Elections and Inoculations

Candidates’ posters outside la mairie

It’s election time in France. Our region, Nouvelle Aquitaine, and department, Vienne, go to the polls on June 20th. I’ve not been following these elections too closely, as I can’t vote in them. My Irish passport only allows me to vote in municipal and European elections. Sadly, after Brexit, Madame can’t even vote in those.

One interesting thing that I have learnt is how carefully election promotional material is controlled in France. A few weeks prior to the election, large temporary metal billboards are installed by the local authority outside the town hall and voting stations. These are for election posters, and the rules are strict and extremely precise. Each candidate, pair of candidates, or list of candidates in the election is allocated an equal space on the boards. According to the Electoral Code, candidates who put up their posters outside the legally sanctioned areas or periods risk a fine, and their posters can be taken down. 

In order to be completely fair, the ordering of space for candidates on the boards is decided by a draw. The panels must be large enough to allow for the correct display of at least a small poster measuring 297 mm × 420 mm and a large poster measuring 594 mm × 841 mm. In the case of a second round of voting, the posters of candidates no longer involved in the ballot should be removed by the Wednesday between ballots.

There are also rules on allowable colours in posters – for example, the French bleu-blanc-rouge combination is not permitted unless they are the colours of the party logo. Posters should not be printed on white paper, unless they include writing or colour pictures.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the posters at the town hall and, by Friday, only one had been defaced, that of Marine Le Pen’s party, Rassemblement Nationale, with the leader being given pencilled horns and chewing-gummed teeth.

In Paris last week, I noticed that they are a little more direct about these things.

***

Still on the subject of elections, while out campaigning yesterday, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, president of the left-wing party La France Insoumise was pelted with flour. This is a relatively common experience for politicians here, and the French have a word for it, enfariner – to throw flour at someone. This is not to be confused with entarter, to throw a tart at someone, again a routine occupational hazard for French politicians. I’m not seeking to condone such activities, but there is a nice medley of the two here.

The French for milkshake is, er, milkshake, but I’ve been unable to find evidence of any politicians in France being enmilkshaké in the way that the awfully nice Mr Farage was two years ago. More generally, in the English-speaking world, it would seem that the egg is the weapon of choice for disgruntled voters.

***

I had my second anti-Covid jab on Friday morning. In and out of Dr L’s surgery in fifteen minutes. The only after-effect was a slight drowsiness in the afternoon, and to be honest, that was more likely due to the two previous evenings, when Madame and I had been celebrating the full opening of bars and restaurants on Wednesday. A spell of glorious weather has meant that since then the city centre has had a carnival atmosphere. It was almost a relief when a sudden thunderstorm on Thursday evening cooled things down a bit – if only for a little while.

Within minutes of my vaccination, my online national health record had been updated, and I was able to download my vaccination certificate onto the government TousAntiCovid app on my mobile phone. This will almost certainly be required for international travel for some time to come. It is planned that the app will also be used as a way of recording the restaurants and bars one visits, but this system isn’t in operation yet. When it is, it’s meant to be an alternative to the ‘visitor’s book’ system that restaurants and bars were supposed to use during the first lockdown (but which, in practice, everyone quickly forgot about).

On the subject of vaccinations, Wednesday saw the 60th anniversary of the death of a famous Poitevin, Camille Guérin. He was born in nearby Châtellerault, and you would be forgiven for having never heard of him, though you will almost certainly have benefitted from his work as a bacteriologist and immunologist. With his colleague, Albert Calmette, Monsieur Guérin developed the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin, a vaccine for immunisation against tuberculosis. This is the BCG injection that we all used to dutifully line up for at school.

Camille Guérin (the man in the photograph behind him is Albert Calmette)

In France, it is still compulsory for children to have the vaccination before the age of six. In the UK, mandatory vaccination was replaced in 2005 by a targeted programme for babies, children, and young adults at higher risk of TB – the justification being the low TB rates in the general population.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1986, 12 jurors got stuck in an Otis elevator in a courthouse on their way to hear a lawsuit against the Otis Elevator Company.

The Queen won’t reveal her favourite meal in case she never gets served anything else.

Viagra can make your urine turn blue. (I read this on the Internet.)

They’re open!

A welcome return to life on the terraces.

The first step towards déconfinement was taken on Wednesday. Non-essentiel shops were allowed to reopen, and bars and restaurants were allowed to open their terraces and gardens. The latter are taking full advantage of this, not only cramming as many tables and chairs as they can outside their own premises, but also colonising the frontages of adjacent shops and offices. The owners of these seem quite happy with the arrangement, and it occurred to me that they might be being offered free or discounted drinks as a quid pro quo. I have emailed the owners of Café des Arts and Le Gambetta offering to put the space outside our own house at their disposal. I have yet to receive a reply, and I accept that as they are two streets away, it’s a bit of a long shot. Still, nothing ventured …

A “colonized” Rue de la Cathédrale

The municipal council are doing their bit to promote trade by nominating certain main thoroughfares as pedestrian areas between 11.00 and 19.00 (when the current curfew starts) to allow for even more seating space. They’ve also promised that they will be laying on several street shows as part of their Culture à l’air libre initiative. (I have mixed feelings about this, having narrowly avoided being run down by a unicycling juggler back in January.)

It all helps to create a very festive atmosphere, the only dampener (literally) being the spell of showery weather we have been experiencing over the last few days. I’ve got used to seeing swarms of drinkers rushing for any available cover during a sudden downpour, then returning five minutes later to wipe down their tables and chairs and carry on drinking. Luckily, the forecast is set to change after tomorrow, and we are promised a long period of warm sunny days.

Since Wednesday, Madame and I have been playing our part in revitalising the local economy. There are those who might say our efforts have been above and beyond the call of duty, but I regard that as defeatist talk. Nevertheless, I think we are both quietly relieved that today is Sunday and all the local bars are closed.

