It’s all there in black and white.

I’d been looking forward to visiting the Grand Palais in Paris last November, to see Noir et Blanc, a black-and-white photography exhibition, but the virus, of course, put paid to that. The exhibition never even opened. Now it’s been relaunched online, and a fine job they’ve made of it. A €4 ticket allows you to ‘visit’ as many times as you like in a week, and tickets can be bought from now till mid-June. The website offers a 3D tour of the exhibition; all the prints can be seen, and an audio guide is available. There are more than 300 prints from the nineteenth century to the present day, taken by some 200 photographers from 30 different countries. The website software takes a little getting used to, but after a few minutes it’s fairly straightforward. I’m particularly interested in photographers who specialised in Paris street life, such as Willi Ronis, Brassaï, and Robert Doisneau, and all of them are represented here.

Probably the most famous work in this field is Doisneau’s Le Baiser de l’hôtel de ville (The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville).

It was taken in March 1950, on the corner of rue du Renard and rue de Rivoli, with the Hôtel de Ville clearly visible in the background. Published in Life magazine in June of that year, it was then more or less forgotten until 1986, when Doisneau gave a publisher permission to use it. It became hugely successful, appearing on posters, postcards, and T-shirts all over the world. For many, the image captures the very essence of romance, but its history also perhaps serves as a reminder that the course of true love doesn’t always run smooth.

Despite its sense of spontaneity, the image is in fact staged. Doisneau had gone out in the streets with some young actors he knew, following them around as they held hands, talked, and kissed. According to his daughter Annette, ‘His models weren’t models, in the sense that they didn’t pose. Doisneau was simply catching them flirting and kissing, in a very natural way.’

Following the success of the published image, many couples came forward claiming to be the ones in the picture. When one such couple, Denise and Jean-Louis Lavergne, visited Doisneau and his daughter in 1990, he chose not to tell them of their error. ‘He said nothing,’ said Annette. ‘I asked him why he hadn’t told them the truth. He said he didn’t want to shatter their dream.’

This kindness was to prove costly for Doisneau. In 1993, the Lavergnes took him to court, claiming that they were the couple in the picture and demanding $100,000 compensation for taking the picture without their knowledge.

The lawsuit forced Doisneau to admit that the shot wasn’t spontaneous, and the case was dismissed. However, his legal trouble didn’t end there. Françoise Bornet, the actress who appears in the photo with her then-boyfriend, Jacques Carteaud, came forward and sued for a portion of the poster sales, claiming that Carteaud was paid 500 francs by Doisneau and hadn’t shared the money with her. This case was also dismissed, though for Mme Bornet there was a happy ending of sorts. In 2005 she sold the original signed print that Doisneau had sent her a few days after taking the shot. A Swiss collector paid €155,000 for it at a Paris auction, more than ten times what it was expected to fetch.

At the time of the sale, Mme Bornet, by then in her seventies, revealed that her and Jacques’ relationship only lasted around nine months. Even though they are forever linked in the picture, they didn’t stay in touch. ‘I now think of it as a picture that should never really have existed,’ she said. ‘The photo was posed. But the kiss was real.’

***

A few black and white photos of my own. There are more at https://photos.app.goo.gl/9M9esBtjP7K8RXGV8

Poitiers Cathédral
Le Tabac, Pont Joubert
Grand’ rue
Christmas lights in Place Alphonse Lepetit

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The word ambisinistrous is the opposite of ambidextrous; it means ‘no good with either hand’.

Bovril was originally called ‘Johnston’s Fluid Beef’.

When customers visited the first supermarkets in the UK, they were afraid to pick up goods from the shelves in case they were told off.

