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.

Let there be lights

Monday

When I started this blog back in January, I imagined wandering around both in Poitiers and in the rest of France, meeting interesting people and seeing lots of fascinating things to write about. Hah!

A few weeks ago, our permitted ‘exercise period’ was extended from one hour to three hours a day, just as it got cold and wet enough to deter one from leaving the house at all. When you do go out, the people that you see walking around look about as cheerful as you feel. If you meet anyone you know, the conversation is usually limited to ‘Ça va?’ … ‘Oui, ça va’ and a mutual shrugging of the shoulders. No one has any news. It struck me the other day that it’s been a long time since I heard anyone shouting or laughing in the street.

Still, ‘mustn’t grumble’. The Christmas lights were switched on at the weekend, along with the piped music in the main streets, and they do help to make the place a little more cheerful. Although cafés and bars cannot open, they can sell drinks to take away. Until recently, this meant bottles of wine or beer for home consumption, along with cups of coffee and hot chocolate. Now, however, some of the more resourceful ones are selling vin chaud (mulled wine) – a large cup for €3.50 is the going rate. I was never a great fan of the stuff, but needs must, and I’m beginning to get a taste for it. I’ve now worked out the route of quite a decent ‘vin chaud crawl’ around the city centre. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Madame gets suspicious of my increasingly regular evening walks, to ‘see the lights’, from which I return considerably more cheerful than when I left, but I’ll enjoy it while I can.

Wednesday

This is not what I came to France for. Our local paper, the Nouvelle République, has an article about COVI, a French canning company in nearby Deux-Sèvres, who are now promoting their own brand of corned beef. Hereford, as it’s called, comes in tins that are of ‘singular trapezoidal shape with a key to open’, and it’s recommended, cold or hot, as an aperitif, in a shepherd’s pie, as a gratin, or with stuffed tomatoes. Hmm … not sure about corned beef aperitifs.

Fair play to them, they are having a real go at promoting it. There is even a YouTube video in which five GIs land on a French beach armed only with tins of the stuff. Luckily, someone has left an attractive picnic table on the sand for them. I wish COVI well, but can’t help thinking the company name is a little unfortunate in these troubled times.

I have to confess that corned beef has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. However, Madame, being health-conscious and having a more discerning palate, has added Hereford corned beef to the list of foodstuffs that are banned from the house (it slots in neatly between faggots and kippers).

Thursday

Today we learnt of the latest government proposals for dealing with the virus. They had initially hoped to be able to lift many of the lockdown rules on December 15th – allowing people to travel to visit friends and family over the holidays – and follow this with a reopening of bars and gyms on January 20th. However, this all depended on new cases falling to 5,000 a day, a target that the government now judges ‘impossible’. Instead, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced on television this evening that while some restrictions will be lifted, others will stay in place, and an 8pm (rather than 9pm) curfew will be introduced.

The curfew will be lifted on December 24th, but not on December 31st as had previously been suggested. Cinemas, theatres, and other cultural centres, which had been scheduled to reopen on December 15th, will stay closed until at least January 7th. Bars, restaurants, and gyms will still stay closed until at least January 20th. The important ‘concession’ that will still take place next Tuesday is that the lockdown will be lifted, and trips out of the home will no longer require an essential reason or an attestation (permission form). One can now travel out of one’s region without restriction. While this is welcome, in practice it makes little difference to us. We had planned a trip to Paris next week, reasoning that even if bars and restaurants were closed, we could go for a walk, visit a museum or a cinema, possibly both, and grab a snack lunch on the go. With cinemas and museums shut, this seems a lot less attractive. Ah well, Poitiers it is then, at least for the foreseeable future.

Saturday

Wandering aimlessly around Carrefour this morning and, blow me, there it was.

Those boys at COVI certainly don’t muck around. I bought a couple of tins, and they are currently stashed behind a toolbox in our cave. I’ll have to be careful, but if you are walking around the city centre of an evening, don’t be surprised if you see a furtive-looking character struggling with a tin opener and a cup of vin chaud.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In Germany in the eighteenth century, there was a secret Catholic society called the Order of the Pug. Members wore dog collars and had to scratch at the door to be let in.

