Saturday, 2 June 2007

After Royalty (II)

Fontainebleu is hardly a secret, but there have been better signs and symbols that a major tourist attraction exists. When Tom came this was one of the many residences of Henry IV, who would be assassinated two years later. He just marched in, perhaps because the guards were Scottish. He wouldn’t have had trouble navigating the numerous cake shops, and was mean enough probably not to have bought a pain aux raisin even if he’d seen one. Let him not eat cake.

“Their muskets ready charged and set on their restes…[they] “consisteth partly of French, partly of Scots, and partly of Switzers. Of the French Guarde there are three rankes: The First is the Regiment of the Gard…The second bee the Archers….the Gard of the body, whereof there are foure hundred, but one hundred of them be Scots…”

As I’ve written, Tom got quite heated about the Swiss soldiers’ codpieces, for me it was just trying to find space to look, among the crowds. This morning they are Romanian, Chinese, Japanese, French, Lancastrian…only Germans move in ones and twos.

Although the French royal family travelled, from one chateau to another palace, it is also true that they had the world right here. The size of the halls and the corridors (everything is big except the beds), the paintings, frescos, tapestries, libraries, all suggest the world (and God) is here. When at INSEAD I hear: “the world is small and all the same: four walls and a computer…” I am shocked, but there is a sense, here in this most grand of residences, that this is what we want, simply and safely: bring the world to our home and we don’t have to leave. Of course, with huge grounds with peacocks wandering, this is a very large “four walls”, and however detailed and all pervasive the art it is not “interactive”. And yet here in the forests of Fontainebleu is surely a theme: money enables us to shut out the world, not to connect with it. It is the sentiment of much of John Donne’s early poetry.

“The walkes about the gardens are many, whereof some are very long, and of convenient breadth, being fairly sanded, and kept very cleane….”

It is at the Chateau Fontainebleu that Tom meets an Irish Landowner whose “yearly revenues were two hundred thousand French crownes, which do make three score thousand pound starling.” According to the Convert Money website, this works out at about £7 million a year these days. Which is not bad: modern palaces can be mortgaged on earnings like that, even in the centre of an average city.

It was the railways, the “trains de Plasir” that changed Fontainebleu again, brought wealth not just to the Chateau but to the town which developed around it. In 1849 the rail link from Paris was established, and so too the idea of the “day trip”. Parisians, deep into their Romantic-Gothic love of nature, as long as it was safe, could visit at the weekends. So began another stage of Fontainebleu’s life.

As presented to us Napoleon’s use of the chateau is as important culturally as the royal family’s, although I think our era is more interested in the decadent royals again: that is why Sophie Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” is a good film: it shows a "Pimp My Ride" Fontainebleu. You could live here a long time without the tourists and never leave and see all of the shiny world.

After Royalty (I)

Outside the Basilica of St.Denis there’s a building site followed by a shopping mall, and in the hinterland betwixt young guys skateboard for most of the day. For centuries, from the 10th century until the French Revolution, this was where French Kings of France and their families were buried.

Thus it was a significant place for the “revolution”. In 1789 the royal tombs were opened by workers, the bodies removed and disposed of in two nearby pits. The deposed King at the time of the revolution, Louis XVI, and his wife Marie Antoniette weren’t buried there at all.

Jean is nineteen, his parents are from Senegal. They came to France in the 1980s. He wanted to be a footballer, was good, very good, had “matches” with a professional team, though he doesn’t say which. He comes here most days to the mall, his mother lives in one of the nearby blocks on the way to the university. His friends come here as well, there’s stuff to discuss.

After the revolution, and then Napoleon’s rule and his first exile to Elba, the French Royalty returned to power, for a while. Searches were made for the corpses of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette: what was found was a few remains, a bones (pre DNA) that were possibly the king's, and some gray material, part of a lady's garter. All were added to the crypt at St Denis, and the bones of the old Kings brought back.
Jean wants to get on a course for IT, computers – he’s good at games. But its expensive, and he doesn’t have a job. There are ways to make money, but – you know – it’s difficult.

Viollet-Le-Duc the architect who was famous for his restoration work at Notre Dame also worked on the Basilica. These days it is still a tourist attraction, but for the specialist, not the generalist.

If he could Jean would like to live in America, not the centre of Paris. They don’t have the same problems with immigrants, he says. Walk two hundred metres from the Basilica and in the rows of housing blocks there are thousands like Jean, he says. They just want their chance.

Friday, 1 June 2007


Another View On Fontainebleu, why not: this is the You Tube World

Cod History

There is no sign of Kirsten Dunst or Sofia Coppola in the museum shop at Fontainebleu, the French don’t like the film Marie Antoinette: they booed during and after its debut at last year’s Cannes film festival. Coppola’s modern mis-en-scène, the punk music soundtrack, what some called “history for the MTV generation”, was thought superficial.

