A week in Poitiers

“J’aime mon bistrot”

This town…

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

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

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

is coming like a ghost town…

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

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

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

…this town…

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

***

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

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

A week in Poitiers

Work in progress

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

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

Joan of Arc, Poitiers

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

Bored? I’ve no time to be bored.

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

Not bored in the slightest.

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

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

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

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

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

Boredom is a sign of mental laziness.

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

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

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

I think the lockdown may be getting to her.

Droning on

“droning on and on”

Happy Easter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A week in Poitiers

The World at War

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

A Week in Poitiers

And the war drags on…

Here in France 319 coronavirus deaths were reported between Friday and Saturday, an increase of 110 over the previous twenty-four hours. In all, 38,105 cases have been reported in France, Île-de-France (including Paris) and Grand Est (the Ardennes and Alsace-Lorraine) by far the worst hit with 7,660 and 5,479 respectively. Here in Nouvelle-Aquitaine we have had 912. It was announced today that some patients are being flown from Grand Est to use spare hospital bed capacity in Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

***

We’ve now had two weeks of house arrest here in Poitiers and we are getting used to it. You are only allowed out for certain reasons, the same as those now in place in the UK: to buy food and essentials, for medical reasons, for vital family reasons, and for physical exercise. A peculiarly French touch is that you must carry a self-signed letter (the government have provided a pro forma) saying that, on your honour, you are only travelling for one of the permitted purposes, and you have to tick a box saying which one. Failure to carry a letter can result in a fine of up to €300 (for serial offenders). As well as this, Poitiers, like many French cities, now has a curfew, from 22.00 to 05.00. Not something that bothers us in the slightest, as there is nowhere to go now anyway. Apart from these restrictions, life continues fairly normally. The shops are well stocked and there is little or no queuing required. Sadly, the covered market is now closed but, to be honest, I am surprised it was allowed to stay open for the week or so that it was, after everywhere else had to close. We have ample supplies of beer, wine and whisky, or rather we did have. The stuff obviously evaporates.

Madame S is still busy editing. I’m still doing my French revision, as our exam is now postponed till mid-May (it’s an ill wind …). I wander around the house, picking up and putting down various books that I’ve left dotted around the place, and I’m also slowly getting through a backlog of magazines. Last night I read an article in the London Review of Books by Ferdinand Mount on the make-up and philosophy (for want of a better word) of the current UK government. The issue is dated 20th February, which is just six weeks ago, but the article feels like something from the distant past. It is very much focused on Brexit, Sajid Javid is still Chancellor of the Exchequer, and there is not a single mention of coronavirus.

According to Lenin, there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen. We are clearly living through the latter.

***

On WhatsApp, my sister-in-law Lou posts a reminder: ‘Don’t forget the clocks change this weekend. You don’t want to be late getting up to sit in your living room’.

In France, along with the rest of Europe, the annual clock changeover is set to end next year. The final decision on how it will work has not been announced, but we will either move to summer time next spring and leave it that way (this seems to be the favoured option) or move back for the last time in October 2021. Madame has pointed out that France is large enough to merit two time zones and here in the west we should be aligned with the UK. I must admit that I do miss the earlier morning light that we used to get there. That said, sitting outside a bar with the sun going down at ten in the evening is not exactly a hardship.

***

Exercise here is restricted to one hour a day and to within a one-kilometre radius of your home, though I don’t think this is really being enforced too strongly. I generally manage an hour-long riverside walk each day, and this almost certainly takes me over the 1 km limit.

I don’t want to claim to be Poitiers’ answer to Gilbert White, but I’ve become quite the little naturalist on these walks. There is a great variety of birdsong to be heard along the river but, ignoramus that I am, the only one I can identify for sure is that of the woodpeckers who are nested near the Jardin des Plantes. I’ve also spotted a family of beavers (castors in French) paddling along near one of the bridges. I thought at first this sighting might be a symptom of having caught the virus, but Dominique, a neighbour, assured me that he and his wife often see them there. Most afternoons, as well as the birdsong, one can hear a Frenchman, hidden behind a high wall, sitting in his garden playing acoustic guitar and singing songs in English. He has a fine voice. On Thursday we got ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ and on Friday it was ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ or, as he put it, à la bama.

