is not nearly as well established in France, but there are worrying signs that it is spreading.

As well as selling over-the-counter products, pharmacists dispense medication prescribed by doctors, and French doctors certainly keep them busy – a study in 2019 showed that 90 percent of doctors’ appointments result in a prescription, and the average prescription is for three or more items. The French health system means that most prescriptions are reimbursed, so patients are quite happy to receive them.

Pharmacies in France also sell a wide variety of homeopathic products to cater for the seemingly insatiable appetite the French have for these. One of the biggest eye-openers when one first starts watching French TV is the nightly stream of adverts for slimming pills and energy boosters, as well as cures for that particular French obsession, ‘heavy legs’.

They offer a number of extremely useful services, such as dispensing the winter flu vaccine and now the Covid vaccine. Also, if you have been mushroom picking, you can take your haul to the local pharmacy to check that you haven’t picked anything poisonous. I thought at first that this must be a joke, but apparently it’s true.

I’ve found that the staff are always friendly and helpful, and quite often, in the older family businesses, the premises have been beautifully preserved, The pictures here are from Pharmacie Carnot in rue Carnot and Pharmacie Trouche in Grand’rue. It was while taking these photos that I had my second slightly bizarre pharmacy experience.

I had decided to go into Pharmacie Carnot on Monday afternoon. It would be quiet then, and taking snaps would cause minimal disruption. I entered the shop, and an elderly man with glasses, clearly the proprietor, emerged from the back. I was just about to explain, in my pidgin French, the purpose of my visit, when the door opened, and a tall middle-aged woman entered. She looked at me coldly; there was no tweed coat or toque hat, but she was clearly off the same assembly line as the rhino-hunter. I burbled, ‘Après vous, Madame’, and tried to indicate, by waving my hands around ineffectually, that I would prefer to wait to speak to the proprietor.

She seemed very reluctant to do so, but eventually she went ahead of me to the counter. She and the proprietor were now looking at me oddly. It dawned on me that they were both thinking that I wanted to purchase something unsavoury, possibly an appliance, almost certainly involving rubber. She spoke to him quietly. He retreated to the back of the shop, and came back with a small package which he placed on the counter. She scooped it up quickly to put it in her bag, but there was just time for me to see the label. It was haemorrhoid cream. The look she gave me as she left still haunts me.

After she’d gone, I explained the purpose of my visit to the proprietor. He stared at me for a moment, then silently shrugged in a gesture of consent. As I was leaving, he said, ‘Anglais?’ In the circumstances, I thought he’d earned the right to have all his prejudices confirmed, so I simply nodded and left.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

During Hitler’s years in power, Mein Kampf was given away free to every newly-wed couple.

Entrance to the Tower of London used to be free if you brought a dog or a cat to feed to the lions.

A bite from the Brazilian wandering spider results in an erection that lasts for several hours.

It’s a funny old game…

The big news in France this week is that ex-President Sarkozy has been sentenced to three years in jail – two of them suspended – for bribery and influence-peddling. He is the first former President to receive an actual prison sentence since France’s collaborationist leader Marshal Pétain in 1945. (Jacques Chirac received a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for embezzling public funds when he was Paris mayor.)

The good news for Sarkozy is that the appeal he has launched is probably going to take years to be resolved. Even if this fails, it’s likely that his sentence will not be spent behind bars but under house arrest with an electronic tag. The bad news is that he is due to appear in court again later this month over the so-called Bygmalion affair, in which he is accused of having overspent on expenses in his unsuccessful 2012 re-election campaign. If found guilty, he could face another one-year prison sentence. As Oscar Wilde might have said, ‘to be sent down once may be regarded as a misfortune; to be sent down a second time makes you look a very dodgy geezer indeed’.