Here Tom caught the superficial bug: became interested in the cod-pieces of the Swiss Guards. In England the fashion was dying out, the Cod-piece merged into the peascod…

”because it is by that merrie French writer Rablais [On the Dignity of Codpieces] stiled the first and principall piece of Armour, the Switzers do weare it as a significant Symbole of the assured service they are to doe to the French King in his Warres…

the originall of their wearing of codpieces and partie-coloured clothes grew from this: it is not found that they wore any till Anno 1476 at what time the Switzers tooke their revenge upon Charles Duke of Burgundie, for taking from them a Towne called Granson with the Canton of Berne, whom after they had defeated, and shamefully put to flight, together with all his forces they found there great spoyles that the Duke left behind, to the valew of three millions, as it was said. But the Switzers being ignorant of the valew of the richest things, tore in pieces the most sumptuous Pavilions in the world, to make themselves coates and breeches; some of them sold silver dishes as cheape as Pewter, for two pence half-pennie a piece, and a great Pearle hanging in a jewel of the Dukes for twelve pence, in memorie of which insipid simplicite, Lewes, the eleventh King of France, who the next yeare after entertained them into his Pension, caused them to bee uncased of their rich clothes made of the Duke of Burgundies Pavilions, and ordained that should ever after weare Suites and Codpieces of those variegated colours of Red and Yellow. I observed that all these Switzers do weare Velvet Cappes with Feathers in them, and I noted many of them to be very clusterfisted lubbers. [a clumsy clownish fool]…”As for their attire, it is made so phantastically, that a novice newly come to the Court, who never saw any of them before, would halfe imagine, if he should see one of them alone without his weapon, hee were the Kings foole…”

Thursday, 31 May 2007

Four Walls and a Computer

Walk for five minutes from Marie Antoinette’s bed-chamber in the chateau Fontainebleu and there’s another room, peopled by a crowd as international as those that roam the giant halls and tapestried royal corridors with their audio-feeds. Here too, down a leafy street, notches are made on the bedposts: in this case above the fertile silky sheets of global finance.¨

This is INSEAD, The Fontainbleu of business finishing schools; to the Versailles of Harvard.

“It’s a brilliant idea, cool. My father’s already into this in a big way in the States – it’s so big in the States. You’ve just got to build them where you are, gate them, for all those guys – you know – grew up in the 60s and 70s, want to retreat now, safely.” [That’s not me, then: Tom is talking about retirement homes for the over-rich, though he wouldn’t use that phrase].

This “Tom” grew up in England, France and America. His father is Swiss-Iranian, his mother French. He’s in America now, “somewhere”; his mother London. “So here I am, and in three days time: Dubai. I’ll be 14 hours from “anything.” I don’t like the States, it isn’t hot, but I’ll have to work there. There is a trade-off: money for that attitude.”

Tom is 23. He dresses in blue button down, jeans and loafers; none of the students here dress: it is like a technology convention. From behind me, in Australian, to an Indian woman: “14 inch? Hmm, I don’t think so, see how mine has the highest resolution, I’ve reprogrammed this to get to the optimum. You have to customize…have to.”

The canteen soundtrack is music to be re-programmed by as well: a droney atonal Chinese (and The Future) lament that lasts half an hour. Through a tall square glass window a squash court with two sweaty students hard at play is a visual offering if the screens or the wi-fi don’t entice. Coffee and the “Financial Times” are free. Everything else is expenses. This campus is very quiet.

The headline on the front page of today’s European edition of the “Financial Times” is “Hedge Fund Managers go short on marriage with ‘postnups’”. It explains how “postnups” - signed after a marriage - safeguard the fortunes of wealthy hedge fund executives. (Who appear to all be men).

“At least one US hedge fund is refusing to take on new partners until they sign a postnup barring their spouses from making any claim on the fund says Ken Burrows, a New York attorney…”

Why the “wives” accept this, Bern Clair, “prominent” American divorce lawyer explains: “is because they want to preserve their marriages and their lifestyles.”

“The marital relationship has traditionally been the secret close bond,” said a partner at Fox Rothchild. “Now it’s the business partners, the hedge fund world, the drinking buddies – and the spouse is one circle out.

Tom has the flat, declarative (European) transatlantic accent down with his corporate collars. “Yeah, Dubai. Four of us are going, Mo too – that’s Mustafa. We’re getting a place together, it’s going to be sick: party time.” He goes to Paris at the weekends, his mother’s apartment in St Germaine, but he’s ready for the move. “The weather’s good and it’s all tax-free. The world’s small and all the same: four walls, a computer, and business to do.”

“What did I get from INSEAD? Connections. Confidence? No, I was pretty confident already. Hey! Let’s catch up later, hun?”

In the facing block a three day conference is being held on “Emotional Capabilities in Organizations: the influence of Context and Culture.” On Wednesdays there is an evening class held by the INDEVOR society. One of the issues it addressed last week was: “What are the business rewards for companies with the resources and persistence to compete at the bottom of the World’s Pyramid?”

Tom is nowhere with the answer to this question – he’s gone to another four walls and a computer. And it doesn’t take a “Blue Ocean” thinker (of whom there are many here) to work out there are a few years of “party-time” before Tom’s “postnup” needs to be adressed.

