Raising One’s Spirits

The above flyer dropped through our letterbox on Wednesday and is just another illustration of the superiority of the French health system over that of the UK. Professor Bobohera’s services include mending broken relationships, curing impotence, and the lifting of evil spells. He can also ensure success in exams and financial investments. Apparently, he operates on a ‘payments on results’ basis, which should serve as an example to some of the Harley Street scoundrels I’ve had to deal with in the past. Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is that results can be achieved by post, on provision of a photo and a stamped addressed envelope.

Flyers like this show the admirable proactive nature of the French system. When I lived in Paris, one would occasionally come across similar specialists, usually clad in colourful national costume, handing them out, outside Metro stations in the 20th arrondissement. I wish Professor Bobohera every success. If I ever meet him, he will no doubt be amused when I tell him that he bears a very strong resemblance to Monsieur Abubakar who, until recently, sold spare parts for vacuum cleaners in the Saturday Notre-Dame market.

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One positive aspect of the current enforced inactivity is that I am on track with my fifty-books-a-year challenge. In January I’ve read Inside Story by Martin Amis, The Last Word, a collection of short stories by Graham Greene, On Seamus Heaney by Roy Foster, and Equal Danger by Leonardo Sciascia (a story of political corruption in Sicily). I’ve just started re-reading Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd, which I first read when it came out in 1987. It’s a good start, but I’m not deluding myself. The crunch will come if and when the current restrictions ease and we are able to get out and about more. For the time being, though, reading is a welcome escape from day-to-day reality.

One other book I’ve read in January is The Correct Order of Biscuits by Adam Sharp. I feel that this doesn’t really count, because I read it on my Kindle and it only took thirty minutes from beginning to end. It consists of a set of lists compiled by Mr Sharp, which, admittedly, makes it sound pretty dull. In fact it is hilarious. Like Mr Sharp, I am a bit of a list-obsessive (I even make lists of lists of things to do), but he is the James Joyce of list-making and brings it to a completely different level.

Here is one of my favourites:

The best ‘be quiet’ phrases I’ve heard around the world:

5. Shut your pie hole. (English)

4. Save your breath to cool your porridge. (Scots)

3. Shut your fountain. (Russian)

2. Close your beak. (Spanish)

1. If you don’t shut up, I’ll climb into your mouth and shit myself. (Hungarian)

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Alan Clark, the Tory politician and diarist (and, according to his wife, ‘an S, H, one, T’), was also a historian. His first book was The Donkeys, a history of the British Expeditionary Force’s campaigns at the beginning of the First World War. Clark was strongly critical of several of the generals involved in the heavy loss of life that occurred. He took his title from the phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’, which has been widely used to compare British soldiers with their commanders. The book was well received at the time, but its accuracy has since been questioned, and it has come in for considerable criticism for its one-sidedness.

I mention this because, while casting around on the internet, I came across the following. It is a page from a 1956 edition of Owl Pie, the British Army Staff College Magazine, and outlines the fate of thirty-two members of the 1896 college intake – most of whom would have taken part in the First World War. It’s not for me to decide whether they were donkeys or not, but I imagine a conversation over a drink with the last man on the list might have been interesting.

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After weeks of rumours that a new, more severe lockdown was in the offing, with every option, including the removal of our belts and shoelaces, being considered, Friday night’s announcement was something of a soggy soufflé.

In a televised broadcast, Prime Minister Castex said that, from Sunday (today), all non-food shopping centres larger than 20,000 square metres will close. There will also be a ban on all travel in and out of France from outside the EU, and all arrivals into France from within the EU must present a negative Covid test (previously this rule had only applied to arrivals by air and sea). The protocol on home-working will be reinforced so that everyone who can work from home does so, and the police will be stepping up checks on curfew compliance and cracking down on illegal parties and restaurant-opening. Monsieur Castex added, ‘The question of another lockdown is legitimately raised in view of the latest data. We want to do everything we can to avoid another lockdown. The coming days will be decisive. Let’s be very vigilant.’

For most of us, this means very little change for now, apart from making travel to and from the UK even less feasible. The threat of a complete lockdown is clearly still there, and there are many who think it would have been more sensible to go with that option right now, on the basis that the sooner it starts, the sooner it will be over. It’s difficult to avoid the sense that there is an element of fudging in the current government tactics. Coupled with the recent row over the supply of vaccines, this has not been the best of weeks, politically, for either France or the EU in general.

