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.

Learning French

We’ve lived in France for two and a half years and my French is still pretty atrocious. That said, I can read reasonably well now, and my listening is slowly improving, though I still need sous-titres pour sourds et malentendants (subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing), which are available on most TV programmes. Although this is a very fine invention, it not only tells you what people are saying but also things like ‘a phone rings’ or ‘a shot is fired’, obviously useful for the hard of hearing, but a little tedious for those of us who are simply hard of French. The subtitles also describe any background music that is being played. This is nearly always described as ‘sinister’, ‘romantic’ or ‘intriguing’. As far I can tell, intriguing merely means that the person doing the subtitling thinks a piece of music is neither sinister nor romantic. I find this quite engrossing, but Madame S gets visibly irritated with my occasional ‘well I thought that was quite romantic’ or ‘did that really sound sinister to you?’

My main problem with French is speaking, or rather speaking out loud. In my head, lying in bed or sitting quietly on a bus or train, I can string sentences together reasonably well. I can express my opinion, ask others for theirs, even make the occasional joke. It is when I actually have to open my mouth and speak to a real person that the world falls apart. My mind goes blank and I am reduced to about half a dozen safe phrases. ‘You’re right’, ‘I agree’, ‘We will see’ and ‘I don’t know’ will not get you into trouble, but they are not going to get people queuing up to talk to you at any social event. My accent, which in my head is Maigret with a hint of Charles Aznavour, becomes pure Arthur Daley when unleashed on the general public. I find it quite difficult to keep talking when my interlocutor is visibly wincing.

To try and remedy this situation I have just signed up for three-and-a-half hours a week of online French lessons. One of the few unexpected benefits of Covid-19 is that many English universities are now offering some of their courses online rather than in the classroom. As far as I can tell, there are no similar courses available here in France.

At first I had thought I might not be allowed to enrol from France, and I confess I had thought about using an English address, that of one of my daughters for instance. But the prospect of my acting as if I was online in England for twelve weeks was not an appealing one. I kept thinking of the scene in The Great Escape where Gordon Jackson, pretending to be German, says ‘thank you’ when the Gestapo officer wishes him good luck in English. I was likewise bound to slip up in some conversation exercise by saying that I’d been shopping at Monoprix or buying a baguette at the boulangerie. Luckily, my worry was completely unfounded and I was assured that living in France was no obstacle.

Our lessons are my first experience of using Zoom, and it’s been good fun. I’d imagined that, this being a university-run course, most of the students would be younger than me, but nearly all of us are at or near retirement age. I’m not the only one new to Zoom. George, who’s from Peckham, has struggled to get the hang of it; in the two lessons so far, we can hear him clearly but we’ve only managed to see his forehead. In the first lesson, the tutor suggested that he adjusted either his seat or his camera. He agreed, but then there was a loud crash as if he had fallen off his chair. After a minute or so his forehead reappeared, asking ‘is that any better?’ The tutor, wisely in my opinion, said that it was fine.

The lessons are well planned, and I think I’m making some progress. Unfortunately, I have the attention span of a five-year-old. I am constantly being distracted by peering at the backdrops of my various fellow onscreen students.

Harry from Dudley has, on the wall behind him, a Wolverhampton Wanderers poster and a large blown-up photograph of an Alsatian with its name, Rocky, on a metal plaque. I think Harry may be single. Judith in Cornwall has a very impressive wine rack (not a euphemism, I hasten to add), and Chloe from Norwich has a large stuffed owl. Nigel from Hemel Hempstead, who’s clearly a bit of a prat, has some of the books on his bookshelves facing outwards as if he was in a branch of Waterstones. Strangely enough, none of these are Dan Browns or Agatha Christies but things like The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. My own backdrop is of bookshelves, and I’ve thought of displaying copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and Fifty Shades of Grey just to get him thinking.

***

There’s been a sort of beer festival going on in Poitiers for the last fortnight. I say ‘sort of’ because it’s not been in a specific venue. Instead, various bars have given over an evening to promoting the beers of one or more of the ever-growing number of small local breweries.

On Friday Madame and I went to Le Zinc to sample the beers of La Chamois and De Mysteriis Pictavis. After some lengthy research, Madame declared La Chamois ‘Juicy’, a light citrusy IPA, her favourite, while I went for the De Mysteriis Pictavis ‘Jinx’, a wonderful spicy porter. On emerging from the bar into the fresh air, I sensed that our research had been a little too thorough. The last thing I remember clearly is suggesting to Madame that ‘Juicy and Jinx’ would be the perfect name for a TV series, loosely based on our own lives, which I would write. In it, we would travel around France solving crimes and having hilarious adventures.