On Thursday we are heading off to Paris for a couple of days, partly just to celebrate the fact that we can do so. Another welcome sign of déconfinement is that internal travel restrictions are being eased, and the train service is slowly getting back to normal. We plan to make the most of this.

Travel between France and the UK is still too difficult to contemplate, requiring a period of quarantine both on arrival in the UK (ten days) and on returning to France (seven days). There is also a requirement to provide negative Covid test certificates on both sides of the Channel.

Incidentally, I saw this from ex-diplomat Simon Fraser on Twitter this morning: “Had to go urgently to France last week. PCR test in UK to go there cost me £120. PCR test in France to return home cost me £0.” The tests are now free at pharmacies in France, and you can even get them at the airport.

***

Changing the subject completely: I’ve never tasted Benedictine. Nor, as it turns out, has Madame. We both think it could be minty, but we may be getting it mixed up with green Chartreuse. I know crème de menthe is minty; the name is a giveaway, but I also once drank nearly a pint of the stuff at a party in Hastings (nothing else left).

Anyway. I looked up Benedictine on Wikipedia and discovered that it’s made from a mixture of 27 herbs and spices, of which 21 are publicly known. These include red berries, cinnamon, lemon balm, tea, thyme, coriander, cloves, vanilla, and nutmeg. I am no wiser as to what it tastes like, and for all I know, mint may be one of the secret ingredients.

What I did find out, and the reason for all this waffle, is the fact that the United Kingdom is a significant market for Benedictine, and much of it is consumed in the Burnley area. That’s right, Burnley. Apparently it’s a result of soldiers of the East Lancashire Regiment acquiring a taste for the drink while stationed in France during the First World War. In Burnley, Benedictine is drunk with hot water, a mixture known as ‘Benny-and-hot’. Most remarkable of all, Burnley Miners Club is reputedly the largest single customer of the liqueur in the UK.

Now, Burnley may not have a lot going for it. Not an obvious holiday destination, and a football team whose style of play is quite a long way from that of Barcelona or Bayern Munich. But from now on, whenever I hear its name, I will mentally raise a glass to its Miners Club members and their sophisticated taste in cocktails.

***

Other things I’ve learnt this week:

Gambrinous means ‘being full of beer’.

In the USA, ransom payments to kidnappers are tax-deductible.

Enid Blyton liked to play tennis in the nude.

A route map

The choice I’ve been struggling with all my life.

***

On Friday, President Macron announced the government ‘route map’ to the end of the current confinement. This will be a four-stage process. The main points are these:

From tomorrow, 3rd May: Travel restrictions will be lifted. We will no longer need an attestation document if travelling more than 10 km. Secondary schools will reopen. All other rules, including the 7pm curfew, remain in place.

On 19th May: Cafés, bars, and restaurants will be able to reopen their outdoor terrace spaces only, with a maximum of six people per table. ‘Non-essential’ shops can reopen. Cinemas, theatres, and museums can reopen with restricted numbers, as can open-air sports facilities. The curfew will be pushed back from 7pm to 9pm.

On 9th June: Cafés, bars, and restaurants will be allowed to reopen indoor spaces, with a maximum of six people per table. A pass sanitaire will be implemented – a ‘health passport’ showing either a vaccine certificate or a recent negative Covid test, which will be compulsory to access certain areas or events. Public events, including concerts and sports matches, with a maximum of 5,000 people, may be possible – but those attending will need a pass sanitaire. The border will be open to non-EU tourists and visitors, but they too will need a pass sanitaire. The curfew will be pushed back to 11pm.

On 30th June: The curfew will end. Events of more than 1,000 people, indoors or outdoors, may be permitted, but those attending will need a valid pass sanitaire.

Full details of exactly how the ‘health passports’ will work have not yet been revealed, but a prototype that is currently being tested would allow individuals to upload either a vaccine certificate or a recent negative Covid test onto their mobile phone or tablet.

This plan has been announced against a background of encouraging statistics in terms of both case rates and vaccinations (all the figures quoted here are from John Lichfield’s excellent weekly updates).

In terms of cases, all the statistics in the last week moved in the right direction, the first time this has happened for two months. The daily average number of cases was 27,857 – a fall of 16.6%. The number of deaths was down, as were the numbers for acute cases and hospital bed occupancy.

With regard to vaccinations, in the last week France delivered an average of 410,120 jabs a day, including 254,167 first jabs. Both are records (for France). By comparison, the UK, with almost exactly the same population, is delivering 533,807 jabs a day, including 118,207 first jabs. Overall, the UK is still way ahead, but France is now delivering twice as many first jabs. The target of 20 million first jabs by 15th May might not be met, but the result will not be far off.

President Macron’s reopening strategy is undoubtedly a gamble, The South African variant is still causing problems in some areas, and the identification of the first cases of the Indian variant (five so far) is a worry. The hope is that the vaccination strategy will win out. Quite what happens if it doesn’t is not clear.

Come what may, Madame and I have ring-fenced 19th May in our diaries. ‘We are just going outside and may be some time.’

***

Things that remind you that you are no longer living in the UK. A couple of months ago, in nearby Charroux, residents were alarmed to be woken one morning by gunshots. It turned out that the mayor had arranged for a group of local hunters to go shooting pigeons in the street (there’s a video clip of one of them in action here). The local paper, La Nouvelle République, regularly has articles about wolves being spotted in Vienne, and last week there was a warning that 1st May sees the start of Tiger Mosquito Alert, which runs till the end of October. This mosquito first appeared in France in 2019, and Vienne is one of the departments on red alert for the insect, which is a transmitter of the very nasty dengue virus.

As if that weren’t enough to worry about, this week La Nouvelle République reported that a wild boar had been seen on Île de La Glacière, a tiny island in the river Clain, about half a mile from our house. The local Lieutenant de louveterie, a sort of state-sponsored gamekeeper, deemed it accidentogène (hazardous) and said that attempts to capture it alive would be too dangerous.

A team of hunters was sent to ‘despatch’ it. The report doesn’t say if these were the same ones as the pigeon-shooting gang from Charroux, but whether they were or not, they were unsuccessful this time.

