December 13, 2011

The missing gene

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — podtourz @ 3:03 pm

Somehow I just can’t get to love Paris.

I can love individual things about Paris. The beehives in the Jardin du Luxembourg, for instance. (Les ruches; they sound so much more interesting in French – you can almost hear the bees’ wings rustling.) The little streets around Saint Gervais Saint Protais where medieval Paris seems so close. The Hotel de Cluny with its turrets and coats of arms; the luminous elegance of the Sainte Chapelle; the creamy stone and plane trees of the Ile Saint Louis glowing on an autumn afternoon.

But there are just so many things I don’t get about Paris. And as a city, it feels very oppressive to me; it resists intimacy. Compare St James’s Park with the Tuileries. In St James’s, you have only to click your tongue and squirrels will flock to you, sitting expectantly, their tails shivering gently, their bright button eyes looking for food. There are the ludicruous pelicans, fat and oafish out of the water, piss-elegant galleons when they’re in it.  From nowhere in the park can you see the whole of it; there are hidden islands, drifts of daffodils that appear and disappear as you walk past, tiny tracks you can take that don’t go where you expect.

In the Tuileries, there are some stunted pollards, and a few lawns, a pond with two lonely drunken nymphs balancing for three centuries already on one foot, without ever quite falling over, and there’s expanse upon expense of firm, gravelly dirt. It’s like a big petanque court with sculptures and a water feature. No squirrels, no pelicans; a single crow sat motionless in a tree, so black he looked more like a gap where the universe had ceased to exist, a piece of dark matter.

There are the great boulevards of Baron Haussmann, with their tall cliffs of apartments. Consider the porte cochère, the double-height, narrow gateway leading to the yards of these great slabs of building, for the coaches to get through. We don’t have them in London; instead, we have the charming institution of the mews, the small cottage and stable streets behind the great houses, a sort of parallel London.

And there’s Louis XIV, a man who, it seems to me, had a sort of inverse Midas touch for art; he took great art and made it interior decor. Paris is full of buildings like the Louvre, which is big, but not very interesting. The Champs Elysées, the Place de la Concorde, are equally, big without really being impressive – so big that your eye gets lost, so big that the lampstands and statues seem stranded in space, as if the flooding Seine had washed them up and then retreated, leaving them stuck there.

The Madeleine really sums up what I don’t get about Paris. The outside is fine, Greek-temple style, nicely posed so that the Madeleine and the Chambre des Députés on the other side of the Seine balance each other along a great axis. But inside, three shallow, saucer-like domes admit light through dim grey glass skylights, floating incompetently above the classical grid of the side walls. It’s got no life at all; it’s as if someone had got three square chapels and pushed them together. Even the statuary seems flaccid.

Even the front door makes you unwelcome; bronze panels of the ten Commandments, each one starting NON… NON…. NON…. the word tolling like a bell. Don’t do this, don’t do that – don’t come in here, you are a sinner. (I seem to remember Jesus stating just two commandments, which were positive commandments, about love – but then sometimes I wonder when the Church is going to catch up with Jesus.) And it’s interesting that these Biblically validated prohibitions were followed by the twentieth century version; NO mobile phones, NO food, NO shorts. In vain did I look anywhere for the word ‘bienvenu’…

(If you want a welcome, go to the other end of the church, where the way opens into the basement. You can eat there for about eight euros, and make a donation too – the Madeleine does follow Jesus in one very practical way, feeding the hungry. Loaves and fishes are things the French know a great deal about, after all.)

I keep reading about Paris the City of Light, the romantic city, the city of love. But Paris as I experience it is Paris the City of Blag, the City of Empire, the City of Bling. It’s a city where humanity has always come second to PR, and intimacy has been ditched in favour of the Big Statement. It’s the city where the Sun King threw cats into the bonfire for Midsummer’s Day, where Haussmann bulldozed his way through, where the Empire thrived on borrowed money and snobbery. It’s a city that makes me very uncomfortable indeed.


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