Monday, 30 December 2013

Paris, as I see it

Here’s a view of the Paris skyline you’re unlikely to see yourself. I took this photograph recently from a window of the top floor cafeteria of a French Ministry building in the 7th Arrondissement. It’s not, of course, an atypical view with the Eiffel Tower and the dome of Les Invalides, it could hardly be that. The roofscape, too, is quintessential Paris: chimney pots like jagged rows of teeth on top of huge flat stacks, walls in fact that overbear the next-door buildings. Even the monochrome grisaille of the scene is something I always associate with Paris.

I first visited Paris a year after ‘Les Evénements’; I remember how hot it was, how crowded Versailles seemed - my earliest experience of mass tourism - and how in Les Invalides, as I approached Napoleon’s sarcophagus, an ancient attendant shouted at me, ‘Enlevez votre chapeau!’.  (I was wearing my Donovan cap – that essential fashion accessory of the sixties.) But my most vivid memory is simply of sitting one midday outside a Montmartre café, writing this poem:

At the corner of the Rue Ronsard
Stranger in a city I do not know
I have sat two hours.
The sun has warmed me, warmed my beer
And dried the gutters, and people move faster now
Out of the sun. An old man leaves his balcony
And slowly draws his shutters, slats
Without paint and walls that are cracked
And dry. The drone of passing cars
Is the sound of bees weaving
To another bush in perhaps a shaded avenue.
Watch the old woman
Who sips her absinthe,
Counts her centimes carefully,
Shuffles into the shade. My reflection
Grows in a window opposite
And in this corner of this city,
On the corner of this street,
My presence is observed in silence.
And the trees are moved by a breeze
Which doesn’t reach me.

The following year, in 1970, it won a Northern Arts Poetry Prize in a competition judged by the poet Basil Bunting, who kindly and accurately said he ‘detected something of Eliot’s Preludes’ in what I’d written.

I have been trying to work out when and how I first encountered Paris. Tentatively I date this to 1956. In that year, aged seven, I moved to a new school which had a small library of books we were allowed to borrow overnight. I chose a large picture book with a semi-detached cover my mother had to stick back to pre-empt its falling off altogether. Having no sellotape, she used Elastoplast instead. I’ve no idea what prompted me to pick up this particular book, but from the moment I opened it, I was entranced:

“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines

Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
In two straight lines they broke their bread

And brushed their teeth and went to bed.

They left the house at half past nine

In two straight lines in rain or shine -

The smallest one was Madeline.”

I’m sure it will have been here, in Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, that I first saw illustrated the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the tall houses whose roof lines immediately evoke Paris for me. Later, such images would become familiar through films: Rene Claire’s Le Million and – in a very different key – Louis Malle’s  film noir, Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud. As for books, I must have been no more than thirteen when I read Paul Gallico’s Flowers for Mrs Harris, but not long after that I graduated to Françoise Sagan, devouring Bonjour Tristesse and Aimez-vous Brahms? in a kind of adolescent astonishment. At the same time, and with the same enthusiasm, I was in love with Françoise Hardy, whose EP, C’est Fab!, said it all.

This is how the idea of Paris evolved in my imagination. But two specific pictures also sharpened my image of the city. First, a Montmartre street scene by Utrillo, hanging in a classroom at my prep school: we had to copy it during an art lesson, and to that early exercise I owe my first understanding of perspective. I loved the picture’s silvery grey tones, its high houses and the distant glimpse of the white dome of Sacré Coeur; I loved, too, what I came to recognize as a Utrillo trademark: those lonely pairs of figures walking slowly up the street.  It’s fashionable to belittle Utrillo these days, and he has been too much imitated – some would say he spent too long imitating himself. But I agree with Jean Oberlé who admired ‘the nostalgia and poetic feeling engendered with almost heart-rending intensity by those subdued tones.’ *

The second picture shows another Paris street, but not quite Montmartre this time: Pigalle.  It’s an oil painting by Don Rivett, my uncle. I adored my mother’s brother, who was a magician, literally and metaphorically: I thought there was nothing he couldn’t do. I have only very recently seen this picture again, after more than half a century, but I recognize every detail: the wet street, the mother and her red-coated child heading into the Metro, the sleek black Citroën and the chic lady with the furled umbrella walking in the direction of Sacré Coeur.

