Saturday, 26 May 2007

St Denis Market

Pentecostal Paris to Follow

"I went to St Denis , which is foure miles from Paris, the foure and twentieth of May…after dinner, where I saw many remarkable and memorable things. I passed trhough a Cloyster before I came into the Church. ..Images of many of the French Kings, set in certain woden cupboards…[the Crown itself…a “sword of King Solomans” Dogobert stuff….Scepters etc…drinking cup of John of Gaunt…]"

Thomas Coryat

Friday, 25 May 2007

Dusty in St. Denis

“…one of the most commonly repeated patterns in the lives of travellers is some degree of personal transference to the cultural identity of the people whose lands they have wandered. This new sense of self could leave them unable or ill-equipped to resume permanent residence in their country of origin…”

Mark Cocker – Loneliness & Time, British Travel Writing in the Twentieth Century.

Thomas Coryat remained in England only a year after he published, travelling next through Turkey, Persia and India. He died in Surat in 1617, not yet 40.

The Paris trains don’t like St Denis station, though scheduled to stop. The first speeds on to Stade de France and the rugby statium. The return train goes past and on to somewhere.

There are hundreds of commuters leaving St. Denis when I finally arrive. The area around the station feels like a port. It is a holiday weekend, Pentecost, and all the cheap hotels are full and there are plenty to tell you so.

The first stalker follows around, “Go there, or come with me, I’m very cheap.” Me too: but no thanks. I find a house-hotel by the Polish community centre with a courtyard full of prams and mums. It’s opposite the Hallal butchers and has a room.

Tim Moore wanted to like St.Denis but didn’t. He moved on to a Formula One hotel further out at thirteen euros a night and kept his car’s hubcaps in the room. I love it here. Everyone is out of the street, there’s not a hint of uniformity. Down past the crowded streets filled with kebab restaurants and palmist stores, and across the large open market, is the Basillica, bringing cool, and the tombs of the “Old Kings” of France. Another beast, the Basillica. Where did all the money for these things come from?

St.Denis is Paris these days. It used to be a bridging point, a Hampstead or a Richmond from where it was a half-day ride into the City proper. Today it is like an altitude tank – an attitude tank – for the Seine-centre. Here all is streetwise poly-culturalism: one quite normal women’s clothes store is called “The Pussy Club”. It has a “No Dogs” sign in the window. There is a major art gallery; the St.Denis festival is advertised everywhere. In London this area would have been gentrified twenty years ago. Young kids roller-skate in the Victor Hugo square next to the Basillica; in Peter of Montreuil park some sun-bathe, others “smoke.” And we the last tourists try and fail to get the entire Basillica in our viewfinder.

In the “cultural café” – I am very near a university, I can smell it – many have had white graffiti painted on their arms and drink Coke. The cycle is thus: offer, acceptance, paint, photograph, look at photograph. At one stage half of the café is photographing itself. There is a DJ in the café; instead of the radio there is Dusty Springfield, Lovers’ Rock, Brazilian beach “hymns”, “No, no, no.” Men sit with laptops, women read books. A free magazine laying about writes the following about the English fusion band, Incognito:

“Incognito est l’indéboulonnable Rolls de la soul british capable de faire swingeur une division panzers hémiplégiques en un claquement de doights.”

You don’t get that in the New York Times.

At dusk the streets are still busy; in Victor Hugo square a police van and many police just making sure. In the internet café here are Chinese, Indian, African, Moroccan and me.

And in the Basillica the Kings of Old France are smiling, surely.

Almost 700,000 Britons have moved to and settled in France; in fact there are 31% more British moving permanently to France than there are Maghrebians moving from Northern Africa says

Fifteen years ago, in the Indpendent newspaper, the great travel author, Jan Morris describes the “classic” British travel writer as having: “the innate expectation they will be befriended by consuls, put up by ambassadors, entertained by friends from Oxford or bump into influential acquaintances…”

Today I met the Hallal butcher. There are probably more travellers tales in one square mile of St.Denis than in all of William Daunt’s Travel bookshops put together.

