Thursday, 31 March 2011

Sacré-Coeur – the architecture of reprisal

Julian Barnes wrote about Paris in the Guardian last Saturday. Barnes has written extensively on France but sparingly on Paris (preface to Richard Cobb’s Paris and Elsewhere) so this was something for Paris-obsessives to look forward to, despite a lingering impression that Barnes is not a great fan of the city. He correctly advises avoidance of the great pomp and circumstance Parisian monuments and directs the visitor to seek lesser known but more rewarding alternatives. The tiny Montmartre vineyard in rue des Saules is recommended as an alternative to the overbearing religiosity of Sacré-Coeur – a little disappointing – I had hoped that he might divert to somewhere like Barbès-Rochechouart if only for the pleasure of reading this restless and raucous neighbourhood described in Barnes’s supple and felicitous prose.

I share Barnes’s aversion to Paris monumentale (with the single exception of the Tour Eiffel that still works for me as a demented memorial to the Early Machine Age) and the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur is the most obnoxious of them all. In order to escape the magnetic field of this vindictive Romano-Byzantine confection, like Barnes, I would sneak round the back, but my destination would be the water tower in rue du Mont-Cenis. It’s an unpretentious structure, honest and restrained in terms of ornamentation and quietly performing a rather more essential function than its vulgar neighbour.

The tide of visitors that arises from the Métro at Anvers into boulevard de Rochechouart swarms up the steps or funicular primarily to enjoy the panoramic views across the city and get a close-up sight of one of the most prominent features of the Parisian skyline. High visibility, especially in the north-eastern arrondissements (18 – 20) where the roots of the Communard insurrection of 1871 were to be found, was a prime purpose. It was planned to serve as a permanent reminder to the city’s working-class inhabitants of the debt of penitence they owed to the Catholic Church and the property owning class for the events of the Commune. Another theme, one that would be repeated in 1940, was the allocation of blame for defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870 to the moral permissiveness of the Second Empire. This climate of excess came to be personified in the eyes of moralists in the flamboyant and gilded Charles Garnier Opéra. The Opéra was still under construction when the Commune was crushed in 1871 and one proposal was to demolish the part built structure and replace it with a new cathedral as an act of contrition for the sins of the past. The troubled origins of Sacré-Coeur are of no importance to the crowds who come to stare and this monument to ecclesiastical vengeance has steadily ingratiated itself into Parisian iconography over the decades following its completion in 1914.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Downland Walk

Farewell to the egregious Comrade Pickles and a change of tone to English pastoral. The western half of the Isle of Wight is thinly populated and especially scenic without ever being spectacular. This is the line of a Downland walk in spring sunshine from west to east along the chalk spine of the Isle of Wight, beginning at Strawberry Lane (near Mottistone Down) and finishing at Snowdrop Lane (near the village of Gatcombe) where we found a Victorian post box in which to deposit our postcards.

Friday, 18 March 2011


When Britain’s coalition government came to power in May last year its intentions were rather fuzzy apart from the priority it would be giving to eliminating the deficit by imposing draconian cuts on public expenditure. What has since been revealed is that the real project is to bring about the final triumph of organised capital over public provision of services. Substitute organised capital for the Wehrmacht and the parallels with Vichy France are rather striking. Two nations in crisis, each with an untested form of government. Our coalition government, like the Vichy administration, is composed of politicians with a broad spectrum of views, many of whom have unhesitatingly abandoned their most cherished principles. The coalition claims that it has no choice but to follow its austerity policy because of the unprecedented incompetence and irresponsibility of its predecessors. (Mr Clegg, the leading collabo, in a recent interview with Channel 4 News, referred to the “appalling inheritance from Labour” no less than 7 times.) In the same way, Vichy blamed the failure of France to resist the German military advance exclusively on the moral laxity and cowardice of the Third Republic, especially the Popular Front, and claimed that they had no choice but to come to an accommodation with the occupying power. Thus we see how easily and effectively the banks and financial institutions in Britain and the armed forces and military leadership in wartime France were officially absolved of any responsibility for the crises facing their respective countries.

The coalition has embarked upon a cultural assault on the public sector - not simply held up as an example of chronic inefficiency and waste where employees allegedly enjoy higher wages and better working conditions (with gold-plated pensions) than their private sector equivalents but, even more damagingly, as enemies of private enterprise dedicated to obstructing entrepreneurship with red tape of their own devising and by extension, responsible for any failings on the part of British business. The success of this propaganda campaign can be measured by a recent opinion survey finding that 70 per cent of private sector employers would not consider employing a candidate who had previously worked in the public sector. There is, as yet, no proposal to draft former public sector employees into labour camps but it wouldn’t be inconsistent with this narrative.