He’s one circle out from that.

The dog that did bark in the night

Fontainebleu is Betwixt Paris and the countryside: when the evening film ends at 10:10 and I leave the cinema, the bars are empty. There’s no chance to randomly discuss the mis-en-scène of Catherine Breillat’s new costume drama, La Vieille Mâitrese. No chance of anything, except scaring oneself a little.

Because Coryat started early every day it is easy to assume that France did, in 1608. In 2007 it starts late and vanishes early. So the thirty-minute walk back to the railway station hotel, a tabac with some featureless rooms, is a solitary experience of shadows, speeding cars, and later on the outskirts closed Chinese restaurants and high chateau houses with no lights, though the full moon is there for accompaniment.

On his way to Fontainebleu Coryat saw cruelty and bribery. He describes it so:

“A little after I was past the last stage saving one, where I tooke post-horse towards Fountaine Beleau, there happened this chance: My horse began to be so tiry, that he would not stirre one foote out of the way, though I did even excarnificate [remove flesh from] his sides with my often spurring of him, except he were grievously whipped: whereupon a Gentleman of my company, one Master I.H. tooke great paines with him to lash him: at last when he saw he was so dul that he could hardly make him go with whipping, he drew out his Rapier and ranne him into his buttocke near to his fundament about a foote deep very neare. The Guide perceived not this before he came to the next stage, neither there before we were going away. My friend lingered with me somewhat behinde our company, and in a certain poole very diligently washed the horses would with his bare handes; thinking thereby to have stopped his bleeding; but he lost his labour, as much as he did that the Aethiopian; for the bloud ranne out a fresh notwithstanding all his laborious washing. Now when the guide perceived it, he grew so extreame cholericke, that he threatened Mr. I.H he would go to Fountaine Beleau, and complaine to the Postmaster against him except he would give him satisfaction; so that he posted very fast for a mile or two towards the court. In the end Mr. I.H being much perplexed, and finding that there was no remedy but that he must needes grow to some composition with him, unlesse he would sustain some great disgrace, gave him sixe French crownes to stop his mouth.”

“Sarkozy, yes, I like him. I think he has made an excellent debut. Very good, like your Tony Blair. A good start.” For Stephane, whose default conversational position is to shout, briefly and cussedly, this is a Shakespearian sentence: a pity, really, that it is our last. Stephane runs a hotel close to Fontainebleu station, unfortunately it is not mine, and he has no rooms. There are no rooms in Fontainebleu Avon, or the city centre either. Despite the wet quiet at 10:10, there are thousands staying here invisible and asleep. Except me. It is now close to midnight.

I have two keys, for my room, and for the “back entrance” to the hotel. This “entrance” is located down a very dark alley obscured even from the moon’s light, and with a dense dark wood one side and a series of unlit garage lock-ups the other. It is not a promising sight. I’ve been walking up and down the alley, trying garage doors, eliciting growls; finally a woman’s voice in the woods. She’s on the phone, has a shrill voice. When she emerges I am not sure of what to expect. Is she doing business in the wood? Does she study bats? In the end I don’t know, she has a gray Alsatian looking thing that leaps towards me, leaded, thankfully, and not in friendly way. The hotel? Go back to the main street.

Which is where I meet Stephane; he’s finishing up the day’s business for a few stragglers and drinkers: not tourists, something more local. He shouts, “Just go and find it.” I try; I return. He shouts: “Calculate the distance – look it is about 50 metres, it can’t be hard.” But it is. Each time the alley is darker, the garages more likely to house not just a dog but Fantômas, the fictional French serial killer.

Where were the Paris Pros when I needed them?

I return again. “I just don’t understand,” Stephane says. Secretly he is pleased, the rival hotel getting a bad press. "Nothing to do, you can’t find it, you can’t find it,” he shouts. And there are no rooms in the town.”

Later, as he eats dinner, Stephane says Fontainebleu hasn’t changed much; he’s owned his hotel for 14 years, “a few more tourists, all year now, for the forests, and the countryside, but changed? Not really.” His cousin has worked in hotel management in London and Sao Paulo, now he is in Barcelona. “So I know England very well,” Stephane shouts. “You don’t have a phone? Their number? A receipt for the room, with a number?”

That would be correct.

After six or seven trips to the alley without any luck Stephane sits down for a late dinner with a couple, I assume the man is his son. He’s locked-up now and to get his attention I have to stand at the window in the restaurant area and look mournful, making telephone gestures.

Re-admitted, so that Stephane and friends could eat, very, very slowly, and tell me it was ridiculous, this hotel choice of mine, I eventually intern a plan, suggested by the other man, Eric, a salesman. As Fontainebleu is a tourist centre it would not want its tourists unhappy. Therefore we should phone the police and – as the front entrance to my hotel has an aluminium drawbridge down, and not even a door or window to knock loudly on – they should force their way in. Stephane is not so sure. I tend to agree, it being a very bad plan indeed. Breaking into a twenty-nine Euro a night hotel after midnight with the Fontainebleu Boys in Blue? Doesn’t sound promising.

