Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Without the Metro, Paris could never have become the great city that it is. It sprawls on a bumpy plain at the heart of the northern French bread basket, and of European capital cities only Istanbul, Moscow, London and Berlin are bigger. But it has something that those bigger four do not have. This is a unity. Paris is graspable. It is possible to stand above it, and there are several places to stand, and understand where one thing is in relation to another. They work together to create a greater whole. The metro draws the pieces together. At first the map is a tangle to anyone used to the London Underground map, but the chaos is methodical, which could be said of so much in France.

This morning I travelled on the metro into central Paris, and listened to the overture from Wagner's Tannhauser. On the platform at Villiers the woodwind began the simple sequence which builds, changing key, with a slight sense of uncertainty and then a renewed sense of confidence. The strings bolster the sentiment, and as we headed south east towards the heart of the great city the horn players lifted their instruments to their lips and there began the great cascade.

Tannhauser is one of just two of the major Wagner operas which have an overture, exploring the themes and tunes of the opera to come. The other is Die Meistersinger. The others have what Wagner called a vorspeil, a prelude (in both cases this means literally 'foreplay'), where the music emerges from a primordial silence to begin the story.

As Tannhauser played in my headphones, a man got on the train with a guitar. He was obviously English, and not very much younger than me. He lifted up his guitar and began to strum and croon his take on the Beatles' Yesterday. Now, I wouldn't want to hear it even if the Beatles themselves had stepped into the carriage, so I resorted to the comfort of my headphones. But I watched what happened. It was a crowded train, barely room for him to lift his guitar. But the people around him did not budge. Two old ladies, a young African lad and a businessman stood their ground, but ignored him completely. They did not even look away, which I certainly would have done.

And now, the brass raised itself high into the main theme, the strings cascaded behind as we threaded through the tunnels into central Paris, and I happily admit that tears filled my eyes. What a great country, I thought. If you exclude the Soviet Union, then of the major European states in the 20th century only Poland was dealt a more traumatic hand. Small wonder that France and Poland are the two most nationalistic nations in Europe. We travelled onwards in romantic splendour before I changed at Opera, making my way south for the Sorbonne.

On its first performance in the city, the Parisians loathed Tannhauser. It might have been though immoral, but probably it was because of its rejection of Italian opera forms, dispensing with arias and recetatives, and instead growing a long story out of the music.

Emerging above ground, I headed for Musée de Cluny, France's national museum of the Middle Ages. Most of the exhibits are gathered from religious sites in France, but there is also much from Germany, the Low Countries and England.  It is hard for me to express how wonderful I think this place is. Three things might help. First of all, the collection of English alabasters of the 14th and 15th centuries. Mostly from altar pieces and depicting incidents in the life of Christ or his mother Mary, the wall of them in the Musée de Cluny is greater in sum than the entire survivals in the churches of the whole of England. Secondly, the intimacy with which you can view stone figures of saints taken from the portals of cathedrals and major churches. And last of all, Cluny possesses the other half of the Thornham Parva retable, probably East Anglia's single greatest art treasure. There are eight saints at Thornham, and the Cluny piece, which would have sat above it, depicts four scenes in the life of the blessed virgin - the Nativity, the Dormition, the Adoration of the Magi and St Anne teaching the virgin to read. The exhibition points out the similarity of the figures with the wall paintings at Brent Eleigh in Suffolk, a slightly unusual thing to read in a French museum.

Afterwards I wandered around, pottering in second hand book and bandes dessinées shops. I went into St-Julien le Pauvre, the oldest church in the city in the shadow of Notre Dame. It's former graveyard is now a little park, and beside it is Shakespeare & Co. and then I caught the metro from St-Martin to Pont Alma, had a look at the graffiti remembering Lady Di and at the pillar her car hit, and wandered down to the Museum of Modern Art. The big exhibition was of the work of Keith Haring, a New York subway artist whose line drawings defined a genre. He died in 1990, but his work is still so immediate, his work having become indistinguishable from that of his admirers. He invented the anonymous line figure shown in different situations, based on the character on warning signs, giving it expression by its apparent movement. Along with Warhol and Lichtenstein, he's one of the most collectible American artists of the last decades of the 20th century.

