THIS POSTCARD arrived in our letter-box the other day. I looked at it briefly, wondering who'd sent us this little poem, and why he - or she - thought we might enjoy it. I turned it over to see who the poetic sender was. Surprise, surprise. It was
THIS POSTCARD arrived in our letter-box the other day. I looked at it briefly, wondering who'd sent us this little poem, and why he - or she - thought we might enjoy it. I turned it over to see who the poetic sender was. Surprise, surprise. It was from La Poste, the Post Office. They do this kind of thing occasionally, I suppose in the same spirit as the London Underground sometimes displays poems on Tube hoardings. Le printemps des poètes, they call it, Poets' Spring. Whatever your feelings, positive or negative, about devoting public funds to distributing poems in peoples' letter-boxes - if it happens all over France, that's something like 17 million households - at least you can agree that this isn't a marked feature of Post Office activity in the UK or the USA.
Here's the poem, by someone called Jean Tardieu:
LE PETIT OPTIMISTE
Dès le matin j'ai regardé
j'ai regardé par la fenêtre :
j'ai vu passer des enfants.
Une heure après c'étaient des gens.
Une heure après, des vieillards tremblants.
Comme ils vieillissent vite, pensai-je !
Et moi qui rajeunis à chaque instant !
[THE LITTLE OPTIMIST
Since this morning I've been looking
I've been looking through the window:
I saw children pass.
An hour later it was grown-ups.
An hour later, tottery old folk.
How quickly they grow old, I thought!
And I who grow younger every second!]
A note on the back of the postcard told us that this was the 11th Poets' Spring and the 11th time La Poste was anxious to share the feeling of a poem with us. I read the poem through several times, trying to wring the last drop of meaning out of it. It didn't begin to mean all that much until I set myself to translating it, calling in Josephine at the end to verify and advise. We had trouble with tremblants, at the end of the fifth line. Literally it means 'trembling'. This didn't seem quite right: it suggested the old folk passing the poet's window were frightened or nervous or had Parkinson's. We didn't think this was what Monsieur Tardieu meant to imply. We turned down 'quivering' for the same reason. To Josephine 'shaking' had overtones of 'twist and shake', which probably means more to generations that can remember people like Chubby Checker, but we were sure the poet didn't want to suggest a lot of geriatric dancing outside the window. There's nothing in the poem about it being cold, so we couldn't use 'shivering'. We quickly passed on 'shambling', 'palsied' and 'wobbly'. Finally we hit on 'tottery', implying that the passing old folk were a bit uncertain on their pins, and executive decisions were made.You see how seriously we take the business of reporting from France.
Anyway, well done La Poste for providing an original coffee-time diversion, even if the poem is about something we have problems with: i.e. coming to terms with the passing of time.
MOST AFTERNOONS two far from tottery elderly ladies from the village, Mme Azéma and Mme Nougaret, stroll up the lane past our house. They've clearly solved one of the problems of ageing. Until two or three months ago these two ladies did exactly the same as any other ladies in their 60s and 70s from the village, or indeed from anywhere in France: they used to conceal the silver threads among the gold by dyeing their hair whatever shade they fancied between chestnut, deep red henna and honey blonde, and all would be well until the grey or white roots began to show and it would time to visit Sophie Frimousse the village hairdresser once again.
Well, I have to tell you that Mesdames Azéma and Nougaret have taken the plunge. I don't mean into the vat of hair-dye, quite the reverse: they've decided to set a new village fashion and do without any artificial colouring. This meant there was a period some weeks back when their hair was a bit pepper-and-salt while the dyed hair was growing out, but now they have no compunction over going about silvery white. What's more, several other ladies are following suit, so it seems that the French passion for dyeing hair, as represented in the village, is maybe on the turn.
I'm not surprised. Setting aside considerations of cost in lean times, I've never really come to terms with the French TV commercials advertising hair dyes. As in the UK, several of them feature models tossing magnificent manes of dyed hair. One celeb model is the actress Andie MacDowell, but I only know who it is because they put up a strap on the screen with her name on it. It seems to me that you're on a hiding to nothing if you hire a celeb model to promote your product, and then have to tell viewers who she is.
But I'm in a dilemma, not to say on a hiding to nothing. For several years, ever since the evidence of my visits to Sophie Frimousse began to consist of a meagre sprinkling of unregenerate white clippings on the floor, I've toyed with the idea, in the interests of growing younger every second, of a modest weekly application of Grecian 2000, just to add a little grizzled distinction to an otherwise unrelieved snowy white. Self-delusion knows few bounds, of course, but whenever I mention this to Josephine she's overcome with zany laughter, and my kids are no better. Zut alors. So be it. Adieu, the George Clooney effect. Bonjour, the Azéma-Nougaret syndrome.
NOTHING MUCH to be optimistic about there, then, but most days I glance through the online edition of France's leading centre-right daily, Le Figaro. The other day I was much struck by a witty quote from the work not of the poet we started with, Jean Tardieu, but by a near-contemporary, Jean Rostand, a biologist and writer who lived from 1894 until 1977, and the son, while we're at it, of Edmond Rostand, the author of Cyrano de Bergerac. I felt it summed everything up: Je me sens très optimistique - quant à l'avenir du pessimisme. I feel very optimistic - about the future of pessimism. Ho ho.
I'm going to totter off now to look out of the window. If any old folk shuffle past, I hope they'll make me feel as young as Jean Tardieu's Le Petit Optimiste. Without the aid of Grecian 2000, of course. The dye is cast.