All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Cast not a clout till May be out...except in Deux Sevres

A view of Niort from the Sevre Niortaise river...Image via Wikipedia

Deux Sevres is not, as you might think, a description of two finely decorated porcelain plates.
It is a department of France, one of the four which make up the region of Poitou Charente.

As Michael Caine might say .......Not many people know that.

This used to include the French Tourist Board.

Apart from its geographical position, Deux Sevres can also lay claim to a cultural position....that of being firmly in what is described as 'la France profonde'.
Which means an area where if something has not been done before it certainly won't be starting to be done now.

A further explanation.

I know that the saying about casting clouts refers to not being deceived by the advent of spring into discarding your winter woollies too early and getting frostbite in areas best not to contemplate, but clout has another meaning.....
It is also a blow, as in 'gave him a clout' and just at the moment, people in Deux Sevres have the exciting possibility of giving other people in Deux Sevres - excluding maires, gendarmes and other protected species - a clout and getting away with it.....but only up to the end of May.

Whence this sudden immunity...and why only in Deux Sevres?

Under much external and internal pressure, France has finally decided to conform the to European Convention on  Human Rights in respect of the right to a fair trial.
Legislation has been passed, and is due to come into effect on June 1st, to the effect that persons hauled in by the forces of order in pursuance of their investigations will have the right to have a lawyer present during the whole of the proceedings, instead of just for thirty minutes of it, as at present.

This is going to give problems to the producers of the police serial 'Engrenages'  (or 'Spiral', as it is known on English language television)  where the brutality of interrogations forms an integral part of the action...but that's their worry.

Now, in a sudden rush of blood to the head, the Cour de of the four Supreme Courts of the French justice system....has announced that as far as it is concerned, from the date of its judgement on Friday April 15th, any verdict in a case where a lawyer was not present for the whole process of interrogation will be annulled on procedural grounds, as being in breach of the Human Rights Convention, which states that all signatory countries must be in compliance, even if their own laws are in breach.

Panic in the dovecotes.
Fancy announcing that just before a weekend! And with the Easter holidays coming up!

The police and gendarmerie are gearing up....setting up information centres to acquaint themselves with the novel idea of having an observer of their traditional practices....
The Parquet (prosecutors' department) is gearing up....wondering what the hell to do about the cases currently in the sausage machine where the accused certainly did not have a lawyer present throughout his interrogation.....
And the avocats (trial lawyers) are gearing up....arranging for more of them to be on call, while wondering  whether they will be paid for this service since the law providing for their payment is not yet in force.

The reaction of the avocats in Deux Sevres?
Their batonnier (shop steward) is outraged.

The Cour de cassation has no power to make law.
Quite right, Maitre...but it hasn't. It has just said what it will do in cases where there is a breach of the Convention on Human Rights.

And it's Saturday!
Well spotted, Maitre!

And I can't do anything until I consult my colleagues.
Which would have been on Monday except that they will be on strike on Monday.
Tuesday, then, Maitre?

And in any case, we're not ready. We will not be stampeded and will not be implementing these changes until June 1st, when the law comes into force.
La France profonde has spoken. Law south of the Loire.

So this is the unprecedented opportunity for the inhabitants of Deux Sevres to run riot until midnight on May 31st.
Sure in the knowledge that no lawyer will be accompanying them for the entire duration of an interrogation they can do as they please.
Clout whom they like.

They might well be convicted at first instance in Deux Sevres...but not to worry.
All they have to do is to go to the regional Court of Appeal in Poitiers and their conviction will be overturned for non observance of procedure.

So if you're living in Deux Sevres....lock up your daughters and make way for the Lord of Misrule!
Until midnight on May 31st.

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Thursday 14 April 2011

It's all scandal, naked women and drivel.

In 1559 John Knox returned from ministering in...Image via Wikipedia
I've just had mother on the 'phone.
Or, more accurately, mother has had me on the 'phone.....for what seems like an eternity....with the iniquities of her world.

The new young shopper on a mission to reduce her to a diet of pre-prepared food....
The new morning carer who spends more time filling out her time sheet than she does helping mother....and who can burn toast to a nicety....
Her invisible G.P. and his ever changing locums....(sounds like an act from the old time music hall)...
The hospital car volunteer who refused to take her to hospital... (could it be the scythes on the hubs of her wheelchair, one wondered idly).....
And the state of television.