 Keith Haring at the Museum of Modern Art

Later, I caught the metro to just east of Villiers and got off at Blanche on the edge of Montmartre. This is where tourists come to photograph the Moulin Rouge, now a shabby night club, but I was in search of something different. I crossed the road to Rue Lepic. I was on the Amélie trail. About halfway up the road is Les Deux Moulins, the bar in which so much of the action of  Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain takes place. It is the same bar that Amélie frequented, with the same name, and they really filmed it inside. I was going to go inside, but the kitchen table charm of the interior in the film is lessened when those tables are filled with teenagers drinking coke, and in any case they ripped out the cigarette counter where the depressive Marianne works to give it more seating space. I thought it might be a good place to come back to in winter. I climbed up the steep road, which is the one where Amélie takes the blind man by the hand and leads him past shops describing what she sees, before depositing him on some metro steps which are actually about a mile away on the other side of Montmartre. The tenement above the steps, incidentally, is where Woody Allen lives in his other hymn to Paris, Everyone Says I Love You.

I wandered up to Sacré-Cœur in the ninety degree heat. The view from the top was stunning, so clear and vivid, the rooftops of the Golden City, the City of Light.

And then all the way down to the bottom, down the steps where Phillipe Noiret finally succumbs to the shoot out in Le Cop, to Abbesses, one of the Art Nouveau metro stations, and where the spiral steps are the deepest in Paris.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Paris was a city I knew well before I ever visited it. As a child I would study street maps, locate buildings I'd heard of, follow convoluted metro journeys. I did the same for Moscow, New York, even London even though I lived barely fifty miles from it. I did not visit France until I was 25, and not Paris until a few years after that. But it was just as I expected.

Except, of course, for the gaps in between the places I knew so well. That is why the only way to get to know a city is to walk it. I feel that I have spent most of today walking, a day that started at about half past seven with a double espresso at a corner cafe by the Rue des Levis street market. I took the metro from Villiers to the bizarre Arts et Metiers station,which is like a Terry Gilliam interpretation of a Jules Verne submarine. I changed there and got off at Pont Neuf. The light at this point in the day was fabulous, spilling westwards from beyond the Île de la Cité, and I walked into it along the quai of the Seine to Notre Dame.

The square in front was no less busy than it had been twelve hours before, and after fantasising briefly that I was the only one who had left, I stepped inside the cathedral.

I had fond memories of Notre Dame from previous visits, but I had not expected it to be quite so busy. It was shoulder to shoulder at the west end, and the interior of the nave had been sectioned off with ropes in a vain attempt to control the crowds. At first, I took many of them to be Japanese, and could not understand why they were being so badly behaved, blocking the gangways, using flash when the signs said not to, talking when the signs said silence. This seemed most un-Japanese like. And when I got close and could hear their voices I realised that, of course, they were not Japanese at all. They were Chinese, and this was a big difference between the Paris I remembered and the Paris I was seeing now, for thirteen years ago who could have imagined that there would be mass Chinese tourism to Western Europe?

What else has changed in Paris? Among other things, the fast food adverts carry a health warning - 'for a healthy lie you should eat a balanced diet' and 'everyone should eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day', and so on.

So I shoved my way through the nave as if I was in a dour provincial bus station, and made it into the aisles. Notre Dame is not a huge cathedral, and I decided that I still liked it a lot, despite the crowds. Lots of the visitors were using iPads to record their visits, one girl wandering around with it in front of her face, videoing what she might otherwise have observed. She was experiencing the cathedral through the iPad.

I watched her for a while and then headed down the Île to Ste-Chapelle. Here, the walls of 13th century glass are breathtaking in their intimacy. There is a rolling programme, currently in its fifth year, to restore it bit by bit. So far they've done the south  side and the east end, and comparing the restored glass to that still awaiting restoration, the result is stunning.

I pottered across to the Rive Gauche, and became distracted by second hand book shops for a while, before wandering to St-Severin. This church is like a breath of fresh air after the two giants on the Île de la Cité, a fine medieval church with double aisles, and some fabulous glass. The clerestory contains more 14th century glass than there is in the whole of  East Anglia, and the east end is filled with excellent glass of 1970 by Jean Bazaine. Best of all, the 19th Century glass all depicts biblical scenes featuring the real life faces of the donors - this works well in, for example, the 'foot of the cross' scene and the 'suffer the children' scene, but is slightly bizarre in 'the beheading of John the Baptist'.

Wandering in this area I found myself increasingly distracted by second hand book and record shops, so it was not for another hour or so that I made it to St-Sulpice. This is a huge late 17th century church as big as a cathedral - imagine St Mary Woolnoth on acid and after a really huge breakfast. And yet, I found I liked it very much indeed, not least because there were lots of people inside, but not tourists. Rather, they were lighting candles, or sitting in thought, or just walking quietly through the vast spaces. And not an iPad in sight.

