John Banville and me

To Paris on Tuesday. An event at the Centre Culturel Irlandais to publicise the French edition of John Banville’s last book, Mrs Osmond. For some years now, I’ve been busily not writing a PhD thesis on Mr Banville. In doing this, I’ve read all his published works several times, and I’ve accumulated a substantial library of critical books and papers on him – everything from Partial Bodies, Ephemeral Subjects: Uncanny Corporeality in John Banville’s Eclipse, Shroud, and Ancient Light by Mehdi Ghassemi of Université de Lille, to What’s in Your Basket?, a Guardian article in which a doctor analyses someone’s weekly shopping and delivers a verdict on its suitability. (Banville drinks too much red wine but gets bonus points for liking dark chocolate, fish, and unpasteurised cheese.)

I have recordings of TV and radio programmes devoted to his work, and I have spent happy hours in the National Library in Dublin poring over microfiches of now-defunct magazines in order to access his earliest reviews and articles. If I went on Mastermind and were to get through to the second round, my chosen subject would be ‘The Novels of John Banville’. (In the first round, it would be ‘The Public Houses of South-West London, 1970–2000.’)

I admit that, up till now, the results of all this might seem less than impressive; an unkind person might say non-existent. But what people don’t realise is that the more one explores one’s subject, the more paths open up for new research (further trips to Dublin will definitely be required).

Equally, there has been a shift in emphasis in thesis writing – textual analysis is seen as old hat, and the tendency now is to write a first-person account of one’s relationship with the subject’s work and its effect on one’s life. I’ve noticed that, in their own writings, some established authors have had commercial success with this; for instance, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage (on his admiration for D. H. Lawrence) and Nicholson Baker’s U and I (on John Updike) have both sold well.

With this in mind, I am currently mulling over a new approach – a lightly fictionalised account of my relationship with Mr B. in which he and I meet by chance in Mulligan’s bar in Dublin. We discover that we get on extremely well, and then we embark on a trip around European cities discussing literary matters and helping the local police to solve crimes.

To date, no biography of Banville has been published. Given the amount of material I have amassed, I am increasingly tempted to start not writing a biography alongside my thesis, though I fear that might be biting off more than I could chew.

Anyway. There I was in the Centre Culturel on Tuesday evening. It’s a lovely building in Rue Irlandais, close to the Panthéon, in the heart of the Latin Quarter. As we mill around in the courtyard waiting for the lecture room to open, it’s clear that many of the audience are regulars who know each other; as an outsider, I am glanced at with mild curiosity. They are predominantly female. Clusters of two or three well-dressed, middle-class women of a certain age who would be quite at home in Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. Their slightly less soigné male counterparts, usually on their own, might be more comfortable in one of William Trevor’s seaside boarding-houses. A couple of them look as if they, too, are not writing something – probably a novel.

Banville spoke for half an hour, without notes, on James Joyce and his time in Paris. He was, as always, witty, self-deprecatory, and wise. There were anecdotes about Beckett, Yeats, and Joyce’s wife, Nora. At the end there were surprisingly few questions from the audience, so I asked one about his current writing plans. He said that in 2022 he hopes to finish a book that he has been working on for five years; he thinks it may be his last, as he is 75 and his memory is not what it was. Referring to a passage from Birchwood that had been read out when he was being introduced: ‘For the life of me, I don’t remember writing that at all.’

A glass of wine was being offered at the end, but I decided to leave the regulars to it. I strolled down to Place Saint-Michel and headed for Corcoran’s in Rue Saint-André des Arts.

Place Saint-Michel

Dinner was a pint of Guinness and a croque-monsieur, eaten with one eye on my scribbled notes from the talk, the other on Arsenal vs Leeds on the TV. Over the years, much of my research work has been done in this fashion, which probably explains quite a lot.


Earlier in the day, I’d spent a pleasant few hours flâneuring around the city. I popped into the Bibliothèque Nationale in Rue de Richelieu to see the wonderful reading room, which looks a little like the one in the old British Library before it moved to St Pancras. (If you click on the photos, they will open in a new window.)


Nearby, at no. 10 Rue des Petits Carreaux, you can see (though perhaps not for much longer) this controversial sign above a long-closed coffee shop. It shows a scantily-clad slave serving coffee to his master, who is comfortably seated on sacks of coffee beans.

Splattered with black paint, the sign, like the recently toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, is a reminder of nineteenth-century colonialism. There is an ongoing debate about whether it should be pulled down or not.


An exhibition will soon be under way at the Hôtel de Ville to mark Paris’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 2024.

The logo for the Games is meant to depict the Olympic flame within a gold medal, and the hair and lips of Marianne, the personification of the French Republic since the 1789 revolution. However, some say it looks more like an advert for a hairdressing salon or a dating website.


Just before going to the talk, I stopped to take a photo of PLATHEON, a lovely little shop around the corner from the Centre Culturel that sells ceramics, jewellery, and knitwear; it’s well worth a visit if you are in the area.

To my surprise, the owner, a charming woman by the name of Serpil Utebay, asked me in for a chat. She said that events at the Centre are always welcome, as they are likely to bring potential customers in. It turns out the shop is really her husband Cem’s project, and Serpil devotes most of her time to philosophy research. As I left, she called me back and presented me with an attractive canvas bag with the shop’s logo on it. Inside was a stylish pair of Aegean-blue socks. I thanked her and promised to mention the shop in my blog. So here it is, my first ever venture into commercial sponsorship.

