A local film-maker, Henri Guillon, has used a drone to made a two minute video of Poitiers under confinement: Poitiers Confiné. The city is completely deserted and looks very peaceful. Those who have been to Poitiers might like to see this – and it may tempt those who have yet to visit. There’s an article about the making of the video here which you can run through Google Translate if necessary.
The first stage of deconfinement starts today in France. We can now go out whenever we like and don’t need our notes of attestation. Shops are open but not bars and cafés. This means I can buy a pair of gloves but not a pint of Guinness. I don’t need gloves.
One of my favourite places in Poitiers is Place de la Liberté, a tree-lined square just off Rue René Descartes. Although it is only a few hundred metres from the site of the main market in Place Charles de Gaulle, it’s a peaceful little place in which to sit and while away a few minutes. If you are lucky you can watch a game of boules being played. There used to be an attractive-looking bar, L’Auberge du Pilori, in one corner of the square, but this closed just months before we got here and at present shows no sign of reopening. While the closing of a bar is nearly always a cause for regret, I suspect that my guardian angel might have had something to do with this, as a few minutes might too often have turned into a few hours sitting on its terrace.
The rest of the square consists mainly of private housing. The Poitiers conservatoire is nearby, which probably accounts for the one or two places offering music lessons. At no. 3 there is the workshop of Laurent Gayraud, a luthier (a stringed instrument maker).
Despite its tranquil air, Place de la Liberté has had its share of excitement over the centuries. Designated as the city marketplace by Eleanor of Aquitaine in the mid-twelfth century, it was given the name Place du Pilori in 1307 to mark the spot where common criminals were paraded for public humiliation and, quite often, physical abuse. During the Hundred Years War, the whole area was razed to the ground by the English in 1346.
In the accounts I’ve come across so far, there is some disagreement about the date of the next significant event in the Place’s history – that of the exploding mule. In either 1733 or 1775, depending which report you read, a mule driver who was transporting sacks of gunpowder had stopped for a drink in L’Auberge du Pilori. The animal, waiting outside, had grown impatient and started pounding its feet on the cobbles. Unfortunately, a spark from one of its hooves ignited the gunpowder, sending the poor beast sky-high. All the reports agree that, almost miraculously, the mule was the only casualty of the disaster. They also record that one of the animal’s legs went through a window and landed in the bedroom of the Provost Marshal – a police superintendent in today’s terms. It presumably made a good story down at the nick. ‘There I was, lying in bed minding my own business when …’
A horseshoe was embedded into the wall of the house as a memorial to the incident and it is still there to this day. I have to say that this this seems a little uninspired to me. You would think the least they could have done would be to change the name of the Auberge to The Flying Horse.
With the coming of the Revolution in 1789, the Place du Pilori became the site of the local guillotine, and some thirty people met their death there over the next five years. However, the most famous execution, the one that was to give the Place its current name, happened some time later, in 1822.
Jean-Baptiste Breton was one of Napoleon’s most respected generals, serving throughout all his major campaigns from 1805, up to and including Waterloo in 1815. After Napoleon’s defeat and exile, Breton was a leading member of a group of ex-officers plotting first for the return of the emperor and then, after his death, for the enthronement of his son, the Duke of Reichstadt, as Napoleon II. In February 1822, Breton was tricked by agents provocateurs into leading an abortive coup attempt at Saumur. He was then tried and condemned to death by a royal court in Poitiers, and guillotined on October 22nd.
Breton’s dying words were Vive la liberté! Vive la France! and in 1900 the municipal council put up a commemorative plaque and renamed the square Place de la Liberté in his honour. A fund was started by republicans and the local masonic lodge in order to erect a monument, and on Bastille Day 1903 a scale replica of the original Statue of Liberty was erected in the centre of Place de la Liberté. This is generally seen as a riposte to the Catholic Church’s building of Notre Dame des Dunes in 1876, itself a political act of expiation for the republican ‘sins’ of 1870 (see last week’s blog). One thing that can be said for conducting politics by statuary is that it does tend to slow things down to a leisurely pace.
