Church-going

Western front of Notre Dame La Grande

I’ve been going to church a lot recently. Not through any new-found religious zeal, but in order to take photographs. When I signed up for the photography course I am currently doing, my intention was to concentrate on street life and, in particular, night scenes. Sadly, the start of the course coincided with the reintroduction of the lockdown and the curfew, which means that the streets are unusually empty and I can’t go out to take photos at night.

So for the last week or so I’ve been scampering around looking for things to photograph, and in Poitiers an obvious choice is the three Romanesque churches that are the city’s principal tourist attraction: Notre-Dame-La-Grande, St Hilaire, and St Radegonde. They are all very different, and all provide lots of scope for photos. St Hilaire is a World Heritage Site and a stopping point for pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostela. Both it and St Radegonde are beautifully preserved. The intricate carving on the western front of Notre-Dame-La-Grande make it one of the most visited churches in France.

Side chapel in St Hilaire

I’ve visited all three churches on many occasions since we moved here, and one of the most striking things I’ve found is that they are nearly always empty. The same is true of the equally impressive St Peter’s Cathedral. I have got used to more or less having them all to myself, to the extent that I now get mildly irritated when I see a few tourists or a local coming in for a quick pray.

I’m quite puzzled by this. When I came to live here, I soon became aware that France, despite being officially a secular country, still has a strong Catholic tradition, and Poitiers is clearly a Catholic city. Every other street is named after a saint, a bishop, or an order of monks, and there are a number of (private) Catholic schools. The one around the corner from us has a nun at the gate ushering the children in each morning. As I go past, her look always suggests that I am on my way to help the police with their enquiries.

St Radegonde

Our friends sometimes use the phrase “très catho” when referring to an individual or family. I’ve come to realise that this is generally shorthand for “middle-to-upper class and conservative.” When we first moved in, our neighbour Colette used it to describe the family opposite her, whom we hadn’t yet met. Sure enough, the following Sunday morning we saw maman and papa in matching Barbour gilets, trooping off to Mass with their six young children in tow. They moved out shortly after we arrived; I don’t think the two events were connected.

Anyway, for the moment, in the unlikely event that I should bump into a Catholic clergyman, I can truthfully say that I seem to visit their churches far more often than most of their flock.

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From the sacred to the profane. This, from the Times diary on Friday, made me laugh:

In a new book by Robert Sellers on the history of Radio 1, David Hamilton recalls the first day of the Jeremy Thorpe trial in 1979, when the Liberal politician was accused of conspiracy to murder his gay lover. James Alexander Gordon read the news headlines and told listeners that when Thorpe and Norman Scott met in court “it was the first time they had come face to face for four years.” As the studio staff fell about, Hamilton asked JAG if he realised what he had said. “I don’t think about the news, I just read it,” he said. Then he looked more closely. “Oh my God!” It was amended for the next bulletin.

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The swifts are back in Poitiers! Always a sign that summer is on its way. They are amazing creatures. They eat, drink, and mate while flying, and only stop to raise their young. It’s estimated they fly more than 500 miles each day. As soon as they arrive, they visit the nest they built the previous year. Often these are in small cavities they find under roof gables in some of the older houses around here. If you are lucky, you can sometimes see them darting in.

We had a shock on Wednesday. We found one lying on the path in our garden. There is a large French window there, and birds occasionally fly into it. For a swift at speed, this could be fatal. I was about to grab a dustpan and brush to perform the last rites when Madame said excitedly, “It’s still breathing.” She hurried off to the RSPB website, which advised her to put the creature in a cloth-lined box and let it rest there. We did this and laid it on the garden table. To our delight and amazement, we discovered shortly afterwards that it had recovered and flown off.

The only slight drawback is the effect this has had on Madame, who has developed what I can only describe as an Assisi complex. There are now several bird-feeders and drinking bowls dotted around the garden, and she is talking of building a hedgehog sanctuary. She stops to pat and exchange a few words with every dog we pass in the street (Christ knows what they make of her French), and I now discover that on 19th May, the day the lockdown ends, instead of a glorious bar crawl around the city centre, we are off to visit La Vallée des Singes, a monkey colony fifteen miles away.

The next time I see a concussed swift, it’ll be worm food before you can say “David Attenborough.”

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Things I’ve learnt this week:

The man who wrote “I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside” killed himself after being booed off stage in Glasgow.

Whoopi Goldberg got her nickname from her childhood flatulence.

Buckingham Palace is built on the site of a brothel.

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Not that anyone cares, but this blog will not be appearing next week. I need to finish my course work. Normal service will be resumed the following week.

In the meantime, here is some music.