Of course needs must.

“He is very gentle, looks nice and he has keys,” says Eric’s friend – who is not his wife: she’s in Paris, he’ll call her later from a public phone, so she doesn’t know where he is. “I said I was working, travelling,” he tells Stephane, who isn’t impressed. Eric and his girl go to investigate the Tabac for me. “Your son? A friend?”
“Not a friend, an acquaintance,” Stephane says. “We talked a bit, said a few things. Yes, an acquaintance.” He laughs and continues to eat, and drink. “He and I shared a few things.”

Eric and friend return. “It’s shut, gated up,” the friend says. She’s been in France four months, I learn. “France, it’s good, no?” Eric says. “Don’t worry, don’t worry.” They sit down again and eat some more. Of course I am pushing the slow travel thing on this journey: the slow eating, slow pleasure, slow everything in response to the speed of life now.

But not this slow. I ask Stephane about Sarkozy: a good thing for France, “he will make us [a big laugh] more efficient.” Closer to one than not Eric and Friend and I stalk the alley one last time. I’ve said Goodbye to Stephane so if this fails it is curl up by the railway station time. Our stalking elicits a light over a modern garage, the most unlikely of doors. An elderly pursed woman leans out. “What are you doing?”
“This Englishman has a key, he just can’t find his hotel.”

Five minutes later I am in a bed of sorts, letting something nasty crawl over me, very briefly. It is marginally worse than shouting with Stephane, but it is home. Thomas knew far worse things than to be trapped walking down an alley with dogs that do bark in the night or talking with loud Fontainebleu hoteliers who grow friendlier with time, so I read a little of Tom’s day in Fontainebleu, think about the film I saw, and sleep – for well over two hours.

Thus much of personal experience, as Tom might say.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

After Paris

Several lifetimes ago and on a different continent I was a futurist, which meant I divined the data-leaves in the bottom of the digital tea-cup. Social trends, changes in behaviour, fashion and technologies was my thing. The arrival not just of the internet, email and e-commerce was central to this, but also the fact that these things would be mobile, very soon. I co-wrote a book about it, called Retailisation – the here, there and everywhere of Retail.

From New York my company worked with big brands, such as MTV or Pepsi to evolve ideas. Microsoft, in Seattle, was by far the most interesting project – we were asked to investigate how we “do” things, our work, and our “real” life. How we do, how we prioritize, remember, communicate and effect the necessary things: from the moment we wake until we sleep (and the automated stuff whilst we dream).

It came down to how this ultimate “to do” list might one day be incorporated into the screen we used (carried with us), perhaps our computer, our phone, PDA, or whatever the future brought. It was all about everything, everywhere now.

Since I’ve been on this journey the “to do” lists have grown exponentially. And issues of prioritization are the most difficult of all – after finding a signal. I’m “living in the knowledge” as the Gnostics would say. But hell it is tiring.

Paris was an über “to do” list long before I arrived, it included talking to Magnum, to the guys behind the French “search engine”; staying in the Dan Brown suite of the Ritz, considering the life and loves of Pamela Harriman. Holidays and “life” sent those down the “to do” list. Instead Coryat-like, but in a city perhaps fifty times larger than in his time, I wandered, I visited churches, museums, The Louvre. I dawdled in cafés, and wrote ferociously. An American couple summed me up, thinking I was language-lite, I suppose. “Camden [in London] is a shit-hole, the only good thing in London is the piazza in Covent Garden. This place [the café we sat in], Paris, it’s all too fucking artistic.” Debbie was nineteen, Versace-glassed. She didn’t blush when I asked.

So in Tom’s footsteps but hearing and seeing an atonal orchestra score of dead and imagined people, advertising, the Parisians, the tourists, and the damned memory stick full of even more information, I am also very much at sea. The Rough Guide to Europe (which by its very nature is shortish on each place) had room enough for entire Paris fiefdoms I didn’t see, and there was no set-piece, like Tim Moore’s grumpy adventures in the restaurant, Chartier. Neither was there the cathartic moment, the catalyst of understanding. Instead there was the haunting of Hugo’s humanism, but that is not about now. Neither is Sartre, or Hemingway; even Julian Barnes – another I wanted to write about.

However: everyone is on a mobile, in plush St Germain and rough and ready St.Denis. And the phones work on the subway as well – perhaps this is one vision of our future, that the diversions during travel by bus, train or tube will be about listening, rather than reading. There are always audio-books.

The photographic images of Robert Capa, Cartier-Bresson or Doisgneau still echo here because it is a city of “looking”, the pose and the poise. Perhaps less so in St.Denis, but the “look” is there as well. The location that best showed the confusion around was the flea-market at Clignacourt, long a tourist destination. Nowadays rap and street clothes mingle with dodgy looking Louis Quattorze; Danish design and John Coltrane on vinyl make up the crisis at the centre without bringing much helpful context, and asking is no help – unless it is about the price. It was at this time that I discussed the complex updates to “24”, the American techno-terrorist television series: it seemed a simpler and achievable hope, as we were washed over with conflicting messages and streams of information. Tom may have had his grouches, religion may have been a tricky subject, but as complex as his world was becoming, its pioneers believed in the pre-eminence of man (after God). Now man’s mirror, his fashions and those we are given, dwarf us all.