I think the statue, which stands 2.9 metres high, is very handsome in this setting. On the front of its pedestal is a dedication: Aux défenseurs de la liberté and on its side a quote from Montesquieu: Quand l’innocence des citoyens n’est pas assurée, la liberté ne l’est pas non plus (‘When the innocence of the citizens is not guaranteed, neither is their freedom’). While this is obviously of relevance to Breton, the words will have a greater resonance to a France still coming to terms with the consequences of the Dreyfus affair.
It’s seen some changes in its 117 years of existence, as the following pictures (mostly supplied by my friend Véronique) will show. Its original globe disappeared for many years, and this was replaced for a while by a strange suppository-like device. In 2014 the local council funded a replacement globe, which is a definite improvement, though I think it’s just a little too large. Sadly, it doesn’t light up at night, and I have pledged that if ever I win the Lottery jackpot I will personally fund its illumination.
We watched The Lion in Winter on Monday evening. If you haven’t seen it, don’t bother. Awful film. Over-theatrical, with Hepburn and O’Toole hamming it up outrageously (a minority view admittedly – Hepburn got an Oscar and O’Toole was nominated for one).
I’d bought the DVD a while back because Eleanor of Aquitaine (Hepburn) is a bit of a star here in Poitiers. Heiress of the Duchy of Aquitaine, she held court in the ducal palace, later to become the Palais de Justice, which was, until last year, the law court of the département of Vienne. She commissioned the building of the city walls and organised the construction of the original marketplace. She also commissioned the building of Poitiers Cathedral, and it was here that her marriage to Henry Plantagenet (later Henry II of England) was celebrated. The cathedral still has a fine stained-glass window which depicts her, Henry, and four of their sons. She died in Poitiers in 1204 and is buried nearby in Fontevraud Abbey.
To my disappointment, none of this gets a mention in the film. I’m getting used to this. I’ve become a big Maigret fan and got very excited a while back when I heard about a Georges Simenon novel called The Couple from Poitiers. I managed to track down a copy only to find that the couple get married on page 2 and go to live in Paris. Poitiers is never mentioned again.
There is no statue of Eleanor in the city. In fact there are very few statues at all – the city’s significant architectural reputation is largely built on its impressive collection of Romanesque churches. That said, there is the fine statue of Joan of Arc in Rue des Cordeliers (pictured last week). From time to time, alert passers-by will notice that Joan has suddenly started wearing red lipstick. Those wishing to attribute a miraculous significance to this would struggle to explain the empty beer cans which are placed on the end of her lance whenever the lipstick appears. There are two other statues of significance in Poitiers, both of women, and I went to take a closer look at one of these, Notre Dame des Dunes, the other day.
I’ll come back to that, but just to return to The Lion In Winter for a moment, something that is mentioned in the film, albeit briefly, is the murder of Thomas à Becket and Henry’s involvement in it. Henry always denied this, and after some dodgy dealing with the Pope (the Compromise of Avranches, if you’re interested) in which he promised to go on a crusade, he was cleared of any complicity. Despite this, Henry decided it would be politically sensible to do public penance in England. At Canterbury in 1174 he confessed his sins, received five symbolic blows with a rod from the bishop and then three each from the eighty monks present. He then offered gifts to Becket’s shrine and spent a night’s vigil at the martyr’s tomb.
Now, this idea of public expiation has always interested me. There is a painting by Raphael in the National Gallery of a very sad-looking Pope Julius II. The picture was painted between 1511 and 1512, and we are told that the beard the Pope has grown is a sign of penance for the loss of the city of Bologna in a war. This is all well and good of course, but growing a beard is hardly putting yourself out, is it? It’s certainly not in the same class as getting whacked by eighty-one members of the clergy, symbolically or otherwise. I suppose if you are Pope you can do what you like, with advisors too scared to tell you otherwise:
We’ve lost Bologna. I’m going to grow a beard.
(A long pause) Very good, your Holiness. But if we were to lose another city?
I’ll stop eating cheese.
No more sex.
