Thursday, August 30, 2018

Street Art in Boulogne-sur-Mer...

A few weeks ago, I went to Boulogne-sur-Mer for the day-trip proposed by the SNCF. This is the largest fishing port in France, situated in northern France on the Côte d'Opale section of the Channel - just opposite the English coast. This proximity between the England and France has fed the heightened feelings between the two countries for centuries, oscillating from best of enemies, worst of friends and all the intermediate positions between, as one country has tried to gain ground on the other, or been used as a pathway for a third party to do so.

Today, Boulogne attracts thousands of British visitors but already from the mid 19th century, Charles Dickens was praising its virtues " as quaint, picturesque, good a place as I know", and spent long summers there. To praise the virtues of  Dickens himself, the Centre Culturel de l'Entente Cordiale organised an exhibition in the Château d'Hardelot in 2011 - "Charles Dickens l'inimitable", a year before the bicentennial commemorations of the writer's birth.

No sooner had I got out of the train at Boulogne, than my camera battery started playing up, before giving up the ghost completely. Luckily, I managed to get a few photos of some of the fantastic, huge-scale street art. I found out later that these are part of a programme  and it has to be said, these were certainly the highlight of my trip there. I certainly regret the lack of photos... As the mayor of the town points out on the Art Urbain site, the outward appearance of the town largely came about from reconstruction after the Second World War.

Like Portsmouth, Plymouth or Southampton, Boulogne-sur-Mer was blitzed so extensively that the town was utterly devastated. Unlike its English counterparts, however, the devastation here was not due to Luftwaffe aerial attacks; this was the result of Allied attacks on the enemy forces occupying the town. Now, so many decades later, we can barely believe such a monstrous fate could have been meted out in any civilised world; whatever the city, whoever the enemy or ally, the tragic waste is the same.

The battering of Boulogne towards the end of the war flattened the town, but did not crush the boulonnais spirit. The heart of the old fishermen's quarter, La Beurrière, did not survive the bombings, although one building still stands today, where the museum devoted to this community is situated. Life as a fisherman/woman in Belle-Epoque Boulogne was anything but beautiful. The harshness and drudgery of the work and living conditions brought home hard how many of our day-to-day preoccupations today are very much 21st century, First World ones that pale into significance inside the cramped Maison de la Beurière.

The war years of Boulogne made me appreciate, yet again, the resilience of Man, and wonder what all urban landscapes would be like today, had the two great wars of the 20th century never taken place. I personally found the post-war buildings of Boulogne wholly dispiriting, unfortunately, and the modern architecture itself does little to liven up the town either... until street art came along, that is! The result is amazing and those massive concrete surfaces seem to have been made to act as a modern-day canvas.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Highs and Lows in Paris.... Les Catacombes de Paris...

The weather has changed as the summer is drawing to an end, and yet only a few weeks ago the heat was stultifying. In an endeavour to have a brief respite from temperatures that seemed stuck at 30° +, I decided to go underground, into the depths of Paris.

With their allure of a mysterious, macabre underworld, the galeries of Les Catacombes de Paris have always drawn in vast numbers of the public since the beginning of the 19th century. This unique site had certainly always attracted a friend of mine who had never had the occasion to visit - until this August! It wasn’t my first tour; once my children had discovered Dr Who, I thought they would appreciate a trip here, along with a visit of Les Egouts de Paris (the Paris Sewers Museum) for good measure. I still have vivid memories of one of the Dr Who classics; 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' from 1977, with the giant rats occupying the Victorian London sewer system. However, it was the more recent Dr Who episode, Blink, some thirty years later, with the terrifying weeping angels that really marked us all, alimented by a visit to see the old graveyards in Birmingham! Suitably scary...

It is not surprising, perhaps, that of the 500,000 visitors (2016) to this site, a third of these are under the age of 27. Many of these, I presume, will have grown up with a staple diet of Netflix series such as The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and the like, and for whom Dr Who must seem very staid and stodgy indeed. Well, the queue for this latest visit was truly horrifying in itself, winding around from the entrance backwards, well before the opening hour, coiling on itself to the point that the end almost reached the head, like the mythological serpent uroborus. After over two hours’ wait, we finally went beyond the dark, rather unassuming entrance that eventually leads to the Empire de la Mort and wended our way down the 130 steps of the spiral staircase, through to the network of tunnels, some 20 metres below the surface.