Racehorse names that managed to escape the Jockey Club censor include Hoof Hearted, Peony’s Envy, Wear the Fox Hat, and Sofa Can Fast.

While English children’s stories begin ‘Once upon a time …’, Korean ones begin ‘Back when tigers used to smoke …’.

The wait goes on…

The Cluricaume

“Hoo-oo ha-a ha-a hoo-oo
Precious moments
When will I see you again?
When will we share precious moments?”

This week both England and France set out their plans for the next stage in dealing with Covid-19. It is interesting to compare the two. (Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have their own schedules.)

In England, the lockdown period will end on December 2nd, and there will be a return to the three-tier system first announced on October 12th but with significantly tighter rules.

In Tier 1, the rules are minimal, but this only covers a few isolated areas, like the Isle of Wight and Cornwall.

In Tier 2 (which is most of the country), you can’t socialise indoors with anyone you do not live with or who is not in your support bubble. You can meet in a group of up to six outside – including in a garden or a public place.

Shops, gyms, and personal care services (such as hairdressing) can reopen.

Pubs and bars can only open if they serve substantial meals. They must shut at 23:00 GMT, with last orders at 22:00 GMT.

Sports can resume with up to 2,000 spectators, or at 50% capacity (whichever is smaller).

In Tier 3 (which includes large parts of northern England), additional restrictions apply. Hospitality venues such as bars, pubs, cafés, and restaurants must stay closed, except for delivery and takeaway services. Spectator sports cannot resume.

More than 23 million people in England – 41.5% of the population – will be living under Tier 3 measures.

The first review of the tiers is set for December 16th, but it has already been announced that restrictions will be relaxed in all tiers from December 23rd till December 28th to allow three households to celebrate together indoors, outdoors, or in a place of worship.

France has adopted a very different approach to that of England. The new rules apply uniformly to the entire country.

As of yesterday, shops can open. This includes libraries, bookshops, clothes shops, toy shops, flower shops, etc. Also included are hairdressers and beauticians. 

Not included are cinemas, theatres, museums, cafés, restaurants, or bars. 

The system of exemption certificates (attestations de déplacement) will remain, meaning that anyone going out to exercise or shop will need to complete one and take it with them. 

People will now be allowed to exercise each day for up to three hours within 20 kilometres of their home. This does not allow people to visit family members or friends at their homes.

From December 15th, France’s lockdown will end if the average number of daily cases falls below 5,000 and the number of patients in intensive care units drops to between 2,500 and 3,000 or lower. Cinemas, theatres, and museums can reopen. Cafés, restaurants, and bars must remain closed. People will be able to move around freely, but a curfew will be in place from 21:00 to 07:00.

On January 20th, if the average number of daily Covid-19 cases remains below 5,000, France will move to phase three of its easing of lockdown measures. The curfew will end, and restaurants and cafés will be permitted to reopen.

Arguably, in France we are under a stricter regime. In particular, the non-opening of bars and restaurants until January 20th is hard to take. The curfew will last for over a month, with only a two-day relaxation for Christmas. However, the general impression I get is that most people are fairly resigned to the new regime (apart, obviously, from restaurant and bar owners). The government strategy has the advantage of being clear, logically argued, and applying equally to everyone.

We had a curfew during the first lockdown, and it didn’t seem to bother people. More and more restaurants are offering a takeaway service. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. The Christmas restriction is not quite as draconian as it might seem. Christmas here is a low-key private affair. You won’t see any Santas or reindeer on people’s lawns. There are no office parties, and pools of festive vomit in the streets are mercifully absent. The emphasis is on two meals – on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. By Boxing Day, people are returning to work and life to normal. All shops are open and busy. I have to say, after three years, I find this a perfectly acceptable way of doing things.

I could be wrong, but I get the impression that people are less happy in England. The tier system is complicated and inevitably throws up a number of anomalies. For example, Kent villages with very few virus cases now find themselves in Tier 3. People in Manchester (Tier 3) say they are being punished for previous disputes between their mayor and central government.