I still find it difficult sometimes to remember that the French President, being the head of state, equates to the Queen in the United Kingdom, rather than to the Prime Minister. The problem being that the equation doesn’t really work, the Queen’s role being largely ceremonial, whilst that of the President is anything but. Whatever one’s view of the UK monarchy, it needs a superhuman stretching of the imagination to picture Her Maj being accused of slipping backhanders to Privy Councillors. (Picturing other members of the Windsor clan being so accused requires less-demanding mental gymnastics.)

In very broad political terms, I think it’s easier to see the position of the French President as being closer to that of the UK Prime Minister, and here, at least, the UK would appear to have the moral edge. No Prime Minister has ever even been prosecuted, let alone convicted of any crime. In 1848, there was an attempt to impeach Lord Palmerston for having taken money from the Tsar of Russia, but it came to nothing. More recently, there have been attempts to get a case going against Tony Blair for going to war in Iraq, but they never get anywhere. Finally, just to bring us right up to date, whilst the current Prime Minister may be a serial adulterer who has twice been sacked for lying to his employer, none of this, as he would be the first to point out, is any business of the boys in blue.

Right now, for the first time in a while, Johnson has grounds for feeling a little bullish, as the Covid-19 crisis and its management in the UK and France only serve to underline the ephemeral nature of political reputations. For much of the past year, he and his government have been roundly berated for their mishandling of the situation: too slow to impose lockdowns, too quick to lift them, an expensive test and trace fiasco, unimpressive ministerial press conferences, it seemed like a masterclass in incompetence.

In France, on the other hand, the government appeared cool, calm, and in control: clear countrywide rules, quickly imposed lockdowns, compulsory mask-wearing in public, curfews where necessary. In quietly assured TV broadcasts, President Macron made us all feel we were in good hands.

Then came the vaccines. To its credit, the UK moved swiftly and decisively. A comprehensive vaccine programme got under way quickly, and the results are now obvious; the numbers of cases and deaths are falling steadily. June 21 has been set as a target for the end of all restrictions.

Here in France, the roll-out of vaccines has, in comparison, been painfully slow. There are a number of reasons for this. The need to act at an EU-wide level in terms of some administrative and distribution processes didn’t help, and neither did an element of rigidity in the workings of the French health system. President Macron chose, perhaps for his own political reasons, to highlight some elements of uncertainty about the AstraZeneca vaccine and said it would not be used on those under the age of 75 (a decision since reversed).

Whatever the reason, the result is that France continues to see rising numbers of cases and deaths in parts of the country. So far, another nationwide lockdown is being resisted, but more and more areas are having weekend lockdowns introduced. Hopefully, the slow but steady increase in the number of vaccinations will eventually lead to a return to normality, but whether it will be as quick as that hoped for in the UK is debatable.

One thing worth pointing out is that the UK took a significant risk in two areas. Its regulatory agency authorised vaccines more quickly than the EU’s, and its government adopted a single-shot policy, allowing it to roll out first doses faster so that more people could have some protection quickly. Both these gambles, at the time of writing, seem to have paid off. Speaking personally, if faced with a similar situation again, I would still be inclined to endorse the EU approach.

It’s fair to say that, while the Macron market is suddenly a little uncertain, Johnson shares have risen in value quite a bit over the last couple of weeks. I would not be in too much of a hurry to invest, though. The impact of Brexit will become a little more noticeable in April, and, as Chris Grey says in his excellent Brexit and Beyond blog, the response ‘yes, but vaccines’ to any new setback will quickly become extremely irritating.

***

This tweet from Paul Eggleston made me laugh:

[Roadside cafe]

I’ll have a hotdog please, with onions.

Sure. You travelling far?

I’m just going to recover a van that’s broken down and take it to a museum. It contains the skeleton of a stallion that belonged to Joan of Arc.

The martyr’s horse?

Yes please, and mustard.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

Schimpf-los is a 24-hour German hotline that allows customers to release pent-up aggression by swearing at telephone operators.

In France, it is illegal to name a pig Napoleon.

Vatican City is the only place in the world where cash machines offer instructions in Latin.

