The adventures of Max Senior

Next month, I have a birthday that ends in a zero. I’ve been casting around for some sort of project to mark this occasion, and two recent transport developments have, I hope, put me on the right track (or tracks).

Firstly, since the start of this year, Railcoop, a new railway co-operative, has been offering affordable long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains meander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines. The first service runs from Bordeaux to Lyon, wending its way through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon, and Roanne. Journey time: 7 hours and 30 minutes. This service used to be run by the state railway company, SNCF, but was abandoned many years ago. Other routes will eventually include Caen to Toulouse via Limoges in 9 hours and 43 minutes, and Le Croisic in Brittany to Basel in Switzerland with twenty-five intermediate stops in 11 hours and 13 minutes. These itineraries – unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris – have never existed before, not even at the height of the railway boom at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Planned Railcoop network

Alongside this new development, SNCF have themselves come up with a new scheme by launching the Max Senior card. For €79 a month, you can travel free to anywhere on the French railway system, and also to Luxembourg and to Freiburg im Breisgau in Germany. Travel is restricted to off-peak hours and must be booked at least two days in advance. A journey that involves changing trains entails separate bookings, one for each leg, but you can book up to six journeys on any given day. None of these restrictions presents any real problems, and the card seems tailor-made for someone like me.

I love travelling by train. By this I really mean journeys that last a minimum of an hour or so. Certainly, in the right frame of mind, travelling on the Paris Métro or the London Underground can be fun, and I always enjoy trying out the underground system in any new city I visit. But on longer train journeys, something happens when one passes the hour mark. Noisy children have usually quietened down, and adults have stopped fussing about their seats and luggage. Conversation has become quieter and more sporadic. Some people read or use their mobile devices. For the rest, a sort of communal daydreaming seems to ensue; the atmosphere is what libraries used to be like before they became “interactive info-centres”. I find this extremely relaxing. The continually changing picture through the window is like a mobile above a child’s cot. One can engage with it at will, or simply stare at it with unseeing eyes. Dozing is not compulsory but highly recommended. 

I used to think that an ideal existence might be to be permanently in transit, stopping overnight, or occasionally for a few days, in favourite places. I managed this a couple of times when I was younger, Interrailing around Europe a few weeks at a time, and I loved every minute of it. Now that I am older and wiser … well, now that I am older, I realise that this is not really feasible as a long-term strategy. In the end, it’s exhausting, and one quickly starts to yearn for the creature comforts of home. However, these two new French rail initiatives present an attractive alternative, and this has given me an idea.

My plan is to visit, in order, an A to Z of twenty-six French towns and cities, staying a day or two in each, all journeys to be completed by train (for free, whenever possible), and ideally all to be done within one year. The main objective will be to travel as widely as possible throughout France, visiting all coasts and borders, and criss-crossing the centre in as many ways as I can. For the next month, I will be looking at maps and trying to come up with an outline itinerary, or at least enough of one to get me started. As well as some major cities, I’d like to go to some lesser-known places that are worth visiting for some reason or other – this will almost certainly be the case when it comes to X and Z, for example. Any suggestions for these and other places would be very welcome.

As a birthday treat, Madame has promised to fund my ticket for a year, on condition that I use it as much as possible. She says that, albeit reluctantly, she feels she can live with my being out of the house a little more often.


In the photo section of this blog, I’ve put links to all the photos taken on the April trip to Italy. I was going to write more about it, but what with one thing and another, the moment has passed. I may return to it when I am 99 and dictating my memoirs to Madame, but other things are getting in the way right now.


This week I started an alternative blog, in French. One reason for this is to force myself to think and write in French. I’m still barely above intermediate level, which is a little embarrassing after living here for four years. There are various reasons for this slow progress. Being lazy, and having a gradually deteriorating memory, certainly doesn’t help. Most of what I read, watch, and listen to is in English, and Madame and I speak English at home. Unless I have carefully prepared a few phrases, conversation with French people tends to trigger a brain-numbing panic that erases most of my French vocabulary and grammar. I am making progress, but it is glacially slow. Committing to writing a blog will, I hope, help the process. It will consist mainly of photographs to begin with, but I hope to gradually write more, too. The French blog is here if anyone cares to look at it.


Life in France isn’t perfect. For example, you can’t buy Young’s bitter beer or Clonakilty black pudding here. But when I look at what that government of gobshites are currently doing to the UK, I am quite content to settle for a glass of Gamay and some boudin noir.

Here and There

The latest offering from the Le Mur Poitiers collective, who place a new work in Place Notre Dame every two months.


Its been rather a quiet week in Poitiers, so I have been spending more time than usual reading the newspapers for some light relief.

Given the current global turmoil, the ‘news story of the week’ award goes to the BBC News website: ‘William and Kate dance and taste chocolate during day two of Belize tour’.

Some years ago, I vaguely remember reading about a Daily Telegraph editor – William Deedes, I think – who realised something needed to change when that day’s front page had a piece about the Duke of Norfolk having his tonsils out.


People behaving badly (1). A story in Tuesday’s Le Parisien tells of a 94-year-old woman accused of harassing her next-door neighbours. The couple in question moved into a house inherited from grandparents on the Rue Laperrière in the Normandy town of Alençon in March 2013. Since then, they have been the target of numerous hostile acts by the elderly woman, including spitting at them, knocking on their walls with a hammer, and playing the piano in the middle of the night.

According to the paper, the police had intervened on several occasions, once to help the couple and their baby move their things to stay with another resident of the street in 2020. The husband said, ‘She tells me that I am the embodiment of evil, she just wants to break me so that I end my life’.

The police said that the 94-year-old had previously confessed to having perpetrated everything she had been accused of. In her defence she claimed that the man rang her doorbell repeatedly throughout the night, and ‘above all, he killed my little rabbit. Me, I apply the law of retaliation, it’s an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’.