The narrow passageways slowly incline, following the streets far above in a network referred to as ‘la doublure de Paris’ (the lining of Paris). The passages are punctuated by signs left by architects and inspectors, indicating the work site number and year, and carved with their initials. Behind the stone walls is a vast expanse of empty space from the underground quarries, and one part of the journey – the atelier - reveals part of the quarry. Indeed, long before the catacombs were established at the end of the 18th century, this whole underbelly of Paris had offered the city a limitless supply of limestone for building construction with gypsum and chalk for plaster over the centuries. Quarry work had initially started in the gallo-roman period around the mountain of Saint Geneviève and the hillside of Montmartre, but the construction of vast edifices such as the Louvre and the cathedral of Notre-Dame in the Middle Ages required ever greater supplies of building material. When these extensive underground quarries were abandoned at a later date, accidents were common. Galleries would simply collapse, and their implosion left gaping holes that swallowed up all that was above. This reached a crisis point in 1777, whereupon the first Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC) was set up to map out the networks and consolidate the areas at most at risk. Under Napoléon, all quarrying was forbidden from 1813. Despite these measures, further collapses have taken place ever since – the most striking of these being in 1961, with 21 deaths – and the IGC continues to carry out numerous interventions to the present day.

As the population of Paris rose from the Middle Ages, the city struggled to house its inhabitants, both living and dead, in a limited surface area. The deceased were traditionally buried around the church but the demographic growth resulted in insalubrious conditions as the dead and alive were increasingly brought into contact in ever-confined urban spaces. Land, water and air were contaminated with decomposing corpses, resulting in disease and death just as would be the case much later in Victorian England. In Paris, crisis point was reached in the 1760s, when Parliament called for the closure of the city burial grounds. However it was the sordid state of the Saints-Innocents cemetery at Les Halles that finally resulted in concrete action in 1780. The sheer volume and weight of dead bodies had caused residential cellars to cave in , whilst prostitutes plied their trade in the cemetery itself.

 And so it was that Paris was faced with the joint problem of unwanted, unhealthy volumes with its dead populations above ground, and then the perilous voids of the disused quarry sites below. From 1785 until 1787, the remains from the Innocents cemetery were exhumed and transported by cart, from dusk till dawn, to the quarry of Tombe-Issoire and were spread along the galleries. In the years during and leading up to the French Revolution in 1789, the countless victims of political violence were deposed there too as it became a make-shift morgue. To these were added the bodies exhumed from churches seized by the State and, later still, would come the remains of those ousted from their final resting place due to Haussmann's vast urban projects in the 1860s.

On the demise of the first Inspecteur Général des Carrières in 1807, the position was occupied by Héricart de Thury (1776-1854), the man responsible for creating the Catacombes much as we know it today. He quickly noted that the site was in a state of ‘imminent peril’, as the pilars threatened to collapse, the ceilings (le ciel) were likely to give way as water seeped into the stonework, and the air became heavy and noxious. Above all, de Thury sought to make of the catacombs a site to respect the dead with an appropriate sense of decorum rather than a basic ossuary. Toscan pilasters decorate the path between the higher and lower catacombs, leading to the entrance of the Empire of Death. From here, de Thury set upon the project to arrange the bones in a striking manner, producing a dramatic effect as banks of the femur, tibia and humerus bones are laid out in layers, interspersed with skulls to create walls (les hagues) along the passageways, behind which are piled thousands more bones. Ingraved stone signs, like strange street signs in this underworld, indicate from which district the bones originated, giving some indication to the lives and deaths of this huge mass of individuals.

The Crypte de la Passion is a vast barrel-shaped supporting pillar, decorated in tibias and skulls. A suitably Gothic nocturnal concert was organized around this massive form in 1897 with Chopin’s Marche Funèbre and Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saens played to the enthusiasts. Amongst the ossuary is set the fountain discovered at the end of the 18th century - baptised the Fontaine de la  Samaritaine. Black and white pillars add a somber effect whilst the numerous inscriptions from the Bible, poets and philosophers add a reflection on the fragility of life and the inevitability of death.

The whole site is carefully monitored and managed for the protection of the visitors and the catacombs too. There is little chance of the hapless tourists getting lost in the obscurity of the labyrinth system today, as the catacombs are separated from the 250 km network of galleries. Lighting and runways lay out the path to follow, so each modern-day Orpheus can head out of the underworld, unscathed as he re-emerges from rock that dates back 45 million years. The temperature is an ambient 14°and humidity levels are carefully tracked, as is the CO2 throughout the 11,000 m2 area. It is vital to preserve this unique environment which is particularly sensitive to deterioration. Bones are regularly moved around to withstand these specific conditions – fortunately these are in ample supply!