It’s all there in black and white.

I’d been looking forward to visiting the Grand Palais in Paris last November, to see Noir et Blanc, a black-and-white photography exhibition, but the virus, of course, put paid to that. The exhibition never even opened. Now it’s been relaunched online, and a fine job they’ve made of it. A €4 ticket allows you to ‘visit’ as many times as you like in a week, and tickets can be bought from now till mid-June. The website offers a 3D tour of the exhibition; all the prints can be seen, and an audio guide is available. There are more than 300 prints from the nineteenth century to the present day, taken by some 200 photographers from 30 different countries. The website software takes a little getting used to, but after a few minutes it’s fairly straightforward. I’m particularly interested in photographers who specialised in Paris street life, such as Willi Ronis, Brassaï, and Robert Doisneau, and all of them are represented here.

Probably the most famous work in this field is Doisneau’s Le Baiser de l’hôtel de ville (The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville).

It was taken in March 1950, on the corner of rue du Renard and rue de Rivoli, with the Hôtel de Ville clearly visible in the background. Published in Life magazine in June of that year, it was then more or less forgotten until 1986, when Doisneau gave a publisher permission to use it. It became hugely successful, appearing on posters, postcards, and T-shirts all over the world. For many, the image captures the very essence of romance, but its history also perhaps serves as a reminder that the course of true love doesn’t always run smooth.

Despite its sense of spontaneity, the image is in fact staged. Doisneau had gone out in the streets with some young actors he knew, following them around as they held hands, talked, and kissed. According to his daughter Annette, ‘His models weren’t models, in the sense that they didn’t pose. Doisneau was simply catching them flirting and kissing, in a very natural way.’

Following the success of the published image, many couples came forward claiming to be the ones in the picture. When one such couple, Denise and Jean-Louis Lavergne, visited Doisneau and his daughter in 1990, he chose not to tell them of their error. ‘He said nothing,’ said Annette. ‘I asked him why he hadn’t told them the truth. He said he didn’t want to shatter their dream.’

This kindness was to prove costly for Doisneau. In 1993, the Lavergnes took him to court, claiming that they were the couple in the picture and demanding $100,000 compensation for taking the picture without their knowledge.

The lawsuit forced Doisneau to admit that the shot wasn’t spontaneous, and the case was dismissed. However, his legal trouble didn’t end there. Françoise Bornet, the actress who appears in the photo with her then-boyfriend, Jacques Carteaud, came forward and sued for a portion of the poster sales, claiming that Carteaud was paid 500 francs by Doisneau and hadn’t shared the money with her. This case was also dismissed, though for Mme Bornet there was a happy ending of sorts. In 2005 she sold the original signed print that Doisneau had sent her a few days after taking the shot. A Swiss collector paid €155,000 for it at a Paris auction, more than ten times what it was expected to fetch.

At the time of the sale, Mme Bornet, by then in her seventies, revealed that her and Jacques’ relationship only lasted around nine months. Even though they are forever linked in the picture, they didn’t stay in touch. ‘I now think of it as a picture that should never really have existed,’ she said. ‘The photo was posed. But the kiss was real.’

***

A few black and white photos of my own. There are more at https://photos.app.goo.gl/9M9esBtjP7K8RXGV8

Poitiers Cathédral
Le Tabac, Pont Joubert
Grand’ rue
Christmas lights in Place Alphonse Lepetit

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The word ambisinistrous is the opposite of ambidextrous; it means ‘no good with either hand’.

Bovril was originally called ‘Johnston’s Fluid Beef’.

When customers visited the first supermarkets in the UK, they were afraid to pick up goods from the shelves in case they were told off.

Our Intangible Cultural Heritage

Food to die from for

It has been a quiet week, so, in a desperate attempt to hold your attention, I will start with some vulgarity.