I am very receptive to suggestions for more of this, particularly from vineyards and distilleries.

We’ll always have Paris…

Graffiti, Parc de Belleville

One of the great joys of Paris is its compactness. The twenty arrondissements are effectively fenced in by the Boulevard Périphérique, and one can walk from Porte de Clignancourt in the north to Porte d’Italie in the south, just over 6 miles, in a couple of hours. Going from the edge of the Bois de Boulogne in the west to Porte de Bagnolet in the east is just under 7 miles, so it would take another 20 minutes or so. The city is made for walking.

Comparisons with London are difficult because of the more sprawling nature of the latter. A reasonable comparison might be going north/south from Parliament Hill in Hampstead to Wimbledon Common, which is a shade over 11 miles, and going west/east from White City to Canary Wharf, which is 10.5 miles. Every Londoner will have their own notional city boundaries (I always got a bit nervous once I was north of King’s Cross or east of Liverpool Street).

The past three days have been spent carousing in Paris – Madame’s treat for my birthday on Friday. It was warm and sunny, and we spent nearly all of it outdoors. Masks still scrupulously worn by everyone on public transport and in enclosed spaces. Far less so on the streets. According to my Google Fitness app, we averaged a shade under 8 miles (20,000 steps) a day, which is not bad going. It did, of course, require plenty of pit stops for refuelling on the way.

A few garbled jottings from our time there.

On Thursday morning, we headed north-east on the metro to Pyrénées to show Madame the wonderful city view from Parc de Belleville. We then walked back to the city centre via Rue de Belleville and Rue du Faubourg-du-Temple. I like this area. It’s lively and noisy, with a noticeable influx of Chinese people since I lived here twenty years ago.

Street Art, Rue de Belleville

Restaurants and bars have been allowed to extend their terraces wherever possible. This generally gives the city an even more festive air than usual, though perhaps it doesn’t always work …

Rue du Dragon

On Friday, we went to the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris, in the heart of the Marais. It’s one of my favourite museums and has just reopened after four years of renovation work. It looks superb. It’s free to enter, and one can spend a very enjoyable hour wandering the bright, airy galleries. We had come to see the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition, which was every bit as good as I had hoped. There is a slide show here showing some of the exhibits.

Be warned, tickets are sold by entry time. Allow a little time before your session starts, because you will be stopped by a bewildering number of individuals checking that you have a ticket, that it’s for the right day and time, that you’re in the right queue for your session, that you have your health pass … ‘and if we could just have one last look at your ticket, monsieur? Merci! Enjoy your visit.’

Palais du Louvre

At lunchtime we walked through the grounds of the Palais du Louvre to Galerie Vivienne for a glass of champagne in Legrand, the wine bar and wine merchants. This has become a birthday tradition. That is to say, we also did it last year, and I don’t see any reason to stop now.

Joyeux anniversaire à moi!

A light lunch in Bar du Moulin nearby, then back to the hôtel to fall asleep watching Maigret.

A walk along the river in the evening, then dinner at Chez Fernand Christine, not far from our hotel in Rue de l’Odéon. It’s a sister restaurant to Chez Fernand in Rue Guisarde, and their speciality is the same ‘légendaire bœuf bourguignon de Rémi Lebon,’ which we both had. It was as good as always, but the portions are definitely getting smaller.

The evening’s entertainment was provided by three Americans at the next table, one of whom had the strongest Brooklyn accent I’ve ever heard. They ordered four starters, which they shared. We’d started before they arrived and left before their mains arrived, but they had already almost demolished the magnum of Sancerre that Brooklyn had ordered. He was drinking vodka chasers alongside this.

Brooklyn: Ya got any French vodka?

Waiter: Yes, sir, we do.

B: Is it smooth?

W: Oh yes, sir, it’s very smooth.

B: I hate smooth. Ya got any Stoly?

W: Yes, sir.

I was sorry to leave. If nothing else, I would have loved to see their bill.

After dinner, another, slightly more atavistic, birthday tradition, a couple of pints of Guinness in Corcoran’s in Rue Saint-André-des-Arts.

Corcoran’s, Rue Saint-André des Arts

A nightcap in Les Éditeurs in Carrefour de l’Odéon, and then gently floating homeward, feeling no pain.

Carrefour de l’Odéon, Midnight Saturday 24th July

On Saturday morning, we set out to visit the catacombs. I’d first tried to do this many years ago with friends Frank and John, but a sudden digestive crisis had forced me to leave them to it while I found what Brooklyn would have called a restroom. For some reason, this proved unexpectedly difficult, and by the time I succeeded it was too late to join them.

I was no luckier this time. The Covid virus has led to stricter controls on the number of visitors, and booking in advance is necessary, something we had failed to do.

Instead we went to Le Bon Marché, the upmarket department store whose food hall would give that of Harrods a run for its money. We toyed with paying €3,000 for a bottle of Chateau Latour or stocking up with Bird’s Custard Powder from their British section, but decided to leave both for another day.

Decisions, decisions

Lunch sitting in the sun outside ever-reliable Le Petit Saint-Benoit, then to Gare Montparnasse to share the train home with about half a million people heading for the coast.

A very enjoyable few days.


Things I’ve learnt this week … For some reason, I have forgotten everything I have learnt this week, but Madame has just told me a funny story.

Apparently the animal charity PDSA runs its promotional material on a syndicated basis. Thus you will see similar posters and signs in different cities throughout the UK: ‘PDSA. Helping Edinburgh animals,’ ‘PDSA. Helping Blackpool animals,’ ‘PDSA. Helping Norwich animals,’ etc.