One of the Poitiers boar-hunters.

Apparently, the boar somehow got off the island and is now roaming through the undergrowth on the city’s outskirts. Who knows where or when it will reappear?

To cap it all, this week, both Madame and I have separately seen a mouse scurrying across the path in our garden. There is only so much of this one man can take.

***

Spotted just by Parc Blossac, this must be the longest street name in Poitiers, perhaps the longest in France. Imagine the poor bugger who lives at no. 99 …

Poor bugger: ‘Hello. I’d like to order a pizza.’

Pizza parlour person: ‘Certainly, sir. Can I take the address?’

Poor bugger (with a heavy sigh): ‘Quatre-vingt-dix-neuf, rue de cent vingt-cinquième régiment d’infanterie.’

A pause …

Pizza parlour person (with a barely suppressed snigger): ‘Would you mind spelling that for me, sir?’

Poor bugger: ‘Q … U … sod it, I’ll open a tin of baked beans.’

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

When George W. Bush, 43rd president of the USA, arrived in the White House, he found the Clinton administration had removed the ‘W’ keys from all the computers.

Rhinotillexomania is the scientific term for being unable to stop picking your nose.

The 1978 chess final at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs was between ‘Moors Murderer’ Ian Brady and disgraced MP John Stonehouse.

A glimmer of hope

Lockdown? What lockdown? Seen on a riverside walk yesterday morning.

We are now at the midway point in the current lockdown, the third that France has gone through. When announcing the new restrictions at the end of March, President Macron said, ‘From mid-May, we will start to open again’, and it looks increasingly likely that there will be some relaxing of measures by the middle of next month. According to the magazine Le Point, the government’s plan is to allow café terraces to begin to reopen from Monday 17th May, with cultural venues such as museums and tourist sites also opening at this point. The opening of café interiors and restaurants is provisionally set for some time between 1st and 15th June. If this plan comes to pass, it will put us almost exactly a month behind the UK, who saw their own current lockdown gradually coming to an end with the opening of schools, ‘non-essential’ shops, and pub gardens on 12th April.

Comparisons between the two countries are complicated, because the UK’s third lockdown, which started in January, was much more stringent than France’s current one. One sensed then that the French government were pleased that their own handling of the situation (for instance, by not having a Christmas easing of restrictions as in the UK) had enabled them to avoid a similar January close-down. However, four months is a long time in politics, and the situation is very different today. The vaccine campaign in the UK led to a significant drop in the numbers of both cases and fatalities, whilst the relatively slow vaccine roll-out here, coupled with the arrival of several new variant strains of Covid-19, has led to figures going in the opposite direction.

M. Macron is reported to have been reluctant to impose a third lockdown until the worsening statistics made one clearly unavoidable. Faced with a disenchanted electorate and a long re-election campaign, he was keen to administer an effective medicine without making it too difficult to swallow. The current ‘partial’ lockdown is the result.

Like most people, I was glad of the lighter restrictions, with no documents to fill in whenever you leave the house, and more freedom to travel and exercise. At the same time, there is the nagging suspicion that it might have been better to bite the bullet now and have a complete lockdown, in order to benefit later on. There is also the feeling that the new rules are illogical. I can weave my way through the crowded street market but not sit in a cinema with carefully separated seats. I can stand with other people eating at a fast food kiosk but not sit on a terrace eating a proper meal. I can drink a Coke in the street but not a beer. I can buy books and records and patio furniture (garden centres are open) but not clothes or a kitchen table. Any business that does repairs can stay open, so you can have your shoes mended, but you can’t buy a new pair.

These are all minor inconveniences, and hopefully all of this will pass fairly soon. However, the future is far from clear. The journalist John Lichfield does an excellent job analysing the progress of Covid-19 in France and its treatment. In his latest bulletin, he talks of steadily improving vaccine roll-out figures and a dramatic drop in care home deaths, from 1,300 a week in November to 50 a week now. Overall, there are signs that a plateau has been reached. Numbers in acute care have been stable at around 5,900 for five days.

However, the third wave of the pandemic in France – 82% UK variant – is still at a high level, with over 30,000 cases and 300 deaths a day. The grim statistic of 100,000 Covid deaths in France was passed during the week. New scare stories about vaccine risks and variant strains appear almost daily. The government will have to balance very carefully the political desirability of relaxing current restrictions against the risk of increasing the spread of the disease.

***

Food for thought

***

One evening this week, we rewatched Peeping Tom, the film that more or less finished the career of director Michael Powell. On its release in 1960, the critics queued up to express their outrage. Caroline Lejeune in The Observer described it as a ‘beastly film’, whilst the Daily Express, subtle as always, said it was ‘more nauseating and depressing than the leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay, and the gutters of Calcutta’.

Since then, the film has been reassessed and is now regarded as a classic of British cinema. It all seems very tame now, and it’s difficult to see what all the fuss was about. I’ve watched it several times and nearly always see something new to appreciate in it. This time it was a shot of the newsagent in Rathbone Place, where Mark, the eponymous peeping Tom, works.

29 Rathbone Place W1.

When I was young, every corner newsagent looked like this, festooned with adverts for cigarettes and ice cream. If you click on the image above, it should open in another window. Enlarge it, and you can just about make out a cigarette machine above the Wall’s sign on the right of the picture. These were once very common, as were machines which for a pre-decimal sixpence would dispense a carton of milk.

The pub that features in the film is the Newman Arms in Rathbone Street, a place where I’ve wasted many a happy hour. As well as Peeping Tom,it’s noteworthy for two other reasons. First, it was the pub on which George Orwell, once a regular there, based the Proles’ pub in 1984. Second, in about 2010, it was the first pub in London where I came across the vile practice of allowing people to ‘reserve’ tables. In a public house! I was outraged!

Mind you, I had the last laugh. I stormed out, and ten years later left the country, never to return. That’ll teach them. 

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The symbol of the Alzheimer Society of Canada is the forget-me-not.