This is bizarre enough, but the court case sounds almost surreal. Five minutes into the hearing, the defendant declared that she was leaving, alluding to hearing problems which were not picked up during the psychiatric tests she underwent (during which she had slapped the nurse who drove her to the hospital.)

‘Just now, when I spoke to you, you understood me perfectly,’ the judge said. ‘I am sorry, but I cannot hear you,’ the defendant replied. The judge then went to sit nearer to her and spoke loudly in her ear. ‘I can’t hear anything, I hear a buzzing, but I can’t understand anything,’ she said. ‘I’m not certain that you can hear nothing,’ the judge replied. Hubert Guyomard, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, stated that the defendant must have ‘selective deafness’, considering that she could supposedly hear her neighbour ringing the doorbell but could not hear the judge.

When the judge asked her about a petition signed by eleven people in the neighbourhood claiming that her behaviour had caused issues around the area, she grew angry and decided to leave the room. The public prosecutor Marguerite Gamber said, ‘It is not every day that we have a woman of 94 years of age in the dock – but age does not confer impunity’. The defendant was eventually served a suspended sentence of seven months in prison with the obligation to undergo medical treatment and pay a €7,000 fine. She is also forbidden from contacting the neighbours or returning to Rue Laperrière for the next five years.

I can’t help thinking there’s a play in this – with Maggie Smith in the leading role.

People behaving badly (2). The London Times this week reported the story of William Collins, a bare knuckle fighter from Sheffield. Collins, known as ‘Big Willy’ and the ‘King of Sheffield’, died, aged 49, while on holiday in Mallorca, in July 2020. He had moved to Sheffield from Ireland as a child in 1980 and raised his family in the city. One of sixteen children, he was the patriarch of the Collins family and had about 400 nieces and nephews. According to the Times, ‘Hundreds of mourners from the Traveller community attended Collins’s funeral in Sheffield in August 2020. He was buried in a 22-carat gold casket, delivered on a monster truck and carried into the cemetery in a horse-drawn carriage’.

He is in the papers now because a row has reportedly broken out between Sheffield City Council and Collins’s family over the memorial erected at the cemetery where he is buried. Alison Teal, a councillor, said, ‘Sheffield city council approved plans for a memorial, however the plans which were submitted and approved differ from the memorial now in place’. (The next sentence is my favourite part of the whole story.) ‘This was not fully appreciated until after the structure was fully unveiled’.

Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The memorial, which weighs 37 tons, is carved from solid Carrara marble imported from Italy. It features a stone seat engraved with the word KING in gold block capitals and two life-size statues of Collins. There are four flagpoles bearing the Irish flag, images of Jesus Christ and biblical scenes, and a solar-powered jukebox that plays Collins’s favourite tracks. The headstone is lit up in LED lights that change colour and is monitored around the clock by CCTV.

Ms Teal said, ‘We have reached out to the family and intend to discuss changes which need to be made in order to satisfy the cemetery rules and take into consideration other cemetery users’. The Collins family insist that they had permission for the headstone, which they said was built on land they own.

I must say, I like the idea of a solar-powered jukebox (family, please note), but I can see the drawbacks. People quietly tending nearby graves might be pleased to see the sun emerging from a cloudy sky, but would be somewhat taken aback if Bat Out of Hell suddenly started blasting out a few yards away.


When we moved to Poitiers, my ambition, after we had settled in, was to take advantage of the various rail networks and visit as much of Europe as possible by train. Covid put paid to that for a couple of years, but now that we have a ‘window of opportunity’, albeit one that could slam shut again suddenly, I intend to take advantage of it. The next few Postcards will not actually be from Poitiers, as Madame and I are heading off on a month-long train trek around Italy. First stop Turin next Saturday. Arrivederci!

Signs of the times

The Ukrainian flag flying at La Marie, Poitiers

We went on a brief trip to visit my family in London last weekend. There was a large gathering in a Wimbledon pub to celebrate a brother’s birthday and a niece’s engagement. It was all very jolly, but on our return on Monday we learnt that a sister-in-law who had attended the party had tested positive for Covid. Since then, one of my brothers, his daughter, and, yesterday, one of my daughters, have all tested positive. Fortunately, no-one has reported anything worse than mild flu symptoms. Madame and I had tests mid-week. Both were negative, but we were advised to take them again next week.

Perhaps this is how it is going to be in the future: Covid relegated to being on a par with winter colds and flu, and vaccinations being developed to deal with it increasingly effectively. I could live with that.

Tomorrow, 14th March, it will be two years exactly since the night in La Mangeoire when the owner, Florent, told us the government had just announced that all bars and restaurants in France would be closed from midnight until further notice. In the two years since then, there have been lockdowns, reopenings, curfews, and vaccination passes. The wearing of masks has become normal, and checking the daily statistics for new cases has become as routine as checking the weather or the football results. Now, however, there are grounds for cautious optimism.

Tomorrow will see a significant change in France. The requirement to show a vaccine pass – in force in various forms since the summer of 2021 – ends in almost all venues. Only nursing homes, hospitals, and medical centres will retain the use of the pass, and it will again revert to being a health pass – which means that unvaccinated people can use a negative Covid test. The pass is technically ‘suspended’ rather than scrapped, so it could return if cases spike again.

The mask rule, already lifted for bars, cafés, museums, and gyms, will now be lifted for almost all indoor venues, including shops and workplaces. It will remain the rule on public transport and in medical establishments.

Whilst this is obviously welcome news, it comes at a slightly odd moment. After a long and steady fall, the average number of Covid cases has increased for five days in a row. The running average is now 54,372 – about 2% up on last week. A very similar pattern can be seen in the UK. The government seems unconcerned (so far) and expects the coming warmer spring weather to reverse the recent trend. We shall see.


Tuesday was International Women’s Day, and the council put banners up on La Mairie to publicise this. Very commendable, you would think, but the gesture was not approved of by all.

