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Paris – a book shop

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In a few hours I was to return to England. A majestic deeply orange and crimson sunset the night before had prefigured this glorious November day: the sun shone and the sky was high and white and atomic blue. And so the day began.

Years and years ago I had passed in front of the remarkable bookshop that is named ‘Shakespeare and company.’ But I had almost forgotten what it was like so I decided to spend my last hours in Paris walking down to the Seine and re-visiting that special place. I was also searching for a second-hand illustrated book that I had seen in a Paris book stall a few days earlier. I had hesitated to buy it and by the time I had resolved to do so the book had gone. Maybe ‘Shakespeare and company’ would have the book …

There is a wonderful series of monuments that I passed on that splendid day; amongst them was the Musee des Arts et Metiers (full of inventions) and the cloisters of the Lutheran church, the Église des Billettes, and the ‘Centre Beaubourg’ – with its high art and celebration of all the rejections of artistic convention and tradition. There’s the wonderful Tour St. Jacques – and then all the lovely bridges that cross the Seine and the views of Notre Dame – this time from the back.

One of the most attractive features of the Seine is that it lent itself to the eyes of the Impressionists with its huge ripples that are such a pleasure to paint – and its various shades of green or grey or sky blue. If you follow a ripple you get lost in a kind of visual impossibility: nothing stays the same. And just to help the artist, leaves, the colour of raw sienna or Vandyke brown or lemon yellow, still cling to the many trees that line the quays of the river. There was even a huge slow-moving barge that edged into view as I was crossing the bridge. I had to stop and watch its dignified progress. Maybe Marcel Proust had once seen the same barge!

Then I was over and onto the left bank: it’s a nostalgic realm, once a place of the great writers and poets and playwrights and philosophers – all those people who, not so long ago, made Paris the artistic and ‘ideas’ capital of the western world. Their ghosts and echos remain. But now it’s a space for rich Americans and rich Asians – and rich but discreet and elusive French – and droves of alert tourists looking for the paradigm photo. (Oh well.)

I’d forgotten where ‘Shakespeare and company’ actually was; ‘Further on, past a small square and turn to the left and then you’ll see it’, a woman in a bar told me. She was right.

The bookshop is a kind of ‘must see’ and ‘must visit’ if you’re in Paris and wish to enjoy the high points of printing press culture. It’s here that words matter. I loved the place. Outside there were signs telling you which department was where and there was an homage to Walt Whitman – quite high up on a wall. Outside, too, there was a small table with a chess-board top. I sat at the table and my wife took a photo of me. I was looking for a pencil at the time. Nearby there was a small stall selling second-hand books at very reduced prices. Frantz Fanon’s ‘Peau noire masques blancs’ was there. (A propos literature, his observations include the remark “A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language.” His more famous remarks concerning the psychological effects of colonisation are devastating.)

Inside there were sections on cinema and poetry and the classics and – well sections on everything really. And there were serious literary types and lots of young students from all over the world who were insouciantly ignoring the signs: ‘No photographs please’.

I couldn’t find the book I was searching for.

But I did find an area with a host of books concerned with the feminist struggle – and I thought that they would serve as a valuable resources to complement the International Day for ‘The Elimination of Violence against Women’ – which is taking place on 25 November. Moreover, I discovered that in various bars and restaurants all over Paris, debates and discussions have been planned to take place all through the night in an attempt to develop theory and practice in relation to the prevention of such violence against women.

It was now half past three in the afternoon. My train would be departing for London from the Gare du Nord in a few hours time. What a shame I could not find that book.

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Paris – street life

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It’s November in Paris. The first chill winds have turned the air sharp and crystal-clear. I’m staying in the 10th Arrondissement – and very close to the Canal St. Martin. In fact, when I was learning to paint and learning about the history of art I studied a number of artists amongst whom was Alfred Sisley; his works include one or two of the canal itself; and, I can just about discern the building in which I stay in the hazy background of one of them. Nowadays the canal is one of those zones in Paris that is full of hip and semi-bohemian mainly well-heeled youngsters. The old factories and tanneries are long gone. The big fat black cargo barges too. The original Hotel du Nord is still there – and it helps to confer the idea of ‘authenticity’ on its immediate surroundings.

If you were to walk down from the Canal St. Martin to Republique and then on to the beautiful architecture of the Marais you will see many many cafes and restaurants packed with the young, dressed in their up-to-date fashion and glazed with the sheer loveliness of their excited and hopeful faces. There’s all to play for! It’s a great sight and is all about the expression of a post-industrial deeply-mediated culture awash with images and surplus and online ‘communities.’ Ethnically it’s mainly white. And perhaps the most intense expression of this seemingly happy and consumerist culture is found in the Rue Montorgeuil nearby in the 2nd – the 2eme – arrondissement: in November’s early evenings this street is simply a’buzz with the shine of the happy hours – drenched in romance, allure and seduction. To experience it is to be immersed in the western world that has, more or less successfully, been brought into being.

But it’s not all good news; and not so by any means. In fact, if I look down from the windows of the traditional high-ceilinged flat in which I write and paint I can see what looks like a thriving culture of drug-dealing: cars arrive and leave their warning lights flashing; exchanges take place – exchanges that involve a secretive hair salon that functions as a locale and information centre for drugs – and once the deals are done the cars speed off. Sometimes, right under my nose, I can see men preparing various cocktails of drugs in the cars – mainly cigarettes spiked with whatever the dealers are providing.