Guides and guardians make sure the visitors respect the setting, and the nature of the site – for even if it is not a cemetery per se, it is not merely a museum either. The remains of some 2 million individuals lie here – all of whom had lives, loves and ambitions of their own before coming to this final resting place. The lasting memory of my first visit here, was someone being caught at the exit, having innocently filched a skull that he had ‘found’, and kindly concealed in his backpack ! The site has been modernized since then, with a souvenir shop for those who wish to go home with a little memento. A skull ashtray, anyone ?

Once we had left the Catacombs we tracked off to Montmartre for a panoramic view of the city, having seen its sober underworld. The highs and lows indeed!

The irony of the day in Paris? The weather had changed overnight, dropping by literally 20 degrees - we were freezing as we queued up!

Saturday, August 25, 2018

From Hermonville to Holden... From Places to Names...

Château de Marzilly (side view!)
Before my newly-acquired second-hand car faded out on me, very prematurely, I had been exploring the country villages around Reims. One of these was Hermonville, some 15 kilometres away. Unfortunately, as I had not expected to lose the car, I did not take the photos that I could/should have done at that time, so the few I have here will have to suffice!

Glimpse of façade profile from the walled-grounds....
Despite its present-day sleepy, bucolic appearance, one hundred years ago it was a small, but vital part of the backcloth in the enactment of the deadliest warfare scenes Mankind has ever experienced; the Great War. Amongst numerous villages of northeast France, Hermonville became yet another of the panels in this vast patchwork of battle terrain. Over the 14-18 period, swathes of forest and farmland were hacked up to create a crazy quilt of barrenness and brutal destruction, punctuated by plundered towns, cities and villages alike. Reims itself became the symbol of the martyred country, with its burning cathedral as the image of violation and its ravaged streets of shattered buildings and pocked-marked façades spelling out the tragedy that would befall much of France.

Cited as one of the oldest villages in France, Hermonville came to prominence in the Middle Ages but was renowned far later for its rather impressive collection of seven châteaux! Most of these imposing edifices were to fall in the Great War years, despite having survived the collapse of the Napoleonic empire, and the arrival in the village of thousands of Prussians in 1814. It was here in Hermonville that a military base was established at the start of wartime activities, a century later, in 1914. One of the poilus – a French infantryman – Gabriel Guérin remarked;

«Au château de Toussicourt (à Hermonville). On pourra au-moins dire qu'on mène une vie de palace! J'avais jamais vu autant de châteaux de ma vie». 

A training camp was subsequently set up for special missions of military intelligence and the strategic sabotage of enemy logistics; Hermonville in effect became a ‘nid d’espionnage’. While the latest ordnance offered possibilities of power and devastation of unprecedented, hellish proportions, most of the hard graft was nevertheless carried out on the ground by Man and beast alike. Soldiers died fighting to preserve mere patches of land that were soon regained by enemy forces. Again, infantryman Guérin remarked on the cruel irony of the footman’s fate, this time when endeavouring to save the village of Loivre, some 7kms from Hermonville, in mid September 1914:

«On joue ‘à toi, à moi’ autour du canal. Les copains tombent et on ne gagne rien. Pas même du terrain.»

Going through Loivre or Hermonville today, little initially indicates the turmoil and trauma previously visited on these villages. Sweeping vineyards have long since cloaked the troubled soil and traces of the past, this other country, far removed from the alluring, reassuring landscape of wine trails and routes touristiques of the modern-day Champagne region. Other villages have simply disappeared; struck down by warfare all those years ago, never to rise again. Their names, when recalled, merely evoke the circumstances of their destruction and no longer refer to living entities, merely to their obliteration. Yet the vestiges of the Hermonville châteaux, that emerge from the undergrowth, the enigmatic ruins that mark the surrounding landscape, and the rows and rows of neatly-aligned crosses in the war memorial grounds testify to a life before, during and after this pivotal episode in history.