I wandered on past the Jardins du Luxembourg to Rue de L'Odéon. This is a smart street of tall 18th century buildings. Most of them are high end women's fashion shops, but a couple of older book shops survive. It was in this road that Sylvia Beach set up Shakespeare & Co, and a plaque above number 12 remembers the publication of Ulysses.

 Ulysses by James Joyce

Above number 4 is a plaque remembering Thomas Paine, 'an Englishman by birth, an American by naturalisation, a Frenchman by decree' who lived here during the revolution and wrote The Rights of Man here. Paine was born in East Anglia, at Thetford in Norfolk, spending his schooldays at Diss in the same county. I remember the poet and Singer Patti Smith saying how proud she was that her ancestors came from Larling at this time, almost exactly halfway between Thomas Paine's two towns. Curiously, there is no plaque at number 16, where Ernest Hemingway lived during his years in Paris.

I was headed towards the Panthéon, but got distracted yet again by an excellent second hand cd shop specialising in classical music and with a large contemporary section. I bought Francis Bayer's instrumental and vocal works and Charlotte Hug's Neuland for solo viola, both for just 3.50 each. I walked past the Panthéon to St-Etienne du Mont, a fine looking church with a minaretesque tower, and three sets of steps, allowing each door to be reached from the sloping street. At the most southerly steps there were groups of young people taking each other's photographs. They were there for the same reason I was - these are the steps where the drunken Owen Wilson waits to get taken back to the 1920s in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. There was even an empty bottle of wine to prove that Wilson had been there. 

I tried the door of the church, but it was locked. I discovered the uncomfortable truth that the Internet is not always right. It was true that the church had opened at 9.30am and would close at 7.30pm, just as the Internet said. What the Internet omitted to mention, however, was that it was also closed between midday and 4pm. I would have to come back. Oddly, directly opposite the steps where Wilson waits is an English pub called the Bombardier, owned by Charles Wells. Fascinated, I peered inside at the bar, set out in the style of a London pub. Chalked above the bar were the prices. You could get a pint of Courage Directors for 5 euros.Most of the patrons appeared to be young French people.
I wandered down through the Sorbonne to Cardinal Moines metro station, and crossed back into north Paris to visit the splendid-looking 19th Century church of St-Antoine, but here discovered exactly the same thing. The church had been open, but had closed for the early afternoon. I walked on down the vast Boulevard Haussmann, and just short of the Arc de Triomphe I was at last rewarded by the church of St-Sacrament. This is on the first floor of a modern building, but contains something rather surprising, certainly not something you see every day. This is the exposed body of a Saint.

St Pierre-Julien Eymard in a casket at St-Sacrament

His name is St Pierre-Julien Eymard, and he founded the order of the Blessed Sacrament. He was made a Saint in the early 1960s. he lies here in a glass casket, like Snow White, albeit more wax than  flesh, but still worth seeing.

 I set out later in the afternoon to see some churches on their second shift, but again things did not work out as planned. I wandered down from Bourse to Notre Dame des Victoires, which the Internet said closed at 7.30pm. I arrived at 6.30pm to watch them locking up. I wandered down past Les Halles to an old favourite, St-Eustache, to find the same thing, although they had an excuse as there was a concert on that night. It took St-Nicholas aux Champs to save the day, still open and not looking ready to close yet. Like St-Severin it has a double aisle right around the apse, but the most striking thing is the sheer height of the nave, dwarfing the aisles and with a clerestory of vast flamboyance windows.

I walked as far as Arts et Metiers, caught the metro back to the Place du Concorde, walked down the Champs Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe and climbed to the top to watch the sun set behind Paris, the lights coming on, the shapes fading into darkness, and making of it a city I did not know and had never seen before.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Last night, Daniel Barenboim completed the first Ring Cycle ever to be performed as part of a Proms season. Coming to bed early to be ready for this trip, I heard the last few minutes of Götterdämmerung, Wagner's extraordinary romantic finale lowering and fading back into the primordial state of nature from which it had emerged at the start of Das Rheingold some seventeen hours earlier. There was a breathless silence, fully thirty seconds it seemed. And then the Royal Albert Hall erupted into thunderous, rapturous applause.

