Wednesday, 11 September 2013


Calling on friends for help, I texted a few people to ask for their suggestions as to what we might do here in Paris where we have been stranded for just a couple of days, waiting for our luxy train-ride to Spain, and the suggestions flowed in: Pere la Chaise cemetery, jazz at la Villette, a canal-boat ride from the Bastille, a medieval banquet, various brilliant restaurants, etc. Having this information to hand cheered me up enormously. I would not have come to Paris without preparing, and felt awkward and silly not having an idea in my head about what to do.... Paris is - what? all the marvellous things, but also very passive-agressive, with all that chic, speed, history and expense.
Years ago, we stayed in a rather wonderful hotel at Chatelet - right in the centre. It was called the Hotel Britannique and was owned and run by the formidable Miss Baxter, who was utterly and completely French despite her proud name. Her father and grandfather had had the hotel before her. It had been occupied by the Germans during the war partly because of its excellent location and numerous handsome rooms, not too grand but still with elegance and gravitas. At the end of the war, when they were leaving - in a hurry - they used the fireplace in the dining room to burn their papers and the great stone lintel arched above the hearth cracked in the heat as a result. The first time I stayed there, each room was complete, square... Later, she had had small cabinets de toilette fitted into each chambre, keeping up with the times.
Now I see it is all very swish, part of some international chain. Miss Baxter is presumably long gone, but her stiff pride and charm remains vivid in my mind.
I have also come to have a bit - just bit - more respect for this hotel where we are staying now. It is called  Modern's. Now that I am less stressed, the brown paint work looks just slighly less like a Long Kesh style of decor. I can see it is really a kind of scumbling - small brown swirls liberallly swashed over old cream paint. It looks totally disgusting. There is a similar attempt at an effect on the walls of the pretty, elliptical staircase, whose treads seem to be hand cut - you can see the adze marks on the wood. Where the plaster walls have been bashed by people's suitcases, they have patched up with polyfilla,which is very white, making the brown design look even more vile. There is a strange roaring noise which comes from the drains.
After breakfast etc we headed out but rapidly returned to put on more clothes... We had a coffee and croissant in a nearly cafe to compensate for the thin fare at the hotel... decided what to do the day, walked up to the Bastille, round the Place, hunted for the canal boat trip, decided to postpone that ...
Off to the great cemetery of Pere la Chaise - wonderful of course - no doubt you know it well - with its solid granite paving, thousands of tiny mausoleums, statues, grieving women, columns, angels, inscriptions, mouldering doorways, cramped stone-work, granite slabs, rusting iron altars, a veritable telephone-directory's worth of names... Here throughout the nineteenth century, the middle classes of Paris buried their dead in more or less ostentation, culminating in a truly colossal stone conical phallus commemorating one Jean Beaujour, outshining many a duchess or millionaire with its tapering perspective and grand rustication, so that from below it looks as if it reaches right up into heaven itself.
The great thing is, there is no religious discrimination, so we have atheists, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, foreigners, all the famous artists and musicians, engineers, aristocrats, children, strangers... all commemorated one way or another.
We saw funerals lining up at the crematorium, with attendant TV crews and the mourners mostly in chic black.
 We saw men disinfecting ancient graves (against what? maggots?), and others with pressure hoses keeping the stone memorials squeaky bright and clean. Tout propre. We wondered how the staff keep tramps out - there are so many snug little places to hunker down and sleep....
 We saw the graves of de Musset, Tata, a (not the) George Harrison, Rossini and of course Oscar Wilde - whose stylish sphynx is encased in glass to keep adoring fans away, but there are a few red lipstick marks up above it.
Excellent lunch at a very ordinary little resto at Gambetta and then a trip on the metro to les Tuileries to the Orangerie, and oh my! all our troubles were soothed away by Monet's colossal water-lilies, painted during the horrors of the first world war, as an antidote, maybe. And the wonders of the Guillaume collections downstairs - Renoir, Cezanne, Rousseau, Laurentin, Derain, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Utrillo..... a litany of names which all arise from a single-minded determination to collect - and then all the passion and squalor of the story of Domenica who inherited all this lot plus millions and millions and millions of francs (look her up). I could imagine at least 3 operas or ballets written about these people. The one who sticks in my mind, though, is Chaim Soutine, whose entry in Wikipedia is a masterpiece of mealy-mouthed French intellectualism... when the works are a screaming nightmare of pain and neurosis. He leaves Vincent miles behind.

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