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Paris 1946 – a honeymoon

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Immediately following the end of the Second World War my father, an army officer, found himself administering a district in Northern Germany. My father was really good at administration and made things run as smoothly as possible. Whilst carrying out his duties he decided to get married and subsequently spent part of his honeymoon in the Rue du Faubourg St. Honore in Paris. During his honeymoon he had the good fortune to visit the beguiling and beautiful Hotel de Charost – which was situated a few metres away from where he and his new wife were staying. The Hotel de Charost is now the British ambassador’s residence in Paris.

In a recent article the BBC’s Paris correspondent, Hugh Schofield, tells us something about the early days of this wonderful building. It was built in the 1720s when the Rue de Faubourg Saint-Honore ‘was a winding road that passed through fields and market gardens to the village of Roule.’ He continues with a story guaranteed to put the spice into any honeymoon:

For our purposes the Hotel de Charost comes into its own when it was bought in 1803 by the wayward Pauline Borghese, sister of Napoleon, wife of an Italian prince and by all accounts a bit of a wrong ‘un. In a history of the embassy, we read that at her levees or receptions Borghese liked to walk around naked in order to be admired; a “magnificent black man” carried her into and out of her bath; and if she felt cold, she warmed her feet in the decolletage of a lady-in-waiting lying on the floor.

Yes, the French certainly know how to enjoy the delights of sensuality.

Time,’ writes Schofield, ‘is too short to describe the beauty of the Hotel de Charost. Suffice to say that in all its wonderful salons, the marbled hall, the ballroom, the state dining room, and the Duff Cooper Library, it combines the elegance of classical French design with the warmth and comfort of the British feel.

All this means that ‘Pauline Borghese, can’t have been all bad though, because the house as we see it today is basically hers. Much of the furniture – Empire style – is what she acquired, as are the silk damasks on the walls. In one room, next to a bed that was later slept in by both King Edward VII and the late Queen Mother, there’s a stunning framed mirror known as a psyche. I can just imagine the narcissistic Borghese twisting round to get a rear glimpse of her own stunning frame.

Napoleon himself used to come to the house to have assignations with one of his sister’s ladies-in-waiting, a certain Madame de Mathis. He came in by the garden, and they made love somewhere near where the current ambassador and his wife like to take their tea.

Yes, one can only admire the refinements of taste (and eroticism) that continue to define so much of French culture.

As he concludes his article, Hugh Schofield draws our attention to one of the many differences that distinguish the English from the French. This time it’s about etiquette:

Did you know,’ he writes, ‘that according to British etiquette cutlery has to be laid face up (fork prongs in the air), but in France it’s vice versa – prongs down? Apparently it causes no end of raised eyebrows with some of the guests at ambassadorial receptions…

Back in 1946 my father did not have the luck to be invited to any such reception.

However, he did tell me that he managed to secure, for his beloved wife, a soft-boiled egg from a rather devious and money-grubbing restaurateur – whose establishment was situated somewhere up in Montmartre. Eggs were still in very short supply in Paris during the spring of 1946 so the egg in question had genuine scarcity value. My father was delighted to be able to offer the soft-boiled egg to his wife – in lieu of an engagement ring. However, his delight soon turned to dismay: he was obliged to pay such an exorbitant price for the egg that he had to cut short his honeymoon and return as quickly as he could to Bremen in Northern Germany.

Footnote: With thanks to Hugh Schofield’s charming article entitled: ‘Scandalous tales from the British Embassy in Paris.

Farnham, Surrey: How to ruin a town …

Falling apart ...

Falling apart …

Farnham is a successful craft town. It has a distinct charm that owes much to the warm red brick once used to build so many of the fine houses that distinguish its centre.

And close to the centre are several wide-open green spaces. These are the kinds of spaces that anyone can enjoy. They help confer a special ethos on the town: Farnham is both ‘town and country’.

The green spaces are varied: there are parks and meadows and riverside walks; there are also some ancient hopfields. Part of the original wealth of Farnham was due to these hopfields – now known as ‘the historic Beavers hopfields.’ The hops helped nourish the breweries – and the proceeds from the beer-making went someway towards funding the lovely buildings in the town centre. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the hopfields helped Farnham lay the foundations for its subsequent acquisition of a ‘craft town’ status.

Over the years I’ve taken photographs of the fields; I’ve enjoyed the beautiful skies that arc high above them; sometimes they are breathtaking – from deep crimson sunsets to the soft pale orange of a winter’s sunrise. And, there are all sorts of mini-ecosystems on the margins of the fields; in summer, for example, the butterflies fall in love with the nettles and find their heaven amidst the perfumes of the wild flowers.

But now, because of the recklessness of ‘development’, there are plans to build large numbers of houses on the historic fields.

Should these houses be built and the ‘planners’ allow the hopfields to be destroyed, it’s simply an example of how to ruin a town. It makes the idea of Farnham-as-a-craft-town look rather absurd.

Paris: a study in blue and grey

Make art not war

Make art not war

All over Paris there are modest reminders of the spirit that once seemed to characterise the 1960s. The art work on the wall bears the imperative ‘make art not war.’

Between London and Paris

... Into the underworld ...

… Into the underworld …

I’m on the train that travels between London and Paris.

I’m reading a book. I like its cover. The story is about as good as it gets.

The train enters the long long tunnel.

I look out at the darkness – but there’s nothing to see except the edges of the tunnel. I start reading again.

I reach the paragraph in which a murderer speaks to himself about life and death: He begins:

Where was it I read about a man who, one hour before his execution says that if he had to live on some high rock, on a cliff, on a ledge so narrow that there was only room enough for him to stand there, and if there were bottomless chasms all round, the ocean, eternal darkness, eternal solitude, eternal gales, and if he had to spend all his life on that square yard of space – a thousand years, an eternity – he’d rather live like that than die at once. Oh, only to live, live, live! Live under any circumstances – only to live!

The text is brilliant. I imagine the eternal darkness. I imagine being condemned to hell. And, in the face of the endless solitude, I would jump. I know I would jump.

I look out at the walls of the tunnel.

And then I realised that the man who has but one hour to live would surely, in that final hour, choose to live high up on that ledge, in solitude. He would, at that moment, choose ‘only to live.’

Footnote: The passage (quoted above) is taken from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment.’

Paris 2eme arrondissement: Le Bingo

Le Bingo - with stacked chairs

Le Bingo – with stacked chairs

Just off the Rue de la lune (in Paris 2eme) you can find the sad irony of a once-hopeful bar called: ‘Le Bingo‘. Le Bingo did not hit the jackpot. Things went poire-shaped. It is now closed – although some chairs remain.

I like the chairs and the sombre melancholia of the ensemble.

London: Project Belgrano

What lies beneath ...

‘What lies beneath …’

London: A still photograph from the extraordinary play ‘Project Belgrano’ – in which Margaret Thatcher encounters Leopoldo Galtieri. The play includes a reading of the text of a recent letter from Cristina de Kirchner, President of Argentina, to David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. (That letter remained unread by the Prime Minister.) One of the most telling lines in the play is made during a fictional informal conversation between Margaret T. and Leopoldo G. – viz. ‘We could have done it differently.’

Footnote: ‘Project Belgrano’ is radical theatre at its very best – in London.

We could have done it differently

‘We could have done it differently.’