All well and good, but they have just opened a branch in Bury.

Free at last – more or less

Guess where we’ve been?

On Thursday, we went to Paris to spend a couple of days celebrating our new-found freedom. The sun was shining, and although service is still confined to their terraces, there was no shortage of cafés, bars, and restaurants in which to while away the time very pleasantly. Because of the restrictions on foreign travel, the atmosphere was a little strange at times. We had a stroll through Montmartre, and the streets around Place du Tertre, normally full of people at this time of year, were eerily quiet.

Montmartre – eerily quiet

On Friday, we had a mooch around the 7th arrondissement and saw one or two exteriors that have given Madame food for thought when we next decorate the front of our house.

148 Rue de Grenelle

29 Avenue Rapp

Restaurant owners won’t agree with this, but I found that one unexpected benefit of the reduction in tourist numbers was that waiters and bar staff were noticeably more relaxed and happy to chat to customers. I don’t hold with the idea that service in France, and Paris in particular, is generally poor. Someone once explained to me that, in brasseries especially, staff tend to work long hours and are generally pretty stretched. They need to be quick, and this can sometimes be misinterpreted as rudeness. In my experience, if you are polite, they will be too.

The 21.00 curfew is still in force, but in practice this seems to mean that restaurants stop serving at 21.00. People were still ordering meals up to ten minutes before this. Customers then slowly drifted home over the next hour. It all seemed very relaxed, and the police were noticeably absent.

Masks still need to be worn in the street …

… though exemptions are sometimes granted.

As always, no matter what your cultural interests are, you will find plenty of things to see and do in Paris.

Still lost in France

Still game


I think French food is wonderful. Poitiers has umpteen good restaurants, and a trip around the local market is always a treat. And yet, I do worry sometimes.

After the opening of Chien Chaud (see January 10th), the hot dog bar in Rue Magenta, I couldn’t help noticing that a couple of other café-restaurants have added hot dogs to their menus. And now Casa Huet, a restaurant just up the road in Saint-Benoît, has installed a pizza vending machine in front of its premises in Rue de Naintré.

According to the owner, Christophe Huet, ‘We had been thinking about it for a while, but the first lockdown accelerated things because people could only leave their homes for a short time.’

M. Huet and his team with their pizza machine

The pizzas are 80% pre-cooked and stored in the machine at 5 °C. You make a selection from a touch screen offering a variety of eight toppings, including merguez, peppers and onions, four cheese, pizza aux saint-jacques (scallops), local speciality la Poitevine (goat’s cheese and honey) and the ‘burger pizza’ (the mind boggles). You pay by bank card, and after three minutes your pizza is cooked at 350 °C. You can also buy it cold for reheating at home.

According to M. Huet, it’s been a great success, and over two hundred pizzas were sold in the first week. All well and good, but apparently he now intends to ‘develop the concept’. Mark my words, before you know it there will be a bœuf Bourguignon dispenser in the main square.


Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1903, the three largest sports stadiums in the world were all in Glasgow.

At actor Derek Fowlds’s funeral in 2020, Basil Brush was amongst the mourners and read a poem.

Hairy-legged tights are sold in China to protect girls from unwanted male attention.


There’s graffiti, and then there’s graffiti. Under the viaduct Voie André Malraux, Poitiers.


Always good to start the week with some good news. There’s a story in Le Parisien this morning about Félix, a homeless person (in France, an SDF – sans domicile fixe) who has just been awarded damages against the magazine Paris Match because of a photo that appeared in an article about crack addiction. The photo, taken in a metro station, shows some crack-smokers with their faces blurred out. Unfortunately, the face of Félix (not his real name), seated nearby, was left untouched. Friends of his had recognised him and alerted him to the photo. Félix, who has never smoked crack, was concerned that his family in France and Guyana might see it and be worried about his well-being. He was put in touch with a charitable association, whose lawyers sued Paris Match on his behalf. Félix was awarded €10,000 and the magazine was told to remove the image from their website and app or they would be fined a further €2,000 for every additional day it appeared. An administrative cock-up left it on the app for a couple of weeks, and Félix eventually received €40,000. Le Parisien gleefully points out that former Prime Minister Manuel Valls only received €8,000 when Paris Match published a front-page picture of him with a new partner.

It’s good to know that it’s not just the Beckhams of this world whose image rights are protected.


Through our patchwork of vaguely dodgy software, we watched the BBC’s Line of Duty last night. Madame is an addict, but I think it probably peaked around the third series. Nevertheless, now that Engrenages (Spiral) is finished, it’s better than anything currently on French TV.

The first episode was certainly gripping, but I was baffled throughout by a strange word being used. Was it ‘chiz’? Perhaps the writers were trying to get a new word into the dictionary? After all, according to some sources, this is how the similar-sounding ‘quiz’ is said to have been created. In 1791, a Dublin theatre owner named Richard Daly made a bet that he could introduce a word into the language within twenty-four hours. He then went out and hired a group of children to write the word ‘quiz’ on walls around the city. Within a day, the word was being talked about everywhere, and as nobody had a clue as to its meaning, it was taken to be some sort of test. Daly had won his bet.

Or maybe, God help us, it was ‘jizz’, now being relaunched as an item of police terminology. Maybe the writers were following the example set by the team working on the Daily Mail diary in the 1980s. They had dared each other to get the term ‘moist gusset’ into print, and eventually one of them invented the dashing Swiss playboy Moi St Gusset. Tales of Moi’s romantic escapades appeared regularly, until his creators killed him off in a skiing accident.