I have forgiven her for her cruel response on the grounds that she is not used to drinking large quantities of beer.

Juicy
Jinx

On Beer (3)

  “Next to music beer was best.”  Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

“The new Beer Bill  has begun its operations. Everybody is drunk. Those who are not singing are sprawling. The sovereign people are in a beastly state”  (A letter from Sydney Smith.to John Murray referring to The Beer Act of 1830)

Lady Holland, A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith

The sergeant stated that the defendant staggered badly after getting out of the car and smelt strongly of drink. Defendant: I have not touched a drink for ten years. District Justice: Did you have any of this new ice cream? Defendant: Well, I had, your honour. District Justice: How much had you? Defendant: I had a twopenny wafer in Drogheda, your honour. District Justice: Is that all? Defendant: I felt a cold coming on me and had two cornets at Swords. District Justice said he was determined to put down the growing practice of people driving around in motorcars and pulling up at roadside sweetshops to consume ice cream. If such persons feel they need ice cream, they must leave their cars at home. The Sergeant said that the defendant had a small freezer in the back of the car which bore the traces of fresh ice cream; the cushions also had traces of wafer-crumbs. District Justice: No doubt he said ‘Crumbs!’ when he ran into the other car. (Laughter.) Defendant stated that he had bad teeth and did not like ice cream but took it as a tonic and also to prevent himself getting colds. He realised now that he had been foolish and was prepared to take the pledge and drink only whiskey in future.

Flann O’Brien on alcoholic ice-cream, Cruiskeen Lawn

They placed food in front of him,
they placed beer in front of him;
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
and of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The harlot spoke to Enkidu, saying:
“Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land.”
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
he drank the beer-seven jugs!– and became expansive and sang with joy!
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water,
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human.

from The Epic of Gilgamesh

You will not be able to stay home, brother

You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out

You will not be able to lose yourself on skag

And skip out for beer during commercials

 Because the revolution will not be televised         

 Gil Scott-Heron The revolution will not be televised

Genial and gladdening is the power of good ale, the true and proper drink of Englishmen. He is not deserving of the name of Englishman who speaketh against ale.

George Borrow, Lavengro

Brewery barge with export stout. England. Sea air sours it, I heard. Be interesting some day get a pass through Hancock to see the brewery. Regular world in itself. Vats of porter, wonderful. Rats get in too. Drink themselves bloated as big as a collie floating. Dead drunk on the porter. Drink till they puke again like christians. Imagine drinking that! Rats: vats. Well of course if we knew all the things…  

James Joyce, Ulysses

Suppose we go and try some lager-bier? … It is a new beverage, of German origin … you will not like it for some time, because it is quite different from Barclay and Perkins’s beer.

David W. Mitchell Ten Years in the United States: Being an Englishman’s View of Men and Things in the North and South, 1862

The snows of the Tyrol,

the clear beer of Vienna

Are not very pure or true.

From Sylvia Plath Daddy

Always be drunk.
That’s it!
The great imperative!
In order not to feel
Time’s horrid fardel
bruise your shoulders,
grinding you into the earth,
Get drunk and stay that way.
On what?
On beer, poetry, virtue, whatever.
But get drunk.

From Charles Baudelaire Be Drunk! (translator  unknown) 

On Beer (2)

They are particular about their drinking vessels at the Moon Under Water, and never, for example, make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass. Apart from glass and pewter mugs, they have some of those pleasant strawberry-pink china ones which are now seldom seen in London. China mugs went out about … Continue reading “On Beer (2)”


“The sacred pint alone can unbind the tongue…” James Joyce, Ulysses

They are particular about their drinking vessels at the Moon Under Water, and never, for example, make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass. Apart from glass and pewter mugs, they have some of those pleasant strawberry-pink china ones which are now seldom seen in London. China mugs went out about 30 years ago, because most people like their drink to be transparent, but in my opinion beer tastes better out of china…

… to be fair, I do know of a few pubs that almost come up to the Moon Under Water. I have mentioned above ten qualities that the perfect pub should have and I know one pub that has eight of them. Even there, however, there is no draught stout, and no china mugs.