For thirty years, the writer Iain Pattinson, who died last Sunday, wrote scripts for the presenters of Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. His scripts, described by presenter Humphrey Lyttleton as ‘blue-chip filth’, were defended by Pattinson, who said they were perfectly clean on the page and ‘could only appear filthy to someone with a dirty mind’.

The scripts often featured anecdotes about the show’s scorer, Samantha. Here is a typical example: ‘Samantha has recently taken up beekeeping with a small hive, housing just three dozen or so. This evening she has an expert beekeeper coming round to show her a few tricks of the trade, and he says he’ll quickly have her 38 bees out and flying round his head.’

***

In 2008, UNESCO established its Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage, with the stated aim of ‘ensuring better protection of important intangible cultural heritages worldwide and the awareness of their significance’. There are now over 584 items on the lists, collected from 131 countries. You can see them all on the official UNESCO site, which I discovered last week.

At first glance, the lists seem a commendable attempt at providing a global overview of national cultural characteristics. I’d heard of Japanese Kabuki theatre and the Mexican Day of the Dead, but not of Botswana’s Seperu folk dance or the Tamboradas drumming rituals in Spain. Each entry has a couple of paragraphs of explanation, along with pictures and video clips. Going through them seems vaguely like wandering around an international theme park.

Gradually, however, I began to become confused. Italy’s ‘Art of Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo’ turned out to be pizza-making – which, in case you didn’t know, is a ‘culinary practice comprising four different phases relating to the preparation of the dough and its baking in a wood-fired oven, involving a rotatory movement by the baker’. Fair enough, I suppose, they did invent them. But then there is ‘Beer Culture in Belgium’, from which we learn that, in Belgium, beer ‘plays a role in daily life, as well as festive occasions’ and that it ‘is used for cooking, including in the creation of products like beer-washed cheese and, as in the case of wine, can be paired with foods to complement flavours’. I mean, no shit, Sherlock?

Slowly a picture was forming in my mind.

It is a Friday afternoon, and we are in the offices of the French Ministère de la Culture. Bertrand Dubois, a director responsible for matters of Patrimoine (Heritage), has returned from a good lunch and is settling down to put the final touches to one of his pet projects. Since 2008 he, along with his counterparts in various other EU countries, has been involved in a (strictly unofficial) annual tournament to see who can get the most ludicrous entry into UNESCO’s Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage. They each put €100 in the pot, and it’s winner take all.

M. Dubois chuckles as he remembers his last win, back in 2010 with Gastronomic Meal of the French. He and his wife Louise had composed this over a long boozy dinner in a bistro in Rue Mouffetard. He would look around and, in gushing theatrical tones, describe what he saw; she would write it down, occasionally snorting with laughter.

‘The careful selection of dishes from a constantly growing repertoire of recipes … specific actions during consumption, such as smelling and tasting items at the table … the gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses.’

‘Stop, Bertrand, please, or I will wet myself!’

Still, that was ten years ago. All France’s entries in the list in the intervening years had been worthy genuine cultural entities, usually from overseas departments like Guadeloupe and Martinique. Bertrand hadn’t managed to smuggle in a single ringer since then. Mind you, everyone was finding it more difficult. There had been no winner for the past two years, so the pot was definitely worth winning. In 2018, it had been shared by Klaus in Austria and Eric in Switzerland with their clever joint entry, Avalanche Risk Management. Calling snow your heritage was a stroke of genius! Who said they had no sense of humour?

This year, Bertrand was going to have two attempts. Firstly, he was going to resubmit last year’s entry – The Grey Zinc Rooftops of Paris. This was an idea that had come to him while idly looking out of his office window one afternoon and which Louise had turned into a nice little piece about them being the inspiration of countless painters over the years. His second contender was actually Louise’s idea and was again the result of a boozy restaurant meal. While nibbling at some Camembert, she had picked up a piece of bread and said suddenly, ‘Why not do “The Baguette”? … quintessentially French, artisanal, a cornerstone of family meals … blah blah blah!’

