On the corner of the Rue Pocquet de Livonnieres and the Place de Pilori there is a patisserie which bakes fine bread, good cakes and serves decent coffee. There are metal orange tables and chairs outside and it’s a good spot to have breakfast and watch Angers come to life each morning. I buy a pain raisin (there is no ‘aux’ in the label), a large coffee and a baguette tradition. It is 4 euros and thirty cents. All the bread and cakes are baked on the premises and it is delicious.
I wish there weren’t all these comparisons to be made with England. The working people deserve so miuch better. There are whole towns where it is impossible to get well priced good quality bread. Artisan bakers struggle where they can but the costs and overheads means their bread while good, isn’t cheap. High Streets are full of empty shops, sometimes boarded up, or covered with tattered posters or just a dirty empty plate glass window. Ancient mannequins can be seen inside, their stance and poses frozen one last time on the day the shop finally closed. Piles of bills and circulars and unread letters in the doorways. Long forgotten news of wars and revolutions, call up papers and telegrams never read.
A friend who works in the world of town planning explained that councils often try to do what they can but often the shops will be owned as part of a property portfolio by a management company.
‘They won’t even know where the property is, it’s just part of a balance sheet. If they can’t get the rent they want then they won’t do anything at all’. The management company might be owned by a bigger enterprise, hidden and half hidden behind shell companies and tax evasion schemes. And even where the town is poor the rents are high.
I know nothing of the property market in France or how towns are organised and planned or how much rents and rates are paid. But I will say this. Angers is slightly smaller than Portsmouth where I more or less started this trip. Portsmouth shocked me. Within a few feet of the railway station, a gateway to the town, there were hundreds of yards of run down dereliction. Well not quite, for opposite the station are two new high rise buildings. One is ‘student accommodation’ part of the economic expansion by debt which neo-liberalism excels at. Students are forced into huge loans which will take years to pay off. But their money keeps town centres going. All those students need places to live. That’s a good source of income to the property development companies. The buildings don’t fit into any aspect of the history of Portsmouth, they don’t harmonise with any of the existing buildings and they don’t reflect or add to the identity of the place built up over time. They are the glass-bland-boxes that are good for profit margins and destroy yet another bit of the life of a place.
Angers was bombed in the war. I don’t know how much. The stained glass in the early 15th century chapel which is part of the chateau was destroyed. But the rest of the town seems relatively intact. It seems to have also survived the corruption and destruction which afflicted many English towns in the post-war period. There have been some histories of that process but I wonder how much more there is to tell? From memory I think both George Monbiot and Owen Hatherley have made reference to what happened in places such as Southampton. That’s just one example. What Europe would look like now in 2022 if there had not been war in 1914 and again in 1939. What would it all look like if there had been a continuity of genuine democratic control. Democracy; perhaps it needs a redefinition, perhaps it needs to be begun again, this time without outside interference and where all interests are open and declared.
The overwhelming impression I had of Portsmouth was poverty. There of course will be rich areas, there always are. The polarisation created by the concentration of capital has done this to probably every town and city in England. Up on the hill, nice houses with gardens and fresh air and two big SUVs parked outside. Down in the valley, which gets less sun, terraced housing with dirt and decay in the air and the ceaseless noise and movement of vehicles. This is where the poverty and debt are. It seems extraordinary to imagine but poverty isn’t created by the poor, it’s created by the rich.
An elderly woman stops to look in the window of the tourist shop, ‘Selector – Grands Voyages de l’Ouset’. There are adverts for Canada, Martinique, New York. Closer to home it’s possible to book a trip to Lyon or Venice. For those who plan ahead there are adverts for Noel à Egypt or Noel à Rome.
A burnt-gold coloured ‘Scenic’ car comes slowly around the corner. The driver looks at me, I look at him. We both look at how close the car is to the table on which my coffee rests. He raises an eyebrow, so do I. He squeezes round and slowly raises his hand. In greeting or relief I’m not sure. He stops outside the back door of the Patisserie and starts to unload cases of water in plastic bottles. This generates a great deal of conversation and it takes a considerable amount of time. From where I’m sitting it takes just the right amount of time. The job is well done and there is plenty of free and easy space to have a good natter with the baker. In fact, there’s time enough to have a cup of coffee.
Contrast to the delivery drivers I’ve seen at times behind the shopping centre who look as if they have driver’s jet lag, ‘I started at Exeter at 2am this morning, I’ve just got here and it’s now 3pm, I’ve still got to get up to Northampton before I can go home. It’ll be at least tomorrow now. Saturday’, said with regret and disappointment.
The elderly woman has finished looking at holiday adventures and is sitting on an orange metal chair and has placed a carton of milk on the orange metal table. She picks it up and takes a drink out of it now and then. She gets up and leaves and walks towards the middle of the city. I wonder what she knows and sees within these streets.
I scrunch up the paper bag that held the pain raisin and put it into the empty paper coffee cup. On the other side of the street there’s a waste bin and as I put them in, I notice a bunch of faded white flowers lying in the plastic bin bag.
It’s the day Jean-Luc Godard dies.