The problem was that one of the faces drawn on the banners is wearing a veil. Various opposition groups on the council objected to this. Pierre-Étienne Rouet, on behalf of the group Notre priorité, c’est vous! (“Our priority is you”) denounced this “attack on the fundamental principles of our secular democracy”, and said that the representation of a woman ostensibly wearing a religious sign, whatever it may be, on a public building was not acceptable and goes against those universal values ​​which should be particularly embraced on International Women’s Day. Objections were also raised by Alain Claeys, former mayor and member of the opposition group Poitiers, l’avenir s’écrit à taille humaine (“Poitiers, the future is written on a human scale”), who declared himself “shocked” and said, “I do not have a narrow vision of secularism. But today when we defend the rights of women, this symbol is particularly ill-suited”.

There was no comment from the Green Party majority group on the council, who were no doubt reflecting on Oscar Wilde’s dictum: “No good deed goes unpunished.”


International Women’s Day saw the opening of a new exhibition, Guerrilla Girls, at Poitiers’ Musée Sainte-Croix.

Guerrilla Girls is a group of anonymous female artists, formed in New York in 1985. Their declared aim is to fight sexism and racism in art, film, politics, and pop culture. They work via posters, books, billboards, and public appearances to expose discrimination.

The exhibition is small, but thought-provoking and entertaining. It consists of a series of images that the group has produced since they were formed.

Here are a few of them:

At least since the “Oscar” one was created in 2002, some limited progress has been made. There have now been two female Best Directors – Kathryn Bigelow, in 2010 for The Hurt Locker, and Chloé Zhao, last year for Nomadland. I suppose 2 out of 93 is not bad.


Being married to a Scot, I am careful to avoid stereotypical references to Scottish taciturnity or tight-fistedness. However, to my surprise, the subject came up in conversation at home this week, and Madame said that, within Scotland, it is the residents of Aberdeen who have this reputation. She told me this story to illustrate the point.

An Aberdonian rang his local newspaper and said that he wanted to put an obituary in the Births, Marriages, and Deaths column. The switchboard operator said she would be happy to help, and asked him to dictate the wording.

The man gravely announced: “Peter Reed from Peterhead is dead”.

(To appreciate this fully, you need to rhyme “head” and “dead” with Reed.)

The somewhat surprised receptionist said that the minimum charge was £1 for less than ten words, and so he still had three words left.

After a short pause, the man said: “Peter Reed from Peterhead is dead. Volvo for sale”.

Nice and quiet

Poitiers is, on the whole, a fairly quiet place. But having the university here helps keep the average age down and means that the town is lively enough to sustain more than enough bars, restaurants, and places of entertainment to keep Madame and myself amused. In the summer vacation, a steady trickle of tourists, either coming specifically to see the architecture or just breaking their journeys between north and south, helps to compensate for reduced student numbers. However, the past fortnight has been strange. It’s been half-term for the schools and university, and a large part of the town’s population has taken the opportunity to skedaddle to the coast, their country cottage, or wherever they hole up on these occasions. This, no doubt, happens every year, but somehow the novelty of settling in, and then the Covid crisis, has meant that I’ve never really noticed it before. Several bars and cafés are closed, as are some local boulangeries. Even our GP has taken a week off. There are still people around, but everything seems to be going at half pace. I was beginning to get just a little bit bored by the whole thing until last Tuesday and the news of the invasion of Ukraine. Suddenly, Poitiers’ tranquillity seemed to take on a very different meaning.


The local newspaper seems to have been reflecting the general inertia. The main story the week before last was that the council had decided Poitiers would no longer be taking part in the Ville Fleurie scheme, the equivalent to the Britain in Bloom competition run by the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK. This shocking news, the paper breathlessly tells us, comes only two years after the town finally achieved its fourth floret.

The council gave two reasons for this decision. The first was that they wanted to give priority to ‘projects related to biodiversity’, developing green areas that required less watering and were more favourable to insects, which is fair enough, I suppose. But the second reason was they wanted to move away from the sense of competition involved in Ville Fleurie, which seems a little po-faced to me, reminiscent of those stories of schools sports days where the egg and spoon race is banned to avoid traumatising the losers.

Things picked up last week, with the main story being that the archaeologists exploring the cavities made for the new trees in Place Leclerc have unearthed a sarcophagus containing ‘a relatively well-preserved and connected body except for the broken pelvic bones’. The sex of the body has yet to be confirmed, and it has been transported to a laboratory for analysis.

It might sound odd, but I’m hoping that news of this find doesn’t reach the police force in our previous hometown, Ely. Over twenty years ago, the landlady of the Royal Standard pub in the high street suddenly disappeared, and she has never been seen since. Every now and then, the story resurfaces and a new investigation starts; people are interviewed and gardens are dug up, but nothing ever comes of it. All it needs now is for some zealous new superintendent to hear of the discovery of a body buried in the main square in Poitiers, where two Ely ex-residents now live, and we’ll be helping them with their enquiries before you can say ‘Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the wee donkey’.

It was bad enough when we lived there. On one occasion, Madame’s work meant her going to Melbourne for a fortnight. This happened just as we were having the back garden redesigned. Decking was removed and paving slabs were laid. I remember getting some very odd looks from friends and neighbours who had seen the mechanical digger arrive.

‘Where’s the wife, then?’

‘Gone to Australia.’

‘Oh … right.’

I think Madame was quite taken aback by the warmth of my greeting on her return.


Some inventive street art has been appearing lately:

First Class Male

Green Fingers

Molotov Cocktails for two


Things I’ve learnt this week:

Sarcasm is banned in North Korea.

Oysters change their sex up to four times a year.

According to English folklore, if a woman feeds her husband roast owl, he will become completely subservient to her every wish.