Moving forward a few centuries, we see that public penance becomes more corporate. After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the debacle of the Paris Commune, the Catholic hierarchy in France was quick to interpret these events as divine punishment for a century of moral decline since the French Revolution, in which French society had divided into Catholics and legitimist royalists on one side, and secularists, socialists, and radicals on the other.
On 24 May 1873, François Pie, Bishop of Poitiers, declared that the nation yearned for spiritual renewal – ‘the hour of the Church has come’. The most immediate and obvious manifestation of this was to be the building of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Montmartre (the site of the Commune’s first insurrection). The proposal was fiercely debated in the National Assembly, but the Church got its way and in July 1873 the construction was approved ‘to expiate the crimes of the Commune’.
Closer to home, Bishop Pie decided that another act of expiation would be appropriate in his own diocese of Poitiers, and he took the initiative to have a statue, Notre Dame des Dunes (I told you I’d come back to it) built on the rock escarpment to the east of the city. Ideally placed to observe and dominate the whole city, it is located not far from the ‘Coligny rock’, where the Admiral de Coligny and his Protestant troops were posted during their siege of the city of Poitiers in 1569.
As in Paris, the decision to build was not met with unanimous approval. Republicans and members of the local masonic lodges were bitterly opposed to it. Nevertheless, the archbishop got his way, and the statue was inaugurated with a torchlit procession and fireworks on 6 August 1876.
The statue, including its pedestal, is over 6 metres high and weighs more than a ton. It depicts the Virgin Mary holding Jesus and standing on a terrestrial globe. It’s floodlit at night and, from a distance, it is impressive, like a golden beacon high on the hill. Unfortunately in daylight the effect diminishes the closer you get to it. (To be fair, I did go on a dull overcast day.) It is a sickly mustard colour, and the Virgin’s arm, described in most travel guides as being extended in greeting or blessing, begins to look distinctly fascistic. I suppose it could have been worse. It’s been pointed out that the arm points directly at the town hall in the city below. Given the original opposition to its being built, one might have expected two fingers to be raised.
So there you have it. Every statue tells a story. Alert readers will have noticed that I mentioned two statues of significance, and there is an interesting connection between them. However, Madame S has just indicated that dinner is about to be poured, so I’m afraid that will have to wait till another day.
The administrative geography of France is complicated. It is easy to get lost in the tangle of régions, départements, communautés d’agglomération, communautés urbaines, arrondissements, cantons and quartiers. To complicate things further, in the last forty years there have been significant changes in the administrative structure, and it is clear that some of these changes are still in the process of implementation. Using the internet to try and navigate one’s way through this maze is made more difficult by the fact that websites relating to organisational entities that are now defunct or moribund are still littered around all over the place. Similarly, any publication that tries to present a clear picture of the current structure is likely to be out of date very quickly. I’m learning as I go, and what follows is as much an aide-memoire for myself as anything.
The highest level of local administration in France is la région. Regions are a relatively new development in French territorial organisation. They came into being as part of a sweeping process of functional and territorial decentralisation initiated by the government in 1982, following François Mitterrand’s election to the presidency the previous year. The 1982 law set up directly elected regional councils with the power to elect their executive and manage the region’s finances. They levy their own taxes and, in return, receive a decreasing part of their budget from the central government, which gives them a portion of the taxes it levies. Regions lack separate legislative authority and therefore cannot write their own statutory law, but the 1982 law also devolved to the regional authorities many functions hitherto belonging to the central government, in particular economic and social development, regional planning, education and cultural matters.
Between 1982 and 2015, there were twenty-two regions in metropolitan France and five overseas regions (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion and Mayotte, the latter becoming a region in 2011). Corsica is classified as a metropolitan region. In this original regional configuration, Poitiers was part of the region of Poitou-Charentes.
In 2014, the French parliament passed a law reducing the number of metropolitan regions from twenty-two to thirteen with effect from 2016. This meant the merging of several regions into new larger regions. (The ‘Avant/Après’ map from Le Nouvel Observateur has a clever little slider gizmo that shows the before and after status of the regions.) The new law formed interim names for the larger regions by combining the names of their constituents, thus the region created by combining Aquitaine, Poitou-Charentes and Limousin was temporarily called Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes. Catchy, isn’t it? Permanent names were confirmed in 2016, at which point Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-CharentesbecameNouvelle-Aquitaine.
