Where angels fear to tread

Walking down the street the other day, I felt a familiar pressure under my left foot. Merde! At that precise moment, I’d have happily signed a decree authorising the public execution of every dog-owner within a hundred kilometres. As I morosely slid the sole of my shoe backwards and forwards on a nearby patch of wet grass, I reflected on the fact that more depressing than my immediate predicament was the realisation that this was almost certainly not the last time that this would happen.

People’s reluctance or inability to efficiently deal with the toilettage of their ‘best friends’ is one of the few areas I’ve found where France compares unfavourably with the UK. Recent events, however, have made me think that perhaps I have been looking at this in the wrong way.

France’s upper House, the Senate, has just passed into law a bill to provide statutory protection for the ‘sensory heritage’ of the French countryside. Regional authorities will need to define precisely what ‘sensory heritage’ actually means (not an easy task, I suspect), but the legislation is specific that what it has in mind are the ‘sounds and smells’ of rural France.

There has been a spate of stories in recent years about these sensory issues. Almost invariably, the complainants are new arrivals in a small town or village; they are often second-home owners staying for only a couple of weeks at a time. The rows can sometimes end up in court and usually cause a lot of bad feeling in the local community. In the past, there have been objections to the noises made by crickets and mating bullfrogs in the Dordogne. Smelly sheep and noisy cows have been the problem in the French Alps. Other auditory irritants have included church bells, farm machinery, and even a town’s pétanque players. One French mayor responded by putting up a sign at the entrance to his village, warning holidaymakers to ‘enter at your own peril’ because of the sounds they might encounter.

The most recent case to make the news is that of Maurice, a cockerel from the Île d’Oléron off France’s Atlantic coast. Saint-Pierre-d’Oléron, where Maurice and his owner Corinne Fessau live, is home to 7,000 locals, but the population soars to 35,000 when temporary residents arrive in summer. Mme Fessau has lived on the Île all her life, while the complainants, Jean-Louis and Joelle Biron, were holiday-home owners who visited now and again. They had complained about Maurice’s dawn wake-up call, which they regarded as noise pollution.

The story caught the public imagination, and 140,000 people signed a ‘Save Maurice’ petition. Locals started wearing Maurice-themed T-shirts, adorned with the cockerel’s picture and the words ‘Let me sing’ or ‘cocorico’ (French for cock-a-doodle-doo). This campaign worked. The court not only threw out the case, but ordered the Birons to pay Mme Fessau €1,000 in damages.

Sadly, Maurice has since gone to the great Coq au Vin in the sky, but his life was not in vain. Shortly afterwards, an MP from Lozère introduced the ‘Law Protecting the Sensory Heritage of the French Countryside’. It gained the backing of Rural Affairs Minister Joël Giraud, and now it has become law.

Back here in Poitiers, it’s occurred to me that, as a relative newcomer myself, I should perhaps regard my recent mishap as an encounter with the urban version of France’s sensory heritage. After all, Poitiers is sometimes referred to as la ville aux mille cloches (the city of a thousand bells), and the sound of countless church bells as you walk around of an evening (pre-curfew, obviously) never ceases to please. But after that I begin to struggle. Other ‘heritage’ sounds could include perhaps the clatter of the skateboarding kids in the market square, and the ten-minute engine-revving from some twat down our street at 07.00 every morning.

For smells, there is the delicious aroma of baking croissants from the boulangeries … again, though, I begin to falter. In Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom is said to like grilled kidneys because they ‘gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine’. That being the case, he would no doubt enjoy an early morning stroll through one or two of the back streets off Grand’ Rue. There are probably more uplifting examples.

I tried to discuss the subject with Madame, explaining how my unfortunate accident had led to an interesting meditation on life in the city. Sadly, her thoughts seemed elsewhere, and she restricted herself to telling me that I should bloody well look where I was going.

Sound advice, and no doubt kindly meant.

***

It is St Valentine’s Day and, being a romantic at heart, I offer two extracts from letters that I came across recently. I think, between them, they cover the full spectrum of connubial bliss.

You might think about me a bit & whether you could bear the idea of marrying me. Of course you haven’t got to decide, but think about it. I can’t advise you in my favour because I think it would be beastly for you, but think how nice it would be for me. I am restless & moody & misanthropic & lazy & have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve. In fact it’s a lousy proposition.

Evelyn Waugh, Letter to Laura Herbert 1936

I’m writing to let you know I’m releasing you, I’m amputating you. Be happy and never seek me again. I don’t want to hear from you, I don’t want you to hear from me. If there is anything I’d enjoy before I die, it’d be not having to see your fucking horrible bastard face wandering around my garden.

Frida Kahlo, Letter to Diego Rivera 1953

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In the 1960s, 3% of all films featured someone sinking in quicksand.

For its Chinese release, the film The Full Monty was retitled Six Naked Pigs.

In 1811, crimes punishable by death in Britain included stealing cheese, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner, and ‘strong evidence of malice’ in children aged 7–14.

Droning on

“droning on and on”

Happy Easter.

These days I seem to have a senior moment every year, somewhere around mid-April to mid-May, when I suddenly have to ask myself, ‘Have we had Easter yet?’ I will, however, have no trouble in remembering this year’s Easter Sunday.

