Monsieur So British #31: House Arrest

Wednesday, March 18th, 2020

#31 House Arrest

Well that escalated quickly. On Monday morning I was still umming and ahhing over whether I should travel to London later this week, I was booked to MC The Comedy Store from Thursday onwards, and by Tuesday lunchtime we were all under house arrest and anybody caught breaking the curfew without good reason subject to a 130€ fine. Things don’t normally happen that quickly in France, certainly not rural France, and certainly not around here.

It meant of course that the decision of whether I should travel or not was taken for me. I won’t be travelling, it is essentially forbidden. It’s called leadership, where, when in a time of crisis, the government makes the tough calls, taking a thorny judgement call out of your prevaricating hands, leaving you only with the comfort of a good old moan instead. Churchill obsessed Boris Johnson could learn a thing or two about crisis management from Macron and others, but he’s trained to think up columnist jokes about situations like these, not top-down, confidence inspiring decrees. There’s also, of course, the fact that France, thanks to its strong history of industrial unrest and endless downing of tools, can cope with a lockdown better than most others. In fact at the moment it all feels less debilitating than the pre-Christmas transport strikes.

I think we’d seen which way it was going to go anyway. Natalie is a teacher at the local collège, Thérence is at a local primaire and Maurice is a boarder at a school over an hour away and all had been told that that was it for now. Maurice has been told not to come back until after the Easter holidays, that’s six weeks, and being a teenager he’d declared his boredom early. On the drive back from school to be precise which was pushing it somewhat.

‘This is not a holiday!’ is the constant refrain around the house at the moment as we try and instil some home-learning discipline into proceedings. ‘This is not a holiday!’ I shouted up from the sofa while watching a surreal snooker tournament from Gibraltar. The problem I have here is that I lack authority. I mean I have authority, I’m even quite strict at times, but in the ‘do as I do’ scheme of things I’m lacking. A self-employed comedian/author lolling about on the settee soaking up the dregs of the last live sporting event for the foreseeable future, is not the ideal role-model for a regimented work-ethic. In days gone by, a father might return home covered in coal dust, bent double by the rigours of mining, and extol the virtues of industry and slog, hoping that the offspring would learn the value of toil. My children see me sit down wearily for lunch, moan about how that ‘thousand words didn’t come easy’ but that I’d remembered to put a bottle of Sauvignon in to chill for lunch.

Natalie is better at these things than I am. She has organised the boys properly so that work will be done, even as she conducts lessons for her own pupils via email and the school’s ‘Intranet’ system. I have largely been left to my own devices, coming up with long lists of things that I should be doing, and being egged on by people elsewhere in lockdown who feel that I should have another book knocked out by the end of the week to alleviate their boredom. Even my dad, under lockdown in Spain, texted me to say that this would be a good time to write a sequel to my, so far only, novel. We’re at war people, those were Macron’s words, a period of transition is called for surely? I’m still getting used to the whole thing.

We should have known something was going to go wrong a couple of weeks ago when firewood stocks started to get dangerously low, and dry kindling virtually non-existent. We’d begun lighting fires with leftover baguette, rampant decadence obviously and unsustainable in a time of national crisis. We’d managed to get more wood delivered just before the curtain on movement descended, which it did slowly at first. Even last Saturday as there were reports of panic buying and stockpiling around France, there was no evidence of it here. The shelves were full, toilet roll in abundance. Then I went to do my weekly shop on the Monday morning and the place was heaving. It wasn’t panic-buying exactly, this was no supermarket Piranha-frenzy, this was calm and calculated. There was a kind of low buzz in the air, a bit like the morning of a Test match, expectancy, excitement even. I hadn’t come to stockpile, I promise, but you do kind of get caught up in these things. You wander the aisles and see that the essentials, store-cupboard groceries, eggs, pasta, decent wine and so on are disappearing at an alarming rate. You do the mental arithmetic of how many customers there are and realise that if you go away to compile your stockpiling shopping list, as any rational human would, there’ll be nothing left by mid-afternoon when you return. You get sucked in by it, a fear of missing out, fear of not providing for your family and then five minutes later you have four bags of rigatoni in your trolley and tins of stuff you wouldn’t normally eat but you remember those post-nuclear holocaust cartoons you saw as a kid and how cheap luncheon meat SAVES LIVES.

In truth, we did actually need food and I shopped just for the week, quite proud of my restraint. Who knows? If things get really bad the authorities may do house-checks on suspected stockpilers. These are strange times and I’m not ruling it out. And if they were to sweep down on us they would find only a surfeit of Cadbury’s Creme Eggs which Natalie had insisted I buy when I was last in the UK, so that she could share them all with her pupils as she does a lesson on ‘An English Easter.’ I’d suggested a crate of Carling, a Kebab and a pub garden ashtray full of rainwater would be a more accurate reflection, but she’s the teacher, she knows best. What it does mean of course is that I will have to go shopping again at the weekend, and for that I will need the authorities’ permission. Each time we leave the house now, we have to have ID and a Certificat d’Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire, an A4 piece of printed paper with our reasons for breaking the curfew and our name and address. It should also be signed. It has to be signed by the person holding the document, you in other words, which I just don’t get. What if I have to leave the house to buy ink for the printer to print off my attestation? What if I can’t print off my attestation because of that? I might starve to death. Or die of a Creme Egg overdose.

The French have reacted swiftly and diligently to this baffling, scary pandemic, but to create yet more, pointless paperwork to back it all up is the Frenchest thing yet. Vive la France!

Monsieur So British is a weekly blog and carries on from my two best-selling books ‘À la Mod…’ and ‘C’est Modnifique…’, both are available here. It is also a fortnightly podcast, sometimes with extra bits thrown in and all the major podcast platforms.

Browse the rest of the website for gig news and other stuff and remember ‘Playing the Martyr’, my first crime novel, and set in the Loire Valley is also available.

I’ve just finished my new novel, a humorous mystery caper and have signed with a literary agent, so hopefully there’ll be news soon.

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  • Adam Wilkinson says:

    Ian, a great read and as is often the case the “mundane” daily observations are the funniest – how many times does “Ce n’est pas des vacances!” ring out in our house every day?! However, as a fellow New European Brit in the Parisian suburbs, I have a gripe : those Cadburys Creme Eggs are torture, to think I won’t have any this year. Looking forward to the next episode, but please don’t put a bottle of Everard’s Tiger in it! Cheers

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