Accordion Crimes

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

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

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

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

Me: They all seem to like Autumn Leaves.

Frank: That’s not Autumn Leaves.

Me: What is it, then?

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

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

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

© Photo d’archives : Dominique Bordier.

Sacha with his original accordion

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

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

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


Things I’ve learnt this week:

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

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

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

Louis Renard, résistant

It’s sometimes said that if one were to go by popular culture, one would assume that English history largely consisted of the Tudors and winning the Second World War. I confess that for a long time my understanding of French history was equally simplistic. There was the Roman invasion (Asterix the Gaul), Louis XIV (The Three Musketeers), the Revolution (A Tale of Two Cities), and the Resistance in the Second World War (the BBC’s Secret Army and Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Gray). Now that I live here, this clearly will not do.

Since we arrived, I have been in blotting-paper mode, trying to soak up as much as I can about French history in general and that of Poitiers in particular. It’s a demanding task, and I have barely scratched the surface, but in terms of local history at least, some sense of how the city has developed is beginning to emerge.

Most of the available literature on the history of Poitiers tends to focus on four key periods: its strategic significance as a colonised town under the Romans in the first century BC; its growth and prosperity under the powerful Counts of Poitou and Dukes of Aquitaine between the tenth and thirteenth centuries; the siege of Poitiers and the Wars of Religion that lasted throughout the sixteenth century, and the occupation of Poitiers during the Second World War.

In a haphazard way, I’m gradually finding out more about each of these four aspects of Poitiers, but I’m also trying to dig a little deeper into the city that existed and developed either side of the Second World War, i.e. twentieth-century Poitiers. What follows is a little bit of work in progress.

In the middle of Poitiers, just off rue Magenta, is a small side street, rue Louis Renard. On the street sign under the name are simply the words Résistant and the dates 1893–1943.

Louis Renard was born in Poitiers on 7 December 1893. The son of a fabric merchant, he had to interrupt his studies when his father died prematurely in 1908. His mother took him out of the Lycée and sent him to England to learn the language and study business methods.

In the 1920s, Louis worked in Paris, first for the department store Printemps and then for Michelin, where he dealt with the UK and Netherlands markets. In 1927, he returned to Poitiers and joined a law firm as an associate. He took ownership of the firm five years later and became a respected figure in the local community. He involved himself in many cultural activities and was a founding member of the local Youth Hostel Association and Rotary Club.

In 1939, when war broke out, Louis enlisted in the army. He was 46. Assigned first to Tours, then to Marseille, he worked as a liaison interpreter between the French and British armies. He was demobilised when France surrendered in June 1940. In August he returned to Poitiers and wrote to General de Gaulle, then leader of the Free French in England, declaring his support. From the end of 1940, he became the leader of the organised Resistance network in occupied Vienne. He was also involved in setting up one of the first Resistance newspapers in France, Le Libre Poitou.

Two years later, on 30 August1942, Louis and twenty-eight other members of the Renard network were arrested following a combined operation by Vichy police and the Gestapo. Imprisoned first in Poitiers, then in Paris, they were transferred to Germany, where Louis and nine others were tried and sentenced to death. They were guillotined on 3 December 1943, four days before Louis’ fiftieth birthday.

Of necessity, the above is an extremely brief summary of Louis’ life and work as a member of the Resistance. If you are interested, there is a very good French website devoted to the history of the Vienne department during the Second World War, and this includes a great deal of fascinating information about the Renard network, including a copy of Louis’ letter to de Gaulle, a detailed account of his arrest (written by his wife), and a letter Louis sent to his wife while in prison. There is also a book, La chute du réseau Renard:1942 (The Fall of the Renard Network, 1942) by Jean-Henri Calmon, which details how some members of the Vichy police were only too eager to please their new masters by arresting Louis and his colleagues.

Louis’ story is clearly that of a man worthy of respect, but alert readers will have noticed a gap in the potted biography that I’ve provided, in that it jumps from 1908 to 1920. I have left this period till now because it highlights for me one of the most interesting aspects of his story.