The truth is more mundane. The word was the acronym CHIS, which stands for Covert Human Intelligence Source. At least I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. People were googling frantically during the programme, trying to establish its meaning.

Two questions. If it’s so common (someone seemed to use it every couple of minutes last night), why had it never been heard in the previous twenty-nine hours of the programme? And what’s wrong with ‘snout’, anyway?


Two extracts from letters recently read. The first is an illustration of how novelists can bring passion to the page. The second shows that they can also have a more practical approach to life:

I want to gorge you with all the joys of the flesh, until you faint and die. I want you to be astonished by me, to confess to yourself that you had never even dreamed of such transports. I am the one who has been happy, now I want you to be the same. When you are old, I want you to recall those few hours. I want your dry bones to quiver with joy when you think of them.

Gustave Flaubert, Letter to Louise Colet, 1846

My affectionate & most excellent wife is as you are aware still living—and I am proud to say her health is good. Nevertheless it is always well to take time by the forelock and be prepared for all events. Should anything happen to her, will you supply her place,—as soon as the proper period for decent mourning is over.

Till then I am your devoted Servant.

Anthony Trollope, Letter to Dorothea Sankey, 1861


Every week there seems to be some new evidence that the current UK government is determined to destroy the BBC, aided and abetted by those who would benefit most from its demise. For now, though, we enjoy it while we can. One of its little gems is the charmingly eccentric Round Britain Quiz, which has been running since 1947. Two-person teams, mostly writers and broadcasters from different regions of the UK, compete with each other in answering absurdly complicated questions, most of which have been sent in by listeners. A new series started this month, and we listened to an episode last night.

Here is a sample question:

Who is missing from this list? Yellowcoat Gladys; the most recent Amy March; a Lindisfarne saint; Top Cat’s nemesis; and the maker of the Greenwich Observatory telescope?

Time’s up!

Yellowcoat Gladys is Hi-de-Hi!’s Gladys PUGH.

The most recent Amy March was actress Florence PUGH, in the film Little Women.

A Lindisfarne saint is St CUTHBERT.

Top Cat’s nemesis was Officer DIBBLE.

The telescope maker was Howard GRUBB.

Younger readers will of course realise that Pugh, Pugh, … Cuthbert, Dibble, and Grubb were members of Trumpton Fire Brigade.

So the missing person is ‘obviously’ BARNEY McGREW.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I realised that I actually knew the answer to this.


Things I’ve learnt this week:

There are six villages in France called Silly, twelve called Billy, and two called Prat.

During the 1962 World Cup match between England and Brazil, a dog ran onto the pitch and urinated on Jimmy Greaves.

The Brazilian player Garrincha adopted the dog after the game.


The view south from Pont Joubert this morning

It’s officially springtime. Most of the people I know in England are currently in strict training for the reopening of pubs on April 12th, but here in France the gloom steadily deepens.

On Thursday night, Prime Minister Jean Castex said, ‘The situation is deteriorating,’ as he announced the new lockdown for the worst-hit parts of the country. Since midnight on Friday the country has been divided, as it was in the summer, with stricter rules for those areas where cases are highest. Sixteen départements have been placed back under lockdown because of high case numbers and severe pressure on local hospitals. The sixteen are in northern France, the Paris region, including the city itself, and the south east. In total, around 21 million people, about a third of the country’s population, are affected.

These areas are now in lockdown for a month, although it’s a more relaxed lockdown than we have had previously. All non-essential shops will close, but the government has expanded the definition of ‘essential’ to include bookshops, music shops, and hairdressers. Schools are staying open. The rules on exercise and getting fresh air have also been relaxed compared to previous confinements, with no time limit on trips out of the home, although you must stay within 10 km. On leaving home, you require an exemption certificate, or attestation, stating the purpose of your trip. Unlike non-lockdown zones, where meeting up with friends or family is allowed indoors or outdoors (with a recommended limit of six people), in lockdown areas, trips out for social purposes are not allowed.

Those who live in one of the lockdown zones have not been permitted to travel to another region since midnight on Friday, unless they have an essential or work-related reason. People living outside the lockdown zones can still travel freely around the country.

On Friday, main roads around Paris saw 400 km of traffic jams, and trains heading out of the capital were fully booked, as Parisians fled the city just hours before the new lockdown was set to come into force. Most were heading for areas free from the restrictions, such as Brittany, the southwest Atlantic coast, and Lyon in the southeast.

It is not immediately obvious, judging from this lunchtime scene by the Seine yesterday, that the new restrictions are having much impact.

Here in Poitiers, in the Vienne département, we are not affected, and one could argue that there was some positive news for us in Prime Minister Castex’s announcement. From Saturday, the curfew moved back one hour, so it is in force from 7pm rather than 6pm and runs until 6am. This change affects the whole of France, including those areas placed under lockdown. The PM said it was being done to take account of the clocks changing for ‘summertime’ on March 28th. This means that shops will be able to remain open until 7pm instead of having to close at 6pm.

We took advantage of the extra hour and went out for a stroll around the city centre yesterday. It was a bright sunny evening, and many others had obviously had the same idea. Somehow, the busy streets made the fact that all the bar terraces and restaurants were shut seem even sadder.