A Little Outing

The view from the roof garden, Galeries Lafayette, Paris

I’d more or less given up on the idea of a pre-Christmas trip to Paris once I knew that bars and restaurants were remaining closed. By Wednesday, however, I was getting a little stir-crazy. I figured that a day of walking in Paris, taking some photos, would make an attractive alternative to doing the same thing in Poitiers, which has been my daily routine for the last few weeks. I could grab something to eat en route and, if the weather changed or I got tired, I could duck into a church for a while. So, on Thursday, I got the 07.15 train, normally full but today half-empty, arriving at Montparnasse at 08.35. My plan was to go to Montmartre in the north and then work my way back on foot. Even allowing for dawdling and snapping, I would have more than enough time to catch my 16.08 train home.

I went by metro to Gare du Nord, where I encountered a minor setback to my cunning plan, in that all the station toilettes were closed. The employees of Derichbourg, the company that services the WCs at Gare du Nord, Gare d’Austerlitz, and Gare de Lyon, were on a 24-hour strike. My first reaction was ‘they’re taking the piss!’, but I realised the inappropriacy of this and headed on. I gulped down a double espresso and pain au raisin while standing outside La Mie Caline boulangerie in Bvd Magenta, then moved along to Bvd Rochechouart, crossing from the 9th to the 18th arrondissement.

I’m always a bit wary of walking around here, ever since I nearly had my pocket picked some twenty years ago. On a busy street, a man behind me on my left had made an elaborate show of brushing away his cigarette ash, which had apparently landed on my shoulder. As I turned to face him, his accomplice, on my right, was just not quite quick enough at reaching into my jacket pocket for my wallet. Realising what was going on, I spun around, shouting, just in time to see the two of them melting quickly into the crowd. I’m normally against capital punishment, but at that moment …

Back in the present, I felt decidedly uneasy at first, seeing a group of grim-faced young men hanging around a street corner, watching the passers-by, occasionally glancing at their phones and muttering to each other. But then the truth dawned on me. It was the pushbikes nearby that gave them away. That, and a couple of tell-tale green rucksacks. They were all working for Deliveroo or one of the various other food delivery outfits that have sprung up everywhere in the last few years. A little calmer, I walked on towards Sacré-Cœur. I was even more relieved a few minutes later when I found one of those fully automated WCs in a street near the cathedral. Even in winter, this area of Paris is normally packed with tourists, along with clusters of hawkers selling souvenirs and novelty trinkets. Today there was just a handful of people taking photos of each other and the city skyline. I joined them for a few minutes of clicking under a baleful sky

Looking over the city from the steps of Sacre-Coeur

I thought about going into the cathedral, but didn’t, and walked on to the Place du Tertre, just to its left. Here again, one would normally be surrounded by a throng of tourists having their portraits sketched by artists of variable ability, watched by fellow tourists sitting outside the cafés around the Place. Today it was a ghost town. At one point I was the only person there. It felt distinctly eerie.

Calvaire Stairs, Montmartre

I travelled down to Abbesses, the pretty little quartier that is the setting for the film Amélie. There is a lot more life, as all the shops are still open. It is very attractive, but they have obviously cottoned on to their selling point, and there is more than a touch of tweeness here and there. It reminded me of Wimbledon Village, Southwold, and Stamford.

I started back towards the centre of the city, down rue Lepic to Clichy with Place Pigalle and Le Moulin Rouge on my left and on down rue Blanche towards Opéra. It was now lunchtime. I knew there was a little square in front of Sainte-Trinité church where I could sit and eat, so I had another boulangerie pit stop, this time for a small quiche Lorraine and a bottle of water. The woman who served me was a dead ringer for Hattie Jacques. I thought of mentioning this, but explaining Carry On films is way above my current level of French. As I left the boulangerie, it started to rain, and I ended up eating my quiche while standing in the doorway of a closed-down sweetshop. It’s not the image I like to project. I was worried at one point that benevolent passers-by might start placing coins on the ground in front of me.

The rain was continuing, so I took shelter in Galeries Lafayette, a French Harrods and Selfridges rolled into one. It’s a fine store, and I’d like to pay particular tribute to their excellent cloakroom facilities, which probably don’t get much of a mention in company advertising. The Christmas lights aren’t too bad either.