The proposed long Christmas break is dividing opinion. The government argument is that banning Christmas was never going to work; as people were not going to follow the rules, providing guidance to help them celebrate safely is a better way of managing the situation. However, many scientists are against it, saying it increases the risk of a third spike. Various newspaper surveys find that the majority of their readers think that relaxing rules for Christmas isn’t worth an additional month of lockdown later. Underlying everything there seems to be a sense that the overall strategy management is a bit flaky. Just today, the papers are reporting that Boris Johnson is preparing to make concessions to head off a revolt in his own party. There may be more twists and turns before the year is out.

***

When I said that people in France are resigned to the new regime, that doesn’t mean that everything always runs smoothly. In Joinville-le-Pont, on the outskirts of Paris, earlier this month, police officers were called to break up a rave involving over 300 people. They were met with a shower of bottles, which, I suppose, at least indicates that the partygoers were mindful of maintaining a safe physical distance.

Then on Monday, in Lannion, Brittany, a man was fined €135 for filling out his attestation form incorrectly. He had correctly given his name, address, and time of leaving home, but a policeman found that instead of ticking one of the boxes stating a legitimate reason to go outside – shopping, exercising, visiting the doctor, etc. – the man had written ‘aller péter la gueule à un mec’ (to smash a guy’s face in), an activity not covered by the form. He was fined an additional €150 for being drunk.

***

Three things learnt this week.

In France, it is legal to marry a dead person, so long as they had the intention to marry you while they were alive.

The word ‘his’ appears in the Bible 8,472 times. The word ‘hers’ features three times.

The average person farts 15–25 times per day.

Lockdown blues

Such a shame. Madame S and I had put so much effort into our Trick or Treat costumes this year, and now they will have to be mothballed for a year because of the lockdown.

***

It’s not quite like remembering where you were when John Kennedy died, but I can clearly recall the start of the last lockdown. On Saturday 14th March,we were in La Mangeoire restaurant when Florent, the owner, came and told us that it had just been announced that he had to close at midnight, and he did not know when he would be able to reopen. Florent was philosophical about it, but the news came as quite a shock to us. I remember we visited a couple of our local bars on the way home, to say a temporary goodbye to the staff, some of whom were suddenly facing an uncertain future. On the Monday, President Macron announced that the full lockdown would start at noon the following day and would last for ‘a fortnight at least’. In fact, the first lockdown lasted for two-and-a-half months, until 2nd June.

This time there was no surprise. The steadily increasing spread of the virus, despite the various local measures taken, meant that a second national lockdown was inevitable. It was announced on Wednesday and started at midnight on Friday. Initially scheduled for four weeks, it is quite likely that this will be extended, though Christmas does complicate the situation.

It seemed appropriate on Thursday to go back to La Mangeoire to have our last meal out for the foreseeable future. The place was fully booked for the whole evening, and all the other bars and restaurants around Place Charles de Gaulle were equally busy. Late into the evening there were crowds sitting out on the terraces, swaddled in coats and scarves, determined to enjoy their last night of freedom. The local paper reported that some hairdressers stayed open till 23.00 to cope with the last-minute bookings. One can only feel sympathy for the owners of Senza Nome, the Italian restaurant in Rue du Moulin à Vent that only opened a fortnight ago, and even more for Le Bouillon Carnot, in Rue Carnot, which opened on Wednesday, the day before the lockdown.

The rules are the same as before. We can go out only for essential purposes – shopping, medical appointments, etc. – and each time we have to complete an attestation de déplacement dérogatoire, a form saying why we are out, when we left, who we are, and so forth. We can only go out for exercise for an hour and within a 1 km radius of the house.

There are some small but significant changes this time. Schools and colleges are staying open, as are the markets, both covered and open-air, along with parks and public gardens (which gives us more options for our hour’s exercise). People are already used to wearing masks virtually everywhere and using sanitising gel on entering a shop. Most people I’ve spoken to accept the situation resignedly. We have our stockpiles of DVDs and books ready. There may be a little panic-buying in the supermarkets, but I doubt it. Many cafés and restaurants gradually started takeaway and delivery services as the last lockdown dragged on. I suspect that they will be a lot quicker off the mark this time. We are getting used to lockdowns. One difference, of course, is that the last one started as the days were getting longer and the weather was improving. Spring and the sense of renewed optimism that came with it helped to compensate for the temporary loss of freedom. Recent events in France mean that we are entering winter in a much more sombre frame of mind.