Valentine’s Day

New Brighton, Merseyside – Photograph Martin Parr


Like most sane people we know, Madame and I treat Valentine’s Day with a laugh and a roll of the eyes. However, since moving to Poitiers, we have got into the habit of using it as an excuse for buying a box of chocolates from Leonidas in Rue Gambetta.

Poitiers seems to run on chocolate. There are at least six chocolatiers in the town centre, more than there are either butchers or bakers. The grandest and most expensive is Fink (pronounced ‘fahnk’) in Rue du Marché Notre Dame, a vast emporium that I always think is a bit up itself.

Inside Leonidas

I like Leonidas because the woman who runs it is very jolly and quite happy to comply with my badly enunciated instructions: ‘pas de chocolat blanc et pas de fondants’. The box is assembled and wrapped with loving care, and we are each given an additional complimentary chocolate on leaving. The chocolates will be consumed over the next few nights while watching telly. If there is an odd one left, I always let Madame have it. Who said romance is dead?


News in the papers this morning that Les Jeunes avec Macron (Young People with Macron), used Valentine’s Day to launch a campaign on the Tinder, Grindr, and Bumble apps (Judge: ‘And what, pray, are they?’ QC: ‘Dating agencies m’lud … catering for a wide range of tastes’).

Not being a subscriber to the apps, I have to rely on the report in Le Parisien, which breathlessly describes profiles adorned with ‘sultry pictures’ displaying ‘a heterosexual couple kissing passionately, a couple of embracing lesbians, and two men together in an unequivocal pose … all in a purple pink universe’.

Any poor saps who were attracted by one of these pictures and clicked on a profile got the internet equivalent of a cold shower. They were asked, ‘Are you willing to talk about anything other than dating? Do you plan to vote? Will you be there on April 10 [election day]? Do you know the procedure for voting by proxy?’ They were then given information on how and where to vote.

Les Jeunes avec Macron sound to me suspiciously like eager Young Conservatives, which brings to mind the Tony Hancock ‘Blood Donor’ episode:

‘I’ve been thinking of this for a long time. Something for the benefit of the country as a whole. What should it be, I thought? Become a blood donor or join the Young Conservatives? Anyway, as I’m not looking for a wife and I can’t play table tennis, here I am!’

From table tennis to Tinder. Progress of a sort, I suppose.


The Covid cloud is slowly lifting. From today, the ban on the sale and consumption of food and drink on public transport and in cinemas is lifted. It’s also been announced that from February 28th it will no longer be mandatory to wear masks in restaurants, cinemas, or museums. We’ve been here before, of course, but it does look as if the vaccine programme is proving effective.


Several emails arrive this morning from Thomas O’Driscoll. Thomas explains that some ‘funnies’ he sent to an old email address came back undeliverable, so he got Sean O’Brian to help him find my new address. He expresses sympathy about my recent illness but says ‘welcome to the club’, and is glad to hear that I am golfing and getting on with things. Sadly, he doesn’t think there will be a Rockwell reunion this year because of Covid. He sends his best wishes to Pat and promises more funnies to come.

Thomas is an emeritus professor at an American university and currently a faculty consultant at a university in Thailand. I know this because his email tells me so. Sadly, it’s all I know about him, having never heard of him before. Sean and Pat are also friends I have yet to meet.

At first I thought this might be some sort of spam, but something about the email rings true. Several minutes pass while I think about this alternative ‘me’. Where do I live? What do I do? I wonder about my illness. The golf suggests it hasn’t been too debilitating – a heart scare, perhaps? I hope Pat is taking good care of me.

I toy for a while with the idea of continuing the correspondence, with a view to teasing out further information about Thomas and myself. I could go for broke: ‘Thomas! Thank god you’ve written. I fell down the stairs and I’ve completely lost my memory!’ Or more gradually get a conversation going: ‘It’s been ages … when did we last meet?’ (if he doesn’t have my email address, we probably haven’t seen each other for a while). Or: ‘What has Sean been up to recently?’ Maybe I could pass on some bland news about Pat. But hang on, is Pat male or female?

Sanity soon returns. I write to Dr O’Driscoll, pointing out his error and wishing him luck in tracking down the other M.S. I quickly get a nice note of apology and thanks from the doctor, and that’s that. Shame about the Rockwell reunion, though. It might have been fun.


Sad to read P. J. O’Rourke’s obituary in the papers today. He may have been a Republican, but he was very funny. Anyone who can write an article entitled ‘How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink’ can’t be all bad.


The new Maigret film starring Gérard Depardieu is now out, and we are hoping to see it next week. You can see the trailer here. I’ve become a bit of a Maigret geek, and so I can tell you Depardieu will be the thirty-sixth actor to play the character on film or TV. Pierre Renoir, son of the impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, was the first, in 1932, and since then, as well as Frenchmen, there have been English, Irish, Dutch, Italian, Austrian, German, Czech, and Russian Maigrets.

Bruno Cremer’s Maigret
Gerard Depardieu’s Maigret

English-speaking Maigrets include Michael Gambon, Rowan Atkinson, and Richard Harris. The most famous was probably Rupert Davies, who played Maigret for 52 TV episodes between 1960 and 1963. When they met, the detective’s creator, Georges Simenon, gave him a novel inscribed ‘At last I have found the perfect Maigret’.

Since we came to France, I have spent far too many afternoons watching reruns of the French TV series that ran from 1991 to 2005 with Bruno Cremer, and now, for me, Cremer is Maigret. Depardieu will have his work cut out to supplant him.


Things I’ve learned this week:

Harry Houdini could pick up pins with his eyelashes and thread a needle with his toes.

At the outbreak of World War Two, zookeepers killed all the venomous snakes and spiders at London Zoo in case it was bombed and they escaped.

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it is explicitly illegal in Great Britain to use a machine gun to kill a hedgehog.