Although trips to and from Paris are now off limits, I have managed to beat the lockdown, in spirit at least, by signing up for an online French language course at the Alliance Française school there. Madame had already signed up for one at their Bordeaux school and spoke highly of them, so I thought I’d give it a go. The dates at Paris suited me better, so now, for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening, we go to rooms just a few yards apart, to attend classes in schools several hundred kilometres away from each other. This internet thing is really very clever.

I had previously been enrolled on a course at a London university, but this was attended mainly by people of my own age, who were, and I don’t mean this unkindly, approaching it as hobbyists, happy to try a little French conversation once a week, gently steered by a friendly teacher. The new class is very different. Nearly all the other students, of various nationalities, are under thirty and need French because they are living or working in France, most of them in Paris. The pace is brisk, and there is lots of emphasis on speaking and pronunciation. It’s a very refreshing change.

In a moment of madness, I’ve also enrolled on a digital photography course with the Open University. This is turning out to be fascinating, and I am enjoying it hugely, though Madame has warned me that the first mention of glamour shots will lead to instant confiscation of my camera. (The Poitiers pictures here are part of this week’s homework.)

The two courses combined mean that suddenly there don’t seem to be enough hours in the day, and I’m starting to feel a little manic. Maybe it’s an OAP version of the midlife crisis – at least it’s not a Harley Davidson.

Poitiers Rooftops


At the start of my French course a couple of weeks ago, I’d mentioned to our teacher, Anne, that I wrote this blog, and she told me on Tuesday evening how much she enjoyed reading it. I felt quite chuffed, until she added, ‘What I really like is those funny little pieces you put at the end.’ The correspondence that comes pouring in each week (sometimes as many as two emails) all tells the same story.

So there it is. The considerable effort I put into writing this deathless prose is a complete waste of time, and I might just as well fill the pages with more of the vaguely salacious titbits garnered from Twitter and the gutter press. Thank you all very much.


Things I’ve learnt this week:

Andy Warhol always wore green underpants.

When Wal-Mart was attempting to open stores in Germany, they had to withdraw their policy of requiring staff members to smile at customers, because German customers found it weird and off-putting   

.Sir Walter Raleigh’s devoted widow, Elizabeth, kept his decapitated head with her in a velvet bag for twenty-nine years.

Your hair grows quicker when you are anticipating sexual intercourse.

It’s all there in black and white.

I’d been looking forward to visiting the Grand Palais in Paris last November, to see Noir et Blanc, a black-and-white photography exhibition, but the virus, of course, put paid to that. The exhibition never even opened. Now it’s been relaunched online, and a fine job they’ve made of it. A €4 ticket allows you to ‘visit’ as many times as you like in a week, and tickets can be bought from now till mid-June. The website offers a 3D tour of the exhibition; all the prints can be seen, and an audio guide is available. There are more than 300 prints from the nineteenth century to the present day, taken by some 200 photographers from 30 different countries. The website software takes a little getting used to, but after a few minutes it’s fairly straightforward. I’m particularly interested in photographers who specialised in Paris street life, such as Willi Ronis, Brassaï, and Robert Doisneau, and all of them are represented here.

Probably the most famous work in this field is Doisneau’s Le Baiser de l’hôtel de ville (The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville).

It was taken in March 1950, on the corner of rue du Renard and rue de Rivoli, with the Hôtel de Ville clearly visible in the background. Published in Life magazine in June of that year, it was then more or less forgotten until 1986, when Doisneau gave a publisher permission to use it. It became hugely successful, appearing on posters, postcards, and T-shirts all over the world. For many, the image captures the very essence of romance, but its history also perhaps serves as a reminder that the course of true love doesn’t always run smooth.

Despite its sense of spontaneity, the image is in fact staged. Doisneau had gone out in the streets with some young actors he knew, following them around as they held hands, talked, and kissed. According to his daughter Annette, ‘His models weren’t models, in the sense that they didn’t pose. Doisneau was simply catching them flirting and kissing, in a very natural way.’

Following the success of the published image, many couples came forward claiming to be the ones in the picture. When one such couple, Denise and Jean-Louis Lavergne, visited Doisneau and his daughter in 1990, he chose not to tell them of their error. ‘He said nothing,’ said Annette. ‘I asked him why he hadn’t told them the truth. He said he didn’t want to shatter their dream.’

This kindness was to prove costly for Doisneau. In 1993, the Lavergnes took him to court, claiming that they were the couple in the picture and demanding $100,000 compensation for taking the picture without their knowledge.

The lawsuit forced Doisneau to admit that the shot wasn’t spontaneous, and the case was dismissed. However, his legal trouble didn’t end there. Françoise Bornet, the actress who appears in the photo with her then-boyfriend, Jacques Carteaud, came forward and sued for a portion of the poster sales, claiming that Carteaud was paid 500 francs by Doisneau and hadn’t shared the money with her. This case was also dismissed, though for Mme Bornet there was a happy ending of sorts. In 2005 she sold the original signed print that Doisneau had sent her a few days after taking the shot. A Swiss collector paid €155,000 for it at a Paris auction, more than ten times what it was expected to fetch.

At the time of the sale, Mme Bornet, by then in her seventies, revealed that her and Jacques’ relationship only lasted around nine months. Even though they are forever linked in the picture, they didn’t stay in touch. ‘I now think of it as a picture that should never really have existed,’ she said. ‘The photo was posed. But the kiss was real.’


A few black and white photos of my own. There are more at

Poitiers Cathédral
Le Tabac, Pont Joubert
Grand’ rue
Christmas lights in Place Alphonse Lepetit


Things I’ve learnt this week:

The word ambisinistrous is the opposite of ambidextrous; it means ‘no good with either hand’.