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Things I’ve learnt this week:

The French for window-shopping is faire du lèche-vitrine, or ‘window-licking’.

After the battle of Waterloo, the Marquess of Anglesey had his leg amputated. It was buried with full military honours in a nearby garden.

Areodjarekput is an Inuit word meaning ‘to exchange wives for a few days only’.

Louis Renard, résistant

It’s sometimes said that if one were to go by popular culture, one would assume that English history largely consisted of the Tudors and winning the Second World War. I confess that for a long time my understanding of French history was equally simplistic. There was the Roman invasion (Asterix the Gaul), Louis XIV (The Three Musketeers), the Revolution (A Tale of Two Cities), and the Resistance in the Second World War (the BBC’s Secret Army and Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Gray). Now that I live here, this clearly will not do.

Since we arrived, I have been in blotting-paper mode, trying to soak up as much as I can about French history in general and that of Poitiers in particular. It’s a demanding task, and I have barely scratched the surface, but in terms of local history at least, some sense of how the city has developed is beginning to emerge.

Most of the available literature on the history of Poitiers tends to focus on four key periods: its strategic significance as a colonised town under the Romans in the first century BC; its growth and prosperity under the powerful Counts of Poitou and Dukes of Aquitaine between the tenth and thirteenth centuries; the siege of Poitiers and the Wars of Religion that lasted throughout the sixteenth century, and the occupation of Poitiers during the Second World War.

In a haphazard way, I’m gradually finding out more about each of these four aspects of Poitiers, but I’m also trying to dig a little deeper into the city that existed and developed either side of the Second World War, i.e. twentieth-century Poitiers. What follows is a little bit of work in progress.

In the middle of Poitiers, just off rue Magenta, is a small side street, rue Louis Renard. On the street sign under the name are simply the words Résistant and the dates 1893–1943.

Louis Renard was born in Poitiers on 7 December 1893. The son of a fabric merchant, he had to interrupt his studies when his father died prematurely in 1908. His mother took him out of the Lycée and sent him to England to learn the language and study business methods.

In the 1920s, Louis worked in Paris, first for the department store Printemps and then for Michelin, where he dealt with the UK and Netherlands markets. In 1927, he returned to Poitiers and joined a law firm as an associate. He took ownership of the firm five years later and became a respected figure in the local community. He involved himself in many cultural activities and was a founding member of the local Youth Hostel Association and Rotary Club.

In 1939, when war broke out, Louis enlisted in the army. He was 46. Assigned first to Tours, then to Marseille, he worked as a liaison interpreter between the French and British armies. He was demobilised when France surrendered in June 1940. In August he returned to Poitiers and wrote to General de Gaulle, then leader of the Free French in England, declaring his support. From the end of 1940, he became the leader of the organised Resistance network in occupied Vienne. He was also involved in setting up one of the first Resistance newspapers in France, Le Libre Poitou.

Two years later, on 30 August1942, Louis and twenty-eight other members of the Renard network were arrested following a combined operation by Vichy police and the Gestapo. Imprisoned first in Poitiers, then in Paris, they were transferred to Germany, where Louis and nine others were tried and sentenced to death. They were guillotined on 3 December 1943, four days before Louis’ fiftieth birthday.

Of necessity, the above is an extremely brief summary of Louis’ life and work as a member of the Resistance. If you are interested, there is a very good French website https://www.vrid-memorial.com/ devoted to the history of the Vienne department during the Second World War, and this includes a great deal of fascinating information about the Renard network, including a copy of Louis’ letter to de Gaulle, a detailed account of his arrest (written by his wife), and a letter Louis sent to his wife while in prison. There is also a book, La chute du réseau Renard:1942 (The Fall of the Renard Network, 1942) by Jean-Henri Calmon, which details how some members of the Vichy police were only too eager to please their new masters by arresting Louis and his colleagues.

Louis’ story is clearly that of a man worthy of respect, but alert readers will have noticed a gap in the potted biography that I’ve provided, in that it jumps from 1908 to 1920. I have left this period till now because it highlights for me one of the most interesting aspects of his story.

I said above that Louis enlisted in 1939. In fact, he re-enlisted. Louis had originally been called up for national service in 1913, and he was a sergeant in the army when war broke out the following year. His war record is impressive, He was awarded the Légion d’honneur and the Croix de guerre in 1916. By the time he was invalided out in 1917, he had lost an eye, had a lung perforated, and suffered a hand injury. He had reached the position of lieutenant. In July 1918, the death of his brother Henri, who had been killed while leading his men into battle, affected him badly.