This morning, just for a change, we went for a walk around the town centre. Normally I would be there nearly every day, but I’ve hardly visited it at all in the past two weeks. It didn’t feel much like the first day of summer; cold and overcast with a stiff easterly breeze. Poitiers Sundays are always very quiet. Nearly all the bars and restaurants are closed, and the atmosphere is reminiscent of England in the 1950s. I was shocked by this when we first came here, but I have come to really appreciate it. The sleepy atmosphere is a pleasant change to the rest of the week.

Usually one would see a sprinkling of churchgoers, an occasional tourist and the few determined regulars who know where to find the one or two cafés that are open. Today, though, it felt different. The town centre is almost completely deserted. One or two people out for une promenade like ourselves walking head down against the wind. It is eerily quiet. No conversation to be heard anywhere. It reminds me of the Will Smith film I Am Legend, though if there were any kangaroos around we didn’t see them.

Maybe next year…

In Le Cluricaume, the nearest thing Poitiers has to an Irish pub, they still have the poster in their window advertising their St Patrick’s Night Celebration. We were promised un Irish Tap Takeover with such enticing beverages as White Hag (from Wexford) and Yellowbelly (from Sligo) along with des cadeaux, des kilts & plenty of craic! I’d been looking forward to this but sadly, like everyone else, they closed at midnight on the 14th. I celebrated St Patrick’s Day at home with a can of draught Guinness, a large Tullamore Dew and a packet of Guinness-flavoured crisps.

On our way home, we stop to buy croissants at Jules in rue Magenta, the only boulangerie currently open on a Sunday. Here, I am served by the cheery proprietor himself. The shelves are all full. Along with the baguettes and numerous other types of bread, there is the usual almost pornographic display of cakes and pastries. I tell myself that we must support local shops as much as possible, so, along with the croissants, I buy two rhubarb tarts. Suitably provisioned, we head back to our domestic prison.

Getting your five a day the Jules Boulangerie way.

***

On the internet I read that the situation in Greece is now so bad that production of hummus and taramasalata has stopped. It’s now officially a double-dip recession …

Virus Warning

A doctor writes…

A medical adviser to the government has today said that they may have to re-think their coronavirus strategy, admitting that the policy of home confinement has in fact exacerbated the situation.

According to Dr Jolyon Brakespeare of St Thomas’ Hospital London, ‘People now have time on their hands and, sadly, some automatically reach for their phones. This is far worse than the email problem back in the 1980s. When email first arrived we were threatened with an epidemic of so-called “funny emails”. It got quite serious at one point, especially with the very nasty “copy to all” variant, but at least it was mainly confined to office workers, particularly civil servants and those in large corporations. Sacking a few people and then educating the public about using spam filters meant that the problem seemed to be under control.’

Some scientists warned, however, that the threat had not gone away and that email was effectively a “gateway application” that would lure innocent people on to the internet, ill-prepared for the addictive software freely available there.

Sadly, it now appears that these fears have been confirmed. Dr Brakespeare again: ‘It’s a familiar story. They start when they’re young with Facebook and think “I can handle this. A few holiday snaps, a bit of bants with my mates, where’s the harm in that?”’

Then came WhatsApp.

Dr Brakespeare says that the biggest danger with WhatsApp is its ease of use. Even the elderly, some of whom have said they wouldn’t go near the internet, are now joining in. ‘It’s growing like wildfire. Single cells, i.e. individual users, can quickly form clusters and those within the cluster can immediately start transmitting to each other. One person sends a video clip or newspaper cutting and the whole group can instantly see it. The problem starts when each cell within the cluster passes the clip on to members of other clusters to which it belongs, and so on. Within a few hours a video clip can be halfway around the world. Some of these clips can be three or four minutes long. Think of the thousands of hours of people’s time this can take up.’