In 1986, Michael Foot MP was made the Chair of a disarmament committee. The Times headline ran: ‘Foot Heads Arms Body’.

The Swedish expression ‘Skita i det blå skåpet’ is used to describe someone who has embarrassed themselves or has taken something too far. It literally means ‘to shit in the blue cupboard’.

A spot of turbulence

The mayor of Poitiers, Léonore Moncond’huy

Poitiers, peaceful little Poitiers, has been in the news, and it’s all thanks to our mayor, Mme Léonore Moncond’huy.

Regular readers may remember that at the end of last year, Mme Moncond’huy, a Green, got into a bit of bother when she announced that there would be no traditional Christmas tree in the main square. Some people felt that her stated reason for this – building work on the theatre in the corner of the square had left insufficient space for a tree – was merely a cover. They accused her of banning the tree on ideological grounds, and thus following the example of the mayor of Bordeaux, Pierre Hurmic, also a Green, who had stated that ‘a dead Christmas tree’ did not fit with his party’s green strategy and his planned Charter of Tree Rights. One of those to object was Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right-wing Rassemblement National (RN), who said that talk of a ‘dead tree’ showed that the Greens have ‘a visceral rejection of everything that makes up our country, our traditions, our culture’.

Christmas came and went. In the main square, there were lots of pretty lights, and even a small (artificial) tree; the story was forgotten. Mme Moncond’huy was off the hook. Until last week. Suddenly, what at first glance might appear as a minor matter of town hall book-keeping has become national, and indeed international, news.

It started with the announcement that, as part of a review of funding for local sporting clubs, Poitiers would be phasing out its subsidy to two flying clubs, cutting it from €8,800 to €4,400 this year, before withdrawing it completely in 2022. Given that the overall budget of the council is over €90 million, this would not seem particularly significant, unless you were a member of either club. The decision was defended on the grounds that public money ‘is not intended to finance activities based on the use of exhaustible resources’, a stated policy of the Green party.

However, when defending the decision at the next Municipal Council meeting after the announcement, the mayor used the phrase ‘L’aérien ne doit plus faire partie des rêves d’enfants’ (‘Air travel must no longer be part of children’s dreams’). It was at this point that la merde a frappé le ventilateur (French homework: translate this yourselves).

A Twitter storm swiftly broke out. From the right, Marine Le Pen was immediately on the attack again: ‘Wanting to destroy sectors of industrial excellence such as nuclear and aeronautics, attacking children’s dreams: this is the true face of these “greens”’.

For the government, Jean-Baptiste Djebarri, Minister Delegate for Transport, denounced the views of Mme Moncond’huy as ‘authoritarian and moribund rantings’. He was one of many people to quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of The Little Prince and himself a pioneering aviator): ‘Make your life a dream, and a dream a reality.’

From the left. Stéphane Le Foll, Parti Socialiste mayor of Le Mans and former minister, stated, ‘It was at Le Mans that Saint-Exupéry dreamed of flying, and that the Wright brothers made their first flights. Rather than preventing dreaming, we must invest and innovate so that our children continue to fly and dream.’ From the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise, chimed in with a more enigmatic, ‘Hi Poitiers, Dreams should always stay free, signed Icarus.’

Louder and louder it got, and more and more strident. Pierre Lescure, president of the Cannes Film Festival, felt duty-bound to chip in: ‘We would save a lot of time, if this elected official … admitted that it was bullshit.’ Daniel Cohn-Bendit (AKA ‘Danny the Red’, veteran of the Paris ’68 demonstrations and later a Green MEP) was more direct: ‘I cried when the first man walked on the moon, and now there’s an environmentalist who tells me to stop dreaming, she should go fuck herself.’ In the UK, the story even got as far as The Times.

It’s fair to say there was a considerable amount of support for the mayor and her decision, but this has tended to get drowned out by the hostile comments. One can’t help thinking that there is a strong whiff of political opportunism about all of this – we are, after all, warming up for a presidential election year. This can sometimes teeter over into farce. It was rumoured last week that the Minister Delegate for Transport had nominated the presidents of the two flying clubs for France’s highest decoration, la Légion d’honneur. This was quickly clarified – he had only nominated them for la Médaille de l’Aéronautique, which is awarded for ‘outstanding accomplishments related to the field of aeronautics’. So that’s alright, then.

Alain Martin, president of l’Aéroclub ASPTT (on the left), François Chargelegue & Jean-Marie Arnault, respectively treasurer and president of l’Aéroclub du Poitou (on the right).

Mme Moncond’huy has herself now broadcast a video on Twitter defending her actions, and I think she makes a very good job of it. She admits her words were unfortunate, but says they were taken out of context. She makes the point that the flying club decision was part of a general plan to support those clubs that have been most affected by Covid and to target deprived neighbourhoods. She also points out that in the council meeting itself when the matter was discussed, ‘the atmosphere was serene’, and that there has been far less negative reaction in Poitiers itself than there has been on social media.

The flying clubs themselves have received numerous offers of financial help to compensate for the withdrawn subsidy, so I suspect they will survive. As, I hope, will Mme Moncond’huy.

***

I had my first AstraZeneca jab yesterday. When I turned up at Dr L’s surgery, there was a reporter there from the radio station France Bleu doing a piece on the vaccine. We chatted for a while, and then he asked if it would be OK to come in and watch me getting injected. Dr L and I agreed, and the reporter did a sort of joint interview with both of us while I was getting vaccinated. You can read a bit of it here on the France Bleu website. In my view, the extract gives rather more prominence to Dr L than is really justified, and for some strange reason, my opinions on various matters of public interest appear to have been cut. I accept that this may be a technical error, but I feel a little hurt nevertheless.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1915, the lock millionaire Cecil Chubb bought his wife Stonehenge. She didn’t like it, so in 1918 he gave it to the nation.

Bricklehampton is the longest place name in the UK with no repeated letters.

More than one-third of men using dating sites are already married.

Spring!