The names of the majority of the actors in this theatrical play of savagery and insanity are unknown or unfamiliar to us now. Yet the words and faces of these individuals reach out across the years, still speaking out. Gabriel Guérin died almost one hundred years to the day – in August 1918 – at the age of 26, but his account of the war years lives on, in a strange, timeless manner. His great feats as an aviation ace seem almost irrelevant now, yet his own thoughts and reflections ring out through time, making us question and re-assess our lives and times too. In this strange, continual process of change and regeneration from loss, life and even History seem to evolve, moving in time and space, yet bearing the ties to the past.
The château of Toussicourt, in whose grounds Guérin and his fellow foot soldiers had once been emcamped, did not escape or survive the hostilities. All that remains today is a haphazard scattering of masonry. Nevertheless, the post-war reparations that were paid out to compensate the loss of the château led to the revival of another great war casualty; the Musée-Hôtel Le Vergeur in Reims. The rémois gentleman explorer, Hugues Krafft (1853-1935), spent his compensation payment on the restoration of the war-torn, ruined building, bringing it back to its pre-war state. Again, little indicates the devastation of the past when visiting the Hôtel Le Vergeur today, and yet...

Hôtel Le Vergeur -  Reims
When I was looking into the fate of the Hermonville châteaux – I came across the Château de Marzilly, just outside the village itself, set in a fairy-tale landscape. Having been left in a pitiful state for many years, it has now been restored to become a château… for the 21st century! However, a leap back to the latter part of the 19th century, reveals that the Château de Marzilly was apparently the home to the English industrial philanthropist, Jonathan Holden (1828-1906). Obtaining concrete information on aspects of this man’s life is proving to be quite difficult, so whilst waiting to confirm his ownership of Marzilly (as opposed to one of the other châteaux at hand), I will not venture too far… I did speak to the present owner of the Marzilly estate, who kindly proposed a future visit, so I am excited at that prospect, needless to say!

Bibliothèque Holden - Reims
I certainly remembered the name Holden as being associated with the small library at the end of my old street, and as being rather un-French, but knew no more. As it turns out, the Bibliothèque Holden was built to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria of 1887, and was the first public library to be opened in the city of Reims (and the first to be frequented by my children!). I find it fascinating to think that this Bradford-born individual made his way to Reims and was to shape the work landscape and lives of hundreds of employees who inhabited districts still visible today, in their modern forms. Holden was indeed the director of a large wool-combing factory set up by his uncle, Isaac Holden, in the 1850s. The latter, an inventor and manufacturer of remarkable insight and talent - cited as the creator of the Lucifer match  - was an entrepreneur with great vision and ambition. The Reims site was part of a substantial business, with other factories in St Denis, near Paris, and Croix, near Lille. These were all established to meet the demand in the European market for wool, and all expanded rapidly, representing a considerable source of employment for the cities. By the 1870s, the Holden factories in England and France had become the largest wool-comber entreprises in the world. Nevertheless, the renown of this trade has not survived the passage of time here in Reims; it has simply been forgotten.
Bibliothèque Holden - Reims
As I was just marking my twenty-seven years of life here, I thought of the challenges the Holden family must have encountered in their ex-patriot existence. I learnt of Holden’s aunt Sarah (Isaac’s wife) who despaired of the “barren and solitary soil of France”,whilst her husband took pleasure in "this lovely country". Isaac and Sarah finally returned to Bradford to tend to affairs there - not least their  Wesleyan charitable interests - leaving nephew Jonathan to set up the ‘Nouvel Anglais’ site in Reims. A philanthropic drive appears to have been as ingrained as the family’s Methodist beliefs and wholly shared by Jonathan. The provision of education, training and social improvement was central to the Holden business venture and vision ; financial gain alone was not sufficient. Isaac Holden was even the founder and first president of the rémois Bicycle Club. The desire for an impressive home may have been a family trait too. Sir Isaac Holden had an ambitious stately mansion built "in a pleasing style of architecture" (according to later auction details), finally completed in the late 1870s. Sadly, like the Château of Toussicourt, nothing remains now of Oakworth House, Keighley, but for a few stones and the beautiful grounds - now Holden Park. The mansion burnt down in 1909, proving once again that nothing lives forever, yet nothing dies completely either, least of all interest and curiosity, I hope.

The tombstone of Jonathan Holden and his son, another Isaac, is to be found in the cemetery just along my current street. The earthly remains of Isaac, however, did not stay on French soil but were exhumed and taken back to Bradford before the turn of the century. Oddly, during my cursory research into the Holdens, both French and English records claim that Jonathan died in France or England respectively. Perhaps it is not really relevant - either way the tombstone here is slowly being leached of its engraved letters, fading away yet not forgotten, I trust.

I am looking forward to returning to Hermonville, tracking down the Château de Toussicourt, exploring the Château de Marzilly and discovering more places outside the city. For the moment I can still find things that catch my attention within Reims; all these criss-crossing paths laid out around us, linking past and present, the far and the near, like so many threads...