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.

Money, masks and markets

When I were a lad’ (1)

When I was about 12, I went through the collecting phase. Stamps, coins, football programmes, etc. None of them lasted that long. During the stamps period, I remember a teacher, Mr Murray, a slightly deranged Scotsman, telling me that a good guide to a country’s importance was their postage stamps. Small inconsequential nations (the word ‘tinpot’ may have been used) were forever producing new sets of gaudily coloured stamps commemorating a trivial event in their history or an individual that nobody outside their borders had ever heard of. ‘Serious’ nations, like the UK, would just have the head of state on their stamps and would produce commemorative stamps on only the rarest of occasions.

This would have been about 1963, and a quick check shows that, certainly as far as the UK was concerned, he was right up to that point. In 1924, the first commemorative stamps were issued for the British Empire Exhibition. There were only a handful of commemorative issues over the next thirty years, usually to mark a royal occasion – a coronation, wedding, or jubilee.

Sadly for Mr Murray, it was about this time that the rot set in. From 1963, the Post Office started issuing commemorative stamps more and more regularly. There were four sets in 1964 (including a set marking Shakespeare’s quatercentenary) and nine in 1965 (including a set to mark the death of Winston Churchill). In 2019 there were fifteen (including Marvel Comics, The Gruffalo, and Star Wars). So far this year there have been sets for video games, James Bond, and Coronation Street. Delights to come include Rupert Bear, Sherlock, and Star Trek.

Why am I telling you this? Well, a similar trend can now be seen with the UK’s currency. In my coin-collecting phase, I briefly owned a very handsome 1860 Victorian half-crown; a hundred years later, apart from the monarch’s head, the design was still almost identical.

Now it’s been announced that the Royal Mint are producing a set of coins to honour Sir Elton John. Four of them will have a face value of £5 (but for some reason will cost £15 each). There will also be a £100 one-ounce gold coin (costing £2,320), and a £100 kilo gold coin (£68,865). Apparently it’s the latest in the Royal Mint series of ‘Music Legends’ coin sets. The first of these, which had Queen on them, came out in January. This passed me by completely, but then, ‘Queen to appear on UK coin’ is not the most eye-catching of headlines.

Queen
Elton John

Does any of this matter? Not really. Probably just a touch of indigestion.

***

When I were a lad’ (2)

I can remember a time when, on leaving the house, all you had to do was remember your keys and money. Over the years, glasses were sadly added to the list, then a phone – at which point the mnemonic KPMG became a useful reminder. Now a mask is yet another item to join the little pile on the hall table. I’ve got used to wearing mine now, and I’m getting better at putting it on without being reminded to do so by Madame.

I’ve noticed that, even when not wearing them, most people are now carrying one ready to slip on when going into a shop or café. Some leave them dangling from one ear, which I think gives them a slightly deranged look. Others tuck them under their chin or upwards and onto their foreheads, like cricketers with their sunglasses. In The Times recently, Matthew Parris tells of seeing a man in a suit with his mask folded neatly and tucked into the breast pocket of his jacket, only the blue point showing, as a gentleman might do with the handkerchief into which he is never going to blow his nose.

According to Mr Parris, the ripped jeans favoured by teenagers today could be a throwback to the Renaissance when, for a time, there was a fashion for men’s garments to sport a pre-sewn slit to hint at a (highly unlikely) recent sword fight. In the same way, at some time in the future when this pandemic is long forgotten, it might be fashionable for women to hang elegant fabric pendants from one ear, or for young men to strap a piece of elasticated cotton on the tops of their heads. And nobody will remember why.

***

On Wednesday morning, I went to the market at Place de Provence. This involves a climb up a very steep hill to reach the Couronneries quartier of Poitiers, which is basically a collection of housing estates with a few small scattered malls and cheap shops. It’s a very different place to Centre-ville, where we live, and this is reflected in the street markets in the two areas. In Centre-ville, the Saturday market is held around the central covered market, which is open six days a week. It is mainly a food market, with a few antiques stalls around the periphery. The customers are predominantly white, and there are occasions when I’ve visited and it has reminded me of the Armstrong and Miller sketch about English Farmer’s markets, which is worth a look if you haven’t seen it.

In the Couronneries, the market is held on Wednesday and Sunday mornings. Place de Provence sounds nice but is basically a large car park in front of the U Express supermarket. The population is a lot more cosmopolitan here, and the atmosphere is reminiscent of London’s Brick Lane. As well as food, there are stalls selling clothes, household goods, bedding, and furniture.

Despite their differences, both markets are a treat to visit. The range and quality of food is really impressive, much of it is locally grown, and the competition keeps prices pretty keen.

On Wednesday when I went, a group of local students were conducting a survey about people’s attitudes to bringing up children and how much of this people felt should be solely the responsibility of women. They were recording people’s opinions on card and adding them to a display in the middle of the marketplace. One of them approached me and, despite my protestations about my poor French, my mumbled contribution was noted and my card was eventually added to the display. All well and good, but the buggers never said they were going to put my age on it!

Non!
Old enough to know better