The view south from Pont Joubert this morning

It’s officially springtime. Most of the people I know in England are currently in strict training for the reopening of pubs on April 12th, but here in France the gloom steadily deepens.

On Thursday night, Prime Minister Jean Castex said, ‘The situation is deteriorating,’ as he announced the new lockdown for the worst-hit parts of the country. Since midnight on Friday the country has been divided, as it was in the summer, with stricter rules for those areas where cases are highest. Sixteen départements have been placed back under lockdown because of high case numbers and severe pressure on local hospitals. The sixteen are in northern France, the Paris region, including the city itself, and the south east. In total, around 21 million people, about a third of the country’s population, are affected.

These areas are now in lockdown for a month, although it’s a more relaxed lockdown than we have had previously. All non-essential shops will close, but the government has expanded the definition of ‘essential’ to include bookshops, music shops, and hairdressers. Schools are staying open. The rules on exercise and getting fresh air have also been relaxed compared to previous confinements, with no time limit on trips out of the home, although you must stay within 10 km. On leaving home, you require an exemption certificate, or attestation, stating the purpose of your trip. Unlike non-lockdown zones, where meeting up with friends or family is allowed indoors or outdoors (with a recommended limit of six people), in lockdown areas, trips out for social purposes are not allowed.

Those who live in one of the lockdown zones have not been permitted to travel to another region since midnight on Friday, unless they have an essential or work-related reason. People living outside the lockdown zones can still travel freely around the country.

On Friday, main roads around Paris saw 400 km of traffic jams, and trains heading out of the capital were fully booked, as Parisians fled the city just hours before the new lockdown was set to come into force. Most were heading for areas free from the restrictions, such as Brittany, the southwest Atlantic coast, and Lyon in the southeast.

It is not immediately obvious, judging from this lunchtime scene by the Seine yesterday, that the new restrictions are having much impact.

Here in Poitiers, in the Vienne département, we are not affected, and one could argue that there was some positive news for us in Prime Minister Castex’s announcement. From Saturday, the curfew moved back one hour, so it is in force from 7pm rather than 6pm and runs until 6am. This change affects the whole of France, including those areas placed under lockdown. The PM said it was being done to take account of the clocks changing for ‘summertime’ on March 28th. This means that shops will be able to remain open until 7pm instead of having to close at 6pm.

We took advantage of the extra hour and went out for a stroll around the city centre yesterday. It was a bright sunny evening, and many others had obviously had the same idea. Somehow, the busy streets made the fact that all the bar terraces and restaurants were shut seem even sadder.

***

Although trips to and from Paris are now off limits, I have managed to beat the lockdown, in spirit at least, by signing up for an online French language course at the Alliance Française school there. Madame had already signed up for one at their Bordeaux school and spoke highly of them, so I thought I’d give it a go. The dates at Paris suited me better, so now, for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening, we go to rooms just a few yards apart, to attend classes in schools several hundred kilometres away from each other. This internet thing is really very clever.

I had previously been enrolled on a course at a London university, but this was attended mainly by people of my own age, who were, and I don’t mean this unkindly, approaching it as hobbyists, happy to try a little French conversation once a week, gently steered by a friendly teacher. The new class is very different. Nearly all the other students, of various nationalities, are under thirty and need French because they are living or working in France, most of them in Paris. The pace is brisk, and there is lots of emphasis on speaking and pronunciation. It’s a very refreshing change.

In a moment of madness, I’ve also enrolled on a digital photography course with the Open University. This is turning out to be fascinating, and I am enjoying it hugely, though Madame has warned me that the first mention of glamour shots will lead to instant confiscation of my camera. (The Poitiers pictures here are part of this week’s homework.)

The two courses combined mean that suddenly there don’t seem to be enough hours in the day, and I’m starting to feel a little manic. Maybe it’s an OAP version of the midlife crisis – at least it’s not a Harley Davidson.

Poitiers Rooftops

***

At the start of my French course a couple of weeks ago, I’d mentioned to our teacher, Anne, that I wrote this blog, and she told me on Tuesday evening how much she enjoyed reading it. I felt quite chuffed, until she added, ‘What I really like is those funny little pieces you put at the end.’ The correspondence that comes pouring in each week (sometimes as many as two emails) all tells the same story.

So there it is. The considerable effort I put into writing this deathless prose is a complete waste of time, and I might just as well fill the pages with more of the vaguely salacious titbits garnered from Twitter and the gutter press. Thank you all very much.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

Andy Warhol always wore green underpants.

When Wal-Mart was attempting to open stores in Germany, they had to withdraw their policy of requiring staff members to smile at customers, because German customers found it weird and off-putting   

.Sir Walter Raleigh’s devoted widow, Elizabeth, kept his decapitated head with her in a velvet bag for twenty-nine years.

Your hair grows quicker when you are anticipating sexual intercourse.

It’s a funny old game…

The big news in France this week is that ex-President Sarkozy has been sentenced to three years in jail – two of them suspended – for bribery and influence-peddling. He is the first former President to receive an actual prison sentence since France’s collaborationist leader Marshal Pétain in 1945. (Jacques Chirac received a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for embezzling public funds when he was Paris mayor.)

The good news for Sarkozy is that the appeal he has launched is probably going to take years to be resolved. Even if this fails, it’s likely that his sentence will not be spent behind bars but under house arrest with an electronic tag. The bad news is that he is due to appear in court again later this month over the so-called Bygmalion affair, in which he is accused of having overspent on expenses in his unsuccessful 2012 re-election campaign. If found guilty, he could face another one-year prison sentence. As Oscar Wilde might have said, ‘to be sent down once may be regarded as a misfortune; to be sent down a second time makes you look a very dodgy geezer indeed’.

I still find it difficult sometimes to remember that the French President, being the head of state, equates to the Queen in the United Kingdom, rather than to the Prime Minister. The problem being that the equation doesn’t really work, the Queen’s role being largely ceremonial, whilst that of the President is anything but. Whatever one’s view of the UK monarchy, it needs a superhuman stretching of the imagination to picture Her Maj being accused of slipping backhanders to Privy Councillors. (Picturing other members of the Windsor clan being so accused requires less-demanding mental gymnastics.)