The doctor highlights two other potential problems. Firstly, addiction: ‘Some people spend hours looking at their phones waiting for a new clip to arrive so that they can immediately pass it on. I know of cases where if there is a quiet period they will start re-sending old clips again hoping that people won’t notice.’

Then there is what Dr Brakespeare refers to as Repetitive Viral Messaging Syndrome. ‘Some of the video clips are, of course, very funny, but many of them are variants of old jokes or slightly adapted versions of related video clips. The trouble is that you often have to watch the clip before realising that you have seen it or something very like it before. People with RVMS experience a feeling of tension when a new message arrives, which then turns into violent rage when they realise that they are watching “old ladies fighting over bog roll in Croydon supermarket” for the fifteenth time. Phones get smashed, cats kicked and loved ones abused. It’s nightmarish.’

The doctor has a radical but simple solution to the problem. ‘Open the pubs again and encourage people to visit them. Give them free beer or wine vouchers on condition that they hand their phones to a member of staff on arrival. It’s my belief that the danger from actually catching the virus is significantly less than the psychological damage caused by wanton WhatsAppery. And besides, if you do get it you’ll be too hungover to care.’

A week is a long time….

Poitiers is closed

14.00 Sunday 15th March

We live in interesting times.

Just as I had got used to regular handshakes and kisses with all and sundry, I noticed over the last two weeks that people have gradually stopped doing this. A few still persist, but more and more people shrug and make a joking remark about not doing it. Some half-embarrassedly offer an elbow instead.

I have yet to see anyone wearing a mask in Poitiers. The government has announced that it is stepping in to requisition stocks of masks and hand gel to ensure they get to the people who need them. This follows reports of thefts of masks and gel from hospitals in Paris and Marseille. The government’s advice is that only people who are infected or who are self-isolating need to wear masks.

There is little sign of the panic stockpiling that is being reported in the UK. Toilet rolls are in plentiful supply, and the only thing that we’ve noticed there being a slight shortage of is dried pasta. Obviously this may change over the coming weeks.

On Thursday, the French Health Ministry said that the death toll in France from the coronavirus outbreak had risen to 61, from Wednesday’s 48. It added that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in France had also risen, from 2,281 to 2,876 with 129 people in very serious, life-threatening condition. That evening, President Macron did a twenty-five-minute television broadcast. It was a dignified, impressive performance, in sharp contrast to the bombast and blather of President Trump the previous evening. Macron announced that France was to close all schools, crèches and universities from Monday to try to curb the spread of the virus. He also urged employers to allow their staff to work from home wherever possible, and said that people who are over 70 years of age or who have existing health conditions should stay inside as much as they can. The broadcast seems to have been generally well received both by the media and by the public at large, although, predictably, Marine Le Pen criticised him for not closing the borders.

Last night we went out for a meal in La Mangeoire, a small local restaurant. Midway through the evening, Florent, the owner, came up and told us that it had just been announced by the government that all bars and restaurants in France would be closed from midnight until further notice. This meant of course that his staff would be out of work for the foreseeable future. Florent was philosophical and said he had been expecting it. At the end of our meal he gave us each an enormous brandy and said he hoped he would see us again soon. We hope so too.

The government has in fact announced the closure of all ‘non-indispensable’ shops and entertainment facilities. Food shops, pharmacies, tobacconists, banks and petrol stations will remain open. These restrictions are currently imposed until 15th April.