The Greening of Poitiers

Do you remember Norman Lamont? Chancellor of the Exchequer in John Major’s government in the 1990s. Looked a bit like a panda. Got involved in a series of farcical, sometimes fabricated, press stories: not paying his hotel bill for ‘champagne and large breakfasts’ at a party conference, renting a flat he owned to a prostitute called Miss Whiplash, getting into arrears on his credit card, late-night visits to Threshers to buy cheap cigarettes and champagne. He’s nearly 80 now. If he was forty years younger, Boris Johnson would almost certainly appoint him to a cabinet post.

The Lord Lamont of Lerwick

Anyway … One of the things he is remembered for is declaring in October 1991 that ‘the green shoots of economic spring are appearing once again’. Eleven months later, on ‘Black Wednesday’, 16 September 1992, the UK crashed out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, costing the Treasury an estimated £3.5 billion (and that was when a billion pounds was worth something).

All of this is just a clumsy lead-in so that I can announce that the green shoots of post-Covid recovery will be clearly visible here in the centre of Poitiers very soon. Work has started on planting nine trees in the town’s main square, Place Leclerc, a symbolic step in the eco-friendly council’s Plan Canopée, which aims to plant 10,000 new trees in Poitiers by 2026. The trees, four field maples and five hackberry trees, species chosen because they are local and for their ability to adapt to drought, should be planted by the end of March. Until then, archaeologists from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research will be rummaging around under the dug-up cobblestones to see what they can find.

In a separate Plan Canopée development, the mayor, Léonore Moncond’huy, has launched the project Une naissance, un arbre pour votre enfant (‘A birth, a tree for your child’). The parents of every child born in Poitiers are now entitled to receive a tree sapling, which they can either plant in their garden or have planted in one of several designated sites in the city. The sapling will be tagged with the child’s name and date of birth, and the child will receive a small book with information about the tree.

I think both of these initiatives are to be welcomed; the more trees the better, really. The ones in Place Leclerc will form two new lines inside the existing trees and help to distract the eye from the vast expanse of cobblestones in the centre of the square. However, the tree planting is not going down well in some quarters. The estimated cost of the Place Leclerc work is €130,000, and people are pointing out that it is actually returning the Place to a state very similar to the one it was in before 2011, when it was totally repaved as part of another eco-initiative, theCœur d’agglo project carried out under the previous administration.

Place Leclerc 2022

Place Leclerc pre 2011 , viewed from the town hall.

This turned the entire centre into a pedestrian zone and led almost immediately to complaints about excessive ‘mineralisation’.

When we arrived here in 2018, this pedestrianisation was complete, and so it’s how we have always known the city. As we aren’t car drivers, the pedestrianisation generally suits us fine, but there are areas where I can see the justification of the ‘mineralisation’ complaint, For example, Place Charles VII, seen in the photos below, was recently repaved.

Place Charles VII

“Never smile at a crocodile”

Leaving aside the dubious aesthetic merit of the metallic crocodile wrestling with two naked women, why on earth didn’t they put grass over the area rather than granite cobblestones? I can think of one or two similar areas that, particularly on hot summer days, have an arid feel about them.

When I ask locals about the pedestrianisation, opinions are mixed. Some talk of the city’s shops, bars, and restaurants being increasingly under threat as people are reluctant to come to Poitiers if they can’t drive right into the centre. Others point out that the air is now much cleaner and how pleasant it is to be able to stroll around on foot. Everyone seems to accept that the pedestrianised centre is here to stay, and looking at this 1950s snapshot showing Place Leclerc as a massive car park, I’d say that is no bad thing.

Place Leclerc in the 1950s


This week, there have been reports in British newspapers of a recent survey which showed that certain once-familiar phrases are gradually disappearing from common usage. Examples given included ‘pearls before swine’, ‘know your onions’, ‘a nod is as good as a wink’, ‘ready for the knacker’s yard’, and ‘pip pip’. Of the 2,000 people surveyed, aged from 18 to 50, a high percentage didn’t recognise many such phrases, which strikes me as rather sad.

For the moment, it’s all I can do here in France to get by in the basics of the language without mastering many colourful idioms, but when I come across them I make a note of them for possible use at some stage in the future. Recent examples include ce n’est pas tes oignons (‘it’s not your onions’, equivalent to the English ‘mind your own business’) and quand on parle du loup (‘when you talk about the wolf’, equivalent to the English ‘speak of the devil’).

More colourfully, il y une couille dans le potage (‘there’s a testicle in the soup’) means ‘there is a big problem here’, and my current favourite is the French equivalent of ‘wanting to have your cake and eat it’, vouloir le beurre, l’argent du beurre et l’cul d’la crémière (wanting the butter, the money for the butter, and the milkmaid’s arse).


About fifteen years ago, I was teaching English in Paris. As a warm-up exercise I’d ask new students to name 10 famous Britons. I kept a sort of league table and the top 10 were: 1) Princess Diana; 2) Tony Blair; 3) Prince Charles; 4) Margaret Thatcher; 5) David Beckham; 6) Mr Bean; 7) Elton John; 8) Benny Hill; 9) Shakespeare; 10) A tie between the Queen, Sean Connery, Sherlock Holmes, Winston Churchill and Jack The Ripper.

Today, Johnson would probably replace Blair and Prince Andrew might just replace his former sister-in-law. Daniel Craig and Harry Kane would be logical substitutes for Connery and Beckham. The rest of the original list would probably still be there or thereabouts, though Harry Potter might edge someone out.

 If one were to do the exercise in reverse and ask English students to name 10 famous French people,  Macron, De Gaulle and Napoleon would be likely candidates, as would Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette. French culture might not be particularly well represented; Edith Piaf and Johnny Halliday…perhaps Brigitte Bardot and Gerard Depardieu. Sports fans might add Eric Cantona, Paul Pogba or Kylian Mbappé. Some wags would no doubt mention Asterix the Gaul.