The obvious question is what happens afterwards. If (when?) the number of cases starts to rise again, will regular lockdowns be the new normal until a vaccine is eventually found? Who knows.

Little old wine drinker, me

I only ever went to one wine tasting in the UK. It was organised by The Wine Society and held in an upmarket hotel in Cambridge. I didn’t really enjoy it. Blazered and chinoed young men with names like Sholto and Tristram dispensing wine to middle-class couples overeager to show off their own knowledge of the subject. So, on Tuesday, I had my reservations when our friend Colette suggested we went to a tasting in nearby Chauvigny, which she’d seen advertised in the local paper. For one thing, everyone present would have been more or less weaned on wine, whereas, in good light, I can just about tell the difference between red and white. Add to this the fact that drink makes me ridiculously overconfident about my ability to speak French, and there seemed every possibility of my making even more of a prat of myself than usual.

Nevertheless, Colette had assured us it would be fun. Pierre and Louise, friends of hers whom we’d met and liked, were also going, so we decided to tag along. I should point out that Colette is 79 but is very much, as they say, ‘still game’. She was the first neighbour to call on us to welcome us to Rue des Carmes, and we have become good friends. She reminds me a little of my dad at her age, in that she has no hesitation in speaking her mind on any subject, often quite loudly and at some length.

We went in Pierre’s car, and the journey took about 25 minutes. I’d expected something like the Cambridge event and was looking for a hotel, or perhaps even a small château, so I was a little surprised when we drew up at a small trading estate just outside Chauvigny. Our venue, La Moustache, is a ‘Cave Pub’ situated between a boulangerie and Toutsie Salon Toilettage, a shop selling pet accessories. My spirits rose; the evening was clearly looking up.

On entering, we appeared to be in a beer warehouse. Crates were lined up, floor to ceiling, along the walls, and an impressive array of bottles was laid out on several tables. At the back, a few customers were standing at a bar. A sign on the counter said ‘Happy Hour 18.00–21.00’. Nearby, a couple of teenagers were playing at a pool table.

None of us said anything for a moment or two, then Pierre went up and spoke to the barman. A moment later, we were led to a small area slightly to the left of the main room. Here we found a long table and six chairs. Six wine glasses were laid out along with a small card saying ‘Reservé’. Pierre asked if anyone else was expected. The barman shrugged and said, ‘Sometimes people come, sometimes they don’t.’ Definitely neither a Sholto nor a Tristram.

He disappeared into a back room and then returned with two opened bottles of wine, one white and one red, both from the same local vineyard, La Tour Beaumont. He gave us an interesting little lecture on the white, which is made with the comparatively rare Fié Gris grape, poured us a glass each, and left us to it.

The wine was fruity and pleasant, but nothing exceptional. We sat sipping wine in silence for a moment or two. Then Colette said, ‘Nothing to eat? You’d think they’d at least give you a biscuit.’ Louise noticed a laminated menu on the next table. We decided to share a couple of platters of bread, cheese, and charcuterie, and Pierre went off to order these.

We finished the white. As there was no sign of our host, Colette told Pierre to pour out the red, a Cabernet Franc. We used the same glasses. No-one commented on this. I was beginning to feel quite at home. We all agreed the red was better than the white. We finished the bottle, ate our food, and the general mood lightened considerably. Colette suggested getting another red, which I thought was an excellent idea. Louise looked at Pierre, who was driving, but he assured her that he didn’t mind.

Colette was telling us about a recent holiday she had had in Alsace and how much she had enjoyed the wines there, when our host returned. He looked a little taken aback at our having finished two bottles of red, but said nothing.

‘Do you have any Alsace wine?’ Catherine asked.

‘We have a Gewurztraminer, Madame,’ he replied.

‘We’ll have a bottle of that …’

She looked at the menu.

‘… and some apple tart to go with it.’

Our host nodded and scurried off. Pierre looked thoughtful.

While we ate our tart and drank our Gewurztraminer (Pierre had a Perrier), Colette told us about her sciatica, her temperamental boiler, and her problems in configuring her new mobile phone.