The next day, she had turned this into a little hymn of praise to the ‘Gallic staff of life’ and Bertrand had his second entry. He had added a genuine contender about a traditional wine festival in Arbois to make the two ringers look a little less obvious when he submitted them to the Minister. Calling in a favour, he had got an old friend at France 24 to put together a film clip about the three items which he could show her. She would then select one of these to take to President Macron. He knew that the Minister had strong views about drinking, so that should knock out the wine festival. Bertrand was increasingly confident that this was going to be his year.

Getting ready to go home, he again reflected on how odd it was that the UK had never bothered to nominate anything for the Intangible Heritage Lists. That famous British reserve, no doubt. He and his wife had visited London the previous year, and it had struck him that if Clive, his English opposite number, were to enter the Ludicrous Items competition, he would win it easily. What was the name of that strange place where they had eaten the ‘all-day breakfast’ with the cold eggs and rubber sausage … Waterspoons? Wetterspoons? And that odd little boulangerie (Dreggs?) where Louise had ordered the … what was it … ah, yes … ‘the sausage, cheese and bean melt’. UNESCO would lap both of them up.

***

I close with another example of Ian Pattinson’s ‘perfectly clean scriptwriting’. Apparently, Samantha had a gentleman friend who loved cooking and was particularly renowned for his offal dishes. He would often invite her round for dinner. ‘While she’s very keen on his kidneys in red wine and his oxtail in beer,’ Pattinson wrote, ‘Samantha says it’s difficult to beat his tongue in cider.’

Where angels fear to tread

Walking down the street the other day, I felt a familiar pressure under my left foot. Merde! At that precise moment, I’d have happily signed a decree authorising the public execution of every dog-owner within a hundred kilometres. As I morosely slid the sole of my shoe backwards and forwards on a nearby patch of wet grass, I reflected on the fact that more depressing than my immediate predicament was the realisation that this was almost certainly not the last time that this would happen.

People’s reluctance or inability to efficiently deal with the toilettage of their ‘best friends’ is one of the few areas I’ve found where France compares unfavourably with the UK. Recent events, however, have made me think that perhaps I have been looking at this in the wrong way.

France’s upper House, the Senate, has just passed into law a bill to provide statutory protection for the ‘sensory heritage’ of the French countryside. Regional authorities will need to define precisely what ‘sensory heritage’ actually means (not an easy task, I suspect), but the legislation is specific that what it has in mind are the ‘sounds and smells’ of rural France.

There has been a spate of stories in recent years about these sensory issues. Almost invariably, the complainants are new arrivals in a small town or village; they are often second-home owners staying for only a couple of weeks at a time. The rows can sometimes end up in court and usually cause a lot of bad feeling in the local community. In the past, there have been objections to the noises made by crickets and mating bullfrogs in the Dordogne. Smelly sheep and noisy cows have been the problem in the French Alps. Other auditory irritants have included church bells, farm machinery, and even a town’s pétanque players. One French mayor responded by putting up a sign at the entrance to his village, warning holidaymakers to ‘enter at your own peril’ because of the sounds they might encounter.

The most recent case to make the news is that of Maurice, a cockerel from the Île d’Oléron off France’s Atlantic coast. Saint-Pierre-d’Oléron, where Maurice and his owner Corinne Fessau live, is home to 7,000 locals, but the population soars to 35,000 when temporary residents arrive in summer. Mme Fessau has lived on the Île all her life, while the complainants, Jean-Louis and Joelle Biron, were holiday-home owners who visited now and again. They had complained about Maurice’s dawn wake-up call, which they regarded as noise pollution.

The story caught the public imagination, and 140,000 people signed a ‘Save Maurice’ petition. Locals started wearing Maurice-themed T-shirts, adorned with the cockerel’s picture and the words ‘Let me sing’ or ‘cocorico’ (French for cock-a-doodle-doo). This campaign worked. The court not only threw out the case, but ordered the Birons to pay Mme Fessau €1,000 in damages.