On leaving La Mangeoire we made a quick visit to two of our regular haunts, the Café des Arts and Le Cluricaume, to say a temporary au revoir to the staff there. Again people were generally philosophical, though Marie, the serveuse in the Café des Arts said ruefully that she had just come back from two weeks’ holiday. Le Cluricaume, the nearest thing Poitiers has to an Irish bar, is a popular student haunt, and there was a fairly wild atmosphere as people made the most of their last few public drinking hours. Jean-Philippe the barman told me that he was sorry that Tuesday’s planned St Patrick’s Day celebrations would not now take place, but I suspect he has more pressing things to worry about. I didn’t like to ask, and it may be too early to know, what financial arrangements are in place for people who are laid off.

The current emergency has not led to the postponement of the municipal elections here in France. The first round takes place today and the second next Sunday. As an EU citizen, I am entitled to vote. Alas, Madame S, with her UK passport, can no longer do so. When I dutifully turned up to La Maison du Peuple in Rue Saint-Paul this morning, the first thing I was told to do by an official was to use the dispenser of sanitising hand gel by the door. I was then allowed to pick up a small brown envelope and eight sheets of paper, each containing the list of candidates of one of the parties contesting the election. From here I was directed to a line of curtained booths. I went into one, folded the sheet of my chosen party and placed it in the envelope. I was then directed to a table where a group of other officials were sitting. The first one of these checked my voting card against my pièce d’identité, my passport. The second checked my name on some sort of electoral roll. There was a moment’s concern when it couldn’t be found, but a third official had spotted my passport and said, ‘Ahh, you are Irish’. My name was then found on a separate roll, presumably of foreigners and other dodgy characters. She continued, ‘You are Mikayel Antony Shayan?’ It was close enough, and I nodded. At which point I was allowed to put my envelope through the slot in the top of a large transparent plastic container. A fourth official date-stamped my voting card – I need to keep this, as you use the same card for up to ten elections. A fifth official then asked me to sign my name next to my entry on the electoral roll. While doing this, she held a sort of plastic frame that covered the whole page apart from the box for my signature. A sixth official proffered a box of Bic biros from which I selected one, signed my name and then put the biro into a different Bic biro box held by a seventh official (this contained a number of other biros, all presumably used only once). I was then thanked by all the officials for doing my civic duty and was allowed to leave. At no point during the whole process did either I or anything I touched come into contact with another person. We will all have to do the same thing again next Sunday.

15.30. Update. The Secretary of State for Transport announced this afternoon that public transport will be ‘gradually reduced’ over the next week. This Monday, seven out of ten trains will run at SNCF. 

16.30. Update. Germany has just announced that it is closing its borders with France, Switzerland and Austria.

To think that only a week ago I was worried about revising for a French exam. (I spent Monday learning what to put in a French letter.)

This week in Poitiers

Testing Times

‘Do you know what I hate? When someone’s left oranges in a car. It’s a really distinctive smell. I can’t stand it.’

This was the woman with glasses, She’d been quiet at first but was now on her second glass of red.

‘I’ve never really noticed, to be honest.’

This was the other woman, the one with the mole on her cheek. On arrival in Le Gambetta, she’d asked Damien the serveur if they sold Babycham. When he looked puzzled, she’d repeated the question

‘Do. You. Sell. Babycham?’

‘Non, madame.’

She’d sighed theatrically and asked for an Orangina.

They had arrived with their husbands, who, for some reason I hadn’t caught, had temporarily gone elsewhere. Just before leaving, the mole’s husband had been describing how drinking vinegar made one’s nipples erect and somehow this had led to the remark about oranges. I couldn’t see the connection, between the vinegar and the oranges, that is, not between the vinegar and the nipples. Although I didn’t see that either.

Apparently they all live in Montmorillon, about 30 kilometres away, and had come to Poitiers for the day. I’d read recently there were quite a few Brits living there. I made a mental note to visit the place soon. In the meantime I would go home and ask Madame S if she would take part in a little experiment in physiology.

***

Taken at the flood

The River Clain is dangerously high at present and the nearby riverside park at Îlot Tison has been closed as a precaution. All this on top of the coronavirus. A plague and floods; positively biblical. One of the plagues was frogs, but best not to mention that in these parts.