Generally speaking, the English and French have a broad brush approach when thinking of each others countries. Stereotypes serve a purpose and the popular press is adept at using them. News items covering major events are often illustrated with either berets and tricolours, or bowler hats and union jacks. “Aren’t foreigners funny?” articles appear regularly and are easy space-fillers.

Living in France now, it becomes easier to see how the French view of Britain is formed. When we first arrived, the only UK topic that French people wanted to talk about was Brexit. When they raised the subject (it was always them that raised it; we were sick of it), they would adopt facial expressions that were a mixture of concern and puzzlement, as if asking about an elderly relative of ours that they had not met, but who was rumoured to be mentally ill.

Once Brexit came into being, on January 31st 2020, the French, like most of the rest of Europe, lost interest. Stories about empty supermarket shelves and long lorry queues were met with shrugs and mild amusement. The impact of Covid dominated the news, and the only British angle was the relative success of the two countries in dealing with the virus. For a while, there seemed to be a sort of pendular movement between the two. When the virus was raging in the UK, France seemed to be getting clear, then, slowly, the statistics would move in the other direction. Hopefully, thanks to vaccinations, the crisis is gradually easing in both countries.

In the French media, as the Covid clouds clear, a strange new UK, or rather a strange new England, seems to be appearing. In the musical Brigadoon, a village of that name appeared once every hundred years, totally detached from reality. The England currently being reported seems  increasingly to be turning into Brexitoon. While Brigadoon was a romance, in Brexitoon we are watching an odd mixture of Dallas and Downton Abbey.

The queen, now a sad isolated figure, is slowly withdrawing from public life. Recently widowed, she roams from palace to palace around her kingdom. Her favourite son, the Duke of York, once a dashing young war hero, is embroiled in a sex scandal that seems to drag on for ever. Reluctantly she has told him that he is no longer in charge of ten thousand men. In fact, he is no longer in charge of anything. Her eldest son, still heir to the throne but now in his seventies, has troubles of his own. While one of his sons, the bald one,  is behaving reasonably well, pottering around in ambulances and helicopters, the other , the one with the strangely red hair, has married an American divorcée and left the country, just like the queen’s naughty Uncle Edward did all those years ago.

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The queen’s problems continue to multiply.  While she was sitting  alone at her husband’s funeral and the country was under strict orders not to socialise, it turns out that her disreputable prime minister had been hosting a series of drinking parties – in 10 Downing Street, of all places, He denies it, but she knows that before he became prime minister he had already been sacked twice for lying.  Her people are unhappy. The shelves are still empty, and inflation is rising. The red-haired one is about to  have a “tell all” book published. A royal wedding would lift the gloom but unfortunately Prince George is only 8…

In this weeks gripping episode of Brexitoon, the prime minister’s career still hangs in the balance as an investigation into the parties is due to be completed. MPs are accused of blackmailing each other, and Liz Truss has warned Vladimir Putin that she has got her eye on him.

The Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs

There is talk of pork pie plots and platinum puddings. The French don’t understand half of it but they are lapping it up.  Dallas was never this good.


Things I’ve learnt this week:

The 1988 Olympics included the sport of solo synchronised swimming.

‘Son-of-a-bitch stew’ was a cowboy dish made from the internal organs of a whole cow and an onion.

In Old Norse, kveis meant ‘uneasiness after debauchery’.

Presidential Profanities

Happy New Year.

President Macron made headlines around the world this week. In an interview with Le Parisien on Tuesday, he declared, ‘We put pressure on the unvaccinated by limiting their access to social activities as much as possible. It is a very small minority that is resistant. I’m not for pissing off the French … but the unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off (j’ai très envie de les emmerder). And so, we will continue to do so, until the end. From January 15, you will no longer be able to go to a restaurant, you will no longer be able to go for a coffee, you will no longer be able to go to the theatre, to the movies … This is the strategy.’

It’s likely that he knew exactly what he was doing when he made these remarks, intending them to be a trap for his opponents – one that they have fallen into. His words provoked (largely simulated) outrage on both the right and left. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the radical left France Insoumise party, called Macron’s language ‘appalling’, adding, ‘It’s clear the vaccine pass is a collective punishment against individual liberties.’ Far-right leader and presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen tweeted that a president ‘shouldn’t say that’ and that Macron was ‘unworthy of his office’. Bruno Retailleau, head of the right-wing Republicans in the Senate declared, ‘Emmanuel Macron says he has learnt to love the French, but it seems he especially likes to despise them.’

Such remarks, however, are unlikely to reflect the mood of the public at large. Over 92 per cent of eligible French are now first-vaccinated, and 90.5 per cent are double-jabbed. The remaining 10 per cent are well-described by The Local’s John Lichfield: ‘an eclectic bunch of anti-vax obsessives or crazies, stubborn libertarians and a large group of over-80s who rarely leave home’. Few are likely to be potential Macron voters.

Macron’s supporters had already accused his opponents of playing politics with the health crisis when they used a parliamentary manoeuvre to cut short an all-night debate on the new vaccine pass on Monday evening. Now they can accuse the opposition of using fake indignation to win the votes of a minority of anti-vaxxers.

Government spokesperson Gabriel Attal has backed the president: ‘Who is wasting the lives of caregivers, traders … the elderly who live in loneliness and fear of the epidemic? Who is pissing off who today? … It’s those who refuse the vaccine.’ Prime Minister Jean Castex has said that people who got the jab are ‘exasperated’ with the unvaccinated.

Yes, they say, the president’s language was a little crude, But it reflects an anger that many people share. If he speaks formally, he is accused of being out of touch. If he speaks colloquially, he is accused of being vulgar. He at least is doing something. The opposition is reduced to playing politics.

(Following Postcards from Poitiers guidelines, I should warn you that the rest of this piece contains strong language and an image that readers might find offensive.)

One interesting aspect of this whole affair is exactly how ‘unpresidential’ M. Macron’s remarks actually were.