I listened to the ending again this morning, travelling from Ipswich to Liverpool Street on the train and thought of Wagner's own journey to Paris. Sitting in a coffee bar at St Pancras station, I read that he first visited Paris in May 1849 when fleeing the failed revolutionary uprising in Dresden. He quickly moved on to Zurich, but returned to Paris by way of Venice after the break-up of his marriage to his first wife Minna in November 1859. In Paris, he oversaw the first production of the final version of Tannhauser. It was a disaster. The audience booed and demonstrations were organised outside the theatre by the notoriously conservative Jockey Club. It was with some relief that Wagner was able to Germany when the political ban on him was lifted in 1862. It does not appear that he ever returned to Paris again.

The train left St Pancras promptly after the whole messy business of leaving the country. We sped through east London and then on under the Thames. We stopped briefly at Ebbsfleet International, always an interesting spot for me. On the cliff top above the station is Northfleet's pretty little medieval church, looking somewhat out of place on the edge of a former quarry, now filled with the hi-tech paraphernalia of 21st Century transport. On a day in late April 1819, a proud couple brought their eldest son to this church to be baptised. In the parish register the father gave his occupation as 'chalk digger', meaning that almost certainly he worked in the quarry where the station is now. The child was named after his father, who was William Knott, my great-great-great-grandfather.

Before the year had ended, the child was dead. The sorrowful parents returned to their home town of Gillingham, where they had eight more children, the youngest of whom was my great-great-grandfather George Knott. Old William died of cholera in the Strood workhouse in 1857. His widow Caroline died in the Chatham workhouse in 1883, at the age of 87.

We headed on through green Kent, with its trees and countless motorways. And then dipping quickly, without ceremony, into darkness, the tight rush through the long passage onto mainland Europe. France was bright, the harvested fields flat around working villages with ornate gothic churches. Calais receded behind us as we threaded south. On occasional rises, a water tower punctuated the level, drifting line. Poplars crowned curving slopes, and a mad brick gothic church, obviously rebuilt after the Great War, stood sentry over all north Picardy.

Around me the voices were American and Chinese, except for four English people at the next table. Two couples who'd obviously never met before, but they were clearly delighted to be seated opposite each other, clinging to this last familiarity before the darkness of Europe engulfed them. They talked about previous holidays, their pets, their jobs. Eavesdropping, I learned that one couple were from Ely, the town where I was born.

We slid through Lille, and then cut across the line of the Western Front trenches of the Great War. We were coming down on the German side, past Lens where I remembered seeing coal mines and slag heaps on my first train journey across France more than a quarter of a century ago. All gone now. Past Douai, we crossed the trench line again near Arras, Ipswich's twin town. Near here was Vimy Ridge, and then we were crossing the Somme battlefield, and then past Compeigne, where the 1918 armistice was signed. And then Charles de Gaulle came into sight across the fields, and Paris began to gather around us.

 It is as if you are coming into a large provincial town rather than a great European capital. The train slides in through the banlieu of St-Denis and then cuts down between anonymous office blocks before coming to rest in the shabby, crowded Gare de Nord. You walk straight out onto the public concourse, and I was aimed for Villiers, which is on line 2. I had been told that there was a foot tunnel between Nord and La Chapelle, which would save me messing about changing lines with a suitcase, but I couldn't find it. So I took another line one short stop to Barbes-Rochechouart to change onto line 2 there. As the doors slid together, even before the train left the platform, I saw that fixed on them was an official notice saying 'pas de correspondance a Barbes-Rochechouart' - no connection, because the high level line 3 platform there was closed for renovation.

I pondered what to do. I could get out at Barbes-Rochechouart and walk back to La Chapelle or on to Pigalle, the neighbouring stations on the line. I didn't much fancy this. Barbes does not have a very good reputation. Known principally for its fairly lively North African community, it is apparently a good place to buy drugs or a stolen mobile phone. Normally this would not bother me in the least, especially as it was early afternoon, but I was lugging a suitcase which would make me conspicuous.

Instead, I crossed lines and headed back to Nord. Rather than waste time searching for that blessed foot tunnel, I went outside and walked up Rue Fauborg St-Denis to La Chapelle, and got on line 2 to Villiers there.

Villiers is in the heart of the 17me arrondissement, a pleasant middle class residential area with an attractive street market, Rue des Levi's, running up the middle. Most of the buildings are late 19th and early 20th Century, with lots of Art Nouveau details.

I got a few basic supplies from the local Monoprix, and then headed into the centre of Paris to catch the early evening sun on the west front of Notre Dame. But the sun that had been shining on Villiers had disappeared by the time I emerged at Hôtel deVille and wandered out onto Île de la Cité. Instead, glowering thunder clouds were massing to the west, flashes of lightning bolting down beyond the Pont Neuf. The front of the cathedral was a sullen grey, and even as I stood there the first rain began to fall.

