The writing’s on the wall

It’s not clear, at least to me, why there is so much more graffiti in France than there is in the UK. By this, I mean not only the ‘street art’ – murals and other forms of building decoration – that is condoned, and even encouraged, to a much greater extent by the authorities here, but also basic tagging and slogan writing. Poitiers has always had its fair share of this, but in the past month, well, to quote Harold Shand, the Bob Hoskins character in The Long Good Friday, ‘Now there’s been an eruption.’

I came out of our house the other morning to see this on the wall of our neighbour Nicole:

It’s a call for Jean-Michel Blanquer, the current Minister of Education, to resign. M. Blanquer is the target of quite a lot of the current outbreak. I saw Nicole later in the day, and when I commiserated, she just shrugged and smiled. It’s the second time in a couple of months that she’s been done, probably because her patch of white wall is the most inviting ‘canvas’ in the street. With luck it will be gone in a week or so.

The more acceptable form of street art: Voie André Malraux

In Poitiers, more than 2,000 tags were deleted in 2020, and according to Benoît Texereau, responsible for urban cleaning in the city, 600 have already been removed since January, more than half of them in the city centre. The city allocates €100,000 each year to tagging removal, and two men, Yohan Prior and Christophe Giraudon, are employed full-time on the task. They have been working together for fifteen years and have become good friends.

The statistics include only painted tags removed and do not take stickers and fly-posters into account. On average, between five and twenty tags are removed every day. According to Yohan, ‘We erased nearly 245 tags between mid-March and mid-April. It’s a mixture of feminist tags and tags against the government.’ Removing each one ‘can take between 30 seconds and 3 hours, depending on the size of the tag and the fragility of the building’s construction material’. One worrying development is that, during the previous lockdown, the taggers hardly damaged the walls, if at all. ‘Now that doesn’t bother them anymore.’ Yohan and Christophe have recently been equipped with a new machine, a hydrogommeuse, specifically to deal with more fragile surfaces.



Stencils are quick and effecive

M. Texereau says that, while all graffiti will be removed, the ‘prettier’ ones are left till last. The priority is to remove racist tags and other offensive ones that target individuals and communities as quickly as possible. Christophe explains the process: ‘We mask them very quickly with white Meudon [a primer] and then come back to erase them in the following couple of days.’ I’ve seen this in action, and their success rate is quite impressive. However, they appear to have missed the one around the corner from us, which accuses the current Minister of the Interior of being a rapist. It’s been there for over two weeks.

Posting graffiti can incur heavy fines, ranging from €1,500 to €7,500. The way the content of a specific item is worded may also constitute a separate offence in itself. The council provide the police with a regularly updated map of the tags. They occasionally catch the perpetrators in action, but the odds are against them. The current curfew means that, for long periods, the streets are empty of pedestrians, potential witnesses who might act as a deterrent.

Finally, one odd fact. According to Yohan, the feminists tend to tag early in the morning, while other groups do it at night. Suggestions for why this might be are welcome.

Graffiti of yesteryear. A wall near Parc Blossac


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There we were, having a pleasant Saturday morning stroll by the river …

And then I saw …

Haven’t slept a wink since.

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Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1905, the city of Birmingham banned rifle shooting in pubs.

The ancient Greek city of Megara held a version of the Olympic Games that included a kissing contest. Only boys were allowed to enter.

The Japanese word kareishu describes the smell of old people.

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Tweet of the Week:

‘Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and make up your mind for fuck’s sake, you were laughing a minute ago.’ (Paul Bassett Davis)

Time Regained

Easter is always a busy time for the Poitiers graffiti artists

Daylight Saving Time began last Sunday (as did British Summer Time in the UK). The clocks went forward overnight, and it was still dark when we got up, but that will change fairly quickly.

This should have been the last year for this. In 2018, the European Parliament drafted a law proposing that 2021 would be the last time that EU states applied the seasonal clock change. They would either now stay on summer time or move back one last time in October and then stay on winter time permanently. However, this is now unlikely to happen this year. Even if we weren’t all too busy dealing with Covid, there are a number of difficulties to overcome. Most northern states would prefer to remain on winter time, while most southern states would prefer summer time. Russia and Ukraine do not want to have the same time zone, and other countries that share borders have concerns. There is a possibility that Ireland and Northern Ireland would be on different times for six months each year. The debate will continue for a while yet.