Eyes Wide Shut

At the Auberge in St Leu rising for breakfast at eight raises eyebrows; by ten the market shows little signs of life either. A sleepy town, even the bikes are moth-balled. The 10:19 train to Paris, via Creil, arrives at 1:19.

By then there is a crowd...of three.

The pace changes getting off the train at Creil. There are nine officials waiting at the exit, three have guns. I run through an obvious litany: the ticket office at St. Leu is closed. The train is three hours late.

“What about the conductor, why didn’t you buy from him?””
“I didn’t see him, the journey was only ten minutes.”
“Follow me.”

After the beige buildings and greenery of St Leu, this is an explosion of new colours. Here there are people hanging out; Tangine bars, a big open market. Railway street is full of hotels, bars and internet cafes. I am closing in on a major city. I must be in “Watford.”

The street life is infectious. Girls in Islamic headscarves read “Closer” magazine, or “Public.” A younger Amy Winehouse sings along loudly and relatively tunefully with her I-Pod. A young black Hipster in low-slung, with record sleeve earrings, spends five silent minutes a few feet from her, just smiling. Eventually he gives up, comes and sits next to me, and says, “She’s a good singer, isn’t she?”

In the internet café a Croatian girl is videoconferencing with a shaven haired man in Split. Outside all is parade. Instead of one local shop there are thousands offering up products from every part of the world. No sign of Clooney though, he’s probably in the shopping mall out of town.

My entire possessions.

Men will do Anything for Attention

In France it is no different. Milan 2, Liverpool 1 (Inzaghi 2).

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Self Portrait with Soap Opera

After Helena Bonham-Carter

And E.M Forster

Madame Bovary & the Champions League

For Traditionalists

Clermont finds Thomas fascinated by a “wanted” poster – for an Englishman, naturally. I think he’s light on details because Paris is pulling him in. He’s seen carved birds, met pilgrims, enjoyed several active gallowes: but his most vivid description is of the countryside.

St Leu is a sleepy village on the Oise rive. The major hotel is on the river-bank and is tight with middle-age at lunchtimes: there are no rooms. My auberge is over the bridge; heads are more shaven here. “There are boats on the river?” I ask.
“Boats but for you no regatta.”
“A shame for you, but not for us. Enjoy our little village monsieur.”

Street Theatre

There is a central square with a flourishing outdoor market, everything is cheap and the products local. Except the best thing, the grocer says, handing me a slice of melon from his home country of Morocco.

There is another huge church on the hill. From its grounds the view is across Oise country, and down to a Peter Greenaway set. There is only one mystery to St. Leu: why in a village of perhaps twenty shops, of which half a dozen are banks or building societies, are there four hairdressers within 100 metres of each other. Hair here seems no more special than Calais or Amiens.

For Victoria

For Peter Greenaway

There is absolutely no chance of internet access here, then I see a sign for a Mediatech (which is a library in a modern building plus a computer). Inside a lot of children rush about and take in the exhibit on “Europe”. It seems cruel to keep them from playing on the computers.

But hell, a man has to post.

Tonight is one of those spiritually enhancing European moments: the cup final of the Champions League, taking place this year between Milan and Liverpool – in Athens. I’ve watched football from all sorts of bars around the world: tonight it would not be right to lock-up in my room and watch alone. But where to go?

In the Auberge all is eating. In the market square a young man cycles around and around wearing a Jamiroquai hat. Towards the church – rien. And then, down a side street: two men in sportswear on mobile phones standing outside a gothic darkness. There is an open bar-tabac. I go inside.

Sarkozy Night Fever

The bar room is twice the size of my hotel room. That is, one quarter the size of shoe box. Nasty rap is playing from a computer. On stools at the bar are five Frenchmen, one black, four white, all of indeterminate age. “Monsiuer. Le Champions League. I can see it?”

All smiles: heterosexuality is “go.”
“A beer for monsieur.” Soon enough I even get my own stool, and the rap just fades away.
As in Picquigny everything is handshakes and politeness here. The more adventurous navigate the complexities of “Le Red Devils have spirit” & “Viva Les Anglais.” But most opt for the English approach.