Sadly, Maurice has since gone to the great Coq au Vin in the sky, but his life was not in vain. Shortly afterwards, an MP from Lozère introduced the ‘Law Protecting the Sensory Heritage of the French Countryside’. It gained the backing of Rural Affairs Minister Joël Giraud, and now it has become law.

Back here in Poitiers, it’s occurred to me that, as a relative newcomer myself, I should perhaps regard my recent mishap as an encounter with the urban version of France’s sensory heritage. After all, Poitiers is sometimes referred to as la ville aux mille cloches (the city of a thousand bells), and the sound of countless church bells as you walk around of an evening (pre-curfew, obviously) never ceases to please. But after that I begin to struggle. Other ‘heritage’ sounds could include perhaps the clatter of the skateboarding kids in the market square, and the ten-minute engine-revving from some twat down our street at 07.00 every morning.

For smells, there is the delicious aroma of baking croissants from the boulangeries … again, though, I begin to falter. In Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom is said to like grilled kidneys because they ‘gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine’. That being the case, he would no doubt enjoy an early morning stroll through one or two of the back streets off Grand’ Rue. There are probably more uplifting examples.

I tried to discuss the subject with Madame, explaining how my unfortunate accident had led to an interesting meditation on life in the city. Sadly, her thoughts seemed elsewhere, and she restricted herself to telling me that I should bloody well look where I was going.

Sound advice, and no doubt kindly meant.

***

It is St Valentine’s Day and, being a romantic at heart, I offer two extracts from letters that I came across recently. I think, between them, they cover the full spectrum of connubial bliss.

You might think about me a bit & whether you could bear the idea of marrying me. Of course you haven’t got to decide, but think about it. I can’t advise you in my favour because I think it would be beastly for you, but think how nice it would be for me. I am restless & moody & misanthropic & lazy & have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve. In fact it’s a lousy proposition.

Evelyn Waugh, Letter to Laura Herbert 1936

I’m writing to let you know I’m releasing you, I’m amputating you. Be happy and never seek me again. I don’t want to hear from you, I don’t want you to hear from me. If there is anything I’d enjoy before I die, it’d be not having to see your fucking horrible bastard face wandering around my garden.

Frida Kahlo, Letter to Diego Rivera 1953

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In the 1960s, 3% of all films featured someone sinking in quicksand.

For its Chinese release, the film The Full Monty was retitled Six Naked Pigs.

In 1811, crimes punishable by death in Britain included stealing cheese, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner, and ‘strong evidence of malice’ in children aged 7–14.

Deluge!

The view from Pont Joubert
Moulin De Chasseigne

It’s been raining for ten days now. The river Clain, five minutes’ walk from our house, is rising steadily. Normally calm and clear enough to see the fish beneath the surface, it’s been transformed into a fast-moving, mud-churned current. Looking at it now, it’s hard to believe the level was so low back in the summer that people were walking across the river bed a few yards from Pont Joubert. More rain is forecast for the next few days, but then it should ease. There is no immediate risk to the houses along the river near us, and we live up a short but steep hill. If flooding ever reaches our house, most of western France will be under water.

***

Life goes on. I cast my net ever wider, in vain attempts to find things to write about. Given the weather, I was amused to discover that Monday (February 1st) was Imbolc, one of the four fire festivals held on quarter days in Irish mythology, the others being Beltane, Lughnasa, and Samhain (Halloween). Imbolc is meant to herald the arrival of longer, warmer days and the early signs of spring.

Now, in Irish mythology there is a fire goddess, Bridget, and as is often the way with these things, the Catholic Church has sought to ‘de-paganise’ all of this by making the day St Bridget’s Day. Along with Patrick and Columba, Bridget is one of Ireland’s patron saints. She was apparently an early Irish Christian nun, although there is some speculation as to whether she actually existed. Be that as it may, she is kept prodigiously busy, being the patron saint of babies, bastards, blacksmiths, boatmen, and battered wives. And that’s just the Bs.

