A man looks out from a window. He looks into the silence. Nothing moves.
Jojo was crying. She’s well-travelled and she’s a tough nut; She’s seen the best and the worst that life has to offer. What’s more, she’s a Parisienne. Parisiennes are battle-hardened. They don’t cry often. So something had got to her; Something had got through the sentries of her heart and touched her deeply. What was it?
After a while she told me:
Jojo had been walking in the 3eme arrondissement of Paris – in the environs of the beautifully named ‘Rue des filles du calvaire’ and then she had moved on down towards the river Seine. Just off the Boulevard Sebastopol she found herself passing a clothes bank. Paris has installed a number of such banks into which the residents of the city can deposit articles of clothing; the clothes are then collected and either sent by charities to help clothe refugees (or people without many resources) or they are recycled. The banks are well-designed: there is small cylindrical opening in which the clothes can be pushed – after which they fall into the black inner space of the apparatus.
As she glanced at the clothes bank she saw a middle-aged man lift up a young girl (perhaps eight years old) and stuff her through the tiny opening in which the clothes are usually deposited. The girl disappeared from view; there was only one place that she could be – and that was inside the dark inner chamber – amongst the clothes. The man waited nonchalantly and continued to wait. Meanwhile the young girl was left inside the clothes drum. In any normal circumstances the situation facing the girl would have been unbearable. In fact, it would be a long moment in Hell. Would she even find a way out of that dark interior?
Immediately opposite the clothes bank was a police station. In fact it was the main police station of the 3eme arrondissement. And so Jojo made her way to that station in order to report what she had seen: inexcusable child-abuse. But then at the entrance of the station she realised that there was every chance the police would not ‘do anything’ or even treat her concern with derision. So she turned away – feeling a kind of desperate helplessness. She imagined that the man who had placed the child in the clothes bank was part of an extended family of people from other lands and from a culture practising a different way of life. She imagined that in such a family constellation the girl was not accorded any rights. She was a resource to be exploited and used. She was fated to be used.
Together this moved her to tears. Jojo was deeply upset.
But on reflection what was also depressing was the realisation that in France a citizen cannot assume that their concerns will be given a fair or sympathetic hearing by the police. There is often an unfortunate distance between the police and the public policed.
This contrasts markedly with the ethos of the police in the UK. There, child abuse is taken very seriously; some of the most impressive police officers work in the area of child protection. They do their best to care for the well-being of children and especially the well-being of vulnerable children. They would certainly do their best to stop children from being stuffed into clothes banks, then to be left alone in the dark to search for discarded or unwanted clothes. The UK police would surely intervene in order to prevent these children from being abused and exploited by their wretched parents.
An old copy of Paris Match (circa 1961) – Samedi matin, (the antique and bric-a-brac market), Place Viarme, Nantes, 2014.
(This edition of Paris Match included an introduction to the newly emerging artist and Bohemian culture of St. Tropez.)
I’m at the Centre Beaubourg in Paris 4eme. It’s a bright September day. High above me the sky is sapphire blue – a pale crystal sapphire blue. Many of the leaves have turned yellow and bronze. Some are idling on the ground; occasionally they are stirred by the slightest zephyr. It’s a good time to be in Paris.
Alongside the Centre Beaubourg there are all sorts of mini ‘spectacles’ to enjoy. People are putting on one-man shows or doing portraits for the tourists and assorted passers-by. There are acrobats and jugglers; clowns too. There are moments of improvised theatre – and there are stall-holders selling bracelets and ear-rings, leather goods and lucky charms. Amongst them all is a man with a typewriter. He presents himself as a kind of poet engagé; he taps away – tap tap tap – on his old typewriter and as he does he generates short couplets or tiny poems in blank verse. I think he tries to get a feel for whomsoever stands in front of him – and then he produces a poem especially for them. It’s a charming idea and the recipients of his work are momentarily liberated from the dominant mood of screen culture as ink touches a page of paper.
In fact, the poet engagé, explicitly resists something …
His resistance places him in that long tradition of french writers – such as Victor Hugo – who adopted a deeply critical view of the wider culture and their society.
And that reminds me of something extraordinary: When I first tried to learn to speak the french language one of the best texts I was given suddenly featured examples from the work of Victor Hugo. But instead of selecting passages of his prose, the text introduced me to some of his beautiful and moving poems. My favourite is ‘Demain dès l’aube’:
Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.