On leaving, we each bought six bottles of the red. After some deliberation, Colette also bought another bottle of the Gewurztraminer.

She fell asleep on the way home. When we arrived at her house, Pierre gently woke her and saw her to her door, carrying her box of wine for her. I heard her say what a delightful evening it had been and that we should do it again soon.

Pierre wished her goodnight and told her to sleep well.

***

On Thursday, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced that the curfew in force in a number of major cities was to be extended to 38 new departments, starting at midnight on Friday/Saturday. Fifty-four of France’s 96 mainland départements – and approximately 46 million people – are now under curfew from 21.00 to 06.00.

While this second wave of the virus – since the end of the lockdown in June – has only cost 2,000 lives compared to the 30,000 in the first wave, there are two worrying aspects to this resurgence. First, a significantly ramped-up free testing programme, soon to be expanded even further, has led to a sharply increased caseload that hospitals are struggling to meet. Second, this time around, the virus has spread far more quickly throughout the country. The first wave was confined mostly to Greater Paris and the east. This time, it is all-pervasive. Summer vacations and students returning to universities are likely to be contributory causes.

Nearby Haute-Vienne, Indre-et-Loire, and Maine-et-Loire are all now under curfew. So far, our department, Vienne, has escaped, but one senses that it is only a matter of time.

At the moment, the curfew is the only restriction placed on the newly-added departments. There are no lockdowns, no reductions in public transport, and no restrictions on travelling from one region to another. Schools, colleges, and universities remain open. So do markets. People are advised to work from home for a day or two a week where possible, but only advised. It is difficult to see how long this can last if the number of cases continues to rise at its present rate.

Still Living

Every year, I have to prove to the BBC that I am still alive and entitled to receive my pension. They send me a form to fill, which needs to be witnessed by someone in authority – a solicitor, a doctor etc. This would entail me paying a fee, but the Beeb also accepts a certificat de vie, a similar document issued by the government, which you can print out from their website and get signed and witnessed, for free, by an official at the town hall.

On Wednesday, I printed my form, filled in my details and presented myself at the reception desk at the hôtel de ville. A large, bearded man, a distant relative of Harry Potter’s friend Hagrid, eyed me with suspicion as I stated my reason for being there. He asked for my pièce d’identité and I gave him my passport. With a pencil in his enormous fist, he noted my name in a tatty exercise book . I suspect this data was not destined for any sophisticated IT system. Silently, Hagrid pointed me to a nearby door.

Here, at another desk, a middle-aged woman handed me a ticket with A23 on it and motioned me to a bench on which two young men and a young woman were sitting. All of them, it turned out, were there to collect student bus passes. One of them started grumbling about having to wait for these. I thought of telling them that when you get to my age you need a piece of paper just to prove you are still breathing, but I wasn’t sure my French was up to it.

After ten minutes, my number was called and I was ushered into a booth, where another large, bearded man, possibly Hagrid’s brother, was sitting. I told him that I wanted a certificat de vie and took my filled-in form out of my bag. While I was doing this, he had reached behind him and produced another, blank certificat de vie from a filing cabinet.

I pushed my filled-in form towards him.

He looked at me for a moment, then looked at his blank form then at my filled-in one.

‘Where did you get this?’

‘I printed it at home. From the government website.’

‘How many of these forms do you need?’

‘Just the one.’

He was silent for a moment, no doubt mentally rummaging through some book of governmental etiquette to handle a situation like this. Putting his blank form back in the filing cabinet would probably require the filling-in of a different form to explain its non-use.

Reluctantly, he picked up my form and started reading the details I had filled in. He then asked me for my passport to check that I hadn’t lied about my name and date of birth. He stamped my form, signed it and slid it across the table with a solemn ‘Voilà’.

I looked at it and saw that, in the section to be filled in by him, he had not recorded my passport number. With the most ingratiating smile I could muster, I passed the passport and form back and pointed to where he needed to do this. He looked at the form, then at me. I was clearly a troublemaker. He filled in the number and passed the form back in silence. We wished each other good day, and I left the booth feeling that I had somehow let us both down badly.