The woman – she’s a grandmother – who lives above me is increasingly displeased with the unsettling character of the neighbourhood. She’s a tough nut and has even chucked a bucket of water out of the window of her flat and over the ne’er-do-wells – just to show her displeasure. She tells me that the police are not really in a position to do anything because the dealers will simply evade justice and move elsewhere. There are a number of tramps and beggars too – along with some people who are plainly mentally way off the scale: in front of me I see the disposed and the deranged. Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m on the edge of skid row (as the Americans have defined it.)

You have to be rich to escape the realities of our metropolitan world.

It would be easy to become very cynical about the world that is Paris – and, more generally, the world of western towns and cities. The privileged young are plugged-in to pleasure; the marginal are failing by the wayside; the less privileged classes are on the make. Buy in or lose out.

But the city is well-organised and its systems just about hang together; The people who keep the city going – the ‘key workers’ – put up with all the inconveniences, frustrations and difficulties. They put up with rudeness; they put up with relatively low pay. They are remarkable and long-suffering. Amongst them there is a man who has a pretty dismal job. I see him passing by my flat on most days; he’s employed by the city of Paris to do some street-cleaning. His ethnicity is manifestly different from the youngsters in the cafes of the Marais or Rue Montorgeuil. It’s an important job because rubbish bags are left on the street; they get opened and their contents are strewn over the pavements; Why? Well, the very poor search the bags of rubbish for whatever they deem has any value. So the pavements get to be a mess. (Often a vile mess.) Anyway, I was intrigued the other day because the street cleaner did not seem to be focussed on cleaning the streets: he had a long pick-up tool and he was poking this pick-up tool through some railings. Next to him was a woman from an Asian country. She was pointing through the railings. She looked very worried. The street cleaner spent quite a long time as if fishing for something with his pole. And then it became clear what he was fishing for! The Asian woman’s cap had blown off in the swirling winds and disappeared deep down behind the railings. The street cleaner had managed to retrieve it for her. Gaily she put on her silver cap, murmured a few words to the man and went on her way. The man duly returned to his never-ending job of doing his best to keep the streets clean.

I thought about this micro-episode of life and work in Paris. My sense is that the modest virtue of consideration – consideration for others – is diminishing. It’s a fragile virtue but it’s really a great virtue. Nietzsche might disagree and consider such a virtue a part of a ‘slave’ ethics; his critique of our various moral schemes is truly beguiling and his acute perception of humanity’s limitations is something I can neither ignore nor dismiss. However, I do not think that consideration for others necessarily enslaves; instead it reflects our wonderful powers of imagination. And here, in the 10eme arrondissement of Paris, a street cleaner made every effort to help someone retrieve a prized possession. He showed real consideration as well as patience. I think he went beyond the call of duty – and I admire that.

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A short note about loss – Paris, 11 November 2018

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It had rained fairly steadily throughout the 11 November. I was in Paris. In the morning I had seen and heard the very large number of blue and black windowless vans passing by, vans that were taking the thousands of security personnel and riot police down towards the places where the commemorations were to take place. Many Heads of State had gathered in Paris to acknowledge the centenary of the ending of the Great War.

The newspapers had forewarned the residents of Paris that around 10,000 troops and police were to be deployed to protect those Heads of State (and their respective entourages of associated dignitaries) from terrorist or other forms of attack. (I rather smiled because I learned later that one or two women who belonged to the feminist group femen had been ‘led away’ – so as not to disconcert or disrupt the proceedings. 100,000 versus 1 or 2 wasn’t much of a contest.)

In the late afternoon I left the flat in which I was staying and walked down to the river Seine. In the late afternoon light on a mid-November day a rain-soaked Paris looked beautiful. The drenched streets and pavements shone with gorgeous lights and the fallen leaves laid intricate bronze and green and yellow patterns that made me feel as if I was in a painting or a magic land. The Seine, too, was alight with reflections. And it was a time to reflect …

I walked away from the quais of the Seine past Chatelet and I looked towards the magnificence of the Hotel de Ville – the ‘city hall’ of Paris. In the wide and open spaces in front of the Hotel de Ville the city had organised a stylish and thoughtful commemoration to lives lost and ruined in the first World War. They had, for example, created flowerbeds – that ranged, from left to right, in blue, then white, then red flowers; the flowers were tiny and the flowerbeds were vast.

And then I looked again at the astonishing achievement that is the Hotel de Ville. And as the suffering and loss of life were being remembered I could not help thinking that the British had made a great mistake in their decision to leave the European Union. I thought this, simply because, as a citizen of the EU, I somehow had a direct ‘share’ or ‘interest in’ or association with the Hotel de Ville – and in fact with all the great achievements that have taken place on the land area that is called Europe. In a strange and curious way I shared in the ownership of the Hotel de Ville and I did not want to lose this unusual sense of ownership.

At that very moment I would have liked all the people of the UK to come and stand where I was standing and I would say: ‘This is part of us. But I think we have failed to grasp our shared ‘ownership’ of such a remarkable cultural achievement. And surely we are lesser for it.’

Then it was the day after the 11 November … and I was one day closer to loss.

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