Confined to quarters while awaiting her knee replacement as a follow on for the hip replacement at the age of 95....three cheers for the NHS....she has been watching television.

Normally, she would watch sport.
Any sport.
She'd watch a knitting competition if it was labelled sport.

She watches the Boat Race every year in keen anticipation of watching the Light Blues sink.
Town she might have been but Oxford Gown takes priority over Cambridge as it has ever since she was a girl, watching the undergraduates throwing fireworks in the street on Boat Race night.
The only thing she won't watch is the Grand National, and I heard her views on the matter once again, as I do every year after the annual slaughter of beautiful animals in the name of greed.

But, with time on her hands, she has been watching television in general.....and she is appalled.

It's all scandal, naked women and drivel.

Mother has encountered the world of chat shows and reality T.V.

What particularly seems to annoy her is a trend for 'celebrities' to witter on about their failures...drink, drugs, serial fornication, you name it....and preen themselves on their ability to have 'come through' it.

She's not against them 'coming through' it...

She's against television channels paying them money to bore the pants off her by using time that could be devoted to sinking boats and soaring gymnasts to boasts of their sordid behaviour in an atmosphere of sickeningly hypocritical 'repentance'.

But, once released and the ear drops applied, I began to think and an idea for a new 'reality' show came to me.

I might be well off track here, as I don't know much more about them than mother's description and a vague memory of someone with a pronounced northern accent recounting what was or had been going on in 'the house'.
To me, 'the house' was the House of Commons so some confusion reigned until it clicked and I clicked off.

So, based on complete ignorance - which seems to be an essential factor for success - here is my suggestion to revitalise the T.V. reality show, while using the current trend of mock repentance.

The penitence stool.

Now, those of you not of Scottish descent may need a little background here.
Take yourself back to the time of Mary, Queen of Scots and John Knox, oarsman extraordinaire, when Protestantism took over from Catholicism at the Reformation.

The reformed church in Scotland was desirous of improving the moral tone of the community.
Accordingly, the priests who carried on under the new regime as ministers would marry the women with whom they had been living in sin and give an example of marital fidelity to their flock, who, in turn, would be encouraged to  maintain a high moral tone under the guidance of the minister and the elders of the congregation.

To those of us brought up on tales...and experience... of the three hour sermon, you'd think that that alone was enough to terrify a high moral tone into anyone...but the Scots are a prideful and obdurate race.

They are not deterred by the solemn warning delivered by a minister to an elderly lady, who, hard of hearing, arrived at church bearing her ear trumpet...

One toot an' ye're oot!

Neither are they altogether persuaded by the urgings to emulate the example of the Good Samaritan.....
There are some areas where you would be well advised to stay on your own side of the street in case the sick man proves to be a decoy put out by a gang of muggers.

Nor are they impressed by the inclusivity promised by the minister who, while commentating on the passage in Luke's gospel about the expulsion of the which time there would be 'weeping and gnashing of teeth'.... became aware of the wide grin on the face of a toothless parishioner.
Not pausing in his stride, the minister bent to address him personally

For you, brother, teeth will be provided.

While their faith in the boundless mercy of the Almighty is not encouraged by the minister's depiction of the fate of sinners at the Day of Judgement....

And ye'll be looking up to the Lord and crying
Lord, Lord, we didnae ken, we didnae ken....
And the Lord will look doon upon ye in His infinite mercy and He'll say unto ye
Well, ye ken noo!

I make no apology for the inclusion of these hoary chestnuts....I still enjoy them, bringing back as they do the smell and taste of the mint imperials with which one both weathered and timed the sermon...and, as I say, we Scots are a prideful and obdurate race, with  skin thickened to rhino-like proportions by the attentions of the native midge in our formative years.

So, to bring the community to heel, the elders thought up a new and shame.
Once regarded as guilty of incidents of drunkenness or moral licence of any sort, the offenders would be made to sit upon the penitence stool in church...a low stool, placed where all the congregation could get a good look at the sinner throughout proceedings.
No anonymity in those communities.

This is the idea I wish to use for the reality show I have in mind.

You have the audience...the congregation.

You have the host, or hosts...the elders and minister.

You have the 'celebrity', ready to bare all, probably physically as well as verbally.....the sinner.