This reorganisation is reminiscent of the UK county reorganisation undertaken by the Heath government in 1972–74 and, as far as I can tell, it is about as popular. There was a lot of resentment about the new name from the residents of Limousin and Poitou-Charentes. It probably doesn’t help to remind them that both Aquitaine and Grande-Aquitaine were at one point seriously considered as the new region’s name. At the time, Alain Rousset, the president of the new region, pointed out that when the old Aquitaine had previously subsumed the identities of Périgord and Pays Basque, they had not disappeared, a remark that must have gone down really well with Basque separatists. For me, one problem with something like Nouvelle-Aquitaine is that, apart from in administrative terms, it is difficult to visualise it as an entity. It’s just too big. Culturally, and historically it seems meaningless.
Nevertheless, as they say, here are some facts. Nouvelle-Aquitaine, the largest of the eighteen regions of France, is located in the southwest of the country. It is the largest region in France by area, with a territory slightly larger than that of Austria. It covers 84,061 km2 (32,456 sq. mi.) – or one-eighth of the country. It has approximately 5.9 million inhabitants, putting it fourth in size after Île-de-France with 12.1 million. There’s an interesting French regional population breakdown here.
Nouvelle-Aquitaine comprises twelve departments: the four that used to make up Poitou-Charentes (Charente, Charente-Maritime, Deux-Sèvres and Vienne) along with Haute-Vienne, Corrèze, Creuse, Dordogne, Gironde, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne and Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Its main cities are its capital, Bordeaux (population 1.14 million), Bayonne (283,000), Limoges (282,000), Poitiers (254,000), Pau (240,000) and La Rochelle (205,000).
I think that’s enough about le région, for now at least.
It’s difficult at this stage, certainly for a newcomer, to decide how beneficial or otherwise the regional reorganisation will be for the people of Poitiers. The city was the capital of Poitou-Charentes, and inevitably there is bound to be some leakage of status and influence to Bordeaux. A friend has mentioned a drift of people towards Bordeaux for work reasons. Instinctively one feels that being a big fish in a smaller pond had its advantages. On the other hand, small can be beautiful. Poitiers has its heritage sites and its prestigious university. The mixture of tourists and students gives the place a lively atmosphere. Its housing is relatively cheap (certainly compared to Bordeaux), and it has fast rail links to Bordeaux, Paris and La Rochelle on the coast. All of these, to me, make it a very attractive place to live. Time will tell.
Regular readers, an ever-dwindling number now so small that the proprietors are considering sending handwritten letters of thanks to each one individually, will no doubt be wondering where this circuitous discourse is heading. We are all busy people, what with e-mail, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram … and that’s before one’s even had a first look at the crossword and the sports pages. Why waste one’s time on the ramblings of some geriatric holed up in a French backwater wittering on about dead philosophers and his drinking habits, when one could be settling down with a nice cup of tea and Poirot on ITV3?
Well let me reassure you. I share your concern! It’s time to get a grip. ‘Wake up and smell the coffee’, ‘Fail to plan and you plan to fail’, ‘It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark’, ‘Coughs and sneezes spread diseases’ … where was I? Ah yes …
I learnt very little at school. Those middle-class Jesuits and a guttersnipe like me were never really going to hit it off. However they did manage to beat two things into me: the equal importance of ‘defining one’s terms’ and ‘showing one’s workings’. With these in mind, I thought I would try to clarify the present situation for our mutual benefit. As I see it, what I am attempting to do is nothing less than to produce the Idiosyncratic Encyclopaedia of Poitiers in English. I have checked on Amazon, and no such volume currently exists; a clear gap in the market that I intend to fill before Dan Brown or JK Rowling spots it. My work will cover every aspect of the place, its history, geography, economic and political development. The ‘idiosyncratic’ element will allow numerous digressions on everyday life here in the city (and sometimes beyond its boundaries), and indeed anything else I want to add to the mix. The nature of a blog lends itself perfectly to showing my workings. The whole thing should be considered as a loose-leaf binder of work in progress. While I am front of house producing elegant essays on whatever takes my fancy, a team of backroom staff will be working on these as they are produced, sifting them into a coherent classified structure to be eventually published, probably in several volumes. There has been talk of some accompanying CDs and possibly even a Netflix series, but these are early days.