(A translation might be:
Tomorrow, at dawn, the moment the countryside turns pale with daylight, I will leave. You see, I know that you wait for me. I will go through forest, I will go across the mountains. I cannot rest far from you for long.)
And Hugo continues with a few lines about the journey but as the poem finishes we learn that it is about a tragedy. The last two lines read:
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.
(And when I arrive, I will place on your grave
A bouquet of holly and some heather in bloom.)
Footnote: Victor Hugo wrote the poem four years after losing his daughter Léopoldine and her husband in a drowning accident.
The Soup kitchen is handing out food parcels, sandwiches and cups of soup to a throng of people who have gathered next to an old convent near the Canal St. Martin. It’s around 9 p.m. The September sun has set but it’s still very warm. Most of the people are poor; some are desperately poor; some are beyond hope. This is the city; this time it happens to be Paris.
A kind of restrained camaraderie characterises this particular moment in the culture of poverty: some people exchange pleasantries; some share bits and bobs of information; some express opinions – but overall there is a kind of candle-lit calm. (Perhaps it’s a calm before the storm…)
As I take in the scene I’m reminded of the remarkable anthropological study conducted by Oscar Lewis in which he explored the life of the poor in Mexico city. Lewis taught us that if the poor have no power, ironically, they have more than their share of experience. In contrast to the rich, they have direct, first-hand, visceral experience rather than the indulgent balm of mediated experience.
To underline his point Oscar Lewis selects a striking remark made by the Danish novelist Martin Anderson Nexo. Nexo, in his autobiography about his early life in a Copenhagen slum, recalls that when he was about three years old he asked his mother whether his brother, who had recently died, was now an angel. His mother replied: ‘Poor people don’t belong in heaven, they have to be thankful if they can get into earth.’ Oscar Lewis then goes on to show how a death in the Sanchez family (the family he studied in the poorest part of Mexico city) presents itself as a testing social and economic problem – a hardship so great that it is, indeed, a struggle to get a poor relation ‘into earth.’ (It is in this sense that I understand the remark about how the poor have more of their share of experience than the rich.)
And here, too, in Paris, the sensible magazines tell us how costly a funeral will be – a cost impossible for the poorest to bear. Meanwhile, not so far away from the Canal St. Martin, the rich young things of Paris (and the world) stream into the designer spaces of Galleries Lafayette … and, through their iPhones and luxury accoutrements, live out their mediated lives …
In fact, my father once had exactly the same car.
His was silver in colour. The car had personality. The car had a look that was distinctive, masculine, inquiring and purposive. Solid too.
My brothers and I would sit on the red-leather back seat (it was a bench seat) and, as he drove his wonderful car, my father would tell us stories – and worry about things like the decline of good manners and the importance of integrity. He taught us to show an interest in, and a respect for, others. I think that he tried to make us into the kind of people who would be worthy of inheriting the Citroen.
I have no idea how much I perceive the world through the long-established images and conventions of the photograph. But clearly, in cities like Paris, cities that have been subject to a fairly long history of documentation by photographers, I find myself in the very scenes that they originally represented. Their black and white photographs are not neutral: they carry a romantic or sentimental or mood-laden charge. They may even evoke pathos and suffering – and they may invite me to imagine how the world got to seem that way.
And, just the other day, at around 11 p.m. in the evening, I suddenly experienced a phantasm of one of those wonderful scenes of Paris – the kind that Robert Doisneau’s photos portray. I ‘met’ the Doisneau girl.
I was in the second arrondissement of Paris. The weather that day had been gorgeous. Now, the late evening shaded into velvety night; I started walking down the Rue de la Villeneuve towards the Grands Boulevards. The air was warm and somewhere high above the soft glow of the street lights an orange moon glided across the ink-blue sky. As I walked I heard a distinctive sound behind me. I turned round and saw an old man who was also walking down the road. He supported himself with the help of two wooden canes. Alongside him trotted a small dog. The dog most surely must have been called ‘Patch’. Patch had a white coat of hair but one largish area of black covered half his head and,of course, his eye. (The whole suggested the look of a pirate) Then, the Doisneau girl appeared. She was aged about six and was manoeuvring herself along the road whilst sitting on an old battered skateboard. The skateboard now served as a crude but charming mode of transport.