After the war, Louis married Marie Germaine Marsaudon, and they went on to have six children. His experiences had made him a committed peace activist, and one of his reasons for founding the Rotary Club in Poitiers was that he saw this as a way of building direct relations with like-minded individuals in other countries. One might think that by this time Louis had already lived ‘a full life’. Yet this was the man, the severely disabled family man, who had no hesitation in volunteering again for active service in 1939 and who was to die so cruelly four years later.

One sometimes hears jokes about the French capitulation in 1940. It is estimated that somewhere between 55,000 and 85,000 French serviceman lost their lives before the surrender, with another 120,000 wounded. Estimates for the number of active members of the Resistance vary widely. The French government puts it at 220,000; Douglas Porch, in his respected study The French Secret Services, puts it at 75,000.

Louis Renard (1893-1943)

Michel Foucault

The Voie André Malraux is a 325-metre concrete flyover built over the river Clain in the 1970s to connect Poitiers city centre with the rapidly developing banlieue area of Couronneries. The large concrete supports of the flyover are covered with some impressive graffiti, and a year or so ago I came across a striking image of Michel Foucault along with a stencilled quote, ‘Il est laid d’être punissable, mais peu glorieux de punir’ (It is ugly to be punished, but there is no glory in punishing). I think this stark, rather edgy portrayal would have appealed to him.

Michel Foucault

Foucault is one of Poitiers’ most illustrious sons; in most lists only Rabelais comes close, then you’re quickly amongst some not particularly well-known politicians and sporty types. He is regarded by many as one of the twentieth century’s most significant figures in the world of philosophy. His major works, including Discipline and Punish and Madness and Civilization,raise questions about the nature and use of institutional power and control, and suggest that certain ideas, such as madness, delinquency and sexuality, are transformed by society to serve the convenience of social systems. At the same time, he is denounced by some as a fraud, a charlatan with nothing new to say – a division of opinion probably due in part to Foucault’s flamboyant lifestyle and political activism.

Paul-Michel Foucault was born on 15th October 1926, the second of three children in a prosperous and socially conservative upper-middle-class family. The contrast between this start in life and the controversial figure he was to become may go some way to explaining Poitiers’ strangely ambivalent attitude towards him. True, there is a small plaque on the wall of his birthplace, the family home at no. 10 rue de la Visitation (now renamed rue Arthur Ranc), a sedate, genteel thoroughfare near the city centre. There’s also a rue Michel Foucault, a small street of newly built houses, tucked away behind the hospital on the outskirts of the city, the sort that is normally named after some senior town hall employee approaching retirement. In truth though, one could easily visit Poitiers and be completely unaware of any link to Foucault. Nonetheless, apart from the image on the flyover, I’ve found some odd Foucaultian echoes in the city, and two are in the street where he was born.

La Poste

Poitiers’ central Post Office stands at the top of the street, a large imposing building with some impressive statuary over the doorway. However, in the past this has been the site of two very different institutions, both of confinement, one voluntary, one less so. In 1633, the Order of the Visitation established the convent which was to give the street its original name. In 1793, the nuns were summarily ejected, and the site became a prison for le tribunal révolutionnaire. From here, prisoners would be taken by cart to the guillotine in the nearby Place du Pilori.

Then in 1901, rue de la Visitation was the setting for a grisly scandal. On 23rd May, the Attorney General of Poitiers received an anonymous letter, the text of which could be translated as follows: Monsieur Attorney General: I have the honour to inform you of an exceptionally serious occurrence. I speak of a spinster who is locked up in Madame Monnier’s house, half-starved and living on a putrid litter for the past twenty-five years – in a word, in her own filth.

A search of no. 18 was ordered. Here Blanche Monnier was discovered, tied up on her bed, undernourished and extremely weak. She was 52. Investigations revealed that she had been secretly confined in the family home for twenty-five years. Various reasons were put forward. A love affair with a republican lawyer to which her profoundly royalist family would not agree. A psychiatric disorder, probably anorexia, which would have led to internment in a mental asylum, tarnishing, the family feared, their honour and reputation. On being discovered, Blanche was interned in a psychiatric hospital and later transferred to a sanatorium in Bois, where she died in 1913. Her mother was imprisoned but died fifteen days later. Her brother was sentenced to fifteen months in prison for ‘non-assistance to a person in danger’ but released on appeal. There is some suggestion that it was he who had written the anonymous letter.