George Orwell , The Moon under Water

Thirstily he set it to his lips, and as its cool refreshment began to soothe his throat, he thanked heaven that in a world of much evil there was still so good a thing as ale.”

Rafael Sabatini, Fortune’s Fool

 ‘I see,’ said Karl, staring at the quickly emptying basket and listening to the curious noise which Robinson made in drinking, for the beer seemed first to plunge right down into his throat and gurgle up again with a sort of whistle before finally pouring its flood into the deep.    

Franz Kafka, Amerika

Oh, this beer here is cold, cold and hop-bitter, no point coming up for air, gulp, till it’s all–hahhhh.”

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

Here’s to your health, said Kelly. Good luck, I said. The porter was sour to the palate, but viscid, potent. Kelly made a long noise as if releasing air from his interior. I looked at him from the corner of my eye and said: You can’t beat a good pint. He leaned over and put his face close to me in an earnest manner. Do you know what I am going to tell you, he said with his wry mouth, a pint of plain is your only man. Notwithstanding this eulogy, I soon found that the mass of plain porter bears an unsatisfactory relation to its toxic content and I became subsequently addicted to brown stout in bottle, a drink which still remains the one that I prefer the most despite the painful and blinding fits of vomiting which a plurality of bottles has often induced in me.”

Flann O’Brien, At Swim-two-birds

Fill with mingled cream and amber,
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber

Through the chambers of my brain.
Quaintest thoughts Queerest fancies,
Come to life and fade away:
What care I how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.

Edgar Allan Poe   Lines on Ale

There is an ancient Celtic axiom that says ‘Good people drink good beer.’ Which is true, then as now. Just look around you in any public barroom and you will quickly see: Bad people drink bad beer. Think about it. 

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Beer’s intellectual. What a shame so many idiots drink it.

 Ray Bradbury The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse

I don’t think I’ve drunk enough beer to understand that.

 Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent

“[Barnabas speaks] “I will drink water.”

“Water? But water is not fit for men to drink. For the cattle, for birds and beast, but a man needs ale . . . or wine, if you are a Frenchman.” [William answers]”

Louis L’Amour, To the Far Blue Mountains

“There is this advantage about German beer: it does not make a man drunk as the word drunk is understood in England. There is nothing objectionable about him; he is simply tired. He does not want to talk; he wants to be let alone, to go to sleep; it does not matter where— anywhere.”

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel

I’d tried to straighten him out, but there’s only so much you can do for a person who thinks Auschwitz is a brand of beer

 David Sedaris  Naked

On Beer (1)

He tells me … that I must drink now and then ale with my wine, and eat bread and butter and honey—and rye bread if I can endure it, it being loosening. Samuel Pepys, Diary,17 November 1663 It was of the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire; full … Continue reading “On Beer (1)”

For a quart of Ale is a dish for a king .

Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale

He tells me … that I must drink now and then ale with my wine, and eat bread and butter and honey—and rye bread if I can endure it, it being loosening.

Samuel Pepys, Diary,17 November 1663

It was of the most beautiful colour that the eye of an artist in beer could desire; full in body, yet brisk as a volcano; piquant, yet without a twang; luminous as an autumn sunset; free from streakiness of taste; but, finally, rather heady. The masses worshipped it, the minor gentry loved it more than wine, and by the most illustrious county families it was not despised. Anybody brought up for being drunk and disorderly in the streets of its natal borough, had only to prove that he was a stranger to the place and its liquor to be honourably dismissed by the magistrates, as one overtaken in a fault that no man could guard against who entered the town unawares.

Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet-Major

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The Rat, meanwhile, was busy examining the label on one of the beer-bottles. ‘I perceive this to be Old Burton,’ he remarked approvingly. ‘SENSIBLE Mole! The very thing! Now we shall be able to mull some ale! Get the things ready, Mole, while I draw the corks.’

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

‘Only a pint at breakfast-time, and a pint and a half at eleven o’clock, and a quart or so at dinner. And then no more till the afternoon; and half a gallon at supper-time. No one can object to that.’

R. D. Blackmore, Lorna Doone

—Open two bottles of stout, Jack, said Mr O’Connor. —How can I? said the old man, when there’s no corkscrew? —Wait now, wait now! said Mr Henchy, getting up quickly. Did you ever see this little trick? He took two bottles from the table and, carrying them to the fire, put them on the hob. Then he sat down again by the fire and took another drink from his bottle. Mr Lyons sat on the edge of the table, pushed his hat towards the nape of his neck and began to swing his legs. —Which is my bottle? he asked. —This lad, said Mr Henchy. Mr Crofton sat down on a box and looked fixedly at the other bottle on the hob … In a few minutes an apologetic Pok! was heard as the cork flew out of Mr Lyons’ bottle. Mr Lyons jumped off the table, went to the fire, took his bottle and carried it back to the table.