Jonathan Miller (not the dead one) in The Spectator was very sniffy: ‘How can he imagine this is consistent with the dignity of his office? Can anyone imagine General de Gaulle speaking like this?’

In fact, de Gaulle was no stranger to the odd obscenity himself, most noticeably when he used the word chienlit to describe the 1968 student uprisings. It translates as ‘shitting in your own bed’. Since then, French presidents have not hesitated to speak plainly when they felt like it.

It was to de Gaulle’s successor George Pompidou that M. Macron was clearly referring in his remarks on Tuesday. On being brought a large pile of decrees to sign by a government official, an exasperated Pompidou exclaimed, Mais arrêtez donc d’emmerder les Français! … Il y a trop de lois, trop de textes, trop de règlements dans ce pays! (‘But stop pissing off the French! There are too many laws, too many legal texts, too many regulations in this country!’).

Jacques Chirac was no slouch at coining a colourful phrase. Before becoming president, he served as prime minister, and in 1988, after a bruising encounter with Margaret Thatcher at a European Summit in Brussels, he asked reporters, Mais qu’est-ce qu’elle veut en plus cette ménagère? Mes couilles sur un plateau? (‘What more does this housewife want? My balls on a plate?’).

Nicolas Sarkozy, who followed Chirac, is perhaps the most prolific French head of state when it comes to outrageous language. He said of his own party that they were tous des cons (all idiots) and described Marine Le Pen as une hommasse (butch). In 2008, while he was shaking hands with people at an agricultural show, a man shouted, Ah non, touche-moi pas! Tu me salis! (‘No, don’t touch me! You disgust me!’), to which the president replied, Eh ben, casse-toi alors, pauv’ con! (‘Well fuck off then, asshole!’).

Not exactly the language of Voltaire, is it?


‘Trust me, I’m a Prime Minister’

In the UK, the current prime minister has been known to utter the odd expletive. Most noticeably, when asked about supply chain concerns in the run-up to Brexit, he replied, ‘Fuck business!’ By now, of course, it is clear that his attitude towards business is equally his attitude to the truth and to anyone who disagrees with him.

When a prime minster leaves office, their portrait is hung in 10 Downing Street, either a painting or, in recent years, a photograph. I humbly suggest that a more appropriate tribute to the current incumbent would be this eloquent pen picture provided by Rory Stewart, former Tory MP and Secretary of State for International Development:

‘Johnson is after all the most accomplished liar in public life – perhaps the best liar ever to serve as prime minister. Some of this may have been a natural talent – but a lifetime of practice and study has allowed him to uncover new possibilities which go well beyond all the classifications of dishonesty attempted by classical theorists like St Augustine. He has mastered the use of error, omission, exaggeration, diminution, equivocation and flat denial. He has perfected casuistry, circumlocution, false equivalence and false analogy. He is equally adept at the ironic jest, the fib and the grand lie; the weasel word and the half-truth; the hyperbolic lie, the obvious lie, and the bullshit lie – which may inadvertently be true.’


Things I’ve learnt this week:

‘TV dinners’ were so-called because the compartments resembled the screen and knobs on an old-style round-cornered TV.

The dinosaur noises in the film Jurassic Park were made using recordings of tortoises having sex.

In 2017, the Vatican banned the use of gluten-free bread for Holy Communion.

Joyeux Noël de Poitiers !

We had planned to spend the Christmas weekend in Paris, but for various reasons, not least amongst them the fear that the government might ‘cancel’ Christmas at the last minute, we changed our plans and spent last weekend there instead. This turned out to be a good move. It was cold but dry and sunny, and there was a festive atmosphere, with Christmas markets everywhere. Despite the cold, bar terraces were crowded – customers making the most of the overhead terrace heaters, which are scheduled to be banned after this winter, although the hospitality industry, already suffering from the effects of Covid, may appeal for an extension to this period.

While in Paris, we went to the Musée d’Orsay, which I last visited about thirty years ago. Then, I had to queue for about half an hour despite having a reserved ticket. This time, we walked straight in and were able to stroll around almost-empty galleries – a real treat.

Musée d’Orsay

It’s still a wonderful place to visit, but so many Impressionist images have now been commercialised that it sometimes seems as if you are looking at an exhibition of table mats and screensavers.

We also visited Victor Hugo’s house in Place des Vosges, finally reopened after being closed for nearly three years. It’s a fine place to pass an hour, it’s free, and once again it was noticeably quiet when we visited.


There are seven rooms decorated with Hugo’s furniture and artwork as well as paintings and sculptures depicting scenes from his work. In one room, whichever way I looked, Quasimodo seemed to be staring at me. When I pointed this out to Madame, she said she often felt like that at home. The Scottish sense of humour is still something of a mystery to me.

Quasi : “The bells! The bells!”

The rest of the weekend was spent, as they nearly always are, happily mooching around the streets of the Marais, the Île Saint-Louis, and Saint-Germain. Much as we love Poitiers, if we were ever to win the lottery, I think we’d buy a large first-floor appartement here, ideally somewhere along the Quai des Grands-Augustins, with a view of Notre Dame. Actually there’s a three-bedroom one for sale there, right now, a snip at €3.7 million. I shall buy an extra lottery ticket this weekend.

The view from what will ‘almost certainly’ be our new appartement

Actually, if I wait a little while, I might save myself a euro or two. Property prices are dropping in Paris, not by very much, but it’s the first fall in many years, the reason being that the recent rise in teleworking has led many Parisians to seek a change in lifestyle. They have been selling up in order to go and settle elsewhere: on the coast, in the countryside, or in cities where the air is cleaner.