The hosts will interrogate the 'celebrity' as to their shortcomings...and as to the sincerity of their repentance.
He or she can wallow in all the sordid details to the delectation of the audience, secure in the knowledge that repentance brings returns.

For instead of paying a fine to clear their consciences, the 'celebrities' will be paid.
The audience, having heard the 'celebrity' answer the questions of the hosts, will vote as to how much money to give them in recognition of their rehabilitation.

Everyone will have a voting pad and the results will be shown on some sort of electronic board with flashing lights.
Oh, and we'll need a woman in  an exiguous costume and high heels to operate the board, toss her head and show a lot of teeth.

So if you know anyone in television......

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Sunday 10 April 2011

Another local landmark gone...

Jardin Francais - French gardens, in VillandryImage by Matthieu Aubry. via Flickr
Not so much the physical landscape, but the personal one.

Alain e mailed me to say that The Poisoner....better known under that nickname than his own...has died at the age of 91.

And with The Poisoner dies another part of my past in France.

He was the neighbour of a friend in the second village I moved to....and, through the tales of Alain and his wife, I discovered that he was part of local folklore.....a person whose sayings and doings were discussed over a game of cards or a drink in the bar.

He and his wife lived in a state of mutual detestation......but he, typical of a man of his epoch, assumed superiority and dominance.
He spent every daylight moment in his garden and in the big field alongside where he cultivated his vegetables and a few rows of vines.....expecting his wife to assist him by holding implements and carrying or wheeling anything heavy, under a continual fire of criticism and sarcasm.

It was a wonder to me that she hadn't murdered him years before, but thanks to Edith and Alice, of the generation before that of The Poisoner, I had learned to understand the nature of those gender roles and attitudes of pre war rural France which ensured his survival.

He continually complained that his wife had no respect for him....she even laid a place for herself at the table at mealtimes, rather than eating whatever was left over after he had finished, standing by the a dutiful wife should.
When, greatly daring, Alain enquired how he countered this act of rebellion the reply was swift and sure..

I take my plate and glass to the dining room ...leaving her in the kitchen..... and if it gives her two tables to clear up, and a lot of running about to get me this or that then that's her problem. She should know her place.

He was no more pleasant with neighbours and passers by.
Women would hear him calling them whores of the worst description because they wore lipstick - or, utmost horror - trousers; men would learn interesting facts about their parentage and their means of making a living.
But no one counter seemed as though he was an accepted of the inevitable unpleasantnesses of life..... and as he refused to participate in any part of village life at least the unpleasantness was confined to a small corner of the commune.

Alain and his wife managed to live alongside without incident because Alain, after long service as a local school teacher, was on the council...and The Poisoner took care not to look for trouble in that direction.
He was unpleasant...but not completely stupid.

He never voted.
Rumour had it that as far as he was concerned the right wing Front National were a bunch of leftist pansies....while as for the rest!

Of the two local rags he took the one favoured by the bigots....not because he was a believer, but because it was good for the death notices which gave him great delight, commenting on how he had outlived yet another person he had known since their days on the school bench together.
Preferably so commenting to the relict of the deceased.
At the funeral.

Inevitably, he detested foreigners.
Having eaten a superb dish of rabbit at Alain's house, I asked him for the source of his supply.
The Poisoner.
Not a gift, you all the local guys, The Poisoner's pricing system was to check the price of rabbits in the local markets as reported in the newspaper, and charge accordingly.
Alain would see if he could buy me a couple.

The request was put...and was refused with contumely.
How could even Alain, suspect liberal as he was, expect The Poisoner to so lower himself as to sell anything to a foreigner?
He wanted no dealings with them.

So I got my rabbits from Didier, who had the same pricing policy but no contumely.

Later, as the British started to move in in numbers, The Poisoner excelled himself by knocking a young English woman off her bike, by shoving the handle of his rake into the wheels as she passed his field.
Alain remonstrated with him, to no avail.

What was the government about to let these foreigners into France...buying up houses and putting up prices...
(The Poisoner, it should be noted, did not have an old house to sell and was thus excluded from the property boom which was at that time filling the mattresses to bursting point.)

Weren't you worried her husband might come round and have a go at you?

What?  No chance! He's in England...probable seeing some other woman on the side....D'you think I'm stupid or something?

