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 …

Le Café des Arts

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, vins et bières 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’.