Chaos!

How it looks from here. A headline in Friday’s Le Parisien, a sort of less politically-slanted Daily Mail:

Variant du Covid-19: le chaos au cœur de Londres

En Angleterre, le nouveau variant du coronavirus fait des ravages. Dans la capitale, les autorités sont dépassées, les hôpitaux à l’agonie, mais les sorties restent autorisées et le port du masque n’est pas obligatoire !

(Chaos in the heart of London. In England, the new variant of the coronavirus is wreaking havoc. In the capital, the authorities are overwhelmed, the hospitals in agony, but travel is still authorised and mask-wearing is not compulsory!)

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However, there is no need to panic.

Here is the response of the UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, when she was asked at the latest government press briefing why the UK had the worst daily death rate in the world:

We’ve been in this virus pandemic for about a year now um and it’s a global pandemic across the world and governments respond you know very differently, we’ve seen that, across the world but based on the fact society evidence that have effectively been presented to us as decision makers. Now I think the fact of the matter is we’ve seen just deaths around, around the world, harrowing death tolls around the world. Government has responded as facts change, information changes, working with scientists, working with medics, working with the professionals who have been guiding us throughout this, so there is no one reason as to why we have, you know, an appalling death toll. The numbers are deeply tragic and this is a human tragedy across the world and at home but as I’ve said you know they’ll be a wide range of reasons and I’m sure you know in the future we’ll all look back and you know we’ll all look and with a degree of humility I would say as well as to measures that could have been taken, some measures we may not have even taken right now and understand and look at why that may have been the case.

That’s the Home Secretary, one of the senior ministers of state, doing an uncannily good job of channelling Donald Trump.

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Life is a little chaotic here at home at the moment, because we’re having our bathroom redone. Bath out, shower cubicle in. It’s being done by Monsieur Eric Touillet, our all-purpose builder and decorator, who is gradually renovating the entire house. It’s painting work mainly, but he did a magnificent job fitting the bookcases into our joint office, and the bathroom is taking shape nicely. We’re very lucky to have found him.

I had some bad experiences with builders when I lived in Paris. First I hired Luka, a Serbian, to do a similar renovation in a small shower room in my flat in the 13th arrondissement. I’d got his name from FUSAC, an English-language magazine, thinking that getting an English-speaker would be a smart move. His English was certainly very good, but he mainly used it to tell me long stories about how much he missed his wife and daughter back in Serbia. His eyes would fill with tears as he showed me pages from the photo album that he carried in his tool bag.

My own tears came later as I realised, after two days of watching him haphazardly bashing away at the old tiling, that he knew bugger all about building work or plumbing. I should perhaps have twigged earlier. Apart from the photo album and hammer, his tool bag was curiously light on basic equipment. On the morning of the third day, I summoned up the courage to tell him his services were no longer required. Luka smiled and nodded slowly, for all the world as if he’d come to more or less the same conclusion and was about to suggest it to me. He departed cheerfully, without payment, presumably to wreak havoc somewhere else. God knows how he made a living.

I replaced the cowboy with some Indians: two Sikh brothers, again booked through FUSAC, again proficient in English but totally deficient in the required artisanal skills. If you can imagine the Chuckle Brothers in turbans and overdubbed by Peter Sellars, you’ve more or less got them. They, too, lasted only a couple of days, and they achieved little apart from increasing the pile of rubble collecting in the kitchen. They left, walking backwards and bowing, offering profuse apologies for having let me down.

Now desperate, I went around the corner to a small French firm run by a Monsieur Solomon. His English was non-existent, but we got by well enough. I explained my problems, and he came around the next day. When he saw his predecessors’ efforts, he just smiled and shook his head. He finished the job in a week, and I had learnt a valuable lesson.

Since moving to Poitiers we have, so far, been very lucky in choosing people to do work on the house. When we first moved in, we needed an electrician to do some computer network wiring. We found Monsieur Cédric Moreau through the internet, where his site had plenty of good references. In his youth, he had spent a year in Ireland, and not only did he do an excellent job but he kept us amused by every now and then adopting an uncannily accurate Cork accent. It was M. Moreau who recommended M. Touillet, and from then on we were up and running.

The only slight drawback with M. Touillet is that he’s the fastest speaker I’ve ever met and he speaks hardly any English. I’m not qualified to judge if he has any particular French accent, but I find him almost impossible to understand. Every now and then I say doucement (“gently”) and he will briefly slow down to 100 words per minute, but then he forgets and I’m lost again. My big worry is that he will one day ask me a question and Madame will not be here to translate. I will blurt out a “yes” and find that I’ve agreed to a mini-jacuzzi or his ’n’ hers bidets.

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Things I’ve learnt this week:

Handschuhschneeballwerfer is German slang for ‘coward’. It means someone who wears gloves to throw snowballs.

Victorian guidebooks advised women to put pins in their mouths to avoid being kissed in the dark when trains went through tunnels.

In 1999, a gang of thieves was forced to do community service along a road in Rotherham. The next spring, the daffodils coming into bloom spelt out the words ‘shag’ and ‘bollocks’.