Over the centuries, celebrations of Saint Bridget’s Day have seen a fusing of the Christian and pagan traditions. One that continued into the twentieth century is that of Brigid’s Bed. The girls and young unmarried women of the household or village create a corn dolly to represent Brigid, called the Brídeóg (‘little Brigid’, ‘young Brigid’, or ‘Biddy’) and make a bed for the Brídeóg to lie in. On St Brigid’s Eve (January 31st), the girls and young women gather together in one house to stay up all night with the Brídeóg. The following day, the girls carry the Brídeóg through the village or neighbourhood, from house to house, where this representation of the saint/goddess is welcomed with great honour.

In recent years, the tradition has morphed into a somewhat more rumbustious affair. In 2017, Brigid’s Day parades were revived in Killorglin, County Kerry, very close to where my parents grew up, and the town now has an annual Biddy’s Day Festival. These festivals are gradually spreading throughout Ireland. In them, men and women wearing elaborate straw hats and masks parade through the town carrying a Brídeóg, to ensure good luck for the coming year. There is music and dancing, and a torchlit Parade of the Biddies followed by a singing competition and the election of the King of the Biddies. You can see a clip of one of the Killorglin events on YouTube. It all seems very jolly and is similar to Morris or Molly dancing festivities in the UK. When I lived in Ely, several of my friends used to take part in these, and two or three times a year I had to endure used to enjoy watching a bunch of Catweazle lookalikes cavorting around the town’s hostelries, getting steadily plastered.

In a second YouTube clip from the Killorglin festival, there is a brief shot of a young man doing a lively dance with a broom. For me, this brought back happy memories. At Christmas when I was young, my dad, normally a shy, quiet man, could sometimes be persuaded to give an impressive demonstration of the broom dance.

***

Tuesday (February 2nd) was a similar day of celebration here in France, being La Chandeleur, or la fête des chandelles. I had never heard of it before we moved to France, but I knew of Candlemas, which is the British equivalent. It is exactly forty days after Christmas, and again there is a pagan–Christian crossover. La Chandeleur is thought to be linked to an old pagan fertility ritual, which was then adopted in Roman times and became known as the ‘festival of Lupercales’ in honour of Faunus, god of farm animals and fertility. Halfway between the winter and spring solstices, people would celebrate the return of the light with torchlit processions and with candles placed around the house. (It seems quite possible that this has links with the Celtic-Gaelic festival of Imbolc.) Around the fifth century it became a Christian festival, with the fertility element associated with Christ as a baby.

For the French, La Chandeleur means crêpes and is their equivalent of the English Shrove Tuesday pancake day. The supermarkets have special offers on non-stick frying pans and crêpe ingredients in the days beforehand, and you can pick up ‘ready-mades’ in the boulangeries. Very tasty they are, too.

There is a saying here, Si la Chandeleur pleure, l’hiver ne demeure. If it rains at Candlemas, winter won’t hang around. Well it did, so I hope there is some truth in that. But I would point out another significance of February 2nd. It is Groundhog Day in the USA, and right now that seems like a much more accurate prediction for the coming weeks.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The Irish name for jellyfish is smugairle róin, which literally translates as ‘seal’s snot’.

Sir Charles Isham, a vegetarian spiritualist, introduced garden gnomes to England in 1847. He hoped they would attract real gnomes to his garden.

Meupareunia is a term for sexual activity enjoyed by only one of the participants.

Raising One’s Spirits

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

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

***

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

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

Here is one of my favourites:

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

5. Shut your pie hole. (English)

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

3. Shut your fountain. (Russian)

2. Close your beak. (Spanish)

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

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

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

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

Chaos!

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

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

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

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

***

However, there is no need to panic.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

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

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

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

Better read than dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

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

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

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