So there we are. I hope that by setting out my stall I can persuade you to accompany me on what I am sure will be a fascinating journey of discovery.
Having spent a little time last week on the ‘local’, I thought I would step back for a moment and look at the bigger picture. Going back to my school days again, but primary school now, I remember that in amongst the first books that I read, somewhere between Janet and John and the William series, I was given a copy of the Catholic Truth Society’s Catechism of the Catholic Church. From the age of seven, for a couple of years, we were drilled regularly in class until most of its questions and answers were known by heart. (Now that I think of it, it was a small red book, very similar to the Thoughts of Chairman Mao, which was to prove so popular a decade or so later. Rather apt, really.) Over the years I have forgotten all but the very first question in the book, the diabolically deceptive ‘Who made me?’ This has given me so much fascinating food for thought ever since, each one of its three little words having lost me untold hours of sleep. So, by way of starting off my encyclopaedic research, it struck me that it would be interesting and useful to ask myself the equally simple ‘Where is Poitiers?’ I say simple, but a little delving reveals that by posing this question I have opened a metal receptacle of Lumbricus terrestris just as tricky to deal with as the CTS starter for ten. Nevertheless, let us begin.
Poitiers is in France (as any fule kno), but within France …
Alas! The dinner gong! The signal that Madame S. has the decanter of amontillado raised and ready to pour. I am afraid we must leave it there for now (the question about Poitiers, that is, not the decanter, obviously). I shall return to this topic at the earliest opportunity. Do feel free to do your own individual research but, if I may, I would offer a small piece of advice. Use the expression ‘Poitiers NOT Sydney’ when employing search engines, You will thus avoid the many tedious cul-de-sacs that I have found myself exploring, The man is undoubtedly a fine actor, but he brings very little to the table in our current endeavours.
Once, when describing how he’d spent his previous evening, my brother Brendan said, ‘I ended up drinking in some rat-hole in Harlesden … you’d have loved it’. He was probably right. The truth is, I love bars. Always have done, always will. I love them far more than the alcohol they dispense. It’s not just the rat-holes. I’ve spent happy hours in such stately pleasure domes as the Philharmonic in Liverpool, the Café Imperial in Prague and the New York Café in Budapest. The most delicious beer I’ve ever tasted is the eponymous ale in McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York’s East Village. I’ve drunk whisky in the Pot Still in Glasgow, dry martinis in Harry’s Bar in Venice and daiquiris in El Floridita in Havana. There are too many good pubs in Dublin to mention here, but I think Grogan’s in South William Street would be my luxury item on Desert Island Discs.
Rat-holes of course do have their place. I’ve found that there’s nourishment for the soul in sitting alone for a time in a grimly lit, poorly furnished room, surrounded by a few other solitary individuals, one or more of whom may be asleep. The barperson is leaning on the counter, engrossed in the racing pages; the slow ticking of a clock is the only sound to be heard until, as if in a Quaker Meeting, someone feels impelled to say a few words: ‘Raining again’, perhaps, ‘Nine o’clock. He won’t come now’, or ‘This beer’s off’ (the last usually uttered when the speaker has reached the final half-inch of liquid in his glass). The silence then returns. One seldom leaves such places without thinking that life can only get better.
I lived for a while in Hastings, where I used to frequent a poky backstreet dive whose clientele consisted mainly of individuals whom the social services would have described as having a ‘chaotic lifestyle’. The pub’s saving grace was a jukebox that had everything from Captain Beefheart to Billie Holiday. For my first few visits I sat quietly on my own reading the paper, ignored by all. I couldn’t help noticing that no-one seemed willing even to engage me in eye contact. Then one evening, an elderly woman with a broad smudge of pink lipstick, who was clearly over-relaxed, leaned over and told me that the general company had assumed from the outset that I was a DHSS spy. Once my credentials were satisfactorily established, I was fine and it became my local.