My current concerns are more New Testament than Old, i.e. speaking in tongues … or rather failing to do so. Our French intermediate exam is less than three weeks away, and I am woefully unready. Madame, of course, is a little Scottish Edith Piaf, chirruping away happily to all and sundry in the Café des Arts while I stare moodily at my phone trying to memorise my irregular verbs. It’s all right for her; editing all day means that she has no time to agonise about the exam and the limited time left to get some proper revision done. Most days, once I’ve read the papers, done the crosswords and watched the afternoon cop shows (Meurtres à l’anglaise this week, which is French for Inspector Lynley), I’m lucky if I can get an hour in before we head out for our apéro.

I have done a lot of the necessary background work. I wear my beret when we are out and always carry a copy of Libération or Le Monde. My repertoire of Gallic shrugs and grimaces is impressive, and I can ‘bof!’ and ‘zut!’ with the best of them. I am good at reading the expression of an interlocutor and can usually insert an appropriate word when required. My carefully delivered ‘on verra’s (‘we’ll see’) and ‘peut-être’s (‘perhaps’) have given me the reputation of being a wise, reflective sort of chap. For a while I got a bit over-confident, randomly lobbing in the occasional ‘oui’ and ‘non’ when asked a question I don’t understand. I stopped this when one of Madame’s friends told her how strange it was that I loved scuba-diving but couldn’t swim.

I fear that none of the above will help me under exam conditions. So I’m now faced with three solid weeks of cramming. I spend my days with my coursebook and CDs, listening while ‘Clémence tells us about her pet peeves when going to the cinema’,reading ‘Claude describes what his dream house would be like’ and then settling down to ‘write 250 words about visiting a shop to exchange a scarf. It wasn’t meant to be like this.

***

Watching the rugby yesterday, I spent a moment working out my allegiances. I naturally support Ireland in any game they play in, and after that, in deference to Madame, I cheer on Scotland. If neither of these is playing, I root for our adopted ‘home’ side, the French. It’s a close call as to the order of the next two, but I think those fellow Celts, the Welsh, marginally win out over the plucky little underdogs Italy. I think that covers everyone.

***

Proper French food – available in Rue Victor Hugo

On being inconvenienced

Lavatory humour

On Tuesday, I read an article in the Guardian by Zoe Williams about two ‘toilet activists’ who have built a database of loo codes for cafés and shops across London. In resistance terms it’s hardly up there with the Maquis, but I wholeheartedly support their efforts, unlike Ms Williams, who airily declares that ‘the privatisation of toilets is one of the least contested areas of the public realm … because the state of needing the loo is such a temporary one that it doesn’t register as a meaningful deprivation’. Hah! Tell that to any man in his mid-sixties and you run the risk of being showered in invective. When two or three are gathered together, it’s never too long before the conversation turns to the subject of les pissoirs publiques (excuse my French), or rather the paucity thereof. This will inevitably be followed by harrowing tales of ‘close-run things’ and emergency evacuations, for all the world as if they are Battle of Britain veterans.

One of the first things I did on moving to Poitiers was to learn the location of every public convenience, either those specifically designed for the purpose or those in shops, bars, cafés, museums and galleries. I’ve done this wherever I’ve lived, having long learnt to appreciate the maxim ‘time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted’. If I’d stayed in London I could probably have earnt a crust giving a Blue Badge-standard guide to the capital’s ‘comfort stations’. This would have ended up with a visit to either the splendid Victorian WCs in the Princess Louise pub in Holborn or the strange Underground station-like atmosphere of the subterranean facilities in the University of London’s Senate House.