I said above that Louis enlisted in 1939. In fact, he re-enlisted. Louis had originally been called up for national service in 1913, and he was a sergeant in the army when war broke out the following year. His war record is impressive, He was awarded the Légion d’honneur and the Croix de guerre in 1916. By the time he was invalided out in 1917, he had lost an eye, had a lung perforated, and suffered a hand injury. He had reached the position of lieutenant. In July 1918, the death of his brother Henri, who had been killed while leading his men into battle, affected him badly.

After the war, Louis married Marie Germaine Marsaudon, and they went on to have six children. His experiences had made him a committed peace activist, and one of his reasons for founding the Rotary Club in Poitiers was that he saw this as a way of building direct relations with like-minded individuals in other countries. One might think that by this time Louis had already lived ‘a full life’. Yet this was the man, the severely disabled family man, who had no hesitation in volunteering again for active service in 1939 and who was to die so cruelly four years later.

One sometimes hears jokes about the French capitulation in 1940. It is estimated that somewhere between 55,000 and 85,000 French serviceman lost their lives before the surrender, with another 120,000 wounded. Estimates for the number of active members of the Resistance vary widely. The French government puts it at 220,000; Douglas Porch, in his respected study The French Secret Services, puts it at 75,000.

Louis Renard (1893-1943)

Michel Foucault

The Voie André Malraux is a 325-metre concrete flyover built over the river Clain in the 1970s to connect Poitiers city centre with the rapidly developing banlieue area of Couronneries. The large concrete supports of the flyover are covered with some impressive graffiti, and a year or so ago I came across a striking image of Michel Foucault along with a stencilled quote, ‘Il est laid d’être punissable, mais peu glorieux de punir’ (It is ugly to be punished, but there is no glory in punishing). I think this stark, rather edgy portrayal would have appealed to him.

Michel Foucault

Foucault is one of Poitiers’ most illustrious sons; in most lists only Rabelais comes close, then you’re quickly amongst some not particularly well-known politicians and sporty types. He is regarded by many as one of the twentieth century’s most significant figures in the world of philosophy. His major works, including Discipline and Punish and Madness and Civilization,raise questions about the nature and use of institutional power and control, and suggest that certain ideas, such as madness, delinquency and sexuality, are transformed by society to serve the convenience of social systems. At the same time, he is denounced by some as a fraud, a charlatan with nothing new to say – a division of opinion probably due in part to Foucault’s flamboyant lifestyle and political activism.

Paul-Michel Foucault was born on 15th October 1926, the second of three children in a prosperous and socially conservative upper-middle-class family. The contrast between this start in life and the controversial figure he was to become may go some way to explaining Poitiers’ strangely ambivalent attitude towards him. True, there is a small plaque on the wall of his birthplace, the family home at no. 10 rue de la Visitation (now renamed rue Arthur Ranc), a sedate, genteel thoroughfare near the city centre. There’s also a rue Michel Foucault, a small street of newly built houses, tucked away behind the hospital on the outskirts of the city, the sort that is normally named after some senior town hall employee approaching retirement. In truth though, one could easily visit Poitiers and be completely unaware of any link to Foucault. Nonetheless, apart from the image on the flyover, I’ve found some odd Foucaultian echoes in the city, and two are in the street where he was born.

La Poste

Poitiers’ central Post Office stands at the top of the street, a large imposing building with some impressive statuary over the doorway. However, in the past this has been the site of two very different institutions, both of confinement, one voluntary, one less so. In 1633, the Order of the Visitation established the convent which was to give the street its original name. In 1793, the nuns were summarily ejected, and the site became a prison for le tribunal révolutionnaire. From here, prisoners would be taken by cart to the guillotine in the nearby Place du Pilori.

Then in 1901, rue de la Visitation was the setting for a grisly scandal. On 23rd May, the Attorney General of Poitiers received an anonymous letter, the text of which could be translated as follows: Monsieur Attorney General: I have the honour to inform you of an exceptionally serious occurrence. I speak of a spinster who is locked up in Madame Monnier’s house, half-starved and living on a putrid litter for the past twenty-five years – in a word, in her own filth.