In very broad political terms, I think it’s easier to see the position of the French President as being closer to that of the UK Prime Minister, and here, at least, the UK would appear to have the moral edge. No Prime Minister has ever even been prosecuted, let alone convicted of any crime. In 1848, there was an attempt to impeach Lord Palmerston for having taken money from the Tsar of Russia, but it came to nothing. More recently, there have been attempts to get a case going against Tony Blair for going to war in Iraq, but they never get anywhere. Finally, just to bring us right up to date, whilst the current Prime Minister may be a serial adulterer who has twice been sacked for lying to his employer, none of this, as he would be the first to point out, is any business of the boys in blue.

Right now, for the first time in a while, Johnson has grounds for feeling a little bullish, as the Covid-19 crisis and its management in the UK and France only serve to underline the ephemeral nature of political reputations. For much of the past year, he and his government have been roundly berated for their mishandling of the situation: too slow to impose lockdowns, too quick to lift them, an expensive test and trace fiasco, unimpressive ministerial press conferences, it seemed like a masterclass in incompetence.

In France, on the other hand, the government appeared cool, calm, and in control: clear countrywide rules, quickly imposed lockdowns, compulsory mask-wearing in public, curfews where necessary. In quietly assured TV broadcasts, President Macron made us all feel we were in good hands.

Then came the vaccines. To its credit, the UK moved swiftly and decisively. A comprehensive vaccine programme got under way quickly, and the results are now obvious; the numbers of cases and deaths are falling steadily. June 21 has been set as a target for the end of all restrictions.

Here in France, the roll-out of vaccines has, in comparison, been painfully slow. There are a number of reasons for this. The need to act at an EU-wide level in terms of some administrative and distribution processes didn’t help, and neither did an element of rigidity in the workings of the French health system. President Macron chose, perhaps for his own political reasons, to highlight some elements of uncertainty about the AstraZeneca vaccine and said it would not be used on those under the age of 75 (a decision since reversed).

Whatever the reason, the result is that France continues to see rising numbers of cases and deaths in parts of the country. So far, another nationwide lockdown is being resisted, but more and more areas are having weekend lockdowns introduced. Hopefully, the slow but steady increase in the number of vaccinations will eventually lead to a return to normality, but whether it will be as quick as that hoped for in the UK is debatable.

One thing worth pointing out is that the UK took a significant risk in two areas. Its regulatory agency authorised vaccines more quickly than the EU’s, and its government adopted a single-shot policy, allowing it to roll out first doses faster so that more people could have some protection quickly. Both these gambles, at the time of writing, seem to have paid off. Speaking personally, if faced with a similar situation again, I would still be inclined to endorse the EU approach.

It’s fair to say that, while the Macron market is suddenly a little uncertain, Johnson shares have risen in value quite a bit over the last couple of weeks. I would not be in too much of a hurry to invest, though. The impact of Brexit will become a little more noticeable in April, and, as Chris Grey says in his excellent Brexit and Beyond blog, the response ‘yes, but vaccines’ to any new setback will quickly become extremely irritating.

***

This tweet from Paul Eggleston made me laugh:

[Roadside cafe]

I’ll have a hotdog please, with onions.

Sure. You travelling far?

I’m just going to recover a van that’s broken down and take it to a museum. It contains the skeleton of a stallion that belonged to Joan of Arc.

The martyr’s horse?

Yes please, and mustard.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

Schimpf-los is a 24-hour German hotline that allows customers to release pent-up aggression by swearing at telephone operators.

In France, it is illegal to name a pig Napoleon.

Vatican City is the only place in the world where cash machines offer instructions in Latin.

Better read than dead

On Thursday, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced an extension to the couvre-feu (curfew) here in France. For the next 15 days at least, we all have to stay indoors from 18.00 to 06.00. One consequence of this, which I suspect Monsieur Castex hasn’t taken into account, is that it makes these weekly postcards increasingly difficult to write.

More and more, there is less and less to say. I go out in the morning to buy croissants and the newspaper. In the afternoon I go out for a stroll down by the river or around town. I take my camera and click away happily enough for an hour or so (the two pictures here are from the beautiful church of Notre-Dame-la-Grande in the market square). And that’s about it. The rest of the time, I am confined to barracks. A little treat used to be a trip out in the early evening for a hastily quaffed vin chaud at one of the stands that the more enterprising bar owners had set up. Now this too has gone. Nothing to do, nothing to see, nothing to report. I will soon have to start producing recipes, horoscopes, or ‘useful household hints’.

To alleviate the boredom, I’ve taken up a challenge/invitation offered on Twitter by Ian Leslie of the New Statesman. The aim is to read 50 books in a year. I’ve been slightly handicapped at the outset because, just before setting out on this project, I’d started reading Martin Amis’s Inside Story, which comes in at a hefty 522 pages. Once I’ve finished this, I aim to quickly read a couple of short books to get back on track – I can get through a Maigret or a Morse in a day or so.

For the last few years I’ve made a similar resolution – to try and read at least one book a week. Normally I do quite well till around the middle of March and then, with the arrival of warmer days and lighter evenings, things start to slide. In the summer, a month can go by without a book being finished. By the end of most years, I will have done well to get through half the target amount. The Twitter challenge is an attempt to formalise things a little and keep me at it.

While thinking about this, I’ve done a very quick, very rough stocktake of the books in the house that are waiting to be read. I’ve excluded ‘dipping-into’ books: reference works, anthologies, and books bought for study that were never going to be read all the way through. I stopped counting when I got to 250. There are lots more. Many of these came with us when we moved from the UK. Some have been accumulated over the years, to be read ‘when I’m old or retired’. Well, I suppose, to paraphrase the Walrus, the time has come to read of many things. If I stick to my new regime, I have the next five years’ reading lined up and ready to go. Plough through them steadily, one a week, and the backlog would be cleared. But of course it doesn’t work like that.

