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)

Thursday, 12 December 2013

King’s Cross in all its glory

Leaving Cambridge one morning this week, I head for London. I have just come from a meeting about a report I’ve been commissioned to write. It’s an important commission (for me), but the project has run into difficulties: permissions, citations, non-public domains: these words rattle around my brain, and I’m no longer sure I can write the report in the way I think it needs to be written. I must wait for the outcome of other meetings, further decisions taken and revisions demanded, before I can get on with the job.

The train makes its familiar way through stations where it doesn’t stop – Royston, Letchworth, Hitchin, Stevenage: all of them truly ‘destinations not of the heart’. Fog hangs over the passing fields like the fog enveloping my report, and by the time we are nearing the terminus, even Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium has all but disappeared. With a couple of minutes to go we enter the tunnels on the approach to King’s Cross, much to the irritation of those travellers who’ve been on their phones all journey: ‘Hello?.... Still there?.... Can you hear me?.... Hello?.... Damn!’ But then, astonishingly, we emerge into bright sunlight and when we debouche onto the only station in the world to boast both a Platform 0 and a Platform 9¾, I can see blue sky through the glass roof.

In sixty years of arriving at King’s Cross I have never seen this before - the roof having recently been reglazed as part of the station’s restoration and redevelopment. Nor have I ever walked outside before and seen the view that has now been opened up. In December sunlight the huge double-arched frontage of the station is spectacular, every detail sharp and visible. Even the cleaned yellow gault-clay brickwork lifts the spirits. Let Network Rail be congratulated, for once! This whole area used to be a dire mess, somewhere to be hurried though; now people stroll and even sit in the sun to enjoy the exhilaration of great architecture. Brunel himself would have raised his high hat to acknowledge what architects and clients, contractors and Camden Council have achieved here. My one regret is the new glass and steel awning that runs the whole width of the façade, destroying the rhythm of the lower arcade; but no doubt one day I’ll be glad of its shelter.

I’ve written before about the newly created concourse between King’s Cross and the now revamped
Great Northern Hotel. Every time I’m here I admire again the modest but magnificent plaque commemorating the opening of the concourse. Most people, I suppose, simply miss it. But everyone should see this, for the lettering is beautiful, and the stone stele on which it is incised has its own story to tell.

Look closely and you’ll see that the text (itself hardly inspiring, I admit) is inscribed with letters of different sizes, phrase by phrase. Each letter has just the hint of a serif, and I love the way the letter ‘O’ – which appears twelve times if you count the nought of 2012 – always swells a fraction more on the right side than on the left. How neatly too the calligrapher has solved the problem of space by enfolding the letter O within the letter C, H within C, and E within L, even - so discreetly I have only just noticed this myself – by eliding the N and the E of ‘opened’! Rarely, if ever, can an erstwhile Transport Secretary (she’s since moved on to International Development) have been so beautifully marmorialised as Justine Greening is here. Some half-remembered lines from Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale chase away the last traces of my morning’s mental fog:

By process, as ye knowen everichoon,
Men may so longe graven in a stoon
Til some figure therinne emprented be.

Precisely. Carving this inscription must have been agonizingly slow work, one slip of the chisel sufficient at any moment to ruin it all. I like the way the text is all justified to the right, emphasizing the straight edge on that side of the stone, in contrast with the ragged edge on the left. But, if one looks more closely, the straight edge is not perfectly straight: the lower half is slightly concave. That’s because this slab was originally a tread on the staircase leading to the Great Northern offices, and over more than 150 years the step had been worn away by generations of railway clerks, dutifully keeping to the left as they headed up the staircase to their desks each morning. A hidden notice on the left- hand edge (you have to flatten yourself against the wall to read it) tells you this step also serves as a memorial to all these unremembered men.

You can imagine Betjeman on TV, talking about the newly restored King’s Cross and revelling in this tiny fact. I think he would have revelled too in the sight greeting him a little further to the left. For here is the sign for Platform 9¾, below which half a station trolley bearing a gilded birdcage is disappearing into the wall. And that’s not all. A giggle of young persons is queuing to be photographed: one by one they pose ecstatically, hanging onto the handle of the trolley and poised to dematerialise through the wall. A woman from the strategically adjacent Harry Potter Store supplies a Hogwarts scarf to complete the illusion. Into this store I venture nervously, amazed to see children buying Hogwarts kit (scarves, sweaters and ties) with an enthusiasm I never managed to muster when, as a pimply thirteen year old, I was marched into Gorringes to be fitted for my own school uniform.

I can’t afford the Harry Potter wands on sale, though I’d hoped a swish of a magic wand might get my report-writing back on track. But one thing I’m glad to have discovered in the shop is the Hogwarts School motto:

Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus
      (Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon)

Now, with due deference to Justine Greening, wouldn’t that have been a text worthy the unknown stone carver’s art?

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: (i) The restored façade of Lewis Cubitt’s 1852 King’s Cross station, and King’s Cross Square (architects: John McAslan and Partners); (ii) the commemorative stone in the station concourse: Photographs © the author

My previous blog about the new concourse is King’s Cross and E.M. Forster. I recommend Philip Wilkinson’s excellent  ‘English Buildings’ blog, and his November 2013 piece about the newly opened space in front of King’s Cross.