Bovril was originally called ‘Johnston’s Fluid Beef’.

When customers visited the first supermarkets in the UK, they were afraid to pick up goods from the shelves in case they were told off.

A Little Outing

The view from the roof garden, Galeries Lafayette, Paris

I’d more or less given up on the idea of a pre-Christmas trip to Paris once I knew that bars and restaurants were remaining closed. By Wednesday, however, I was getting a little stir-crazy. I figured that a day of walking in Paris, taking some photos, would make an attractive alternative to doing the same thing in Poitiers, which has been my daily routine for the last few weeks. I could grab something to eat en route and, if the weather changed or I got tired, I could duck into a church for a while. So, on Thursday, I got the 07.15 train, normally full but today half-empty, arriving at Montparnasse at 08.35. My plan was to go to Montmartre in the north and then work my way back on foot. Even allowing for dawdling and snapping, I would have more than enough time to catch my 16.08 train home.

I went by metro to Gare du Nord, where I encountered a minor setback to my cunning plan, in that all the station toilettes were closed. The employees of Derichbourg, the company that services the WCs at Gare du Nord, Gare d’Austerlitz, and Gare de Lyon, were on a 24-hour strike. My first reaction was ‘they’re taking the piss!’, but I realised the inappropriacy of this and headed on. I gulped down a double espresso and pain au raisin while standing outside La Mie Caline boulangerie in Bvd Magenta, then moved along to Bvd Rochechouart, crossing from the 9th to the 18th arrondissement.

I’m always a bit wary of walking around here, ever since I nearly had my pocket picked some twenty years ago. On a busy street, a man behind me on my left had made an elaborate show of brushing away his cigarette ash, which had apparently landed on my shoulder. As I turned to face him, his accomplice, on my right, was just not quite quick enough at reaching into my jacket pocket for my wallet. Realising what was going on, I spun around, shouting, just in time to see the two of them melting quickly into the crowd. I’m normally against capital punishment, but at that moment …

Back in the present, I felt decidedly uneasy at first, seeing a group of grim-faced young men hanging around a street corner, watching the passers-by, occasionally glancing at their phones and muttering to each other. But then the truth dawned on me. It was the pushbikes nearby that gave them away. That, and a couple of tell-tale green rucksacks. They were all working for Deliveroo or one of the various other food delivery outfits that have sprung up everywhere in the last few years. A little calmer, I walked on towards Sacré-Cœur. I was even more relieved a few minutes later when I found one of those fully automated WCs in a street near the cathedral. Even in winter, this area of Paris is normally packed with tourists, along with clusters of hawkers selling souvenirs and novelty trinkets. Today there was just a handful of people taking photos of each other and the city skyline. I joined them for a few minutes of clicking under a baleful sky

Looking over the city from the steps of Sacre-Coeur

I thought about going into the cathedral, but didn’t, and walked on to the Place du Tertre, just to its left. Here again, one would normally be surrounded by a throng of tourists having their portraits sketched by artists of variable ability, watched by fellow tourists sitting outside the cafés around the Place. Today it was a ghost town. At one point I was the only person there. It felt distinctly eerie.

Calvaire Stairs, Montmartre

I travelled down to Abbesses, the pretty little quartier that is the setting for the film Amélie. There is a lot more life, as all the shops are still open. It is very attractive, but they have obviously cottoned on to their selling point, and there is more than a touch of tweeness here and there. It reminded me of Wimbledon Village, Southwold, and Stamford.

I started back towards the centre of the city, down rue Lepic to Clichy with Place Pigalle and Le Moulin Rouge on my left and on down rue Blanche towards Opéra. It was now lunchtime. I knew there was a little square in front of Sainte-Trinité church where I could sit and eat, so I had another boulangerie pit stop, this time for a small quiche Lorraine and a bottle of water. The woman who served me was a dead ringer for Hattie Jacques. I thought of mentioning this, but explaining Carry On films is way above my current level of French. As I left the boulangerie, it started to rain, and I ended up eating my quiche while standing in the doorway of a closed-down sweetshop. It’s not the image I like to project. I was worried at one point that benevolent passers-by might start placing coins on the ground in front of me.

The rain was continuing, so I took shelter in Galeries Lafayette, a French Harrods and Selfridges rolled into one. It’s a fine store, and I’d like to pay particular tribute to their excellent cloakroom facilities, which probably don’t get much of a mention in company advertising. The Christmas lights aren’t too bad either.

Chrstmas lights, Galeries Lafayette

When the rain stopped, I started walking down Avenue de l’Opéra, but about halfway down fatigue began to set in, so I hopped on the metro at Pyramides to go a couple of stops to Pont Neuf (come on, just two stops, it’s hardly a mortal sin).

The view from Pont Neuf looking west

I walked over the bridge and up rue Dauphine to Saint-Germain. It was now 14.50, so as I was nicely on schedule, I had another ten-minute sit-down in the wonderfully gloomy church of Saint-Sulpice – as seen in The Da Vinci Code.

And now it is confession time, dear reader. Taking photos was not the only purpose of my trip. It’s Christmas Day on Friday, and one tradition, entirely of my making, is that we always have a bacon sandwich for breakfast on Christmas Day morning. The French don’t really do bacon, but there is an M&S food store just a few hundred yards from Saint-Sulpice, and they sell some very good Wiltshire smoked back …

 ‘… well, while I’m here I might as well get some Cumberland sausages … lime pickle, chapatis, those double chocolate ginger biscuits, two of those mini Christmas puddings, some shortbread, mince pies …’ Ho ho ho indeed.

