Chateau d’Orion, Deux-Sèvres
Two of my favourite literary characters are Badger in The Wind in the Willows and Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother. Mainly, I think, because they both like to be left alone, Badger in his home deep in the Wild Wood, and Mycroft in his comfortable armchair in the Diogenes Club.
I wouldn’t say I am anti-social. I enjoy going to bars, restaurants, and other places of entertainment, on my own, with Madame, or with friends. These are places with fixed opening and closing times and defined codes of behaviour. Everyone knows where they stand. It is when this safety net of conformity is removed that I get twitchy.
I’ve always struggled to understand the ‘urge to entertain’ gene that some of us are born with – people who derive pleasure from organising ‘entertainments’ or home visits. As with smoking, those of us who do not have the gene are still liable to be affected passively. A wise friend once told me that three of the most depressing words in the English language are ‘Come to stay.’
Now, let me say at the outset that staying with family is OK. Here there is a sort of mutually assured destruction pact which ensures a high level of tolerance of individual habits, views, and foibles. Outside the family circle, however, it is terra incognita. There are minefields everywhere. Where to sit, where to stand, when to go to bed, when to get up, when to use the bathroom (which bathroom?), whether to flush in the night or not. When to suggest that you’d rather slit your wrists than watch another minute of Jamie’s Strictly Bake Off.
You are told at the outset to make yourself completely at home, and then reminded gently at regular intervals, ‘not that one … no, not there, no, that’s Dad’s/Sarah’s/David’s one …, actually, we normally … actually, we don’t …’ And then there is the phrase that, for me, is as gloom-inducing as ‘Come to stay’: ‘After lunch, we thought you might like to go for a walk.’ What I would actually like is an after-lunch nap.
Last Sunday, with our very nice neighbours Jean-Claude and Bernadette, we went to Oiron, a small hamlet (population 900) about 60 km away in the department of Deux-Sèvres. Jean-Claude, a retired teacher of dance and film studies, thought we might like a visit to the Château d’Oiron followed by a spectacle organised by a theatre group whom he occasionally worked with.
The château, a handsome edifice built for the Gouffier family, is the setting for the original Puss in Boots (Le Chat Botté) written by Charles Perrault at the end of the seventeenth century. Artus Gouffier de Boissy (1475–1519) was awarded the land of Caravaz in Italy after supporting Louis XII in the Italian wars, and he is the basis for the Marquis of Carabas in the story. Artus was responsible for initiating work on the château, just before he died, and it was completed by his son Claude (1501–1570). After centuries of steady decline, it was bought by the state in 1943, and over the next seventy years an extensive programme of structural repair and restoration was carried out. Today it houses the contemporary art collection Curios & Mirabilia, loosely based on the theme of the curiosity cabinet created by Claude Gouffier.
Curios & Mirabilia is an interesting collection but leans a little too heavily towards the world of Jake and Dinos Chapman. Once you’ve seen your third or fourth severed limb, penis/nose transposition, or grotesque hybrid animal, your eyes tend to glaze over.
A grotesque hybrid animal
In one room, a flock of small birds were scratching out a sort of tune with their feet as they landed on an electric guitar connected to an amp and speakers.
Not the Eagles
In another, a television was showing a film in which water flows into a bottle leaning at an angle, eventually forcing it to overturn and land on a small see-saw, causing a ball to roll down a slope into a bucket, which topples over and pours liquid onto a piece of glass, thus making a coin slide into a metal tray angled to allow a marble to fall onto another tilted surface and knock over a bottle which … This is fascinating for the first five minutes or so.
The exhibition makes for an enjoyable enough couple of hours. Unfortunately, we had three hours to kill before the spectacle was due to start. Refreshments were not available. To pass the time, we visited the nearby church of St Maurice. This has a large alligator nailed to one of the walls. We were unable to find out why. I suggested that it might be an allegory as well as an alligator. Nobody laughed. Lost in translation, perhaps.
The alligator allegory
Back in the town square, we assembled for the spectacle. I’d assumed this would be in a theatre, but was told that it would be performed at open-air locations around the village. By now a breeze was beginning to blow up, and I was regretting only wearing a T-shirt and shorts.
There is an attractive-looking bar, Le Salamander, in Oiron. It’s closed on Sundays.
The event was due to start at 17.30, but it was 18.25 before we were finally led into a courtyard nearby. We were given small, low shooting stick-type devices to sit on and told to take these with us as we went from scene to scene. They are relatively easy to sit on, but getting up unaided is well-nigh impossible.
Not as much fun as it looks.
The spectacle consisted of four short scenes. One was performed in the courtyard, the others in areas of parkland around the château. Two of the cast were women. One, in a blue tracksuit, carried a clipboard; the other, in a baggy purple coat and a cloche hat, carried an umbrella, which she would wave at the audience from time to time. They took it in turns to deliver short monologues, along with a thin man in a green hoodie and jeans who, when not speaking himself, hit some wine glasses with a small drum stick to provide a musical background for his co-actors.
The overall theme was Time (or possibly The Futility of Life – it was in French, and my hearing aids were playing up in the wind). One scene was definitely about postcards. They were all received in respectful silence by the audience, who clapped politely at the end. Afterwards, in the main square, we were given small paper cups of white wine and biscuits. By now, it had turned distinctly chilly.
In the car on the way home, we all agreed it had been a most enjoyable day, and that we should do something similar very soon.
In the evening, I sat in my armchair and watched The Ipcress File on TV. I’ve seen it many times, but there’s always something new to enjoy:
In a supermarket.
Colonel Ross (picking up a tin of mushrooms from Harry’s trolley): ‘Champignons’ … You’re paying ten pence more for a fancy French label. If you want mushrooms, you’d get better value on the next shelf.
Harry: It’s not just the label. These do have a better flavour.
Colonel Ross: Of course … You’re quite the gourmet, aren’t you, Palmer?
Things I’ve learnt this week:
Psycho was the first major American film to feature a flushing toilet.
It’s harder to tell how drunk you are if you’re surrounded by drunk people.
During the Christmas truce of 1914, an English soldier got a haircut from a German who used to be his barber in Holborn.