James Joyce, ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’, Dubliners

And twice a day he smoked his pipe,

And drank his quart of beer:

His soul was resolute, and held

No hiding-place for fear;

He often said that he was glad

The hangman’s hands were near.

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Abdul Kadir had tried to make things go, as he always did. He had emptied most of the bottled beer, a quart of stout, a flask of Beehive Brandy, half a bottle of Wincarnis and the remains of the whiskey into a kitchen pail. He had seasoned this foaming broth with red peppers and invited all to drink deep. This had been his sole contribution to the victualling of the party.

Anthony Burgess, Enemy in the Blanket (The Malayan Trilogy)

‘You must have seen great changes since you were a young man,’ said Winston tentatively. The old man’s pale blue eyes moved from the darts board to the bar, and from the bar to the door of the Gents … ‘The beer was better,’ he said finally. ‘And cheaper! When I was a young man, mild beer – wallop we used to call it – was fourpence a pint. That was before the war, of course.’ ‘Which war was that?’ said Winston. ‘It’s all wars,’ said the old man vaguely. He took up his glass, and his shoulders straightened again. ‘’Ere’s wishing you the very best of ’ealth!’

George Orwell, 1984

… you can’t be a Real Country unless you have a beer and an airline—it helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.

Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book

Morse poured himself a can of beer. ‘Champagne’s a lovely drink, but it makes you thirsty, doesn’t it?’

Colin Dexter, The Way Through The Woods

Le Café des Arts

Once, when describing how he’d spent his previous evening, my brother Brendan said, ‘I ended up drinking in some rat-hole in Harlesden … you’d have loved it’. He was probably right. The truth is, I love bars. Always have done, always will. I love them far more than the alcohol they dispense. It’s not just the rat-holes. I’ve spent happy hours in such stately pleasure domes as the Philharmonic in Liverpool, the Café Imperial in Prague and the New York Café in Budapest. The most delicious beer I’ve ever tasted is the eponymous ale in McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York’s East Village. I’ve drunk whisky in the Pot Still in Glasgow, dry martinis in Harry’s Bar in Venice and daiquiris in El Floridita in Havana. There are too many good pubs in Dublin to mention here, but I think Grogan’s in South William Street would be my luxury item on Desert Island Discs.

Rat-holes of course do have their place. I’ve found that there’s nourishment for the soul in sitting alone for a time in a grimly lit, poorly furnished room, surrounded by a few other solitary individuals, one or more of whom may be asleep. The barperson is leaning on the counter, engrossed in the racing pages; the slow ticking of a clock is the only sound to be heard until, as if in a Quaker Meeting, someone feels impelled to say a few words: ‘Raining again’, perhaps, ‘Nine o’clock. He won’t come now’, or ‘This beer’s off’ (the last usually uttered when the speaker has reached the final half-inch of liquid in his glass). The silence then returns. One seldom leaves such places without thinking that life can only get better.

I lived for a while in Hastings, where I used to frequent a poky backstreet dive whose clientele consisted mainly of individuals whom the social services would have described as having a ‘chaotic lifestyle’. The pub’s saving grace was a jukebox that had everything from Captain Beefheart to Billie Holiday. For my first few visits I sat quietly on my own reading the paper, ignored by all. I couldn’t help noticing that no-one seemed willing even to engage me in eye contact. Then one evening, an elderly woman with a broad smudge of pink lipstick, who was clearly over-relaxed, leaned over and told me that the general company had assumed from the outset that I was a DHSS spy. Once my credentials were satisfactorily established, I was fine and it became my local.

There is always a local, a place where the bees in one’s bonnet can buzz freely and one’s anecdotes are listened to politely, no matter how often they are trotted out. After Hastings there was the Chapeau Rouge in Prague, À La Bonne Cave in Paris, the Grapes in Wandsworth and the Prince Albert in Ely. For me they are part of an arcane alcoholic ley line, the full significance of which is yet to be revealed. Madame S. remains unconvinced of this theory.