In Vichy France a similar culture war was underway with the object of undermining any lingering pride in French cultural achievements and inducing a state of mind where the only realistic position was to acknowledge the cultural superiority of the invader. In Britain, business, in the form of any willing provider, is preparing for the ultimate assault on what remains of the public sector after three decades of looting the most profitable elements. The jewel in the crown is the NHS and legislation is on the way to insinuate private enterprise into the service wherever it can abstract value for redistribution into private hands. The most unequal country in Europe in terms of income distribution, social mobility, education, physical and mental health and trust has a government that has turned its back on these problems to pursue policies that are certain to intensify inequality.

How far can we push this analogy with Vichy? Mr Cameron lacks the distinguished military service to make a convincing Marshal Pétain and Mr Clegg is, physically at least, no Pierre Laval. Mr Pickles however, with his glorious history of defending the city of Bradford from the tyranny of Socialism, is an ideal candidate for the role of Pétain. Whether he possesses the vanity to commission 200,000 busts of his remarkable figure (Le Vainquer de Bradford) for display in public buildings, as Pétain did, is something I hope we never find out. It would be interesting to know if even the Vichy régime had a philosopher in its ranks who could match the perverse brilliance of Mr Duncan-Smith when he recently remarked that placing extra cash in the hands of the poor often had the effect of making their lives worse. I suppose that we shouldn’t be surprised that he has not been heard to deploy this argument in the vexed matter of bankers and their bonuses where it might make some sense. It would take the proverbial heart of stone not to be moved by the tortuous utterances of the Quiet Man as he struggles to reconcile an over-sensitive social conscience with a fundamentalist adherence to the sacred principles of free market economics.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Postcard of the Day No. 46, Café d’Harcourt

The café at the heart of the Latin Quarter, at Place Sorbonne (47, boulevard Saint-Michel) – it was said to be the first choice with students from the nearby Sorbonne. Café d’Harcourt would come to a sudden end in 1940 soon after the Nazi occupation of Paris. On Armistice Day, 1940 there was an easily suppressed minor revolt by students at the university to which the occupying authorities responded thus – if you’re going to make us feel unwelcome after all we’ve done for you, we will force your favourite café to close and it will reopen as a bookshop specialising in Nazi and collaborationist literature. The new bookshop, opened in 1941 as Librairie Rive-Gauche, had the largest and most palatial premises of any in Paris. It was intended to be on the front-line of the German master-plan for following up their military victory with a cultural blitzkrieg at the end of which a demoralised French intelligentsia would have no choice but to acknowledge the cultural superiority of the occupying power. The project was not a great success – the store quickly gained the reputation of being the most deserted in Paris and it was reported that the only customers ever seen to enter the shop were German officers in uniform. The café never reopened and 47, boulevard Saint-Michel is today a Gap store.

Reference: Frederic Spotts, The Shameful Peace, New Haven, 2008

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

La Défense, ways of escape

La Défense is a fifty year continuing experiment in appeasing Parisian developers who, denied the opportunity to build high rise blocks in the arrondissements, have had the chance to indulge their wildest architectural fantasies on an enormous plot of land carved out of the communes of Puteaux, Courbevoie and Nanterre. Walking through the plazas at La Défense bounded by regiments of tower blocks is an uncomfortable experience. These are bombastic buildings that compete for attention. They express the expansionist and controlling ambitions of their corporate masters and diminish their occupants to microbial proportions. As for the public whose misfortune it is to circulate in the surrounding spaces, their fate is to be battered by aerial turbulence and blinded by dust storms. For myself, thoughts of escape preoccupy the mind. It’s not so easy to achieve – directional signs are calculated to dispatch pedestrians along pre-ordained paths but by wandering off-piste there are some avenues of escape to be found. Search for the under-used back road out of Faubourg de l’Arche to the hinterland of Nanterre and you’ll find a quiet space of deserted roadways and little used railway tracks bounded by rampant invasive plant growth. From here you can enjoy the views they don’t want you to see. The carefully planned vistas, designed to impress and intimidate are nowhere to be seen. In their place is a gloriously untidy, uncoordinated patchwork of structures wedged together like a clumsy exercise in assemblage.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Postcard of the Night No. 6, Berlin bei Nacht