Another service provided by the council is free recycling bags. We were out of these, and as this seemed a day for administrative chores, I went to the council offices at the far end of town to pick some up. However, when I got there, the place was closed for redecoration; a notice on the door said that, for the time being, recycling bags were to be collected from the hôtel de ville.

With a heavy heart, I went back to face Hagrid, who clearly remembered me.

‘Des sacs pour le recyclage?’

He looked at me in a way that suggested that he’d been talking to Hagrid 2, then pointed me in the same direction as before. The woman gave me a ticket with A43 on it, and I sat down. After a few minutes, I was summoned. My luck was in, and instead of Hagrid 2, I got a charming young woman who gave me a large roll of recycling bags – a year’s supply.

‘Would monsieur like some ordinary refuse bags?’

‘No, thank you. We have plenty.’

‘Some toutou bags?’

‘Pardon?’

‘Pour votre chien. Le poop.’

‘Non merci, pas de chien.’

On the way out, I raised my bundle of bags in a friendly salute to Hagrid, but he stared at me blankly, still trying to work out what scam I was working with bin bags and a certificat de vie.

***

We have cancelled our planned trip to Paris. As expected, the city was declared an area of maximum alert on Monday. Bars and cafés have to close for two weeks, and restaurants must close at ten o’clock. Fortunately, our train and hotel reservations were fully refundable – as they more or less have to be these days. Few people are going to take the risk of booking any sort of trip in advance unless they can keep their options open.

Generally speaking, the outlook here, as in the UK, continues to be bleak. The number of new cases reached a new level yesterday, with nearly 27,000 people testing positive in twenty-four hours. It’s been rising steadily for weeks now. Along with Paris and Marseille, Lille, Lyon, Grenoble and Saint-Étienne have now been declared areas of maximum alert. There are eight cities at the level of heightened alert: Bordeaux, Rennes, Rouen, Nice, Toulouse, Montpellier, Dijon and Clermont-Ferrand. The health minister, Olivier Véran, has warned that Toulouse and Montpellier are likely to be raised to maximum alert in the next few days.

The major difference between here and the UK, as far as I can see, is that in France the government’s management of the crisis is broadly endorsed by the public. I think that one of the main reasons for this is that, compared to that of the UK, the overall strategy is clear and easy to understand. The alert level system and the map that goes with it, showing areas of the country in different shades of red according to level, are easy to follow. How an area gets the level assigned to it (the number of cases and the situation in local hospitals) is also clear. The management of restrictions in an area, once its level has been assigned, is handled locally by the prefecture, which to me seems sensible.

As with any government policy, there will be dissenting voices, but there is nothing like the confusion and anger currently ‘on stark display’ in the UK, according to Andrew Rawnsley in today’s Observer: ‘Between north and south. Between young and old … Between government and opposition. Between scientist and scientist. Between Westminster and local government. Between cabinet member and cabinet member. And between prime minister and his own party.’

Still, things can only get better. There are now only eighty-two days until Brexit.

Masking reality

The Covid-19 situation in France is steadily worsening, much as it is in the UK.

On Sunday we were told that Vienne had joined the ever-growing list of French departments classified as rouge, i.e.having a Covid infection rate of higher than 50 per 100,000. This allows the prefectures to trigger additional measures to reduce the risk of transmission. 

On Monday we learnt what this meant, and I think most people were surprised how little had changed. The only new rule is that masks are now compulsory everywhere in the central area of the town. Most people were already observing this anyway, and I’d noticed recently that you are likely to be stared at pointedly if you are not wearing a mask. There are, as yet, no restrictions on bar and restaurant opening times, and the museum, cinemas and other places of entertainment are still open.

On Tuesday, the government further refined its classification system, allowing it to impose strict restrictions on the areas with the highest numbers of cases. There are now four levels of classification: Alert, Heightened Alert, Maximum Alert and State of Emergency.

There are sixty-nine departments with the Alert designation, including Vienne. As well as Monday’s new mask regulation, the new classification means that weddings, parties and social events are now limited to thirty people maximum.