A search of no. 18 was ordered. Here Blanche Monnier was discovered, tied up on her bed, undernourished and extremely weak. She was 52. Investigations revealed that she had been secretly confined in the family home for twenty-five years. Various reasons were put forward. A love affair with a republican lawyer to which her profoundly royalist family would not agree. A psychiatric disorder, probably anorexia, which would have led to internment in a mental asylum, tarnishing, the family feared, their honour and reputation. On being discovered, Blanche was interned in a psychiatric hospital and later transferred to a sanatorium in Bois, where she died in 1913. Her mother was imprisoned but died fifteen days later. Her brother was sentenced to fifteen months in prison for ‘non-assistance to a person in danger’ but released on appeal. There is some suggestion that it was he who had written the anonymous letter.

In 1930, André Gide published a book about the incident, La séquestrée de Poitiers, changing little but the names of the protagonists. According to Hervé Guibert, a close friend, this book was a great influence on the young Michel Foucault. I’m not particularly a subscriber to the theory of psychogeography, but there does seem to be a certain resonance between Foucault’s birthplace and the two nearby places of incarceration.

I went back to look at his portrait on the viaduct recently, but sadly the graffito has been removed and replaced with the image of a young woman. I doubt if this would have worried Michel. As he says in The Archaeology of Knowledge, ‘Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same. More than one person, doubtless like me, writes in order to have no face.’

Véronique D.

Counting one’s blessings


This morning I was reading the local paper while moaning to Madame that I needed a haircut and how disgraceful it was that barbers weren’t regarded as an essential service, when I noticed Véronique Dujardin’s picture on an inside page.

We met Véronique through another friend, Maryse, in the Café des Arts. Véronique is not that unusual a name here, and it took a couple of meetings before the penny dropped and I realised that this was actually the Véronique D. whose blog I had discovered several months ago when researching the history of Poitiers online. The blog is a wonderful cornucopia of pieces about different aspects of life in Poitiers, its history, architecture, politics and cultural activities, as well as reviews of films and books that Véronique has seen or read. (There is also quite a lot of stuff about embroidery, but I tend to skip that.) She has been a doughty fighter for a number of causes, and there are blog entries about everything from a battle to stop illegal parking in the town centre to a campaign against Monsanto’s use of glyphosate, a controversial herbicide that has been alleged by some to be carcinogenic. Whenever I look at the blog, I am struck by the energy and enthusiasm that Véronique brings to everything she does, and it was partly her example that led me to start my own.

However there is a sombre, sadder element in Véronique’s blog. In 2013 she was diagnosed with three brain tumours (meningiomas). She believes that these tumours are linked to her having been prescribed a high-dosage treatment of the drug Androcur for over twenty years, and for some time she has been pursuing a case against Bayer, the manufacturer of the drug. (The link between brain tumours and cyproterone, a constituent of Androcur, was first identified in 2008.) In July last year she won an important battle in the law courts when it was agreed that a committee of experts would be appointed to carry out a medical review of her case.

The impact on Véronique’s life has been heavy. Her memory, sense of balance and sense of smell have all been badly affected. She had a ten-hour operation in 2013 to remove a meningioma wedged between two optic nerves, and she was due next Monday to have another lengthy operation to rebuild her left eye-socket, incorporating a specially engineered piece of titanium. In the last two weeks, she has suffered a double setback.

After her court victory, Bayer appealed against the decision, and the appeal was due to be heard this week. The hearing has now been postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak. No new date has been set.

Today’s paper carried news of the second setback. Véronique has heard that her operation has also been postponed because of the virus. In preparation for the operation, Véronique has been practising self-isolation far longer than the rest of us. She has been working from home, and friends and neighbours have been rallying round to do her shopping, Apart from the fact that this may now have to continue for some time, there is the complication that if the operation is delayed for months the titanium insert, specifically designed to take account of the current position of the tumour, may have to be re-engineered.

She is philosophical about this. ‘I expected it. They don’t want to take any risk with the spread of the virus.’ Her energy seems undiminished. ‘This morning I had a video conference with colleagues and I texted a neighbour, so that’s my shopping sorted out. I have a stepper so I am still managing my 10,000 steps a day.’

I suppose, all in all, waiting for a haircut is not such a big deal.