Echoes of Berlin’s dark past are never far from the surface of these images. This is the Askanischer Platz with the Anhalter-Bahnhof on the right and Hotel Excelsior on the left. There’s a newspaper kiosk and illuminated advertising columns and a solitary shadowy figure – the best estimate is that we are looking at the late 1920s, the last years of the Weimar Republic. The Anhalter was then Europe’s largest station and the Excelsior was Europe’s largest hotel – the two were connected by a pedestrian tunnel that must have run beneath this scene. There’s an air of desolation tinged with menace, an island of lost souls. Worse, much worse days would follow. A decade later almost 10,000 Jewish deportees began their dreadful final journey to Theresienstadt and almost certain death from the Anhalter-Bahnhof between 1941 and 1945. The Anhalter was all but destroyed in the battle for Berlin but continued in patched-up form to serve destinations in Soviet-controlled East Germany until final closure in 1952 followed by demolition in 1960. Only the central portion of the station façade remains in place while nearby there is a display dedicated to the memory of the Jewish victims of the Third Reich. Finally we have a link to an interesting 1927 film of a train approaching and arriving in the cavernous space of the Anhalter-Bahnhof.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Postcard of the Day No. 45, Luna Park, Porte Maillot

Paris had its very own Luna Park with a wide range of bizarre attractions for more than twenty years until its demise in 1931. It was to be found at Porte Maillot on the voie triomphale between l’Étoile and the Pont de Neuilly. In Raymond Queneau’s novel, Loin de Reuil (1944) the hero exits the Métro at Porte Maillot and bumps into an ex-girlfriend outside Luna Park before dashing off to catch a tram to Reuil. Queneau’s fiction is often deliberately vague about timing and this suggests that Loin de Reuil was set in an era more than a decade before it appeared in print. The card below shows a steam tram at Porte Maillot of the type that might have transported Queneau’s character to Reuil. Porte Maillot today would be an unrewarding destination for anyone in search of distraction. Angry streams of vehicles scream up the exit ramps from the Périphérique and do mortal combat with the traffic on the voie triomphale in the shadow of the massive and depressing Palais des Congrès and a towering hotel behind it.

Friday, 11 March 2011

State Lines

Two postcards that feature communities divided by state lines. Above is a classic main street view with a difference. In the city of Bristol the line between Virginia and Tennessee runs down the middle of the main shopping street creating two Bristols that coexist side by side in their separate domains. A symbolic elevated sign spans the street in the distance and celebrates the anomaly. It was on this very street in 1927 that Ralph Peer rented rooms and made pioneering recordings featuring little known Appalachian performers (including the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers) that would catapult country music into the commercial mainstream. A 5 disc box set of the entire Bristol Sessions will be available soon in a luxurious Bear Family package at a very serious price. Texarkana (below) is likewise divided into twin cities but if you want to stay in Texas, you’ll have to take your chances at the Hotel Grim. R.E.M. recorded a song titled Texarkana on their 1991 album, Out of Time – any connection between the lyrics and the city of the same name remains a mystery. In the imagination of science-fiction writer, Walter M Miller, Texarkana was elevated in status to one of the two most important centres of population on planet Earth in the third millennium – sadly, in a blow to local pride, Miller later arranged for the city to be obliterated in a fictional nuclear attack (A Canticle for Leibowitz, 1960).

Thursday, 10 March 2011

To the Frontier

Today’s postcard exploration of lines drawn on maps looks at the United States and its neighbours to north and south. The first postcard is a view from the Mexican side in the era of Prohibition and has been helpfully annotated by the sender to indicate the availability of alcohol. In 1940s film noir, the Mexican border was the first destination of many an anti-hero looking to keep one step ahead of the law. An image of a fugitive Robert Mitchum springs to mind, hat tipped down over his eyes, hands gripping the steering wheel, scattering flocks of sheep on the dirt roads leading south to yet another seedy hotel room and a femme fatale with an exotic Latin flavour. Two further cards show border crossings between El Paso, Texas and Juarez as they appeared in less contentious times, decades before Juarez would acquire the infamy that inspired Roberto Bolaño’s fictional re-creation in the dark and dreadful pages of 2666.

The last card is a masterpiece of vagueness and anonymity. The US – Canada border runs for 5525 miles making it the longest in the world. There are 122 controlled border crossings of which this card shows just one. The image is an epic of passivity and given the generic and featureless quality of both landscape and buildings there seems little possibility of identification. In the universe of linen postcards where reality is never less than two steps removed, it all makes perfect sense.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

With Eric Rohmer in Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

Eric Rohmer’s films sharply divide critical opinion. Those with a taste for leisurely exposition, extended dialogues and philosophical complexity find much to commend. Others find them to be without equal when it comes to pretentious tedium. I can see both sides of this but the visual quality is the one I most appreciate - the sense of place and the curious intensity of observation in the way the camera is directed to record and scrutinise the surface of reality.