In 1930, André Gide published a book about the incident, La séquestrée de Poitiers, changing little but the names of the protagonists. According to Hervé Guibert, a close friend, this book was a great influence on the young Michel Foucault. I’m not particularly a subscriber to the theory of psychogeography, but there does seem to be a certain resonance between Foucault’s birthplace and the two nearby places of incarceration.

I went back to look at his portrait on the viaduct recently, but sadly the graffito has been removed and replaced with the image of a young woman. I doubt if this would have worried Michel. As he says in The Archaeology of Knowledge, ‘Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same. More than one person, doubtless like me, writes in order to have no face.’

The Market re-opens

Johnny Hallyday, the One-Armed Man, and the Lady with the Hat.

As part of the gradual process of lockdown easing, shops were allowed to reopen in France on Monday. As luck would have it, this was the start of a three-day spell of very nasty weather. We went for a walk on Monday afternoon, just to see how life had changed, but were forced home again by cold, sleety rain. Our neighbour Catherine told us that this is an annual occurrence – les saints de glace (the Ice Saints), a period of three days of cold weather from the 11th to the 13th of May, named after the three saints whose days it covers, St Mamertus, St Pancras, and St  Servatius. Apparently this is a widely held belief across Europe (it’s known as ‘the blackthorn winter’ in some countries), and there is some meteorological evidence to suggest that this period is often a time of inclement weather.

It actually got noticeably warmer on Thursday and Friday, but the streets were still relatively quiet. Yesterday however, on a bright sunny day, the main market in Place Charles de Gaulle opened for the first time in two months, and it brought home to me the fact that the thing I’d missed most during the confinement was other people – not individually, but en masse – crowds, the general buzz of city life. It’s true that the market can’t match the pleasure of sitting in a bar or café, gossiping, arguing, telling jokes, or sometimes just observing (including the underrated pleasure of watching a couple of strangers having a ‘domestic’ – une dispute conjugale in French). Nevertheless, it was still a treat to be able to wander around, checking out the stalls and people-watching.

There were some signs that things weren’t quite normal. There were slightly fewer stalls than usual. Either the council is keeping the numbers down or some stallholders are waiting a while before reappearing. All the stallholders that were there, and many of the customers, were wearing masks. Customers were separated from the stalls by red and white tape, so that buying something entailed reaching across, a little awkwardly, to hand over your money and receive your purchases. Entry and exit from the covered market area was by separate doors controlled by security men in masks encouraging us to use the hand gel dispenser. Despite all of these things, it was a welcome return to something resembling normality.

Centre-ville in Poitiers is quite a compact little quartier, and one soon begins to recognise people who live locally. I saw several faces yesterday that I hadn’t seen for weeks – people I wouldn’t claim to know but am on nodding terms with. Seeing some of them, I thought, ‘Oh, I’d forgotten about you’,and they no doubt thought the same. There are a few such individuals, however, not seen since the start of the confinement, whose absence has actually registered with me. I will hopefully bump into them soon, if only to reassure myself that they have survived. In particular I’m thinking of Johnny Hallyday, the One-Armed Man, and the Lady with the Hat.

Johnny Hallyday, who must be in his seventies, is a smaller, slightly dilapidated and even more leathery-looking version of the original. He’s obviously spent some time getting the look just right. He has a shock of bleached blonde hair and is deeply tanned – in the interests of accuracy I once googled a colour chart, and he’s somewhere between cherrywood and light walnut. His outfit never varies: denim jacket and jeans, t-shirt, and elaborately painted cowboy boots. The only concession to the seasons is that in summer the denim jacket is sleeveless, or abandoned completely, and the jeans are replaced by rather skimpy denim shorts. The boots remain, and I am beginning to think he never takes them off. I’ve never seen him actually do anything. He usually sits having a beer or coffee on one of the bar terraces in Place Leclerc, or else he strolls around town appearing not to have a care in the world. He seems a happy man.

The One-Armed Man is a very different character. He is a slightly demented speed-walker with a semi-permanent frown. In his mid-fifties with thinning grey hair and a stubbly beard, he usually wears a baseball cap and either a tracksuit or a singlet and shorts. His daytime activities – going to the shops, the bank, or the post office – are incorporated into what seems to be a permanent high-speed training session, racing around the town centre, with other pedestrians merely a set of slalom poles to be avoided. He actually has a full set of limbs but has acquired his nickname from his practice of continually working one or other arm up and down like a piston when he is walking, as if he’s stamping passports on an invisible conveyor belt. When he has to stop, in a queue for instance, the frown temporarily disappears and he seems quite happy to talk to anyone he knows. I’ve noticed, however, that after a minute or two, one of his arms will twitch and slowly start to move upward, as if to remind him that the passports are piling up and he needs to be off again.