I now keep a record of books bought, and there have already been three this year. Ian Dunt’s How to Be a Liberal, PD James’s The Mistletoe Murder (a 99p Kindle special offer), and The Last Word (a collection of Graham Greene short stories, bought because it contains ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’, on which the film Went the Day Well? is based). Last year I bought 38 books, 15 hardback and 23 paperback (I don’t count the Kindle 99p ones – these are often books I’ve already got and the Kindle versions are handy for reference-searching). Most of the books bought were second-hand, and quite often the postage cost exceeded that of the book itself. As addictions go, it’s not an expensive habit.

Of the books bought last year, I have read 19. Thus the ‘waiting to be read’ pile gets ever larger. Does this matter? I don’t think so. The gloomy philosopher Schopenhauer once said, ‘Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them; but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.’ He’s probably right, but a more cheerful view was presented recently in the Guardian by Giles Oakley. He said that Jonathan Miller had once defended the piles of unread books in his home by explaining that he absorbed the contents ‘by osmosis’. For Mr Oakley, this was ‘the perfect excuse for me to buy more books’, and I’m happy to agree. Many people I know buy more books than they are ever going to read. Book-browsing and book-hunting may be secondary pleasures when compared to reading, but, for many of us, pleasures they undoubtedly are.

Moving to France has changed my perspective slightly. I accept that part of the price one pays for living here is that the prospects for pleasant book-browsing are significantly reduced, but that never quite removes the pang of staring blankly at shelves of interesting-looking covers in a second-hand shop and not recognising the name of a single author. This will, I hope, gradually diminish with time as my knowledge of French literature slowly improves, but the likelihood of discovering a hidden gem is small. Trips to Paris offer some solace. There are a couple of very good English-language second-hand bookshops, quite close to each other on the south bank: the Abbey Bookshop on rue de la Parcheminerie in the 5th and San Francisco Books on rue Monsieur-le-Prince in the 6th. I avoid the more famous Shakespeare and Co. nearby, because it is full of tourists taking photos of each other. For the rest of the time, there is always Abe Books, the online second-hand store, though this has lost some of its appeal since it was taken over by Amazon.

When I told Madame of my new challenge, she thought it an excellent idea and said immediately that she would take it up herself. ‘The more the merrier,’ I declared, with a sinking heart. The little swot will no doubt reach the target sometime in mid-June … unless of course some deeply unfortunate accident were to befall her reading glasses.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In boxing, the original Queensberry Rules forbade the use of boots fitted with springs.

The Sami people of northern Finland use a measure called poronkusema: the distance a reindeer can walk before needing to urinate (around 7.5 kilometres).

In the novel that the film Pinocchio was based on, Jiminy Cricket was brutally murdered, and Pinocchio had his feet burned off and was hanged by villagers.

Colour or black and white?

9.00 yesterday morning. The view south from Pont Joubert, five minutes’ walk from our house.

***

There are times when you become aware, if only dimly, that you are living through history; when you realise that current events will be closely studied and speculated on for generations to come. They become ‘a thing’. I think the last such ‘thing’ was the attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001. An event of such significance that, very quickly, its date was sufficient to identify it and give it a name. Like an earthquake, 9/11 had an epicentre, in New York City, but the seismic waves spread rapidly throughout the world, and one can argue that they continue to do so.

The current ‘thing’ is different. The events of 2020, and now 2021, are more like an eclipse than an earthquake: an unscheduled eclipse slowly spreading over the world, catching people unawares at first, but gradually becoming a new normality. In films, sometimes, the transition of time, or some other form of progress, is marked by changing from black and white to colour. At present we seem to be going through the reverse process: everything slowing down as days become increasingly dull and repetitive with, for many of us, little or no reason to bother leaving home. The colour gradually drains from life.

I once thought that Brexit might be the next ‘thing’ I would live through. It is, of course, a significant event, but it’s been overshadowed by what is being increasingly referred to, with some justification, as ‘the plague’. On January 1st, whatever your view of Brexit, you were probably more interested in the latest set of hospital statistics or news about the roll-out of vaccines. If nothing else, the current situation helps give one a sense of perspective. This ‘thing’ will pass eventually, and a different sort of normality will slowly emerge. Time will tell how different it will be from the pre-2020 world. Hopefully, it will be in colour.

***

Oddly enough, in an attempt to escape from the current gloom, I’ve been immersing myself in old black and white films, in particular French films of the 1940s. I’ve been interested in finding out how French filmmakers coped during the Occupation and to compare their work with that of their British counterparts working under very different conditions.

The first film I’ve been looking at is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (The Raven), made in 1942.

Contemporary poster for Le Corbeau

The story centres around a doctor who starts receiving poison-pen letters accusing him of carrying out illegal abortions and having an affair with the wife of another doctor. Similar letters are then sent to numerous people throughout the town. The situation becomes increasingly serious when a hospital patient commits suicide after receiving one. In a skilfully depicted atmosphere of mounting tension and increasing malevolence, suspicion falls on various people before the truth is revealed. The film is a gripping Hitchcockian thriller that stands up very well today. There’s a trailer on YouTube, and the DVD, with English subtitles, can be bought for about a tenner.

I’d started looking into the actual making of the film in more detail, but I’ve the attention span of a moth, and I got completely sidetracked when I discovered that the plot is based on a series of events that occurred in a town called Tulle about 130 miles from Poitiers.

In 1917, during the Great War, many of the town’s prominent citizens began to receive luridly detailed anonymous letters accusing them of immoral behaviour. The letters were signed ‘l’Œil du Tigre’(the Eye of the Tiger). Over the next six years, more than 300 of these letters arrived. A town clerk is said to have killed himself after receiving one.