Owen Wilson and Lea Seydoux in the rain in Midnight in Paris

At first, it was pleasant enough, like the end of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris as Owen Wilson and Lea Seydoux walk off along the Seine together. But the rain intensified, and I hurried across the Seine myself and took shelter under the awning of Shakespeare and Co. Soon, the rain sheeted down to such an extent that the cathedral was barely visible, so I slid inside and browsed among the fabulously expensive English language books. It is hard to imagine who buys anything here other than romantics and rich Americans. I am afraid that it isn't even the same bookshop where Sylvia Beach was a patron to the likes of Joyce and Hemingway. That was half a mile off in the Rue de L'Odéon. They moved to this bookshop, formerly Livres Mistral, in the 1960s. Still, you can't shake off the excitement of being inside.

The storm abated, and as the sky cleared the low sun from the west illuminated the front of the cathedral, the grey stone turning a brilliant cream, vivid and luminous, a confection coming back to life. It is one of the most stunning cathedral frontages I know, and in this light it was possible to pick out every detail of the reliefs and sculptures. I was not alone in working my way across the three portails, devouring the details in the intimacy which the late afternoon light had conjured.

I wandered back across the bridge to the north side to la Tour St-Jacques, which had been similarly enlivened and exposed by the post-storm light. I was reluctant to leave until the sun fell behind the taller buildings and everything relaxed into a more familiar urban gloom, at which point I returned to Villiers to write this down.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

During the long hot days of July 2013, when the newspapers were becoming bored with the various conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa and were instead awaiting the birth of a royal baby, I decided to spend some time on my own in a city which I had not visited for thirteen years. My children had grown up enough to be safely left, and my wife and I were enjoying living more independent lives, which is to say not living in each other's pockets but exploring the possibilities of what might be done better apart than together. As anyone who has undergone a similar transformation in their marriage will tell you, this is a great act of renewal, and they will also probably tell you that it makes the time spent together more valuable and exciting. And in any case, she had started a new job and could not get the time off work that I could.

So I decided to head off alone. The city was Paris, of course, and in early July I booked a return journey for the end of the month on Eurostar from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord, and seven nights at a small hotel in the 17th Arrondissement. My plan was to revisit a city I remembered fondly, to wander its streets and explore its churches and museums, some of which I had visited before, but in the days before I had a digital camera. I planned to be a flâneur, which is to say a stroller, a spectator, a saunterer, a loafer. I wanted to be a wanderer.

And yet it is, I am afraid, in my nature to plan ahead.  I researched the churches in Paris, coming up with a list of about thirty which I most wanted to visit. I found out museum and gallery opening times and admission prices, nearest metro stops (although I also intended to walk a lot) as well as aspects of the city apparently less well-known and more irregularly frequented. As for the main tourist spots, well, I had visited them before, but still enjoyed the prospect of going to the top of the Eiffel Tower again, as well as wandering around Notre Dame.

When I was in my late teens I was fairly fluent in French, but as the decades passed the language began to lose its grip on me, and while the grammatical structures remained, broadly speaking, much of the vocabulary faded into shadows. In recent years I have found the same thing happening in English, so I was reassured to find that revising French vocabulary, reading French websites and rereading Alain-Fournier's 1913 novel Le Grand Meaulnes in French began to restore some words that I'd thought I had lost, and to add some words which I think were previously unknown to me.

 Alain-Fournier, author of Le Grand Meaulnes

Le Grand Meaulnes is a wonderful book. The narrator is the son of a provincial schoolmaster, and his life is transformed when a slightly older pupil arrives at the school. The new boy leads him off on an extraordinary adventure to discover a mysterious, dreamlike domaine. The older boy's name is Meaulnes, and he is so impressive that the epithet Le Grand is given to him by his school mates. Roughly translated, it means 'good old Meaulnes', but as this does not carry all the resonances of the French word, the book's title is usually left untranslated, although in one edition it is given the name The Wanderer.

Le Grand Meaulnes was Alain-Fournier's only novel. The following year he was killed in the opening weeks of the First World War at  Vaux-lès-Palameix. He was 27 years old. Intriguingly, his body was only identified in 1991.

Despite my propensity for planning ahead, I was still excited at the uncertainty of visiting a foreign city and staying there for a while, as if I might too be in search of a lost domaine.