“Ah, so you are Italian?” says the owner. “From Milano?” An elderly gentleman decides to spend the evening mangling the Italian language. Then the action begins. More people arrive, handshakes and kisses, but not from one young man.

He is ugly: a cross between the Liverpool footballers, Craig Bellamy and Peter Crouch – and not in a good way. He’s dressed for an audition of “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” and alternates drinking vodka and cokes with speeding around the tiny bar, checking his phone, and shouting out. The old men of the bar are wary. “Craig-Crouch” has attention deficit disorder I’d say. And no sense of personal space, he comes very close to gaze, as if I am an exhibit. Heaven forbid. When Milan score he comes to within a foot of my face and gives me the “Maradonna on Cocaine” shriek. Somebody tells him “no.”

Two new recruits at the Bovary Boot Camp

She arrives with her husband, an older man with suitable stomach. He immediately goes outside to talk turkey with the men. She has bunned-up hair, like a Victorian, it’s quite fancy – perhaps this is what takes all the time of the four hairdressers in the village. She’s attractive in flimsy black; one layer comes off straight away: there is a lot of tanned flesh around suddenly.

She talks to another woman at a table, but her body is seeking out Craig-Crouch. Soon she is between the compass of his Crouchy legs, her hands nowhere to be seen; his still fiddling with a mobile phone. She pow-wows with the woman, goes outside. Milan score again. “Pas finis, pas finis,” say my friends. It certainly isn’t: not with Madame Bovary de St. Leu in action.

Craig-Crouch speeds around the room, makes a call. When Emma B. returns he gets up, pays, and leaves. She is confused, finishes her mini-brandy, collects her over-skimpy. He comes back, still fiddling with his phone. “Let’s go,” he says. Liverpool score a consolation goal. But most of the significant scoring is in here.

“Next year,” says the owner. “Next year.” I shake a lot of hands again, but some familiar faces are missing.

Madame Bovary’s husband is gone when I get outside, Craig-Crouch and Madame Bovary too. In the market square the cycling Jamiroquai is still doing laps. He’ll need to find some steroids if he’s thinking of entering the Tour.

During a sunny birdsong of a morning the main question on the TV2 breakfast show is: “How will male sexuality evolve?”

In St. Leu I think we know the answer

Home and the Oise

Of Words the Monopoly

When thou wast borne, some say, & all do thinke,
The urine that thou mad’st, was perfect inke.

Better than Rhubarbe purging melancholy
One that hath got of words the monopoly
That evesdrops a phrase, and like a spie
Watcheth each bombast word, as it doth flie.

His presence is more grateful unto all
Than a new play, or on some festivall
Strange squibs and fire-works, which do clime the skies
And with their glaring sparkes mate vulgar eyes

He knew and felt the Boores, yet was not boorish
He new and felt the whores, yet was not whorish

Laurence Emley on Tom.

Extracts from Northern France

…The fairest cage of birds that I saw in al France, was at the signe of the Ave Maria in Amiens, the workmanship whereof was very curious with gilt wyers. In the same were four Turtle Doves, and many gold Finches, with other birds which are such as our hempseede birds in England.

The first Pilgrime that ever I saw was in Amiens, a very simple fellow, who spake so bad Latin that a country Scholler in England should be whipped for speaking the like. He told me he had lived two yeares at Compostella, a city and University of Gallicia in Spaine, where Saint James is much worshipped, wherehence he then came, and was upon going to Rome. He had a long staffe in his hand with a nobbe in the middle, according to the fashion of those Pilgrims staffes, a chaine about his necke full of extraordinary great beades, and a box by his side, wherein was the picture of our Lady and Christ in her armes.

This Clermont is a meane and ignoble place, having no memorable thing therein worthy the observation. Only I talked with a certaine Franciscan Frier there, borne in Ireland, who seemed to be a pretty Schollar and a man of good parts. He was travelling to Abbeville to preach there, I observed this in him, that he was as well able to discourse of al particular politique and state matters of England, as any man in our company: and hee spake passing good English.