Chrstmas lights, Galeries Lafayette

When the rain stopped, I started walking down Avenue de l’Opéra, but about halfway down fatigue began to set in, so I hopped on the metro at Pyramides to go a couple of stops to Pont Neuf (come on, just two stops, it’s hardly a mortal sin).

The view from Pont Neuf looking west

I walked over the bridge and up rue Dauphine to Saint-Germain. It was now 14.50, so as I was nicely on schedule, I had another ten-minute sit-down in the wonderfully gloomy church of Saint-Sulpice – as seen in The Da Vinci Code.

And now it is confession time, dear reader. Taking photos was not the only purpose of my trip. It’s Christmas Day on Friday, and one tradition, entirely of my making, is that we always have a bacon sandwich for breakfast on Christmas Day morning. The French don’t really do bacon, but there is an M&S food store just a few hundred yards from Saint-Sulpice, and they sell some very good Wiltshire smoked back …

 ‘… well, while I’m here I might as well get some Cumberland sausages … lime pickle, chapatis, those double chocolate ginger biscuits, two of those mini Christmas puddings, some shortbread, mince pies …’ Ho ho ho indeed.

I trudged slowly but happily up rue de Rennes (I am beginning to understand why one of my heroes, the historian Richard Cobb, described it as the most boring road in Paris) and reached the station at 15.50. On the corner of rue Odessa, I saw the one thing I’d been keeping an eye out for all day – a café selling takeaway vin chaud. But it was too late – there was a queue. At the station I just had time to get another double espresso and a cereal bar for the train. My Fitbit told me that I had done over 26,000 steps and walked twelve miles. I know it’s a long way to go for a bacon sandwich, but it’s a very scenic route.

***

Three things I’ve learnt this week:

Glasgow is twinned with Bethlehem, Nuremberg, and Havana.

In 1672, an angry mob of Dutchmen killed and ate their prime minister.

The Dyslexia Research Trust Clinic is in Reading.

Going, Going, Gone

Monday

Out for a walk after lunch, in my permitted exercise hour. Poitiers is always quiet on a Monday, with most of the shops shut. This can be very pleasant – a gentle transition between the weekend and the working week. On a gloomy day, when I am a mile from home and it begins to rain, it is less appealing. Turning a corner near Place Leclerc, I pass a bunch of seven squaddies, wearing balaclavas and carrying submachine guns. They all look very young. The nearest couple make eye contact with me, and I wonder what they are thinking. They may be the same ones I saw patrolling alongside the police outside the Cathedral yesterday morning. A sight we will no doubt have to get used to for a while.

The soldiers’ presence is co-ordinated through Vigipirate, the national security alert system which was set up by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1978. It sounds vaguely swashbuckling, but is actually an acronym of Vigilance et protection des installations contre les risques d’attentats terroristes à l’explosif (‘vigilance and protection of installations against the risk of terrorist bombing attacks’). The system defines levels of threat represented by five colours: white, yellow, orange, red, and scarlet. The levels call for specific security measures, including increased police or police/military mixed patrols in subways, train stations, and other vulnerable locations. We are currently at scarlet (a definite threat of major terrorist attacks). In 2015, after the Bataclan attack in Paris, Opération Sentinelle was initiated. It is ongoing, deploying 10,000 soldiers and 4,700 police and gendarmes to protect ‘sensitive areas’. Right now, that probably includes every city centre in France.

Wednesday

It’s an ill wind. Having learnt from the first lockdown, many local shops have been quick to offer a click-and-collect service now that they are closed, including, thankfully, bookshops (why the **** are vape shops regarded as ‘essential’ but bookshops are not?) We are doing our best to support them all wherever possible.

An unexpected bonus is that the move online means that many things we would not otherwise have visited are now unexpectedly available. The most exotic of these that I have found so far is the Drouot Auction House in Paris – effectively the French Sotheby’s. They have been forced to close their doors during the lockdown but are continuing their auctions online. It took me just two minutes to register an account. Madame was quite alarmed when she realised that I had to give them my credit card details, and she has made me promise never to visit the site after lunch.