Eleven “metropoles” (cities and their surrounding suburbs) have been given the Heightened Alert designation, including Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse and Nice. Here there is an infection rate above 150 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and a high level of spread among elderly people (above 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants). Restrictions in these areas include closing bars (though not restaurants) at 10 p.m. at the latest, limiting the number of people allowed to gather in public spaces to ten, and lowering the maximum attendance for big events from 5,000 to 1,000. Gyms and sports halls will also close in most cases, along with community halls. Visits to care homes will only be possible with appointments.

Only one area in metropolitan France, Marseille, has been classified as Maximum Alert, although the overseas department of Guadeloupe has also been so designated. This means there is an infection rate above 250 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and a very high level of spread among elderly people (above 100 cases per 100,000 inhabitants). This level of alert means local authorities must close all bars and restaurants for at least two weeks from Saturday, although the period could be prolonged if the health situation requires it. All other public spaces that do not already have strict hygiene rules in place must also close, although cinemas, museums and theatres will be exempt from this if they have sufficient hygiene protections.

The move is deeply unpopular in the city, and on Friday hundreds of restaurant and bar owners staged a demonstration protesting against the new shutdown. According to Bernard Marty, president of the regional hospitality association, the demonstration took place outside the commercial courthouse ‘because this is where we’ll probably come to declare bankruptcy’.

Nowhere in France has yet been given the designation State of Emergency, and no details have so far been given as to what measures this would entail. During the first wave of the virus the whole of France was placed in a State of Health Emergency, but this designation seems to open the way to declaring a State of Emergency in certain areas only.

We’ve booked a weekend in Paris in three weeks’ time. I’d say the chances of that city being moved to Maximum Alert status by then are about fifty-fifty.

***

When I was a very small boy, we used to have in our garden in Fulham a scaffolding pole set in concrete, which served as one of the supports for the washing line. While the pole was useful in facilitating the weekly wash, one of my earliest memories (this would have been the mid-1950s) is of it being put to very different use.

On a couple of Sunday afternoons every September, my dad and my uncle Jerry would bring the family radio out into the garden, an extension cable keeping it plugged into the mains in the living room. The radio was one of those heavy old walnut cabinet jobs with such exotic stations as Athlone, Vatican City and Hilversum on the tuning dial. Placing it on a small rickety table, they would then somehow contrive to use the scaffolding pole as an aerial. I haven’t a clue how they achieved this, but it entailed a couple of minutes of “to me, to you” and the odd swear word as they slowly moved the table around the pole in a bizarre sort of ritual, attempting to get a signal. Then, almost magically, amid much crackling, we would hear the inimitable voice of Michael O’Hehir on RTE, commenting live from Croke Park in Dublin on either the All-Ireland Gaelic football or hurling final. Dad and Jerry would then spend the afternoon contentedly sitting in deckchairs, listening to the match and drinking bottles of Guinness, one of them rising every now and then to move the radio slightly as the signal waxed and waned.

Now, over sixty years later, I find myself, in an odd sort of way, following in my father’s footsteps. Over the past few weeks I have cobbled together a ramshackle software system which allows me to access BBC iPlayer and the UK version of Netflix (which is better than the French one).

Using Chromecast and a VPN and one or two other secret ingredients, I load them on my tablet and then send them to my TV screen. It’s very flaky. I have to leave the tablet untouched on a flat surface, as the slightest movement seems to crash the whole caboodle and I have to reload it. This is particularly annoying if it happens just as Morse, Barnaby or Poirot is about to reveal all.

French TV is reasonable, but with another lockdown looking increasingly likely, we need as many sources of home entertainment as we can get. It probably isn’t strictly legal, but with the world generally going to hell in a handcart I am prepared to take the risk (I know, of course, that I can rely on your absolute discretion). Anyway, I think Dad would have approved, and that’s good enough for me.

Freewheeling

These are strange times. The coronavirus figures in France are steadily worsening. Last night 10,561 new cases were reported, the highest one-day count since the start of the outbreak. The figure was 6,544 last Monday.

On television on Friday night, Jean Castex, the prime minister, read out a statement on the current situation in France and the government’s response. There is to be a significant ramping-up of the screening and testing programme, and the number of departments classified as ‘red’ has now been increased from twenty-eight to forty-two. This classification allows the prefectures of those departments to trigger additional measures to reduce the risks of transmission. The prefects can specify where masks must be worn, decide whether major events can take place, and dictate the opening hours of certain businesses. They can also restrict travel – to a city, a department, or a limit of, say, a hundred kilometres.