The only time he spoke to me was when I was leaving the area.
He wanted to know the price I'd obtained for the house.
I told him and he sat down on his garden wall, breathing hard.

'Nom d'un chien! There must be some blithering idiots about! Sold to another rosbif, I suppose! the maire's daughter.

Nom d'un chien!

When his wife had to have a small operation some years ago, he protested that he was by far the more ill and should also go to hospital.
As it was clear that he could not look after himself, he was accordingly taken to the long stay ward... a pleasant ground floor area with access to the gardens...where he proceeded to make a thorough nuisance of himself.

Racist abuse of the North African doctors could have been expected, but his major coup was to confiscate the zimmer frames of other residents and stack them out of range at the end of the gardens, to prevent their users from disturbing his siesta by shuffling about.
The food was declared inedible - he lost weight;  the staff were sadists - confiscated his cigarettes; and everything was the fault of his wife who had allowed quacks and money making charlatans to persuade her that she was ill in order to make money for the hospital.

Once home again, the daily routine took over again...until last year, when tragedy struck.

Alain and his wife were on holiday when it happened, and heard the news from their daughter, who had been summoned by the gendarmerie.

The Poisoner's house had caught fire and it was only by terrific exertions on the part of the fire Brigade that Alain's outbuildings had not followed suit.

He was lucky....The Poisoner's house was burned out, uninhabitable. The roof...which had just been insulated three weeks before...had fallen in....the place was a smouldering wreck.
Neither he nor his wife were hurt and the the maire immediately found them alternative accommodation, in one of the old peoples' bungalows which had been built in the village centre to try to keep the elderly in touch with their friends and families instead of going off to the 'waiting rooms of death', as the local old peoples' homes were known in that area.

The cause of the fire?
The Poisoner's wife had inadvertently left the gas on in the back kitchen when summoned to the garden by her husband...there had been a build up of gas...and an explosion.

It might surprise you - because it surprised everyone else - that he uttered not one word of complaint, nor made any accusation of his wife.

Why not?

Because one could not expect women to have any sense at all and so there would be no point in saying anything. It was in the nature of things.

The change of routine was, I suppose, too much for him. Accustomed to his home and his garden for all his adult years, he must have found life in a group of bungalows with sociable people too trying to stand.

As Alain said, there are all sorts of things on the death certificate, but basically he died because he was 91 and because he had lost his home.

So why does the death of a thoroughly unpleasant man bother me?
I cannot honestly say that I feel in any way that his death, of itself, diminishes me.

I think what bothers me is that I won't be attending the funeral, which brings it home to me that I have really uprooted myself.
I won't be in the church in the square, hearing the sudden bustle at the door as the men come in from the bar just in time to file past the coffin.
I won't be talking to friends as we make the long walk to the cemetery, family and friends carrying memorial plaques, where the workmen will have opened the family tomb.
I won't be paying my respects to the widow and family with everyone else.
If I'd still been in France, I would gave driven over...
I am no longer part of that community...that part of mankind...that made a point of attending the funerals, of marking the passage, of showing support by their mere presence.
It didn't matter who had died...or who or what they went to the funeral.

That was the last place I lived in in France that felt like other areas it was friends and family only unless it was a local 'notable'...just as in the U.K.....and I always count myself lucky that I had that experience of solidarity.
And miss it. As I missed it in later moves in France.
Only now, the reality of an ocean between that village and where I am now living makes it impossible to roll back the years by just driving over to attend the funeral.

Oh, and why, you might ask, was he known as The Poisoner?
He was a  gardener in the true French mould. Not a plant out of line, not a weed to be seen, not a shoot unpruned.

At the first sign of insect damage, blight, or, indeed, of anything out of order in his vegetable kingdom, his wife would be sent scurrying for water in the big back packs used for spraying while he headed for his shed.

That shed must have contained enough of the assorted poisons put out by the agro chemical companies to have been of interest to terrorist groups bent on wiping out France...he sprayed everything that needed it and anything that looked as if it might.
You can just imagine the levels of pesticide, herbicide and goodness only knows whaticide on his fruit and veg...which he then consumed.

If only Monsanto had known of his existence, they could have used him as an advertisement for the innocuous nature of their death dealing products....

Look, he's been using this stuff all his life and he made it to 91.....probably still be alive if his wife hadn't burned down the house...look at the facts...our chemicals are less dangerous than women.

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