When filming La femme de l’aviateur in 1982, Rohmer selected the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont as the scene for the central encounter between the naive and emotionally confused twenty-something François and the precociously self-assured, articulate and animated fifteen year-old Lucie. François follows the aviator (with whom he suspects his girlfriend is deceiving him) and his female companion from Gare de l’Est to rue La Fayette where the three of them board an eastbound 26 bus. Unnoticed by François, Lucie also got on the bus and in order to keep the aviator under observation he moves to a seat opposite her. All four leave the bus at the Botzaris entrance to the park where Lucie and François collide with one another and strike up a conversation. What follows is a comedy of errors in which François, desperate not to disclose the secret object of his pursuit, tells his new companion an elaborate sequence of contradictory untruths.

The orbital meandering pathways in the park mirror the convoluted dialogue that results from François’s obfuscations. As his subterfuges unravel under Lucie’s spirited cross-examination she becomes his accomplice and takes the lead after they exit the park on to the rue Armand-Carrel and follow their target to the nearby office of a lawyer. Lucie weaves a web of deceit that in terms of invention easily surpasses the modest efforts of François. They sit at a café table in an attempt to maintain observation on their target where Lucie continues to baffle and befuddle the increasingly exhausted François to the point where he simply falls asleep. The film concludes with an interminable exchange between François and his neurotic girlfriend, Anne, that feels like the very worst of Rohmer and comes as a serious disappointment.

Rohmer’s fascination with Buttes-Chaumont began in 1964 when he made a short film of 13 minutes, Nadja à Paris in which the camera of Nestor Almendros follows a young overseas student across Paris as she exchanges the superficial pretensions of Saint-Germain des Près for the dependable working-class values of Belleville and the peace of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. The brief scene in the park is soon after the start of the second section of the film. There’s a melancholy epilogue of tragedy and unfulfilled promise to La femme de l’aviateur. Of the two young actors at the centre of the drama, Philippe Marlaud (François) would be killed in a campsite fire less than 6 months after the premiere and Anne-Laure Meury (Lucie) would go on to appear in no more than handful of movies (including another for Rohmer) before virtually disappearing from view in 1989.

Finally, my thanks go to Chris Mullen who brought this to my attention.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Parc Monceau

Despite the genteel air of the haute bourgeoisie that hovers over the sunlit lawns, the dark shadow of hidden history falls across the Parc Monceau, one of many Parisian open spaces drenched in the blood of slaughtered Communards when the dream of a workers’ republic disintegrated in la semaine sanglante in late May 1871. For Claude Monet it was a short walk north along boulevard Malesherbes from Gare Saint-Lazare in search of a new subject. Monet would paint about 5 canvases in Parc Monceau between 1876 and 1878 at a time when he was relocating from the suburban tranquility of Argenteuil to the Quartier de l’Europe. The verdant acres of Monceau made a pastoral counterpoint to the smoke and steam that preoccupied the artist at nearby Gare Saint-Lazare.

The main entrance to Parc Monceau is on boulevard Courcelles and notable for the classical rotunda designed by Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806). Originally built around 1785 as the Rotonde de Chartres for the collection of taxes, it formed part of the infamous and much resented Wall of the Farmers-General constructed between 1784 and 1791. The Wall was the brainchild of Louis XIV and encircled Paris to enable taxes to be collected on goods and produce as they entered the city. Prior to the Revolution the park had been the plaything of Philippe d’Orleans (Duc de Chartres) for whom it was constructed in an informal English-style complete with a Masonic pyramid and ruined Corinthian pillars.

In the aftermath of the Revolution the park passed into public ownership in 1793 but was only incorporated into the City of Paris in 1860 at the instigation of Haussmann. Half of the park was sold off for redevelopment and the remainder was remodelled by Jean-Charles Alphand (1817-91) in 1860-61 before opening to the public. The surrounding streets have a quiet aura of privilege and there remains a touch of grace and favour – six private residences bordering on the park retain their own access.

For all this the park is a fascinating place to explore with its gilded gates, sculptures of Chopin, de Musset, Gounod and de Maupassant, and Corinthian colonnade artfully distressed and reflected in the waters of the Naumachie pool. This item began with an episode of political violence and concludes with an episode of cinematic violence. The climactic rendezvous in the 2006 French film, Ne le dis à personne (Tell no one) was filmed in Parc Monceau in accordance with the Hitchcock doctrine that nothing increases dramatic tension as much as an unremarkable and unthreatening setting. The camera pans back and forth across a scene of unexceptional normality as the hapless hero prepares to meet the wife he has believed to be dead for ten years. The film clip happily ends before the violence turns truly nasty.