Heading towards Fontainebleu – a long coach journey for Tom – I try and reprioritize the to-do list. Photography, social novels, the city as mirror, artists and their shifting visions of Paris. I really wanted to write about Robert Capa, war-reporting, Ingrid Bergman, documentaries, but now they fall away: what do the kids skateboarding around Victor Hugo square - opposite the Basillica in St Denis, where so many French Bourbon kings are buried – what do they care? And does it empower them to know about this history, of Capa or their Kings? Tom showed Jacobean England the pleasures of pure travel, collecting sights almost no English man or woman had seen; tourism today plays back the anxieties of “at home” because it is very often with us . And even history can’t always help in that case.

The Last Photograph

Over there, it is over there

Pont Neuf, looking somewhere

Seeing Notre Dame

To Père Lachaise Cemetery, because I thought Susan Sontag was buried there; actually she’s in Montparnasse.

Like Notre Dame this is as multi-national and camera heavy as a Premier League football match, a good exercise in the post-Coryat world of travel. This is a collectable, the list of those buried here is well known

And to wander without a map throws up a Delacroix here and a Bastard there. But it is depressing. Tommy liked his inscriptions, but I think it is better to return to the reasons for a man or a woman’s burial here: read the books, see the plays, enjoy the art. Jim Morrison’s down there somewhere; a Yorkshireman is searching out Piaf, he adores her music.

I’m taking photographs, like everyone else, and I’m trying to get an interview with the Magnum collective, which is 60 years old this May. I’ll write in much more length about Sontag, Photography, Robert Capa and the Ritz as time allows. For now I’m interested in the Last Photograph.

I take mine on “vivid” with digital zoom extended. Into the sun, and on the move. I think of my photographs as the “last” ones, they are always entitled, “Why does the story keep falling off the page?” Everyone is a photographer now, and I wonder how photographic meaning remains as it replaces some other kind of connection to a place, to people, and to experience.

To be continued…

Novels that change things

Notre Dame: the VIPs are up the tower; outside all is photography. Here too, of course

“It is divided into three parts, the University, the Citie, and the Town by the noble river Sequana, commonly called la riviere de Seine, which springeth from a certaine hill of Bergundy called Voga, neare to the people of Langres, in Latin Lingones. The University whereof I can speake very little, (for to my great griefe I omitted to observe those particulars in the same that it behoved an observative traveller, having seene but one of their principall Colledges, which was their famous Sorbona, that fruitfull nursery of school divines)…

...“The Cathedrall Church is dedicated to our lady, which is nothing so faire as our Lady church of Amiens: for I could see no notable matter in it, saving the statue of St Christopher on the right hand at the coming in of the great gate, which indeed is very exquisitely done, all the rest being but ordinary, as I have seene in other Churches.”

Thomas Coryat

Victor Hugo speaks pretty good Japanese these days. He has a good story to tell as well, a different story from his own famous novels, poems and plays. In rue Scribe, close to the Opéra in central Paris he is the narrator of the “Paris Story.” In fourteen languages, he – or rather a computer generated Hugo - is the commentary for a multi-media history of the city, all the way back to the Romans. He is a good choice for the new media age, Hugo was a polymath; engagé too. A historian of the present, some say. He was, Wikipedia says, “novelist, playwright, essayist, visual artist, statesman, human rights campaigner, and perhaps the most influential exponent of the Romantic movement in France.” In later life he was a great “Republican”, in the days when that meant something quite different.

When he published “Notre Dame de Paris”, aka, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, it was a pioneering social novel: spurred the nascent historical preservation movement in France and strongly encouraged the Gothic revival in architecture. Ultimately it helped to preserve Notre Dame Cathedral, where much of the story is based, in its contemporary state. It also boosted tourism to the capital, and led to the restoration of Notre Dame’s roof.

“Dan Brown’s novel has done for St. Suplice what Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame did for the cathedral of Paris. In the early 19th century the cathedral was in a terribly poor state of repair. As a medieval monument, it was not held in high regard. At this period it was the monuments of the Renaissance that were considered worthy of attention.”

The Definitive guide to the Da Vinci Code. Paris Walks. Peter Caine

Outside St. Suplice, near to Agnès b

Like John Ruskin in England, Hugo’s championing of the gothic caused a sea-change (one of Shakespeare’s neologisms, I’m sure Tom must have liked it) in the way we see things. Though, as “seers” often do, the two were not in accord. In a letter to a friend Ruskin wrote:

"I never was thoroughly ashamed of you and your radicalism till you sent me that ineffably villainous thing of Victor Hugo’s. did you ever read “The Hunchback of Notre Dame? I believe it to be simply the most disgusting book ever written by man, and on the whole to have caused more brutality and evil than any other French writing with which I am acquainted.”