My uncle had just finished the picture when we went for our 1957 summer visit to his home. While he was out of the room, I looked closely at the painting and - not realizing it was still wet – prodded with my finger the face of the man in the cap. Of course it smudged. When Don saw what had happened, and asked who was the culprit, I was much too embarrassed to confess. But he knew, of course, and I knew he knew. So, when next day he announced, ‘I’d give half-a-crown to whoever smudged that face! I’ve repainted it and now it looks much better than it did first time,’ I couldn’t say a word. But I loved that picture of Paris, and my uncle, all the more.

Adrian Barlow

* Jean Oberlé: Utrillo: Monmartre, Methuen 1956.

[illustrations: (i) Paris rooftops, July 2013  © Adrian Barlow; (ii) Pigalle (1957) by Don Rivett

Footnote: on my first visit to Paris in 1969 I travelled with my lifelong friend, the traveller and writer Christopher Arthur. This Christmas, I have been enjoying his new novel, A Tale of Two Russians (Dynasty Press, 2013)


  1. Best thing I've read all year [2014], and I expect it'll remain high on the list for the next twelve months. It's thoughtful, evocative, truthful and moving.Thank you, Adrian!

  2. Thank you for a terrific post. Was it the poet Charles Tomlinson who complained that one of his volumes was greeted by a reviewer with the question, 'Do we need more poems about foreign cities?'? Clearly we do, and poems and other writings about cities can play an illuminating part in our perceptions of their subjects. I'm pleased to have read your own youthful Paris poem. And I'm reminded, as someone who has visited Paris several times but who doesn't really KNOW the city, that one's perceptions can be shaped by reading after one has seen the real place. My personal images of Paris are above all those of Simenon and of Richard Cobb (his occasional essays not his academic works), writers I read long after I first saw the streets of Montmartre and Pigalle.

    1. Many thanks, Philip. I agree with you that reading can continue to shape the way one sees a city even after one has begun to know a place, or indeed after one already knows it well. Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ made me want to go straight back to Paris, shortly after my first visit; and WG Sebald has made me see London in a wholly new light.


  3. I have an album that, thanks to your post, I have opened for the first time in many years. It's entitled 'Simenon's Paris', text by Georges Simenon and drawings by Frederick Franck. Interestingly it was published in Holland in 1969 and in Great Britain the following year. I'm glad I've been reminded of it as it will make an interesting complement to reading Pierre Assouline's biography of the writer.What I enjoyed towards the end of WG Sebald's 'Austerlizt', which I have just finished reading in French and have now begun to read in German and English, is the shared experience of reading in the amphitheatre of the Bibliothèque Nationale rue de Richelieu and then my one-off experience of the new building. Thank you for sharing your uncle's painting with us: a lovely tribute.

  4. Another lovely blog, Adrian. I love the description of the rooftops you’ve photographed. And, yes, how typical the monochrome blue–greys, relieved only by the brownish ochres of the motley crews of chimney pots: the outlets of multitudinous flues leading to rooms and apartments in which – who knows! – some seedy or tragic Mise-en-scène straight out of Simenon may be playing out . . . I’ve read sixty Maigrets – each of them twice over – but I would not go to Paris to seek out the areas described – any more than I’d go to Venice to seek out Turners . . .

    It is true, Adrian, that Utrillo has been belittled, passed over as “the man who painted from postcards.” Yet, his early work is close to genius, demonstrating what might be called ‘an ecstatic bond with oil paint’ – such that his paintings are as much about that most difficult – and almost ‘occult’ – medium as they are about his subject. Few painters used oil paint with such felicity in the twentieth century. Look at the Basilique de Saint–Denis c. 1908, in the Kunsthaus, Zurich, and you will see what I mean. I had the good fortune – in New York in the 1990s – to see a Utrillo in a private collection, and I was particularly struck by the solitariness of the landscape: this was clearly the solitariness of Utrillo, and yet how often was this subject – the Paris that the tourists never see.

  5. just can't resist forwarding this link: You've started off a trail of two cities Adrian!

  6. Wonderfully evocative, charming and nostalgic; creating in me a wonderlust for rainy French streets that I have never felt before.