The girl (so sitting) allowed the skateboard to roll down the slope of the road until she came alongside the old man and Patch the dog. Then, she reached out and patted Patch and murmured something to the old man. He was her grandfather. She had a delightful and sweet optimism in her voice. What was it about her that made her appear the ideal child? She wore a simple cotton dress – and her long fair hair streamed about her cheeks and down her back. She glanced at me; her black eyes sparkled; she smiled at me – a simple, direct, happy smile.
I continued walking towards the Boulevards but I noticed that the girl had retraced her steps and returned to the highest point of the road. I turned to watch. She sat on her skateboard and then I realised that she was preparing to descend the length of the road – a full 50 metres. In a moment she was off: faster and faster she sped down the incline of the road. By now she was adjacent with her grandfather and Patch. She used her feet to brake the speed of the skateboard – and with a cry of delight she continued to the point where I was standing. I clapped my hands and she smiled again – the smile of a child who knows that she has risked a great deal and won. I clapped again, bowed and smiled – and then waved goodbye to the beautiful girl – as I turned onto the Grands Boulevards. As I walked on I thought of her charm and of how she was at the point in a life before the full weight of french culture would bear down upon her.
If I had had my camera I would have been able to capture (in 2014) the kind of moment made famous so many years earlier by Robert Doisneau. I would have frozen, in time, a point where the past merges with the present. I would have represented a convention – an idea – a sentimental narrative – here in the narrow unseen streets of Paris.
But who knows who this ideal child might actually be? And who knows how far french culture has already pervaded her soul and shaped the contours of her psyche? And who knows whether I gilded the whole scene with an escapist romance that had little to do with reality? Yet, there’s no doubt that the child felt elation as she sped down the road on her battered but still reliable skateboard. There’s no doubt too, that she felt safe alongside her grandfather and the little dog. She felt the simplicities of pleasure – and, through her conduct and her smile, she made my day.
I don’t know: I heard a sound. Did it happen in a dream, a dream I didn’t know I was having?
Maybe the French sociologists are correct and that here, in the western world, we’ve so speeded up that we’ve become detached from history. Their thesis is simple enough: since the 1990s nothing is given a chance to settle: as a result history is no longer possible: life can no longer be captured and freeze-dried (as it were).
Still, there was a time when history, even recently, was possible – and the BBC has helped us get some idea of a certain culture in time and place: it’s done this by exploring the making of classic albums – and the other day we heard about the production of Blondie’s wonderful LP record, ‘Parallel lines‘. ‘Parallel lines‘ was born out of life in New York city during the 1970s. Debbie Harry gave a riveting account of how she experienced the great city back then: it was grimy, hard-edged, dangerous, sexy and full of desire. In essence you could be ‘other’ in New York and, well, you just got on with it. New York was somewhere unique. And Debbie’s songs reflected this. Her lyrics were street-wise, raw, direct and sparing. Attitude to the power of ten: ‘I know a girl from a lonely street, cold as ice cream but still as sweet …‘ Far Rockaway and back … Bowery girl …
But then Debbie Harry said something very telling: She remarked that the New York of the 1970s has gone. Now, she said, it’s dominated by the corporations. It’s a city ‘just like everywhere else’, just like every other city. In the new forms of city everything is corporate – sloganised – homogenised – fast-paced – future-centred (and maybe history doesn’t happen anymore) …
I wonder what she’d make of London or Paris. I wonder: Have they become ‘just like every other city’?
PS.I’m writing this note because there was a time when people built mansions like the one shown in Ian Woodard’s design (in the photograph), and people like Mervyn Peake wrote the Gormenghast trilogy, and Francis Bacon painted terrific existential paintings and David Lean made ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. There was a time when corporations were secondary, life was primary. And once upon a time we thought about humanistic values and we managed to create some great and unique institutions … institutions that were nothing to do with corporations.
PPS. Bramshill, as an institution, was once just such a place.
Footnote: Ian Woodard is a great artist who once spent time with me in New York city. He now lives in Italy.
Summer is almost over. But winter has already come to an English mansion on a hill, a mansion known simply as ‘Bramshill’.
(A note based on: ‘The Strange Passing of the Police Staff College‘ by Peter Villiers.)