So no De Sade for Ruskin then. His marriage failed on the wedding night because he saw his wife’s pubic hair – it is believed.

Hugo’s desire was to change the way not just Bourgeois France thought about architecture, but politics, and the way we live now. To create a debate: that was the aim in Hugo’s work. He was exiled for it, and not always understood to this day. In “Victor Hugo in Exile,” an author – forgive me – writes:

“The collective memory of Western twenty-first century societies, and specifically of France, is imbued with the ideals Hugo professed. France has accepted, at least in part, the telling of memories that its ancestors did not want to hear.

What Hugo achieved, at his best, was an “updating” of the past; going back and looking with new eyes in order to change the way a contemporary society perceived themselves, their country, and the way of things. Of course, Hugo brings with this vision his own demons, his own memories. But in certain key events, such as the siege of Paris in 1870, he was present as “history” changed.

One hundred and seventy years ago Victor Hugo brought one of his grander mistresses, the the actress Juliette Drouet, to Montreuil. The poet and flagellator, Algenon Swineburne always said Hugo was the greatest writer since Shakespeare. As he sweetly put it: “There was never a more brilliant boy than Victor Hugo: but there has never been a greater man…”

I don’t think we know Hugo in England nearly well enough. Sitting in the Grand Place in Montrueil its hard to think of social revolution, but that what his novel Les Misérables was all about. It was set here, largely, and is a novel of multiple plot and identities; what unifies all is the story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean, known in prison by his prisoner number, 24601. He becomes a force for good, but cannot escape his past, as they say in the movie traillers.

"I am not a number, I am a Free Man."

By the time Hugo published the novel he was 60; but he had known success all his life. He was a literary prodigy:had a pension of 1,000 francs a year from Louis XVIII after his first volume of verse was published at 17. Before he was 35 he had written six plays, four volumes of verse, and the “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.

The grand American critic, Harold Bloom, wrote in 1979 that Hugo was a writer who remains “absurdly unfashionable and neglected by his nations most advanced critics…”

Others are not so sure about the character of the man: in “The Fall of Paris”, Alaistair Horne’s definitive account of the Siege of Paris in 1870 he describes Hugo talking a lot, grandly, and sleeping with a large number of women. A Goncourt brother confirmed things with on the spot reportage. Of Hugo, he said: his main preoccupation during the siege – sex. In the introduction to Horne’s book I seem to remember Richard Cobb calling Hugo a fool. Somethere in the middle of all this is the French surrealist and general art-dandy, Jean Cocteau who gnomically states that Hugo: “He was a madman who believed that he was Victor Hugo…” And there are all those musicals…

Anyway, years after the love-tyrst here with Juliette Drouet, in exile in Guernsey, Hugo wrote Les Miserables, and set much of the action here. It is a novel using fiction as a weapon against another out of touch Emperor. An emperor who would fall in 1870, after a disastrous campaign against the Prussians.

Like Thomas Coryat, Hugo loved the classical poet Virgil.

“In Virgil, that almost angelic god, the high
Peaks of the lines are lit with a mysterious glow.
Dreaming beforehand things that we have come to know,
He sang almost when Jesus first began to cry.”

Hugo, Virgil

But what drove him on was a desire to change things. In the Place des Voges his house is now a museum, as with the Maison Jules Verne in Amiens, it is easy to understand the writer’s life here. Not so easy to understand why the museum is almost empty, when down the road the Café Hugo is overflowing. But it is a holiday.

Place des Voges, holiday time

His first novel, in 1829, Le Dernier jour d'un condamné (Last Days of a Condemned Man) influences such writers as Albert Camus, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Soon afterwards he wrote, Claude Gueux, a precursor of In Cold Blood: a documentary short story about a real-life murderer who had been executed in France, a precursor to his most famous work on social injustice, Les Misérables.

As the computer generated Hugo takes us through the history of Paris, the idea of a socially committed novelist echoes; this haunting appears to have disappeared from twenty-first century life. What novelist changes things now? Answers please: but not the Code guy, please.

Or this.

Monday, 28 May 2007

Intellectual Life Before Dan Brown: Official

A modern Scholar in the Marais

An older one, sans wi-fi

“I enjoyed one thing in Paris, which I most desired above all things, and oftentimes wished for before I saw the citie, even the sight and company of that rare ornament of learning Isaac Casaubonus, with whom I had much familiar conversation at his house, near unto St Germans gate within the citie. I found him very affable and courteous, and learned in his discourses, and by so much the more willing to give me entertainment, by how much the more I made relation to him of his learned workes, whereof some I have read. For many excellent bookes hath this man (who is the very glory of the French Protestants) set forth, to the greate benefit and utility of the Common-weale of learning…[long list] with which excellent fruits of his rare learning he hath purchased himselfe great fame in most places of the Christian World…”

Thomas Coryat

Tom’s big deal in Paris was a meeting (of minds) with the greatest Classical scholar of the era, Isaac Casaubon. Tom suggested that Casaubon came to England and write the definitive history of Queen Elizabeth. He did come two years later, after the assassination in 1610 of Henry IV and a change in political climate in Paris. In London he worked for James the First. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
He who would know Casaubon
Let him read not tombstones but his pages
Destined to outlast marble
And to profit generations to come.