For me it’s a slightly more civilised version of fantasy league football. At the start of the month I allot myself a notional €500,000. I look through the items in the online catalogues, decide my maximum bid for anything that takes my fancy, and then we’re off to the races. Obviously, I don’t actually bid, but you’d be surprised at how tense it can get. If my maximum bid for any lot is higher than the hammer price, I claim it as mine. So far this month I’ve managed to pick up a bronze representation of an eleventh-century Ethiopian king for €120k (it reminded me of an old history teacher of mine), a nice Raoul Dufy oil painting of Deauville harbour (€210k), and a case of 2005 Mouton Rothschild at a very reasonable €11k. Sadly, I just missed out on a complete set of Ian Fleming first editions, which went for €22k, just over my limit. My only regret is paying €4,500 for a Cartier ‘tank’ watch. It’s very nice, but I could have got it for €3k. Goes to show you can’t always trust the estimates. Lesson learnt.

It still means I’m over €100k in credit this month. There’s a sale of erotic art next Tuesday, but the idea of Madame discovering me reading the catalogue does not appeal. I’ll probably settle for the Second Empire snuffboxes on Wednesday.

Friday

Another thing that hasn’t been affected by lockdown is construction work, and there’s quite a lot of it going on in the city centre right now. Two projects are council-funded. One is a new frontage for the central library, the Médiathèque François Mitterrand, where a landscaped garden is being built, and the other involves knocking down a rather forbidding wall in front of the old Banque de France building in Boulevard Solférino and putting a hanging garden in its place. Both will brighten up the city centre considerably, and they are another sign that the council doesn’t seem to be strapped for cash.

Growing up in London in the 1950s, I can remember a lot of building work going on to cover up old bomb sites from the Second World War. There would always be a few men hanging around watching the building work going on, and as a boy, hurrying by to play football or whatever, I used to think this an odd and boring thing to do. Not any longer; it is completely addictive. I try to arrange my daily walks so that I can see the progress at one or other of these sites. Sometimes nothing seems to happen for several days, and then suddenly, because of a minor alteration, some shrubs planted or some brickwork done, the whole layout seems transformed.

I am becoming a familiar sight to some of the workers, and I suspect they may think I am the Clerk of Works from the town hall. For a joke, I’ve toyed with the idea of turning up with a clipboard and stopwatch, but there’s a fair chance I’d have a brick hurled at my head.

Boulevard Solférino 2019

Last Week

Early next year

Saturday

It was sad to read the obituaries of both John Sessions and Geoffrey Palmer this week. John Sessions’ Life of Napoleon was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and Geoffrey Palmer’s line (in Reggie Perrin), ‘Bit of a cock-up on the catering front’, is now hardwired into my brain.

There’s a little piece about obituaries in The Times today. A reader asks why medical conditions are sometimes given as cause of death, whereas in other cases people are reported simply to have ‘died’. The paper’s obituaries editor says that they include the cause of death if it is known, but not if there is a continuing inquest or the family didn’t want to say.

Not all newspaper obituaries go into the cause of death. The Daily Telegraph briefly tried it as an experiment, but one of the first subjects under the new regime was a New Orleans jazz musician who had apparently died of an exploding penis implant. This was regarded as a little too much information for Telegraph readers.

We’ll always have Paris

We had a few days in Paris this week, and next weekend we hope to go La Rochelle. These breaks may be the only holidays we get this year, as the Covid-19 situation here is steadily worsening. There were 7,379 new infections in mainland France on Friday, compared with 6,111 on Thursday and 5,429 on Wednesday. A report from France’s directorate general of health said that ‘the progression of the epidemic is exponential’. At the start of July, the Prime Minister, Jean Castex, had ruled out a second national lockdown because ‘the economic and human consequences of a total lockdown are disastrous’. On Thursday, the message had changed. ‘We want to do everything to avoid a new lockdown, but the lockdown plans, those detailing the strictest measures, lie ready in the health ministry.’