Not that it was required, but this has given the rest of France yet another reason for loathing Parisians. Since the start of the health crisis, wealthy Île-de-France residents have been criticised for taking advantage of their gargantuan purchasing power to buy or rent in the provinces, sometimes without even bothering to visit the property. This drives up prices and prevents locals from finding affordable accommodation. The website recently published a study on the rise in prices in destinations popular with Parisians. In Saint-Malo, for example, they have shot up by 39 per cent in three years. In Biarritz and Bayonne, where they’ve risen 35 per cent, banners have been appearing at roundabouts: ‘Parisians, go home, you are the virus of the Basque Country.’ Not very Christmassy, I grant you, but you can see their point.


So, Christmas will be spent quietly at home here in Poitiers. A wise choice, as it turns out, even if it was more luck than judgement. I feel very sorry for those whose plans involved people travelling between France and the UK, as this is now only possible for ‘essential’ reasons. Sadly, these do not include wanting to pull Christmas crackers while eating your own weight in Quality Street.

In France the big festive meal is eaten tomorrow evening, Christmas Eve. Madame and I have taken the easy route and ordered ours from L’Essentiel, a local restaurant. Normally I would grumble about having a takeaway for Christmas, but we’ve had several meals from them before, and they’ve never let us down. Here’s the menu:

There will be fizzy stuff and red wine. There may well be digestifs. Midnight Mass remains an option but will probably be avoided on social distancing grounds.

The rest of the holiday period will be spent trying to get through mountains of unread books and magazines, and watching things on TV, preferably British, in black and white, and featuring Alec Guinness, Terry-Thomas, or Alastair Sim (ideally, all three). There may be walks before lunch; there will definitely be naps afterwards.

It could be a lot worse.


What I’ve learnt this week:

Victor Hugo made detailed erotic drawings of all the women he slept with.

A human liver can grow back even after 75 per cent of it has been removed.

Locust swarms move so fast because each locust is trying to eat the one in front and avoid being eaten by the one behind.

No one knows why shower curtains cling to you.


A very merry Christmas to everyone. Hopefully, I will see you all next year.

It’s beginning to feel a little like Christmas

Place Leclerc

The spirit of Christmas Present is cautiously creeping into Poitiers. The festive lights came on last weekend, and merry ditties are being played through the speaker system lining the streets of centre-ville (‘courtesy of DJ Johnny Bionic’, according to the local paper). I quite like this on the whole, though I could probably do without George Michael’s ‘Last Christmas’ as I go out to get the paper in the morning.

The Big Wheel has returned to Place Leclerc – it was absent last year because of building work at the old theatre – and there is also a (fairly small) Christmas tree. The Christmas market, another absentee last year, has also returned. Chalets gourmands offer such delights as pommes d’amour (toffee apples) and barbe à papa (literally daddy’s beard – candy floss). One chalet has some very attractive novelty sweets: convincing replicas of artisan tools. I was tempted to buy one till I saw the price. €25 for a chocolate spanner is a bit steep, even at Christmas.

DIY with Chocolate

The streets are crowded, and shops, bars, and restaurants seem to be doing well. But it’s difficult to avoid the shadow of Covid that hangs over everything. Masks are now compulsory in most of the town-centre streets, and you need to show your health pass to get into the Christmas market or onto the Big Wheel. From Friday night, the city’s clubs and discos, like those throughout the country, were closed for four weeks, and the government has warned that this four-week closure period is renewable. Many bar owners fear that that the spread of the Omicron variant will mean that they too may soon be forced to close, and some worry they will not survive. Hugues Fournier, co-manager of the Biblio Café in Rue de la Cathédrale has said that the next government decision will be decisive. ‘There is concern, if there is another administrative closure and the aid system is the same as during the first lockdown, we risk going out of business … we received €1,500 in aid per month, but the rent is €1,000 on its own.’

At the moment, the future is unclear. The Omicron variant is spreading rapidly through the UK, but as yet it is still to hit France significantly – only 59 cases have so far been identified, although there are almost certainly more. Nobody knows for certain the impact that it will have. Booster jab figures are going well. They are currently averaging 550,000 a day, and the government target of 20 million by Christmas should be reached. The UK has already passed the 20 million mark.

The UK government’s handling of the crisis is being attacked for being both too prescriptive and not prescriptive enough, and there seems to be a significant difference of opinion among members of the Cabinet as to what to do next. The current shambolic farce being played out in Downing Street doesn’t inspire confidence in the prime minister’s ability to steer a wise course through the crisis.

For now, at least, the French government’s policy is being broadly endorsed, inasmuch as there are no significant demands for a change of direction. There are still gilet jaune and anti-vax demonstrators, but their numbers have dwindled significantly. Once the Omicron variant starts spreading, this may change. President Macron has yet to say whether he is running in next year’s presidential election, but it’s hard to believe he won’t. It will be interesting to see how the Covid crisis and its management have a bearing on the various candidates’ campaigns.

Some functional Christmas lighting in Place Lepetit


Our trip to Scotland in November involved two days of travel in each direction, so this week’s announcement that Ryanair will be restarting its Poitiers to Edinburgh service next year is certainly food for thought. From March to October, they will be offering flights to and from Edinburgh, on Monday and Friday each week. They are also starting a Poitiers to Lisbon service on Tuesdays and Saturdays, again from March to October. I have mixed feelings about this. I loathe flying anyway, and Ryanair aren’t exactly noted for their customer service. Madame and I had more or less agreed that, as the journey to Edinburgh took two days anyway, we might as well get the Eurostar to London and get the train from there. We can also get to Lisbon by train, though it would take a while. We shall see. Fear of flying would be my main incentive, but there would also be the opportunity to drone on endlessly about my carbon footprint saving – CO2 emissions per kilometre by domestic flight are 133 g, by domestic train 41 g, and by Eurostar 6 g. I’ve always fancied being an eco-warrior.


Things I’ve learnt this week:

Until 1916, Harrods sold heroin and cocaine.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s full name is Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro. He was named after Ronald Reagan.

In AD 320, the Catholic Church made it a sin to eat sausages.