Here in France, when we were all asked to express our opinion in 2019, the consensus was 59% in favour of staying on summer time. Madame and I voted for winter time, as permanent summer time means that in winter it wouldn’t get light in Poitiers much before 10 a.m. The darker mornings here in France were one of the few things I regretted about our move, and the favoured option would only make matters worse. Poitiers is more or less on the same line of longitude as London, and one could argue that France should have two time zones, with the western half moving to Greenwich Mean Time. Sadly, this ain’t going to happen.

Still, one can get used to anything, and I’ve come to terms with our new situation. The long summer evenings are certainly very enjoyable. As I get older, I need less and less sleep, so I’m usually up at around 5.30 a.m. these days, when it’s dark anyway, regardless of the season.

There is a certain amount of light available each day, and the trick is to use whatever is available regardless of whatever ‘o’clock’ people choose to call it. This was the thinking that led Benjamin Franklin, not entirely seriously, to make the first recorded proposal of a form of ‘daylight saving’. In a letter sent to the Journal de Paris on 26 April 1784, he describes how, having fallen asleep at around 3 a.m., he is woken by noise at 6 a.m. and is surprised at the amount of light in his room. Reading an almanac confirms that the sun will rise earlier and earlier until the end of June:

This event made me think of more important and serious things. If I hadn’t been awake so early in the morning, I would have slept six more hours in the sunlight, and, on the other hand, would have spent six hours the next night by candlelight.

He continues:

Assuming that there are 100,000 families in Paris … In six months between March 20 and September 20, there are 183 nights. 7 hours per night of candle use. The multiplication gives 1,281 hours. Those 1,281 hours multiplied by 100,000 is 128,100,000. Each candle requires 1/2 pound of tallow and wax, for a total of 64,050,000 pounds. At a price of thirty sols per pound of tallow and wax …

I can’t be bothered to work out what that amount is in new money, but it is obviously, as Franklin states:

a huge sum that the city of Paris could save each year!

Instead of clock changes, Franklin proposed:

(1) taxing residents who leave their shutters closed (one louis per window – about 45 euros);

(2) rationing candles to one pound per family per week;

(3) sounding church bells and, if necessary, canons at sunrise to inform all the inhabitants of the arrival of light.

Note that Franklin’s plan was to wake people up earlier and not to shift the hours of watches and clocks.

The growth of industrialisation and an increasingly busy world led to the idea of Daylight Saving Time gradually garnering more support throughout the nineteenth century. Port Arthur in Ontario, Canada was the first city in the world to enact DST, in 1908. However, the idea did not catch on globally until clocks in the German Empire and Austria were turned ahead by one hour on 30 April 1916 – two years into World War I. The rationale was to minimise the use of artificial lighting and thus save fuel for the war effort.

Within a few weeks, the idea was followed by the UK, France, and many other countries. Most of them reverted to standard time after World War I (though not the UK, Ireland, or France), and it wasn’t until the next World War that DST made its return in most of Europe.

The concept has always been controversial, and various countries have seen it withdrawn, adjusted, and reintroduced over the years. Whether changing it would save or endanger lives is always being argued over in the UK, particularly in Scotland.

I must admit that there is a tiny part of me that rather likes the idea of different countries going their own way on this. Now that globalisation is standardising everything, with most European cities looking increasingly similar, a lot of the romance has gone out of travel. A series of progressive time changes across Europe would add a little zest to things. Perhaps these could even be introduced at different times of the year so that one could never be quite certain what time zone one was in. What fun to arrive in, say, Prague at 9 a.m. and see everyone settling down for dinner.

As usual, Flann O’Brien has got there first:

My idea is to have the hours altered so that public houses will be permitted to open only between two and five in the morning. This means that if you are a drinking man you’ll have to be in earnest about it. Picture the result. A rustle is heard in the warm dark bedroom that has been lulled for hours with gentle breathing. Two naked feet are tenderly lowered to the floor and a shaky hand starts foraging blindly for matches. Then there is a further sleepy noise as another person half-wakens and rolls round. ‘John! What’s the matter?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘But where are you going?’ ‘Out for a pint.’ ‘But John! It’s half two.’ ‘Don’t care what time it is.’ ‘But it’s pouring rain. You’ll get your death of cold.’ ‘I tell you I’m going out for a pint. Don’t be trying to make a ridiculous scene. All over Dublin thousands of men are getting up just now. I haven’t had a drink for twenty-four hours.’

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Things I’ve learnt this week:

In seventeenth-century England, effigies of Guy Fawkes were stuffed with live cats to make the figure scream as it burned.

A popular Roman hangover cure was deep-fried canary.

It is illegal in China to show TV ads for haemorrhoid cream at mealtimes.

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