Saturday, 14 December 2013

Paris. The unfamiliar familiar city.

I've recently (well relatively recently. The blue sky in the picture below probably makes it clear it's not as recently as this actual month) been on a short holiday to Paris. My first trip to Paris since I was 10 years old. It felt very foreign then. Now it feels familiar. It feels very like London. The countryside the Eurostar took me through after the tunnel was very like Kent.

That ought not to have surprised me. Paris is over a hundred miles closer than Glasgow; the capital city of a country that industrialised about the same time we did. Their metro is a little younger, their roads more congested, but the food is much the same - eggs, potatoes, bread, apples, jam, butter, fresh milk, ham, cheese, wine, beer. In theory it's more logically laid out - courtesy of Napoleon apparently - but in fact there's the same slightly rambling streets and cross streets that have patently been there forever, leading you all unaware onto unexpected pleasures, churches, parks.

Not that I did stumble unaware onto very much. There is a map at street level at every metro station and I also brought my 1904 Baedeker, whose maps ought surely to be obsolete but, apart from the odd change of street name, were surprisingly useful. The only time I felt a bit lost was in the Louvre.

Le Louvre is monumentally vast. Preposterously big. The British Museum tacked onto the National Gallery with the ceramics from the V&A and a couple of Hampton Court Palace interiors thrown in for good measure. The cafeteria confirmed everything I've ever learned about never eating in tourist traps though. I fled and purchased a much nicer, cheaper and more generously filled baguette elsewhere.

I kept hearing English being spoken, and not just by waiters politely amused by my attempts at stringing sentences together or tourists taking the lift up the Eiffel Tower. It was in the cafes, the streets, the shops, just as you might hear French or Italian or Polish on a bus here.

British people speak differently in France than they do at home though. They speak more quietly, as if they're ashamed of being heard. They speak as if they're secretly thinking 'I really ought to be able to remember some of the French I learnt in school.'

Which is fair enough. So they should.

After Paris, Compton.

Compton is a village near Guildford where the painter G F Watts once lived and where there is now a gallery, recently refurbished courtesy of donors and the lottery fund. It's gorgeous. And the cream tea completely confounds my earlier remark about eating in tourist traps.

Better though than the gallery is the Chapel designed by Watts' wife Mary. I couldn't take a photo of either interior or exterior that could possibly do it justice so here is a link: although none of the pictures on there really do it justice either. You'd have to go.

I did however take a picture of one of the headstones in the graveyard, clearly crafted along the same lines, and probably by one of the many villagers who belonged to Mary's craftman's collective and helped to build the chapel itself.

Mary was 30 years younger than Watts, who (according to Gallery literature) initially discouraged her (romantically, not as an artist). He had previously been married to Ellen Terry, also 30 years younger, and it had not been a success. When I found that out I realised I'd read about the period in Ellen Terry's autobiography, her move to the countryside with Watts, her running into an old friend and fleeing back to London, all while she was still in her teens, but it had made very little impression. There is nothing in there of why she married, or why she gave up on the marriage so rapidly. Did she realise she'd made a mistake? That he was too old, and she too young? Did living in the country make her miserable? Impossible to tell from the text.

In fact, that was the main reason I abandoned the book a short way through. I became frustrated not only by the lack of introspection but the lack of any sort of emotion or judgement. Nothing in Ellen Terry's autobiography is ever anyone's fault. Things just sort of happen. She makes decisions, but there seems no catalyst for them. It would be maddening in any biography.

The second marriage seems to have been more successful. They had art in common, and Watts was a man who still sculpted gigantic statues - big enough that he had to climb into scaffolding to work on them - in his 80s.

And, as I don't like in cutting and pasting any photos not my own, here is another link:

Merry Christmas.

No comments:

Post a Comment