By some strange synchronicity, just after reading the Guardian piece I saw one in Le Parisien announcing the arrival of a new type of convenience in Paris. For reasons that will become obvious, these contraptions are known as Urilifts. These are manufactured by Pop-Up Toilets, a Dutch company who’ve been developing this type of equipment for almost 10 years. Urilifts are cabin-like structures consisting of two urinals and a closed cubicle, and their unique selling point is that they only come out at night. They rise up at 7 p.m. and disappear into the ground in the early morning. They are thus, according to their publicity, ‘designed to integrate into historic and heritage places and leave the public road accessible to residents during the day’. For the moment, there is only one in Paris, in Place des Abbesses, Montmartre, but more are planned.

URILIFT down…
…et voila! URILIFT up.

Now this is all well and good, and I can appreciate the authorities wanting to go for something discreet and unobtrusive, but I wonder if they have really thought this thing through. Once word gets around, I can see these things becoming attractions in their own right – not for tourists though, but for the local residents. As the hour of 7 p.m. approaches, they will gather at nearby cafés and on street corners, quietly smiling and nudging each other expectantly, trying to look nonchalant so as not to give the game away. The moment finally arrives. There is a slow, almost inaudible whirring sound. Then … ‘Urilifts are go!’ To gales of laughter, cheers and cries of allez-oop, some poor tourist, having paused momentarily to consult a map or take a photo, suddenly finds him or herself hoisted several feet in the air and marooned on top of a public convenience.

Obviously there is an element of chance in this. For one thing, there won’t always be someone standing in the right position. Also, the more agile and alert tourists will be able to leap off at the first signs of movement. But I think this uncertainty will only add to the excitement. Imagine the sharp intakes of breath as a potential punter comes close to the, for want of a better word, launch pad, and then the almost imperceptible sighs of disappointment as they move away again. Street theatre at its most compelling.

Of course the evening’s entertainment for the spectators need not necessarily end there. Once the Urilift is raised to its full height (with or without a rooftop passenger), someone will eventually want to make use of it. The locals know that as the door of the Urilift slowly opens for the first time that evening, there is always the possibility of said prospective user being trampled underfoot by some poor hungover wretch staggering out, cursing and roaring, having been unexpectedly trapped during the wee small hours (an apt phrase) and incarcerated below ground for the next fifteen.

Regular spectators will tell you gleefully of the rare occasions when one sees un whammy double, for example the time when a distraught American gentleman staggered out into the evening air only to look up bewilderedly at a Japanese lady standing above him tearfully beseeching to help her down from the roof. It sounds like a scene from a modern-day Madam Butterfly.

Given the nature of my bladder and my tendency to absent-mindedness, it would be foolhardy for me to declare ‘you’ll never get me up in one of those’, but I shall tread warily the next time I’m in Montmartre.

Burns Night

Monday: A parcel arrives: our ‘Burns Night Party Decoration Pack’. There is a poster with a picture of Robbie Burns and the Selkirk Grace (‘Some hae meat and canna eat’, etc. etc.), a tartan tablecloth, tartan bunting and some small Scottish flags. It’s not exactly Philippe Starck, but needs must. Also in the package are two hats. A large tartan tam-o’-shanter with a fake ginger wig attachment and a smaller tartan pork pie hat. Madame S and I still have to decide which we will wear (neither, I suspect). We expect to be ten for the evening and our table won’t seat that number easily, so instead of haggis, neeps and tatties we are going to have a buffet with various haggis-loaded dainties There will also be Scottish smoked salmon, cranachan, which sounds like a fairly lethal whisky-based trifle, and home-made gingerbread.

We’ve found a collection of Burns poems online along with their French translations, so we plan to recite a couple and let people follow the translations. My Scots is marginally worse than my French, so this should be interesting.

I’ve been put in charge of music. My initial suggestion, a Jimmy Shand/Bay City Rollers medley, is not well received.