France is not alone in seeing a rise in the number of cases. Spain, Italy and Germany have also seen steady rises since they began lifting lockdowns at the start of summer. But why the situation here is (apparently) so much worse than in the UK is still unclear. The figure for the 14-day cumulative number of Covid-19 cases per 100,000, the key statistic that the UK government uses for assessing its quarantine rules, remains in the low 20s in the UK, while in France it has shot up from 51 to 81 in just over a week and is still rising. At the same time, the number of deaths per 100,000 over the same period remains low in both countries: 0.2 in the UK and 0.3 in France. Are people paying more attention to the warnings and guidelines in the UK than in France? Are the testing and reporting systems radically different? These are difficult questions to answer. France ended its full lockdown on 1st June, while the UK did not do so until 4th July, so it’s possible that there will eventually be a similar second spike in the UK figures. One hopes not, as we move into autumn and schools reopen.

***

On a more positive note, the trip to Paris was great fun. We spent three days walking the city; one day along the length of Canal Saint-Martin from Bastille to Jaurès in the north, another on the Promenade Plantée, the wonderful overhead garden walkway that runs for three miles from Bastille to the edge of the Bois de Vincennes in the east, and on our last day we walked along Île aux Cygnes, the artificial island that runs between Pont de Bir-Hakeim and Pont de Grenelle. Here you can find Paris’s own Statue of Liberty, a nine-metre-high scale model of the original. I have to admit it’s more impressive than the one in Poitiers.

While we were there, masks were compulsory everywhere in central Paris (since Friday, this has been extended to the whole city). One might occasionally see someone without one, but this was rare. You quickly get used to applying hygienic hand gel whenever you enter a building, and they now have gel dispensers at every bus stop.

Despite the significant drop in the number of overseas tourists, the city still seemed very lively in the evenings. Many central streets have been temporarily closed to traffic, allowing bars and restaurants to spread out onto the pavements. It all makes for a very festive atmosphere, and our days of walking left us feeling entitled to join in. One unexpected bonus from the shortfall in tourist numbers is that bars are having to compete more for custom. The prices of drinks, particularly beer, are noticeably down, and in many places now Happy Hours run from 16.00 to 22.00. I felt duty-bound to make as large a contribution to the Parisian economy as time and Madame permitted.

Paris -grim…

…and not so grim.

Brasserie Julienne in rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. The food is only so-so but an amazing room.

La Cremerie, a really nice little wine bar in rue des Quatre Vents.

***

This week sees La rentrée in France. La rentrée scolaire is when the new academic year begins. However, La rentrée is about much more than just schools. Many shops and business close down for at least part of the month of August, and parliament stops sitting. The Covid crisis has obviously cast its shadow, but there is still a general sense of a country temporarily taking things easier for a few weeks. La rentrée, in theory at least, sees the end of all that, as the nation mentally girds its loins for the challenges ahead (well, till Christmas, at any rate).

There is a tradition that La rentrée scolaire can only happen in September, so although Monday is not a public holiday here in France, the schools will restart on Tuesday. Even if one doesn’t have school-age children, it is difficult to avoid noticing this. Shops are suddenly full of special offers on stationery, as parents seek to buy the vast number of items on the official lists of requirements that schools send out. Here is the basic government list, which may be added to by individual schools. To ensure every child can afford to have the necessary equipment, the government provides financial assistance to families on more modest incomes. The amount this year will range from €369.57 to €403.48, depending on the age of eligible children. Entitlement is based on household income not exceeding a certain ceiling (less than €24,453 for one child, €30,096 for two children, €35,739 for three). This year’s amount has been increased to allow for the cost of protective face masks for the children.

I will be doing my bit at La rentrée. I restart my Pilates class on Thursday, and in two weeks’ time I begin twice-weekly online French lessons. I am determined to master this putain language.

***

Covid watch. I caught the last few minutes of yesterday’s FA Community Shield match between Liverpool and Arsenal on the internet. Lots of group hugs from the victorious Arsenal players, and at the end they all walked past the Shield and kissed it. As the BBC online commentator said, ‘Might as well just lick each other’s faces, boys’.