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it has been used on several occasions in literature since as it denotes a certain cleverness. Firstly by George Eliot, in “Middlemarch” the sweeping Victorian state of the nation novel, and more recently by Umberto Eco, in “Foucault’s Pendulum.

It is fascinating how the “brand” Casaubon changes through European history: Tom’s hero is replaced by George Eliot with a dry stick academic, attempting to write “The key to all Mythologies”. This Casaubon brings to mind the line in Robert Browning’s A Grammarian’s Funeral, being “dead from the waist down.” In a book of the same title about the Casaubon legacy Anthony Nuttal writes: “The scholar is at odds with life…Also, more disquietingly and more risibly perhaps, he is at odds with – cut off from – sex.”

This would be news to many academics, of course. But Eliot’s “Casaubon” represents the collector, too engaged in study to live life. In “Middlemarch”, married to the impetuous heroine, Dorothea, he quite simpy dries up and – conveniently for the metaphor – dies. Leaving Dorothea free to romance with more blood-coarsing romantics; love of passion rather than of the mind winning the day.


In the labyrinthine world of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (the "thinking person's Da Vinci Code™ says pretty much everybody) the modern Casaubon is the narrator. He and two friends in the Milan publishing world decide, long before Dan Brown, they have seen too many manuscripts about occult conspiracy theories. But instead of rejecting the idea, the three choose to improve the genre. (Foucault’s Pendulum will never be filmed). The three create their own conspiracy just because. It is named: "The Plan". Soon, they have lost all sense of the fun of it. Real secret societies appear out of the woodwork, thinking (this sound familiar, at all?) that a Big Secret (a Lost Treasure) might be about to be found by Belbo, one of Casaubon’s two friends in all this.


Now we get spooky: on Sunday I went for a drink at the Arts and Métiers café in the Marais. Foucault’s Pendulum opens with Casaubon hiding after closing time in the Parisian technical museum Musée des Arts et Métiers, right here. Hauntings again, really it feels too close.

Here is a list, from Wikipedia, of the major secret societies that get a name call in Eco.

# The Knights Templar (the main players)
# The Rosicrucians
# The Gnostics
# The Freemasons
# The Bavarian Illuminati
# The Elders of Zion
# The Assassins of Alamut
# The Cabalists
# The Cathars
# The Jesuits

It is not an easy read, Foucault’s Pendulum, and is probably up in the top fifty of books bought but never finished. It is allusive and post-modern as befits an Casaubon-ish author polymath who travels in Hyper-reality. (I once observed the following exchange between the author and screen-writer, Gilbert Adair, and the author and journalist, Mick Brown.

Gilbert: “Do you see, Eco in L’Espresso, Mick?”
Mick: “I see it, I just can’t read it.”)

Just before I left I received an email from Professor Theodore Zeldin, a scholar of France and the French, and author of the classic humanist text, A Intimate History of Humanity. Zeldin is a kind of modern Casaubon, in the very best sense. He wrote:
“Congratulations. What a lovely idea. What an admirable
adventure.You invite comments. Mine is a question.
What will you leave in each place you visit? What germ will you plant? Is it just observation?”

I replied that I’d try to explain my roots and routes, to anyone I met. It would be an attempt to give back on a daily basis a little of what I’ve accumulated over the years, in the memory, and on the memory stick. And online a guide to Tom and a snapshot of life now. I don’t know if it is an answer, for over the past two weeks and the constant juggling between Tom, history, allusion, and the visceral moment I’ve developed what I’m calling “Casaubon Complex” – a complete sensory overload. I’m trying to learn what the best Jacobeans did, that to progress the processing and editing of the richly diverse material before me I must be hard-nosed. The information broken down into manageable themes, not some hyper-linked theory of “everything.”

"Causabon Complex" captured on film in the Marais.

The Impossibility of Pure Travel is theme one. Perhaps “New Yorker” was correct, my journey really is about being The Last Tourist. Other themes: family, roots, displacement and chosen exile; memory, and its lapses and revivals, the apparent, yet complicated, ease with which we can live elsewhere, the catalysts for these things; technoliges that change the way we see. These are not the staple-diet of tourism, but are some of the reasons to keep the mind engagé as the Giga-bytes of knowledge pile up.
“As for the streets of Paris they were more sumptuously adorned that day than any other day of the whole yeare, every street of speciall note being on both sides thereof, from the prentices of their houses to the lower end of the wall hanged with rich cloth of arras, and the costliest tapestry that they cold provide. The shewes of our Lady street being so hyperbolical in pomp that day, that it exceeded the rest by many degrees. …they exposed upon their publique tables exceeding costly goblets, and what not tending to pompe, that is called by the name of plate. Upon the middest of their tables stood their golden Crucifixes, with divers other gorgeous Images….artificiall rocks, most curiously contrived by the very quintessence of arte, with fine water spowting out of the cocks, mosse growing thereon, and little sandy stones proper unto rocks, such as we call in Latin tophi…”

Marais Street Life

The more I follow Tom, and see what excites him, I ask myself did he, a success story at court, with the most creative of friends, escape England, give up his salary from the Prince of Wales – twice – because he knew too much?