By rights we should have been at a family gathering at my younger daughter’s house in Walton-on-Thames. I had bought Easter eggs (Cadbury Chocolate Buttons, ‘buy one get one free’ at Carrefour) for my grandchildren Tom and Phoebe, but I had an additional treat in store for them. A couple of months ago I’d seen some youngsters playing with toy drones down by the river and they looked great fun. Checking on Amazon, I was surprised at how relatively cheap they were and, knowing Tom and Phoebe’s love of gadgets, I thought I would get them one. It arrived last week, and a few experimental flights in our back garden convinced me that I’d made an inspired choice. It was easy to use and fascinating to watch; I knew they would love it.

The coronavirus has of course put paid to our travelling plans, and we were resigned to celebrating quietly at home. Yesterday afternoon, while looking sadly at the Easter eggs and drone sitting on a shelf in the living room, I started reflecting on Easters from my own childhood. Being brought up as Roman Catholics, we were taught at school about the importance of self-sacrifice at Lent, and for children the most obvious form that this should take would be the giving up of sweets. I remember the growing excitement and sense of anticipation as Easter Sunday drew nearer and we could break our abstinence with a gargantuan chocolate binge. The Easter eggs our parents would provide were nearly always augmented by gifts brought by numerous doting aunts and uncles who had come to visit over Easter. To a child’s delighted eyes the house would seem briefly to have turned into a chocolate warehouse. Everywhere one looked there were chocolate eggs, along with any number of Rowntree’s Selection Packs, boxes of Black Magic, Milk Tray and the like. What innocent joy it all conjured up.

It was then I had my grand idea. Across the street, a couple of doors up from us, live the Boissier family, Jean-Claude, Bernadette, and their daughter Matilde, who is 9. They’re rather quiet and reserved, but they are nice people who have always been very friendly to us. I knew, because Bernadette had told me, that they were devout Catholics and that Matilde went to the Sacré-Coeur Convent in rue de la Cathédrale. There was, I thought, a strong chance that the child would have given up sweets for Lent and, even if not, she would no doubt be delighted to have an additional Easter egg. The coronavirus restrictions meant that they would not be having visitors, and I thought it possible that her parent’s own offering might be relatively modest, as they were very careful about their health and monitored her diet carefully. However, they could surely not object to her having one additional little treat on this special day – particularly given the unusual times we are going through.

I knew that they would not welcome my calling at their door, but why not a special delivery by drone? It took a matter of minutes to confirm that by using a couple of large safety pins I was able to attach the egg, which was actually quite light, to the device, which was powerful enough to lift it. I launched it in the back garden and easily managed to raise it above our roof and move it somewhere over the middle of our house. At the appointed time it would be relatively straightforward to move through the house and then, from the upstairs front window, guide it down to land on the Boissiers’ doorstep, or perhaps even into the delighted child’s hands.

Jean-Claude and I exchange regular bilingual emails as a way of improving my French and his English, so I sent him one telling him to be sure to stand at his front door with Bernadette and Matilde at exactly three o’clock the next day to see something truly magnifique and incroyable. Perhaps I was getting a little carried away but, what the hell, it should at least cheer us all up a little. He was clearly intrigued and said they would be there.

Today at ten to three I went out in the back garden to prepare for lift-off. Once the egg was securely attached to the drone, I decided to try a little practice manoeuvre. I flicked the switch on the remote. Nothing happened. I flicked it several more times. Nothing. The horrible truth dawned on me; the battery was dead. I could have wept. By now it was two minutes to three. Too late to recharge it. There was nothing for it but to go out and explain ruefully to the Boissiers my good intentions. Drone and egg in hand I went to open our front door.

For the next few minutes, everything seems to happen in slow motion. The Boissiers are at their doorway as instructed. Madame and Monsieur Boissier are standing stock-still with their mouths open, Matilde is in front of them with Bernadette’s left hand covering her eyes. In the middle of the street, directly outside their house are two dogs engaged in something that an animal-lover would probably defend as perfectly natural. I stress that I am not trying to excuse myself in any way (after all it was hardly my fault), but it is quite likely that the sudden spell of unseasonably hot weather and the fact that our streets are currently strangely deserted may well have had something to do with it.

I stand transfixed for a second and then I am suddenly pushed aside. Madame S, who has no doubt observed the scene from the window, emerges into the street with a red plastic bucket of water which she aims in the direction of the distracted canines. This is partly successful, because they immediately cease what they are doing and scurry off. Unfortunately, she has underestimated her own strength and has also managed to drench Matilde. With a loud shriek Madame Boissier yanks the child indoors. Jean-Claude stares at me as if hypnotised for nearly a minute before following them and quietly closing the door.

It is now 7 p.m. Madame S has not spoken to me since and has retired to bed. She has also confiscated the drone. Jean-Claude has sent me a long, rather uncivil email which, amongst other things, refers to ‘the bizarre sense of English humour’. I thought about replying, pointing out his syntactical error but decided to leave that for another day. Instead I am watching The World at War (Battle of Stalingrad), eating chocolate buttons and reflecting on the wisdom of Oscar Wilde’s: ‘No good deed goes unpunished’.