Our latest local, here in Poitiers, is neither pleasure dome nor rat-hole. The Café des Arts, on the corner of Grand’ Rue and Place Charles de Gaulle, is such a stereotypically French café you wouldn’t be surprised to find it in London’s Covent Garden. It is small, rectangular in shape, its front a large French window that opens out onto the terrace in summer. The ceiling is heavily nicotine-stained and lined with wooden beams. There is a wood-framed bar area on your left as you enter; opposite this, running round the room in an L-shape, is a battered red leather banquette and a line of small Formica tables, each topped with an Art Nouveau image of a winsome young woman. There is one wooden chair per table, and it doesn’t take many people to make the place seem crowded. Above the banquette, on exposed brickwork, small blackboards are dotted around, describing the various cafés, thés, vins et bières available. Around these is the usual bric-à-brac that accumulates over time in such establishments. Here this includes a very dusty-looking French horn and tuba, a clock that is only accurate at ten to seven, a road sign saying ‘La Rochelle 120 KM’ and a number of ancient enamelled drink advertisements. In my favourite of these, a woman in an evening dress is reclining on a sofa with a Coca-Cola in one hand and a cigarette-holder in the other.

Set into the wall, behind the tables at the back, is a small alcove in which there is a tableau of a jazz band, four wooden figures each about a foot high depicting black musicians in dinner suits playing the bongos, clarinet, guitar and trumpet. Madame S. and I have had a long, intermittent, inconclusive conversation about the appropriateness or otherwise of this.

In a passageway at the back of the café, there is a flight of stairs leading to an upstairs room which is used infrequently. Its only regular occupants are Café-Philo, a group of amateur philosophers who gather for two hours every Wednesday to discuss … well, according to their website, last Wednesday’s topics included Is luxury good for social progress?, What is nobility? and Should one love oneself so that one can love others? I suppose it makes a change from the weather and last night’s TV.

The bar is popular and often very busy. During the day, from 08.00, there is a steady stream of customers popping in for a coffee or a glass of something, often bringing a croissant or pain au chocolat from the boulangerie a few doors away. On Friday mornings there will be a cluster of brocanteurs from the flea market in the square, flat-capped old men who seem to spend much more time over their glasses of sauvignon and plates of peanuts than they ever do at their stalls. On Saturday, the town’s main market day, small groups of shoppers have a regular rendezvous at the café.

During term time, from early evening till the bar closes at 02.00, there are groups of university students in the bar or on the terrace. Some will drink steadily throughout the evening, others can make a coffee or a small beer last well over an hour. It can get noisy, but one rarely sees any drunkenness.

Madame S. and I have got used to popping in at various times of the day, for coffee in the morning, post-market pick-me-ups, apéros and post-dinner digestifs – or various combinations of these. We’ve been made very welcome by the regulars and now feel quite at home. Every now and then, the owner François greets us with mock solemnity and a slowly intoned ‘Good evening … ’ow are yoouuu?’ We laugh dutifully; it’s a small price to pay.

I always like the general buzz of the place, but a favourite time is during the student vacations in autumn and winter. The window at the front is the only source of natural light, and the interior can be a little on the dark side. In the evening, when the lamps are on and there are only a couple of customers in, there is a pleasing, crepuscular atmosphere, as if one were sitting in a painting from Edward Hopper’s hitherto-unknown European period. I sometimes slip in quietly for a pint on my own, knowing that if I wait long enough I will eventually hear ‘Il pleut encore’, ‘Neuf heures. Il n’arrivera pas maintenant’ or ‘Cette bière est mauvaise’.

Burns Night

Monday: A parcel arrives: our ‘Burns Night Party Decoration Pack’. There is a poster with a picture of Robbie Burns and the Selkirk Grace (‘Some hae meat and canna eat’, etc. etc.), a tartan tablecloth, tartan bunting and some small Scottish flags. It’s not exactly Philippe Starck, but needs must. Also in the package are two hats. A large tartan tam-o’-shanter with a fake ginger wig attachment and a smaller tartan pork pie hat. Madame S and I still have to decide which we will wear (neither, I suspect). We expect to be ten for the evening and our table won’t seat that number easily, so instead of haggis, neeps and tatties we are going to have a buffet with various haggis-loaded dainties There will also be Scottish smoked salmon, cranachan, which sounds like a fairly lethal whisky-based trifle, and home-made gingerbread.

We’ve found a collection of Burns poems online along with their French translations, so we plan to recite a couple and let people follow the translations. My Scots is marginally worse than my French, so this should be interesting.

