Here’s a view of the Paris skyline you’re unlikely to see yourself. I took this photograph recently from a window of the top floor cafeteria of a French Ministry building in the 7th Arrondissement. It’s not, of course, an atypical view –with the Eiffel Tower and the dome of Les Invalides, it could hardly be that. The roofscape, too, is quintessential Paris: chimney pots like jagged rows of teeth on top of huge flat stacks, walls in fact that overbear the next-door buildings. Even the monochrome grisaille of the scene is something I always associate with Paris.
I first visited Paris a year after ‘Les Evénements’; I remember how hot it was, how crowded Versailles seemed - my earliest experience of mass tourism - and how in Les Invalides, as I approached Napoleon’s sarcophagus, an ancient attendant shouted at me, ‘Enlevez votre chapeau!’. (I was wearing my Donovan cap – that essential fashion accessory of the sixties.) But my most vivid memory is simply of sitting one midday outside a Montmartre café, writing this poem:
At the corner of the Rue Ronsard
Stranger in a city I do not know
I have sat two hours.
The sun has warmed me, warmed my beer
And dried the gutters, and people move faster now
Out of the sun. An old man leaves his balcony
And slowly draws his shutters, slats
Without paint and walls that are cracked
And dry. The drone of passing cars
Is the sound of bees weaving
To another bush in perhaps a shaded avenue.
Watch the old woman
Who sips her absinthe,
Counts her centimes carefully,
Shuffles into the shade. My reflection
Grows in a window opposite
And in this corner of this city,
On the corner of this street,
My presence is observed in silence.
And the trees are moved by a breeze
Which doesn’t reach me.
The following year, in 1970, it won a Northern Arts Poetry Prize in a competition judged by the poet Basil Bunting, who kindly and accurately said he ‘detected something of Eliot’s Preludes’ in what I’d written.
I have been trying to work out when and how I first encountered Paris. Tentatively I date this to 1956. In that year, aged seven, I moved to a new school which had a small library of books we were allowed to borrow overnight. I chose a large picture book with a semi-detached cover my mother had to stick back to pre-empt its falling off altogether. Having no sellotape, she used Elastoplast instead. I’ve no idea what prompted me to pick up this particular book, but from the moment I opened it, I was entranced:
“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
In two straight lines they broke their bread
And brushed their teeth and went to bed.
They left the house at half past nine
In two straight lines in rain or shine -
The smallest one was Madeline.”
I’m sure it will have been here, in Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, that I first saw illustrated the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the tall houses whose roof lines immediately evoke Paris for me. Later, such images would become familiar through films: Rene Claire’s Le Million and – in a very different key – Louis Malle’s film noir, Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud. As for books, I must have been no more than thirteen when I read Paul Gallico’s Flowers for Mrs Harris, but not long after that I graduated to Françoise Sagan, devouring Bonjour Tristesse and Aimez-vous Brahms? in a kind of adolescent astonishment. At the same time, and with the same enthusiasm, I was in love with Françoise Hardy, whose EP, C’est Fab!, said it all.
This is how the idea of Paris evolved in my imagination. But two specific pictures also sharpened my image of the city. First, a Montmartre street scene by Utrillo, hanging in a classroom at my prep school: we had to copy it during an art lesson, and to that early exercise I owe my first understanding of perspective. I loved the picture’s silvery grey tones, its high houses and the distant glimpse of the white dome of Sacré Coeur; I loved, too, what I came to recognize as a Utrillo trademark: those lonely pairs of figures walking slowly up the street. It’s fashionable to belittle Utrillo these days, and he has been too much imitated – some would say he spent too long imitating himself. But I agree with Jean Oberlé who admired ‘the nostalgia and poetic feeling engendered with almost heart-rending intensity by those subdued tones.’ *
The second picture shows another Paris street, but not quite Montmartre this time: Pigalle. It’s an oil painting by Don Rivett, my uncle. I adored my mother’s brother, who was a magician, literally and metaphorically: I thought there was nothing he couldn’t do. I have only very recently seen this picture again, after more than half a century, but I recognize every detail: the wet street, the mother and her red-coated child heading into the Metro, the sleek black Citroën and the chic lady with the furled umbrella walking in the direction of Sacré Coeur.
My uncle had just finished the picture when we went for our 1957 summer visit to his home. While he was out of the room, I looked closely at the painting and - not realizing it was still wet – prodded with my finger the face of the man in the cap. Of course it smudged. When Don saw what had happened, and asked who was the culprit, I was much too embarrassed to confess. But he knew, of course, and I knew he knew. So, when next day he announced, ‘I’d give half-a-crown to whoever smudged that face! I’ve repainted it and now it looks much better than it did first time,’ I couldn’t say a word. But I loved that picture of Paris, and my uncle, all the more.
* Jean Oberlé: Utrillo: Monmartre, Methuen 1956.
[illustrations: (i) Paris rooftops, July 2013 © Adrian Barlow; (ii) Pigalle (1957) by Don Rivett
Footnote: on my first visit to Paris in 1969 I travelled with my lifelong friend, the traveller and writer Christopher Arthur. This Christmas, I have been enjoying his new novel, A Tale of Two Russians (Dynasty Press, 2013)