On the road it is easier to forget. Unless there is good fi-fishing, like tonight.

Monday In Search of Collective Experience

The Sphinxes behind the Pyramid

"Today it Rained,' Joe Turner, Three Days of the Condor, 1975.

More Cult Members

There are even traces at the Bar "Three"

Home at Last

I am Curious, Yellow

My Hungarian friend Zsuzsi put it best. It was dusk in Springtime, or snowy in the autumn, and we approached the Pont Neuf, the ancient Paris bridge that Tom Coryat saw when he was here. “We could kiss,” she said, “but we’ve probably both done that before.” She paused. “Several times, with several people.”

Several times with several people: the catch-phrase of Paris, bien sur.

This time in the pounding Pentecostal rain the Pont Neuf is revealing another memory. This is where Jason Bourne (“Matt Damon”) sets up an Act Three meeting with “Treadstone” AKA Dr. Kildare, Richard Chamberlain in “The Bourne Conspiracy.” Chamberlain has to stand in a Burberry raincoat in the centre of the bridge; from on high, from the building I’m standing next to, an omnipotent Bourne looks down and sees trouble.


But I am on another kind of mission today, not to save my skin and discover my real identity but to crack the mystery of the Da Vinci Code, one of those book/film/franchises that changes the way we see a place – in this case Paris. It is not late at night, though I have bothered to walk from the Ritz, for veracity.

Several times with several people: Paris has been formed in some “popular” imagination by so many books, not least Hugo’s hunchback of Notre Dame. I will get to Hugo eventually. There was Baudelaire’s debauched visions of the city, Lautrec’s café paintings, the Goncourt’s gossipy insider place, that Stein-Hemingway-Fitzgerald axis of over-achievement that still has fans to this day, though sitting in a café and writing a novel is expensive these days: an activity for Dan Brown, not a debutant. In the 1970s we had Last Tango; today there is an entire Paris literary sub-section, a table to itself in Daunt’s travel bookshop in London. The best is Kate Muir’s “Left Bank”, of course.

The Louvre is massive, so solid, giant in the thunderstorm – and vaguely spiritual, un like the Tate Modern. I queue, I wander. There are a lot of corpses in the Louvre.

But as a Symbologist I am more interested in the strange yellow cult I’ve seen first on the Pont Neuf, and now cycling around the courtyard. I am drawn towards them, curiously they are thirteen in number.

There were thirteen at the Last Supper. In Judaism, thirteen signifies the age of maturity (bar mitzvah) for boys. According to the Torah, God has thirteen Attributes of Mercy. In the Sikh religion, the number thirteen is a number devoted to the remembrance of God, therefore it is also considered lucky.

There is a downside: irrational fear of the number thirteen is termed “triskaidekaphobia”, In the Persian culture, thirteen is also considered an unlucky number. On the 13th day of the Persian new year (Norouz), people consider staying at home unlucky, and go outside for a picnic in order to ward off the bad luck. In tarot decks, the thirteenth card of the Major Arcana is Death (Tarot card). And while Death is not typically interpreted literally, it could be in the Brown Universe. And there are always those Friday the 13s. And in yellow!

I see echoes of the Yellow cult everywhere: on galoshes, umbrellas, and even at McDonalds with its strange yellow “M”. Even the chicken there is “mythic.” Barthes would be pleased. At the Pompidou centre I notice there is far less yellow, and much blue. This is a rival sect, no doubt, its leader, one Samuel Beckett, the high priest of a savage minimal religion. (Once when snared for a night of passion by the American heiress, Peggy Guggenheim, he made love, rolled over, got up and said: “It was fun while it lasted.”)

Back at the Louvre’s Pyramid, votive offerings are made by a solitary virgin who approaches the temple slowly, carrying a turquoise relic. She disappears into the depths of the tempe to be sacrificed to the Gods of Retail Therapy, and is never seen again. The rain grows heavier still. Womb like symbols are held in the sky, and modern day electronic candles flash in the gloom.

There is a Dan Brown’s Paris guide book. I have it. Next stop is St Suplice. Perhaps I will see the strange yellow cyclists there again. Now I think about it, wasn't the butter yellow in that Pagan, Last Tango? There is a cover up.

I am not so sure the French are descended from the Son of God. No, I think they come from another controversial gene pool. A blood-line that may – or may not, of course – have been chemically enhanced. I think that seven times Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong, is behind this sinister cult. Even the American President is involved.

The Tour begins in July, and visits England for two days. This year one stage is from London to Canterbury, seat of the English Church.

We should all be very afraid indeed.

Several times, with several people.

The Priest's job is done.