I’ve been put in charge of music. My initial suggestion, a Jimmy Shand/Bay City Rollers medley, is not well received.

Tuesday: We have a courette at the back of our house, a small walled garden or courtyard. It’s très petite, just room for a small raised area with shrubs and bushes, a table and a couple of chairs, but previous owners have put a lot of thought into its layout, and it’s lovely to sit out there in the summer. There is a small altar-like bird table, made of broken paving stones, in the middle of the greenery, and we get a steady stream of visitors, usually sparrows, starlings and pigeons but also the occasional finch or blue tit. One recent arrival, who has quickly established himself as a regular, is an extremely fat blackbird. He’s a cocky little bugger and is clearly aware that I’m watching him through the window. It’s been bugging me for a while that there was something familiar about the way he returned my gaze; a slow, sideways and upwards tilt of the head and a slightly sinister look in his eye. Where had I seen it before? The answer came to me on Monday evening with a TV news item about financial impropriety at Saracens rugby club. Suddenly there on the screen was a clip of the Saracens and England fly half, Owen Farrell, about to take a penalty. The head slowly turning and rising, that weird stare … I wonder if he has any blackbird in his ancestry?

Wednesday: A nice little mystery. In rue Montgautier, a young woman walking in front of us suddenly exclaims in delight as she spots a €10 note in the road. Then she turns to us laughing as she shows us the note, which had been neatly cut in half. Where was the other half? Why would anyone do this?

Years ago when I was teaching in Prague, I had a student, Tibor, who collected playing cards that he found in the street. He was in his early forties and told me that he’d been doing this since he was a teenager. When I asked how many he’d collected, he said nine but two of these were the ace of clubs. I worked out that that this meant, on average, finding one about every three years. Imagine the delight at a new discovery, and then the chagrin of realising that it was a duplicate. Of course he could increase his chances – by keeping an eye out around the casinos in Václavské námĕstí, for instance. I can just see Tibor, who was clearly a little bonkers, roaming the streets of Prague in his nineties, looking for a final elusive three of diamonds.

Thursday: The evening spent in the Biblio Café in rue de la Cathédrale. The Biblio is a lovely place, being both a bar/café and a bookshop where one is encouraged to browse before buying. I’m told that there are people who leave bookmarks in books on the shelves and slowly read through them over a series of visits. The owners, a friendly cheerful bunch, don’t seem to mind. It’s the fourth Thursday of the month, so there is the regular session de musique traditionnelle irlandaise avec Poitin na nGael. Poitin na nGael are a loose collective of musicians who play sessions in various bars around town each month. We don’t know much about them yet, but they are a mixture of French, American and (possibly) Irish individuals living here in Poitiers. Although they are amateurs the standard is high, and the evenings are good fun.

The Biblio has a fine selection of beers; the draught is supplied by the local Pirates du Clain brewery, and I usually stick to this, but there is a range of bottled beers all named after writers. I decided to have a George Orwell, as he died 70 years ago on Monday. It’s delicious, but at 8% it’s not exactly a session beer.

It sounds macabre but the Orwell Foundation have produced an interesting little film about the night Orwell died, narrated by his biographer D J Taylor. It’s only eight minutes long and is rather moving.

Poitin na nGael

Literary Lushes

Friday: Madame S is a stickler for authenticity, so we make a trip to the post office to pick up another parcel from the UK. This is Golden Syrup, needed for the gingerbread and unobtainable in Poitiers. I’d forgotten how handsome the tin is. Then it’s on to Le Comptoir Irlandais to buy a bottle of Aberlour whisky. We already have some Laphroaig, but I thought it would be nice for people to compare two different malts. I’m only thinking of the others, you understand.

“Out of the strong came forth sweetness”

Saturday: Burns Night. To paraphrase Chumbawamba, I had a beer drink, I had a red wine drink, I had a whisky drink (repeat for several hours). The haggis in all its forms was a great success, as were the cranachan and gingerbread. We had Burns readings, French songs from Maryse, Spanish poems from her Mexican husband, Vito, and Tara, our neighbours’ daughter, played her trumpet. We had Aly Bain, Eddi Reader, Big Country, Runrig, Roddy Frame, Orange Juice, The Proclaimers, The Bluebells, and Belle and Sebastian. There was even a bit of Jimmy Shand. In the end, everyone wore both tartan hats at some stage. It was an unforgettable evening. If only I could remember all of it.