This also I observed in Clermont, in the middest of the streete there was erected a gibbet with the picture of a certaine fellow called Anthony Peel, who was painted hanging on the gallowes in the same picture. Under the which his offence was mentioned by way of a proclamation for apprehending of him. The reason why his picture was set forth in that manner, was this: that as his picture was there hanged, so should he also if he might be apprehended. This custome is observed in many places in France…

The next morning being Trinity Sunday about foure of the clocke, I was transported over a river called the Oyse, which did part Picardie from the Ile of France. That day I dinned at a Parish called Saint Brixe, which was twelve miles beyond Saint Liew. Betwixt Saint Liew and Saint Brixe I observed these things. An exceeding rich and fertile country, full of corne, especially rie, meadows, pastures, wooddes, many sweete rivers, a great multitude of goodly and sumptuous houses on both sides as we rod, most whereof were said to be the Advocates of Paris. Also many goodly rowes of wall-nutte trees, about three of foure miles after we were entered into the Isle, the fairest that ever I saw till then, about two hundred at the least in a row. About two miles on this side Saint Brixe, there is a most magnificent Palace built of faire white free stone with many lofty turrets on the toppe of a hill, in a beautiful parke. This place is called Escovan. This place belongeth to Monsieur Montmorencie the high constable of France, who hath seaventeene Townes and Parishes in the country belonging to it, which are very neare bordering about it.

I went from St Brixe about one of the clocke in the afternoone and came to Paris, which was eight miles therehence, about sixe of the clocke that day: the things that I observed betwixt St Brixe and Paris were these: seven faire pillars of fee stone erected by an equall distance from each other, between St Denis and Paris….

A little on this side Paris, even at the townes end, there is the fairest Gallowes that ever I saw, built upon a little hillocke called Mount Falcon, which consisteth of fourteene fair pillars of free-stone: this gallowes was made in the time of the Guisian massacre, to hang the admiral of France Chatillion, who was a Protestant, Anno Dom. 1572.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

The Full Monty: God bless French TV

On a distant planet named “Cannes” a film festival is in full weightless swing. It is the cue for French television to go “French Glamour” mad. On TV2 last night Sophie Marceau held court in blue while a Select Committee of Telegenics interviewed her about such things as female masturbation. But it was “Arte” that came up trumps.

Arte is serious cultural television. PBS and the BBC. But serious. Last night in a bid for pop-cultural ascendancy – or something – it ran a two hour special on French Actors (women). It told us all about “nudity”, modelling, being Icons, and working with famous directors. One young hopeful explained the difference between the 1960s and now. “In the 1960s,” she says, “every actress was sleeping with the director. Nowadays modelling (and the big cheques) means that we can choose the films we appear in, not just those of our lovers.”

I’ll write about Jane Fonda and Roger Vadim soon, in Paris.

Instead in homage to the Surrealists, and their objet trouvées, here are some images I found through my small bolted down television in the station hotel (with scary Deep Throat garage traversing to find the tiny room) in Clermont.

They got them all, almost. Guess the list and there will be a prize.

Spies Like Us

So you are 32, Tom Coryat, walking prodigious distances through northern France each day. Talking with who ever you find. Remember the words of his friend, John Gifford:

“the wonder of this age, which doth admire
How Travell, Wit and Art do all conspire
To make him Table-talke, and pointed at,
Filling mens mouthes, and eyes with Coryate.

let us not forget that, if we start thinking Tom is shy.

And when you arrive every evening at your place of rest, you eat, drink, talk and sleep. So when do you write this all down, Thomas? Do you dictate to yourself as you walk? Is your memory as prodigious as your feet? Was it that you are scared to write in case you look like a spy?

He was born in 1577; his Queen, Elizabeth, had been excommunicated from the Catholic church by Papal Bull seven years before. Throughout his childhood in Odcombe, Somerset, and his years at Oxford (Martin Amis’s college, though Coryat’s influence is negligible in later Amis), Elizabeth was funding and supporting protestant “cells” across most of the Channel “littoral”: from Brittany to the Netherlands.

