Paris – then and now (May 1968/2015)
This short essay is about a walk in Paris that ended in the beautiful Tuileries gardens. The walk begins in Paris 10eme.
The sun rises early in a Paris May; a bright light then brighter still, a glittering blue sky; so, by mid-afternoon it was time to leave my apartment; I walked along the edges of the Canal St. Martin – and I even saw some proud carp coursing through the clear pale green waters of the canal.
I walked on towards the river Seine and passed through the remnants of the old garment district of the ‘Sentier’. A shop-front in the Rue des Petits Carreaux was displaying a huge old photograph – a famous photograph – of the years-ago demonstrators resisting the riot police in Paris during the spring of 1968. (We used to listen (intently) to reports of the conflict on an old radio when we were at university in the UK.)
I walked on through the perfect symmetries of the Place Vendome and glanced at the glamour of the Ritz hotel; then I crossed the Rue de Rivoli and entered the singular measured beauty of the Tuileries gardens. All day I’d been looking forward to sitting in the Tuileries. It’s a place to sit and watch and think and dream. I found a green-painted iron chair upon which I sat.
The sun was going down; sundown in the city.
By chance I’d read an article that same morning about someone I’d never heard of who happened to be living in Paris not more than a few tens of metres from where I was sitting. The ‘someone’ was a M. Thierry Ardisson. Apparently M. Ardisson is a well-known TV chat-show host and he has an elegant flat situated on the Rue de Rivoli, a flat that looked out onto the Tuileries gardens. The article told us that he had been complaining about the decline of Paris. What is the substance of his complaint? Well, first, he doesn’t like the vulgarity of tourist tat that greets him when he leaves his front door and walks out into the once elegant arcades of the Rue de Rivoli; and second, he resents the fact that Paris seems to have become a kind of museum city – a static architectural backdrop to the massing selfie home-and-abroad generation.
Early last century Marcel Proust used to walk in the Tuileries and I imagine that M. Ardisson longed for a ‘remembrance of things past’, a time when there seemed to be a kind of harmony between the design of Paris and its people: A time of style – and the refinements of culture high and low. Paris, for Thierry Ardisson, has now lost its cachet.
The thing is that as I sat on my green-painted iron chair I felt a great deal of sympathy for M. Ardisson’s take on the city of Paris. It has struck me that there is a discrepancy, a disjunction, a mis-match between the architecture and aesthetics of Paris (which are endlessly breathtaking) and the people in the city. It’s as if the stage is beautifully crafted but the performers are mainly rag-tag and bobtail.
I think this because swarms of disappointing tourists occupy the bridges, quays, and boats of the Seine; and other similar swarms course up and down the Boulevards or clog up the great department stores; the tourists come from just about everywhwere but there is scarcely any dressing up for the city: there’s a sameness, a casualness, a failure to do justice to the setting.
And then there is something else going on in Paris: so many parts of the city reflect not only a culture of people hustling for a living (a multitude) but there are also many many reminders of the poor and destitute. On my walk from Paris 10eme to the Tuileries I passed countless down-and-outs, beggars, the sick and the crazy. And it’s relentless. On my walk I passed a few islands of tranquillity and grace but, overall, dirt and grime and degradation and scruffiness pretty much won the day.
Actually, I think the decline of the old Paris – even the Paris of May 1968 – was inevitable. The new technologies, the new money, the marketing of the world as a supermarket of available pleasures, have turned Paris (and London and New York and all …) into a ‘happydrome’. The French sociologists such as Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard have long seen it coming.
But there’s no doubt that something has been lost and it’s hardly likely to be found.
By now the Tuileries gardens approached their closing time. We were being asked to leave. Then the strangest thing happened: I turned round and, for the first time, I noticed the statue that was just behind my green-painted seat. The enormous statue featured a tigresse holding a dead peacock in her jaws. The unfortunate peacock was destined to be food for the tigresse’s two cubs. I suppose that, originally, this was a metaphor for or symbol of the French revolution. But I couldn’t help thinking that the peacock of Paris was now being devoured by the tigresse of progress.