In 1922, a letter appeared in front of the municipal theatre, charging fourteen prominent married citizens with carrying on illicit affairs. Efforts to find the sender were stepped up. A hypnotist and a medium were brought into the investigation. Embarrassed, the Tulle police proposed taking fingerprints. (They received a mocking letter: ‘The Eye of the Tiger wears rubber gloves’.)

Eventually, suspicion fell on Angèle Lavale, an unmarried woman in her thirties. Both she and her mother, Louise, had received letters. Angèle’s had claimed that Jean-Baptiste Moury, a previous employer of hers, was ‘a seducer’. It was rumoured that Angèle had a crush on Moury, who had spurned her and was planning to marry another woman. The police suspected that Angèle wanted revenge on Moury, and that the other letters, including the ones to herself and her mother, were merely camouflage.

Finally, Angèle agreed to be examined by a handwriting expert.

A still from Le Corbeau

After hours of her copying block-printed letters, he concluded she was indeed the Eye of the Tiger. She was charged with writing most of the letters (some were obviously written by cranks). Angèle and her mother became social pariahs and were booed and hissed at in the street. People refused to share their church pew. Finally, tragically, Angèle and her mother made a suicide pact and tried to drown themselves. Only the mother succeeded, and Angèle was rescued by two passers-by. There is some doubt as to whether she actually intended to honour the agreement.

Angèle left town. When she reappeared in a nearby village some weeks later, Tulle’s citizens demanded that she return to face trial. Some months later, she did so, wearing a black mantilla over her face in mourning for her mother. She maintained her innocence but was found guilty, given a suspended one-month prison sentence, and fined a total of 300 francs.

Slowly, public opinion began to shift. The whole affair was a tragedy; Angèle was a pitiful creature who never really meant to hurt anyone. The Paris newspaper Le Matin described her in the dock as ‘a poor bird who has folded her wings’. The affair brought her celebrity status throughout France, and numerous Frenchmen ‘of good position’ offered to marry her. She accepted none of them. After an appeal against her sentence was denied, she went to live with her brother in Tulle. Apart from a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital, she rarely left the house until her death in 1967.

It’s a terrific yarn, and in reading about it I’ve discovered various other interesting strands to follow, but for now I want to get back to the making of Le Corbeau. I will pick up that story in a future blog.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

From 1912 to 1948, painting was an Olympic event. In 1924, Jack Yeats, brother of the poet W. B. Yeats, took the silver: Ireland’s first-ever Olympic medal.

In the film industry, a ‘mickey’ is a gentle camera move forwards. It’s short for ‘Mickey Rooney’ (a ‘little creep’).

In 2012, a missing woman on a vacation in Iceland was found when it was discovered that she was in the search party looking for herself.

Reasons to be cheerful

Christmas Eve 2020, Place Leclerc, Poitiers

I started writing this blog on the fourth of January this year. I was in an optimistic frame of mind. We were coming up to the second anniversary of our arrival here in Poitiers. We’d made several new friends and had settled in well. Our thoughts were turning to holiday plans for later in the year; possible trips to Ireland, and Italy, along with weekends exploring the many areas of France we had yet to visit. There would, of course, be the usual regular comings and goings, as we visited, and were visited by, friends and family in the UK.

Well, they say that if you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans. It was raining heavily the day I wrote the first entry of 2020, and it’s raining heavily now as I write the last. A miserable grey day at the fag end of this most peculiar year. Of the time in between, about five months has been spent in a form of benign house arrest. In late spring and for the last couple of months, we could only leave our home for certain specified reasons and we needed to carry a piece of paper saying why we were out and about. We were only allowed one hour’s exercise a day, and this had to be carried out alone. Bars, restaurants, and places of entertainment have all been closed. Travel outside one’s immediate area has been severely restricted.

There were a few bright spots in the period between the two lockdowns. We had a jolly weekend in Paris to celebrate my birthday and another in Tours to celebrate Madame’s, just days before the shutters came down again in October. We also managed to attend one of the few major sporting events that survived the Covid year, when the Tour de France raced through Poitiers in September. On the whole, though, like most people, we’ve had better years.

Still, ‘mustn’t grumble!’ Looking ahead, there are some grounds for cautious optimism. Trump is going (even if he seems intent on making his last month in office a particularly egregious finale to his presidency). There is a deal on Brexit (though its full ramifications still need to be examined). Covid-19 vaccines are being rolled out quickly (but only time will tell if they are fully effective against new strains that have started to emerge). For a much more positive verdict of the current global state of play, I recommend this piece by Philip Collins (not that one) from the London Evening Standard a few days ago. There are always reasons to be cheerful.

In Poitiers, we have had a change of regime at the town hall, with the Greens, in the form of Mme Léonore Moncond’huy and the Poitiers Collectif, taking over from M. Alain Claeys and the Parti Socialiste. The Covid crisis has so dominated events since they took office that it has been difficult to assess the impact of the new executive on day-to-day life here. However, one noteworthy new development is also cheering news. The council have launched a scheme to plant 10,000 trees in the city over the next five years. Between 2008 and 2020, the town hall undertook an extensive plan of pedestrianisation in the city centre. While welcome in itself, this led to complaints of ‘over-concreting’ in certain areas. This is one of the first things that struck me about Poitiers; lots of beautiful streets and buildings, but a surprising lack of greenery in the centre. In particular, the removal of two rows of lime trees in the main square, Place Leclerc, has left it looking distinctly arid. I’ve seen old Poitiers postcards showing the trees, and I think a return to something similar will be a distinct improvement.

Whatever happens, I hope to keep these Poitiers postcards coming for a little while yet.

Here’s to a happy new year, wherever you are!

***

The final few things I’ve learnt this year:

In 1928, the Solomon Islands pidgin for ‘adjustable spanner’ was spanner he go walkabout, and a ‘saw’ was this fella pull-him-he-come-push-him-he-go brother belong axe.

Someone who is cock-throppled has an extremely prominent Adam’s apple.

Chinese citizens hearing the national anthem are advised to stand still but be full of energy.

Fred Baur (1918–2002), the designer of the Pringles can, had his ashes buried in one.