In response Continental Catholic resistance to Elizabeth was widespread and cunning. There was an almost permanent terrorist threat to English shores: in the seminaries at Douai and St Omer, among many, priests were trained for their English “mission.” Martyrdom was the fashion…

…It was the supreme privilege, promised divine goods. “Of which only divine grace could make them worthy.” Peter Unwin writes in “The Narrow Sea.”

Once trained the priests were smuggled into England through small ports. Of these religious “spies” perhaps the most famous is Edmund Campion. “So the faith was planted; so it is to be restored,” he said in his “martyr-statement”. He was caught, tortured and executed. So eventually was Elizabeth’s rival throne claimant, Mary Queen of Scots. In 1587.

These were ideological times: the Pope’s secretary openly announced the price on Elizabeth’s head: “that guilty woman of England…whoever sends her out of the world…no only does not sin but gains merit…”

The Spanish Armada – off Calais, though it sounds as though it should be off Ibiza – was survived in 1588; by Tom’s adulthood another was expected in 1599 but was a no-show. The trial for the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – the 9/11 of Jacobean England, sorry but it was – is a short memory, occurring two years before Tom’s journey. In the same year, 1606, Thomas Palmer wrote “Essay of the Means how to make our travels into Foreign Countries the more profitable and honourable.” He told most not to bother. Not unless it was strictly necessary. So that is Tom out, for a start. Lucky he was the Prince of Wales’ man.

Children, the infirm, anyone a bit mad, women: none of them should travel, Palmer says. He was most worried about the “barbarous lusts” of even the most friendly seeming continental. And so, in a twist on now, decadence was “there”, not “here”. Tom Coryat must have known this wasn’t exactly the case. Along with the Gunpowder Plot trial, London of 1606 is remembered for the orgy that took place at a party of the King of Denmark, brother to Anne, wife of the new King, James the First. Ben Jonson was commanded to write a “Black Masque”. The Queen and her friends painted their faces black, everyone got very drunk, and revels were…revelled.

They were still talking about it in 1608.

But sex is one thing; the main fear of travel was being “doubled”. Like one of Ben MacIntyre’s WW2 spies. Innocents going abroad might return a secret catholic. Tom does his forceful bit to disavow us of any catholic leanings on his part. Still it is fun to speculate: perhaps he was a spy – for someone. Of his temptation by vice, we have to wait, formally, for Venice.

Though I won’t be able to wait that long to consider Tom and Sex.

Clermont: Quite Quiet

Tim Moore sped through in his Rolls Royce, Tom Coryat found them mean and ignoble, but I like the places between Amiens and Paris.

They do not have major tour attractions, though in the country nearby there is horseriding, country club and golf, flights over Picardie - the brochures tell me.

I connect instead with the small high street: Clermont is built on a hill, the Church of St. Samson highest up, closest to God. From the church the view is down a narrow street, banks first, then the biblioteque, bakers, butchers, even a fancy kitchen shop with etiolated aluminium chairs.

There is no obvious destination for the Burgher-Roi the town chieftans, to hang out, though the two competing terrace cafes do good business all day.

As in Breteuil the white flag has not been raised to pedestrianisation; few 4x4 invaders are to be seen.

Foch, Petain, Clemenceau - their accents to come when a keyboard loves me - and the American general Pershing got together here, though I am more taken with the thought that St. Samson was reconsecrated in 1502 by a member of the Villers d'Isle Adam family: neqrly 400 years later one of the flock scandalized Paris with his Cruel Tales.

Clermont just is: Pirates of that Place at the cinema, a lovely wood-panelled library, a lot of kids - what else to do? - and not a hint of unfriendliness.

At eight thirty in the evening the centre is utterly silent.

As I take this photograph an elderly lady with a Tintin dog calls me over. “I didn’t like her, she had nothing to say. But she was a candidate. For the Presidency of France. They don’t respect politics any more. It doesn’t mean anything. But this? She is not a clown, Royale."

Passing Through to Clermont