The main trigger for a ‘red’ classification is an incidence rate greater than 50 per 100,000 inhabitants. At the moment, in our department, Vienne, the rate is 50.5, but other factors to be taken into account (including the percentage of positive tests and the number of infections observed from a positive case) mean that we are not ‘red’ yet. I suspect it is just a matter of time.

It is interesting to compare the current French figures with those in the UK. For a couple of weeks the UK saw a significantly lower number of cases, but there is now a noticeable steady increase. It is quite possible that the difference between the two countries is down to the fact that France came out of lockdown a month earlier (June 1st rather than July 4th) and that the UK is now in the process of ‘catching up’.

Somehow, in Poitiers, on a day-to-day basis, life goes on, seemingly oblivious to this depressing backdrop. We still haven’t met anyone here who has experienced the virus themselves. Obviously, we are slightly cocooned, as Madame S works from home and we do not have children at school. One of our neighbours was furloughed but is now back at work. A friend who works in a testing laboratory says she has been very busy for months. Other than that, when one walks around the city, things seem reassuringly normal. The only obvious evidence of the crisis is the now almost universal wearing of masks. (The M in my KPMG mnemonic for leaving the house – Keys, Phone, Money, Glasses – now has to do double-duty.) But after a while, even the fact that people are wearing them ceases to register.

A spell of fine weather contributes to the general sense of all being well here in France. The temperature is forecast to be in the thirties for the coming week and to drop only slightly after that. There are still tourists around, and there has been the usual September influx of students at the university. The café and bar terraces are crowded every evening (which is of course part of the problem) and, after their August holidays, the gilet jaunes are demonstrating and setting fire to cars again.

I wonder how long we can go on like this.

***

The Tour de France came to Poitiers on Wednesday, and Madame S and I went up to Les Couronneries to stand on Avenue John Kennedy just a couple of hundred metres from the finishing line. It was a scorching day, and we had to wait an hour and twenty minutes before the peloton arrived, but we could watch their progress on a giant TV screen nearby. In the meantime, we were entertained by a seemingly endless carnival procession of trucks and floats sponsored by various French commercial outfits, many of them throwing sweets and novelties into the crowd. We were surrounded by a large number of small children, but by the judicious use of some Boris Johnson-like rugby tactics, I managed to score four mini-bags of Haribo, a Monoprix baseball cap, and a large foam rubber hand with the Peugeot logo on it. My apologies again to the poor little boy who inadvertently got his wrist wedged under my foot. The riders themselves of course passed by in a flash, but it was all tremendous fun. And it’s great to see Irishman Sam Bennett continuing to wear the green jersey for leading the points classification.

Some pictures from the website of La Nouvelle République:

The peloton with Poitiers Cathedral in the background – just a few hundred metres from our house.

Some riders are suspected of excessive use of steroids.

A sign of the times

Scrum time!

***

There has been a big story in the French press this week about an as yet unclaimed prize of €157 million in the EuroMillions lottery, the third largest prize ever. The draw was made on 1st September, and the winner has sixty days from that date to claim it.

Yesterday I received an email from Française des Jeux, the lottery organisers:

Bonjour Michael,
 
Vous avez gagné 2.2EUR à LOTO N° 2185348278.

Ce gain est désormais disponible dans votre compte FDJ®.

Si vous souhaitez obtenir le détail et le récapitulatif des jeux auxquels vous avez participé, rendez-vous dans votre compte FDJ®.

A bientôt sur notre site,

L’équipe FDJ®

People who say ‘It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part’ deserve to be horsewhipped.

***

Out for a walk this morning. We passed the house of Monsieur Gouin, an elderly neighbour of ours. He has some scaffolding up at the front and is clearly having some renovation work done. Monsieur Gouin is quite doddery and, rather unkindly, I admit, I remarked that he could do with a bit of renovation work himself. After a moment’s pause, Madame S said, ‘There’s a TV programme in that … Hommes under the Hammer.’

I sometimes think that editing’s gain has been stand-up comedy’s loss.