The Lady with the Hat, who lives just around the corner from us, is a mystery. Every day she walks very determinedly backwards and forwards across town. She is of average height and build, rather severe-looking with black horn-rimmed glasses. Invariably dressed in black, usually a shift-like dress and, if the weather dictates it, a black coat, she always carries a briefcase, or a shopping bag that could pass as one. On her head is a small toque hat festooned with brightly coloured flowers. This is so out of kilter with the rest of her outfit that, on first seeing it, you might think that someone has placed it there without her noticing, like a traffic cone on a statue. But, no, it is always there. I haven’t yet worked out where exactly she is going or why. I have seen her a few times near the post office at the other end of town, so perhaps she is collecting or delivering something. But what? Depending on my mood, I see her sometimes as a character like Connie, the ageing codebreaker in John le Carré’s Smiley novels, regularly sending and receiving highly secret documents. At other times, I have her despatching poison-pen letters on an industrial scale. Then again, perhaps she could be bringing a packed lunch for one of the elderly post office clerks, who accepts it every day with a formal merci but after all these years still shows no indication of wishing to take the relationship any further. I fear that in the latter case, if or when she finally accepts the situation, we will have seen the last of the floral hat.

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Véronique D.

Counting one’s blessings

Véronique

This morning I was reading the local paper while moaning to Madame that I needed a haircut and how disgraceful it was that barbers weren’t regarded as an essential service, when I noticed Véronique Dujardin’s picture on an inside page.

We met Véronique through another friend, Maryse, in the Café des Arts. Véronique is not that unusual a name here, and it took a couple of meetings before the penny dropped and I realised that this was actually the Véronique D. whose blog I had discovered several months ago when researching the history of Poitiers online. The blog is a wonderful cornucopia of pieces about different aspects of life in Poitiers, its history, architecture, politics and cultural activities, as well as reviews of films and books that Véronique has seen or read. (There is also quite a lot of stuff about embroidery, but I tend to skip that.) She has been a doughty fighter for a number of causes, and there are blog entries about everything from a battle to stop illegal parking in the town centre to a campaign against Monsanto’s use of glyphosate, a controversial herbicide that has been alleged by some to be carcinogenic. Whenever I look at the blog, I am struck by the energy and enthusiasm that Véronique brings to everything she does, and it was partly her example that led me to start my own.

However there is a sombre, sadder element in Véronique’s blog. In 2013 she was diagnosed with three brain tumours (meningiomas). She believes that these tumours are linked to her having been prescribed a high-dosage treatment of the drug Androcur for over twenty years, and for some time she has been pursuing a case against Bayer, the manufacturer of the drug. (The link between brain tumours and cyproterone, a constituent of Androcur, was first identified in 2008.) In July last year she won an important battle in the law courts when it was agreed that a committee of experts would be appointed to carry out a medical review of her case.

The impact on Véronique’s life has been heavy. Her memory, sense of balance and sense of smell have all been badly affected. She had a ten-hour operation in 2013 to remove a meningioma wedged between two optic nerves, and she was due next Monday to have another lengthy operation to rebuild her left eye-socket, incorporating a specially engineered piece of titanium. In the last two weeks, she has suffered a double setback.

After her court victory, Bayer appealed against the decision, and the appeal was due to be heard this week. The hearing has now been postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak. No new date has been set.

Today’s paper carried news of the second setback. Véronique has heard that her operation has also been postponed because of the virus. In preparation for the operation, Véronique has been practising self-isolation far longer than the rest of us. She has been working from home, and friends and neighbours have been rallying round to do her shopping, Apart from the fact that this may now have to continue for some time, there is the complication that if the operation is delayed for months the titanium insert, specifically designed to take account of the current position of the tumour, may have to be re-engineered.

She is philosophical about this. ‘I expected it. They don’t want to take any risk with the spread of the virus.’ Her energy seems undiminished. ‘This morning I had a video conference with colleagues and I texted a neighbour, so that’s my shopping sorted out. I have a stepper so I am still managing my 10,000 steps a day.’

I suppose, all in all, waiting for a haircut is not such a big deal.