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.

No comments:

Post a Comment