I trudged slowly but happily up rue de Rennes (I am beginning to understand why one of my heroes, the historian Richard Cobb, described it as the most boring road in Paris) and reached the station at 15.50. On the corner of rue Odessa, I saw the one thing I’d been keeping an eye out for all day – a café selling takeaway vin chaud. But it was too late – there was a queue. At the station I just had time to get another double espresso and a cereal bar for the train. My Fitbit told me that I had done over 26,000 steps and walked twelve miles. I know it’s a long way to go for a bacon sandwich, but it’s a very scenic route.


Three things I’ve learnt this week:

Glasgow is twinned with Bethlehem, Nuremberg, and Havana.

In 1672, an angry mob of Dutchmen killed and ate their prime minister.

The Dyslexia Research Trust Clinic is in Reading.

Going, Going, Gone


Out for a walk after lunch, in my permitted exercise hour. Poitiers is always quiet on a Monday, with most of the shops shut. This can be very pleasant – a gentle transition between the weekend and the working week. On a gloomy day, when I am a mile from home and it begins to rain, it is less appealing. Turning a corner near Place Leclerc, I pass a bunch of seven squaddies, wearing balaclavas and carrying submachine guns. They all look very young. The nearest couple make eye contact with me, and I wonder what they are thinking. They may be the same ones I saw patrolling alongside the police outside the Cathedral yesterday morning. A sight we will no doubt have to get used to for a while.

The soldiers’ presence is co-ordinated through Vigipirate, the national security alert system which was set up by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1978. It sounds vaguely swashbuckling, but is actually an acronym of Vigilance et protection des installations contre les risques d’attentats terroristes à l’explosif (‘vigilance and protection of installations against the risk of terrorist bombing attacks’). The system defines levels of threat represented by five colours: white, yellow, orange, red, and scarlet. The levels call for specific security measures, including increased police or police/military mixed patrols in subways, train stations, and other vulnerable locations. We are currently at scarlet (a definite threat of major terrorist attacks). In 2015, after the Bataclan attack in Paris, Opération Sentinelle was initiated. It is ongoing, deploying 10,000 soldiers and 4,700 police and gendarmes to protect ‘sensitive areas’. Right now, that probably includes every city centre in France.


It’s an ill wind. Having learnt from the first lockdown, many local shops have been quick to offer a click-and-collect service now that they are closed, including, thankfully, bookshops (why the **** are vape shops regarded as ‘essential’ but bookshops are not?) We are doing our best to support them all wherever possible.

An unexpected bonus is that the move online means that many things we would not otherwise have visited are now unexpectedly available. The most exotic of these that I have found so far is the Drouot Auction House in Paris – effectively the French Sotheby’s. They have been forced to close their doors during the lockdown but are continuing their auctions online. It took me just two minutes to register an account. Madame was quite alarmed when she realised that I had to give them my credit card details, and she has made me promise never to visit the site after lunch.

For me it’s a slightly more civilised version of fantasy league football. At the start of the month I allot myself a notional €500,000. I look through the items in the online catalogues, decide my maximum bid for anything that takes my fancy, and then we’re off to the races. Obviously, I don’t actually bid, but you’d be surprised at how tense it can get. If my maximum bid for any lot is higher than the hammer price, I claim it as mine. So far this month I’ve managed to pick up a bronze representation of an eleventh-century Ethiopian king for €120k (it reminded me of an old history teacher of mine), a nice Raoul Dufy oil painting of Deauville harbour (€210k), and a case of 2005 Mouton Rothschild at a very reasonable €11k. Sadly, I just missed out on a complete set of Ian Fleming first editions, which went for €22k, just over my limit. My only regret is paying €4,500 for a Cartier ‘tank’ watch. It’s very nice, but I could have got it for €3k. Goes to show you can’t always trust the estimates. Lesson learnt.

It still means I’m over €100k in credit this month. There’s a sale of erotic art next Tuesday, but the idea of Madame discovering me reading the catalogue does not appeal. I’ll probably settle for the Second Empire snuffboxes on Wednesday.


Another thing that hasn’t been affected by lockdown is construction work, and there’s quite a lot of it going on in the city centre right now. Two projects are council-funded. One is a new frontage for the central library, the Médiathèque François Mitterrand, where a landscaped garden is being built, and the other involves knocking down a rather forbidding wall in front of the old Banque de France building in Boulevard Solférino and putting a hanging garden in its place. Both will brighten up the city centre considerably, and they are another sign that the council doesn’t seem to be strapped for cash.

Growing up in London in the 1950s, I can remember a lot of building work going on to cover up old bomb sites from the Second World War. There would always be a few men hanging around watching the building work going on, and as a boy, hurrying by to play football or whatever, I used to think this an odd and boring thing to do. Not any longer; it is completely addictive. I try to arrange my daily walks so that I can see the progress at one or other of these sites. Sometimes nothing seems to happen for several days, and then suddenly, because of a minor alteration, some shrubs planted or some brickwork done, the whole layout seems transformed.

I am becoming a familiar sight to some of the workers, and I suspect they may think I am the Clerk of Works from the town hall. For a joke, I’ve toyed with the idea of turning up with a clipboard and stopwatch, but there’s a fair chance I’d have a brick hurled at my head.