There is always a local, a place where the bees in one’s bonnet can buzz freely and one’s anecdotes are listened to politely, no matter how often they are trotted out. After Hastings there was the Chapeau Rouge in Prague, À La Bonne Cave in Paris, the Grapes in Wandsworth and the Prince Albert in Ely. For me they are part of an arcane alcoholic ley line, the full significance of which is yet to be revealed. Madame S. remains unconvinced of this theory.
Our latest local, here in Poitiers, is neither pleasure dome nor rat-hole. The Café des Arts, on the corner of Grand’ Rue and Place Charles de Gaulle, is such a stereotypically French café you wouldn’t be surprised to find it in London’s Covent Garden. It is small, rectangular in shape, its front a large French window that opens out onto the terrace in summer. The ceiling is heavily nicotine-stained and lined with wooden beams. There is a wood-framed bar area on your left as you enter; opposite this, running round the room in an L-shape, is a battered red leather banquette and a line of small Formica tables, each topped with an Art Nouveau image of a winsome young woman. There is one wooden chair per table, and it doesn’t take many people to make the place seem crowded. Above the banquette, on exposed brickwork, small blackboards are dotted around, describing the various cafés, thés, vinsetbières available. Around these is the usual bric-à-brac that accumulates over time in such establishments. Here this includes a very dusty-looking French horn and tuba, a clock that is only accurate at ten to seven, a road sign saying ‘La Rochelle 120 KM’ and a number of ancient enamelled drink advertisements. In my favourite of these, a woman in an evening dress is reclining on a sofa with a Coca-Cola in one hand and a cigarette-holder in the other.
Set into the wall, behind the tables at the back, is a small alcove in which there is a tableau of a jazz band, four wooden figures each about a foot high depicting black musicians in dinner suits playing the bongos, clarinet, guitar and trumpet. Madame S. and I have had a long, intermittent, inconclusive conversation about the appropriateness or otherwise of this.
In a passageway at the back of the café, there is a flight of stairs leading to an upstairs room which is used infrequently. Its only regular occupants are Café-Philo, a group of amateur philosophers who gather for two hours every Wednesday to discuss … well, according to their website, last Wednesday’s topics included Is luxury good for social progress?, What is nobility? and Should one love oneself so that one can love others? I suppose it makes a change from the weather and last night’s TV.
The bar is popular and often very busy. During the day, from 08.00, there is a steady stream of customers popping in for a coffee or a glass of something, often bringing a croissant or pain au chocolat from the boulangerie a few doors away. On Friday mornings there will be a cluster of brocanteurs from the flea market in the square, flat-capped old men who seem to spend much more time over their glasses of sauvignon and plates of peanuts than they ever do at their stalls. On Saturday, the town’s main market day, small groups of shoppers have a regular rendezvous at the café.
During term time, from early evening till the bar closes at 02.00, there are groups of university students in the bar or on the terrace. Some will drink steadily throughout the evening, others can make a coffee or a small beer last well over an hour. It can get noisy, but one rarely sees any drunkenness.
Madame S. and I have got used to popping in at various times of the day, for coffee in the morning, post-market pick-me-ups, apéros and post-dinner digestifs – or various combinations of these. We’ve been made very welcome by the regulars and now feel quite at home. Every now and then, the owner François greets us with mock solemnity and a slowly intoned ‘Good evening … ’ow are yoouuu?’ We laugh dutifully; it’s a small price to pay.
I always like the general buzz of the place, but a favourite time is during the student vacations in autumn and winter. The window at the front is the only source of natural light, and the interior can be a little on the dark side. In the evening, when the lamps are on and there are only a couple of customers in, there is a pleasing, crepuscular atmosphere, as if one were sitting in a painting from Edward Hopper’s hitherto-unknown European period. I sometimes slip in quietly for a pint on my own, knowing that if I wait long enough I will eventually hear ‘Il pleut encore’, ‘Neuf heures. Il n’arrivera pas maintenant’ or ‘Cette bière est mauvaise’.