Tuesday: We have a courette at the back of our house, a small walled garden or courtyard. It’s très petite, just room for a small raised area with shrubs and bushes, a table and a couple of chairs, but previous owners have put a lot of thought into its layout, and it’s lovely to sit out there in the summer. There is a small altar-like bird table, made of broken paving stones, in the middle of the greenery, and we get a steady stream of visitors, usually sparrows, starlings and pigeons but also the occasional finch or blue tit. One recent arrival, who has quickly established himself as a regular, is an extremely fat blackbird. He’s a cocky little bugger and is clearly aware that I’m watching him through the window. It’s been bugging me for a while that there was something familiar about the way he returned my gaze; a slow, sideways and upwards tilt of the head and a slightly sinister look in his eye. Where had I seen it before? The answer came to me on Monday evening with a TV news item about financial impropriety at Saracens rugby club. Suddenly there on the screen was a clip of the Saracens and England fly half, Owen Farrell, about to take a penalty. The head slowly turning and rising, that weird stare … I wonder if he has any blackbird in his ancestry?

Wednesday: A nice little mystery. In rue Montgautier, a young woman walking in front of us suddenly exclaims in delight as she spots a €10 note in the road. Then she turns to us laughing as she shows us the note, which had been neatly cut in half. Where was the other half? Why would anyone do this?

Years ago when I was teaching in Prague, I had a student, Tibor, who collected playing cards that he found in the street. He was in his early forties and told me that he’d been doing this since he was a teenager. When I asked how many he’d collected, he said nine but two of these were the ace of clubs. I worked out that that this meant, on average, finding one about every three years. Imagine the delight at a new discovery, and then the chagrin of realising that it was a duplicate. Of course he could increase his chances – by keeping an eye out around the casinos in Václavské námĕstí, for instance. I can just see Tibor, who was clearly a little bonkers, roaming the streets of Prague in his nineties, looking for a final elusive three of diamonds.

Thursday: The evening spent in the Biblio Café in rue de la Cathédrale. The Biblio is a lovely place, being both a bar/café and a bookshop where one is encouraged to browse before buying. I’m told that there are people who leave bookmarks in books on the shelves and slowly read through them over a series of visits. The owners, a friendly cheerful bunch, don’t seem to mind. It’s the fourth Thursday of the month, so there is the regular session de musique traditionnelle irlandaise avec Poitin na nGael. Poitin na nGael are a loose collective of musicians who play sessions in various bars around town each month. We don’t know much about them yet, but they are a mixture of French, American and (possibly) Irish individuals living here in Poitiers. Although they are amateurs the standard is high, and the evenings are good fun.

The Biblio has a fine selection of beers; the draught is supplied by the local Pirates du Clain brewery, and I usually stick to this, but there is a range of bottled beers all named after writers. I decided to have a George Orwell, as he died 70 years ago on Monday. It’s delicious, but at 8% it’s not exactly a session beer.

It sounds macabre but the Orwell Foundation have produced an interesting little film about the night Orwell died, narrated by his biographer D J Taylor. It’s only eight minutes long and is rather moving.

Poitin na nGael

Literary Lushes

Friday: Madame S is a stickler for authenticity, so we make a trip to the post office to pick up another parcel from the UK. This is Golden Syrup, needed for the gingerbread and unobtainable in Poitiers. I’d forgotten how handsome the tin is. Then it’s on to Le Comptoir Irlandais to buy a bottle of Aberlour whisky. We already have some Laphroaig, but I thought it would be nice for people to compare two different malts. I’m only thinking of the others, you understand.

“Out of the strong came forth sweetness”

Saturday: Burns Night. To paraphrase Chumbawamba, I had a beer drink, I had a red wine drink, I had a whisky drink (repeat for several hours). The haggis in all its forms was a great success, as were the cranachan and gingerbread. We had Burns readings, French songs from Maryse, Spanish poems from her Mexican husband, Vito, and Tara, our neighbours’ daughter, played her trumpet. We had Aly Bain, Eddi Reader, Big Country, Runrig, Roddy Frame, Orange Juice, The Proclaimers, The Bluebells, and Belle and Sebastian. There was even a bit of Jimmy Shand. In the end, everyone wore both tartan hats at some stage. It was an unforgettable evening. If only I could remember all of it.