Boulevard Solférino 2019

Last Week

Early next year


It was sad to read the obituaries of both John Sessions and Geoffrey Palmer this week. John Sessions’ Life of Napoleon was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and Geoffrey Palmer’s line (in Reggie Perrin), ‘Bit of a cock-up on the catering front’, is now hardwired into my brain.

There’s a little piece about obituaries in The Times today. A reader asks why medical conditions are sometimes given as cause of death, whereas in other cases people are reported simply to have ‘died’. The paper’s obituaries editor says that they include the cause of death if it is known, but not if there is a continuing inquest or the family didn’t want to say.

Not all newspaper obituaries go into the cause of death. The Daily Telegraph briefly tried it as an experiment, but one of the first subjects under the new regime was a New Orleans jazz musician who had apparently died of an exploding penis implant. This was regarded as a little too much information for Telegraph readers.

We’ll always have Paris

We had a few days in Paris this week, and next weekend we hope to go La Rochelle. These breaks may be the only holidays we get this year, as the Covid-19 situation here is steadily worsening. There were 7,379 new infections in mainland France on Friday, compared with 6,111 on Thursday and 5,429 on Wednesday. A report from France’s directorate general of health said that ‘the progression of the epidemic is exponential’. At the start of July, the Prime Minister, Jean Castex, had ruled out a second national lockdown because ‘the economic and human consequences of a total lockdown are disastrous’. On Thursday, the message had changed. ‘We want to do everything to avoid a new lockdown, but the lockdown plans, those detailing the strictest measures, lie ready in the health ministry.’

France is not alone in seeing a rise in the number of cases. Spain, Italy and Germany have also seen steady rises since they began lifting lockdowns at the start of summer. But why the situation here is (apparently) so much worse than in the UK is still unclear. The figure for the 14-day cumulative number of Covid-19 cases per 100,000, the key statistic that the UK government uses for assessing its quarantine rules, remains in the low 20s in the UK, while in France it has shot up from 51 to 81 in just over a week and is still rising. At the same time, the number of deaths per 100,000 over the same period remains low in both countries: 0.2 in the UK and 0.3 in France. Are people paying more attention to the warnings and guidelines in the UK than in France? Are the testing and reporting systems radically different? These are difficult questions to answer. France ended its full lockdown on 1st June, while the UK did not do so until 4th July, so it’s possible that there will eventually be a similar second spike in the UK figures. One hopes not, as we move into autumn and schools reopen.


On a more positive note, the trip to Paris was great fun. We spent three days walking the city; one day along the length of Canal Saint-Martin from Bastille to Jaurès in the north, another on the Promenade Plantée, the wonderful overhead garden walkway that runs for three miles from Bastille to the edge of the Bois de Vincennes in the east, and on our last day we walked along Île aux Cygnes, the artificial island that runs between Pont de Bir-Hakeim and Pont de Grenelle. Here you can find Paris’s own Statue of Liberty, a nine-metre-high scale model of the original. I have to admit it’s more impressive than the one in Poitiers.

While we were there, masks were compulsory everywhere in central Paris (since Friday, this has been extended to the whole city). One might occasionally see someone without one, but this was rare. You quickly get used to applying hygienic hand gel whenever you enter a building, and they now have gel dispensers at every bus stop.

Despite the significant drop in the number of overseas tourists, the city still seemed very lively in the evenings. Many central streets have been temporarily closed to traffic, allowing bars and restaurants to spread out onto the pavements. It all makes for a very festive atmosphere, and our days of walking left us feeling entitled to join in. One unexpected bonus from the shortfall in tourist numbers is that bars are having to compete more for custom. The prices of drinks, particularly beer, are noticeably down, and in many places now Happy Hours run from 16.00 to 22.00. I felt duty-bound to make as large a contribution to the Parisian economy as time and Madame permitted.

Paris -grim…

…and not so grim.

Brasserie Julienne in rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. The food is only so-so but an amazing room.

La Cremerie, a really nice little wine bar in rue des Quatre Vents.


This week sees La rentrée in France. La rentrée scolaire is when the new academic year begins. However, La rentrée is about much more than just schools. Many shops and business close down for at least part of the month of August, and parliament stops sitting. The Covid crisis has obviously cast its shadow, but there is still a general sense of a country temporarily taking things easier for a few weeks. La rentrée, in theory at least, sees the end of all that, as the nation mentally girds its loins for the challenges ahead (well, till Christmas, at any rate).

There is a tradition that La rentrée scolaire can only happen in September, so although Monday is not a public holiday here in France, the schools will restart on Tuesday. Even if one doesn’t have school-age children, it is difficult to avoid noticing this. Shops are suddenly full of special offers on stationery, as parents seek to buy the vast number of items on the official lists of requirements that schools send out. Here is the basic government list, which may be added to by individual schools. To ensure every child can afford to have the necessary equipment, the government provides financial assistance to families on more modest incomes. The amount this year will range from €369.57 to €403.48, depending on the age of eligible children. Entitlement is based on household income not exceeding a certain ceiling (less than €24,453 for one child, €30,096 for two children, €35,739 for three). This year’s amount has been increased to allow for the cost of protective face masks for the children.

I will be doing my bit at La rentrée. I restart my Pilates class on Thursday, and in two weeks’ time I begin twice-weekly online French lessons. I am determined to master this putain language.


Covid watch. I caught the last few minutes of yesterday’s FA Community Shield match between Liverpool and Arsenal on the internet. Lots of group hugs from the victorious Arsenal players, and at the end they all walked past the Shield and kissed it. As the BBC online commentator said, ‘Might as well just lick each other’s faces, boys’.