Monday, 29 July 2013

Last night, Daniel Barenboim completed the first Ring Cycle ever to be performed as part of a Proms season. Coming to bed early to be ready for this trip, I heard the last few minutes of Götterdämmerung, Wagner's extraordinary romantic finale lowering and fading back into the primordial state of nature from which it had emerged at the start of Das Rheingold some seventeen hours earlier. There was a breathless silence, fully thirty seconds it seemed. And then the Royal Albert Hall erupted into thunderous, rapturous applause.

I listened to the ending again this morning, travelling from Ipswich to Liverpool Street on the train and thought of Wagner's own journey to Paris. Sitting in a coffee bar at St Pancras station, I read that he first visited Paris in May 1849 when fleeing the failed revolutionary uprising in Dresden. He quickly moved on to Zurich, but returned to Paris by way of Venice after the break-up of his marriage to his first wife Minna in November 1859. In Paris, he oversaw the first production of the final version of Tannhauser. It was a disaster. The audience booed and demonstrations were organised outside the theatre by the notoriously conservative Jockey Club. It was with some relief that Wagner was able to Germany when the political ban on him was lifted in 1862. It does not appear that he ever returned to Paris again.

The train left St Pancras promptly after the whole messy business of leaving the country. We sped through east London and then on under the Thames. We stopped briefly at Ebbsfleet International, always an interesting spot for me. On the cliff top above the station is Northfleet's pretty little medieval church, looking somewhat out of place on the edge of a former quarry, now filled with the hi-tech paraphernalia of 21st Century transport. On a day in late April 1819, a proud couple brought their eldest son to this church to be baptised. In the parish register the father gave his occupation as 'chalk digger', meaning that almost certainly he worked in the quarry where the station is now. The child was named after his father, who was William Knott, my great-great-great-grandfather.

Before the year had ended, the child was dead. The sorrowful parents returned to their home town of Gillingham, where they had eight more children, the youngest of whom was my great-great-grandfather George Knott. Old William died of cholera in the Strood workhouse in 1857. His widow Caroline died in the Chatham workhouse in 1883, at the age of 87.

We headed on through green Kent, with its trees and countless motorways. And then dipping quickly, without ceremony, into darkness, the tight rush through the long passage onto mainland Europe. France was bright, the harvested fields flat around working villages with ornate gothic churches. Calais receded behind us as we threaded south. On occasional rises, a water tower punctuated the level, drifting line. Poplars crowned curving slopes, and a mad brick gothic church, obviously rebuilt after the Great War, stood sentry over all north Picardy.

Around me the voices were American and Chinese, except for four English people at the next table. Two couples who'd obviously never met before, but they were clearly delighted to be seated opposite each other, clinging to this last familiarity before the darkness of Europe engulfed them. They talked about previous holidays, their pets, their jobs. Eavesdropping, I learned that one couple were from Ely, the town where I was born.

We slid through Lille, and then cut across the line of the Western Front trenches of the Great War. We were coming down on the German side, past Lens where I remembered seeing coal mines and slag heaps on my first train journey across France more than a quarter of a century ago. All gone now. Past Douai, we crossed the trench line again near Arras, Ipswich's twin town. Near here was Vimy Ridge, and then we were crossing the Somme battlefield, and then past Compeigne, where the 1918 armistice was signed. And then Charles de Gaulle came into sight across the fields, and Paris began to gather around us.

 It is as if you are coming into a large provincial town rather than a great European capital. The train slides in through the banlieu of St-Denis and then cuts down between anonymous office blocks before coming to rest in the shabby, crowded Gare de Nord. You walk straight out onto the public concourse, and I was aimed for Villiers, which is on line 2. I had been told that there was a foot tunnel between Nord and La Chapelle, which would save me messing about changing lines with a suitcase, but I couldn't find it. So I took another line one short stop to Barbes-Rochechouart to change onto line 2 there. As the doors slid together, even before the train left the platform, I saw that fixed on them was an official notice saying 'pas de correspondance a Barbes-Rochechouart' - no connection, because the high level line 3 platform there was closed for renovation.

I pondered what to do. I could get out at Barbes-Rochechouart and walk back to La Chapelle or on to Pigalle, the neighbouring stations on the line. I didn't much fancy this. Barbes does not have a very good reputation. Known principally for its fairly lively North African community, it is apparently a good place to buy drugs or a stolen mobile phone. Normally this would not bother me in the least, especially as it was early afternoon, but I was lugging a suitcase which would make me conspicuous.

Instead, I crossed lines and headed back to Nord. Rather than waste time searching for that blessed foot tunnel, I went outside and walked up Rue Fauborg St-Denis to La Chapelle, and got on line 2 to Villiers there.

Villiers is in the heart of the 17me arrondissement, a pleasant middle class residential area with an attractive street market, Rue des Levi's, running up the middle. Most of the buildings are late 19th and early 20th Century, with lots of Art Nouveau details.

I got a few basic supplies from the local Monoprix, and then headed into the centre of Paris to catch the early evening sun on the west front of Notre Dame. But the sun that had been shining on Villiers had disappeared by the time I emerged at Hôtel deVille and wandered out onto Île de la Cité. Instead, glowering thunder clouds were massing to the west, flashes of lightning bolting down beyond the Pont Neuf. The front of the cathedral was a sullen grey, and even as I stood there the first rain began to fall.

Owen Wilson and Lea Seydoux in the rain in Midnight in Paris

At first, it was pleasant enough, like the end of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris as Owen Wilson and Lea Seydoux walk off along the Seine together. But the rain intensified, and I hurried across the Seine myself and took shelter under the awning of Shakespeare and Co. Soon, the rain sheeted down to such an extent that the cathedral was barely visible, so I slid inside and browsed among the fabulously expensive English language books. It is hard to imagine who buys anything here other than romantics and rich Americans. I am afraid that it isn't even the same bookshop where Sylvia Beach was a patron to the likes of Joyce and Hemingway. That was half a mile off in the Rue de L'Odéon. They moved to this bookshop, formerly Livres Mistral, in the 1960s. Still, you can't shake off the excitement of being inside.

The storm abated, and as the sky cleared the low sun from the west illuminated the front of the cathedral, the grey stone turning a brilliant cream, vivid and luminous, a confection coming back to life. It is one of the most stunning cathedral frontages I know, and in this light it was possible to pick out every detail of the reliefs and sculptures. I was not alone in working my way across the three portails, devouring the details in the intimacy which the late afternoon light had conjured.

I wandered back across the bridge to the north side to la Tour St-Jacques, which had been similarly enlivened and exposed by the post-storm light. I was reluctant to leave until the sun fell behind the taller buildings and everything relaxed into a more familiar urban gloom, at which point I returned to Villiers to write this down.


  1. When we were last at Notre Dame, we encountered a similar storm, and took refuge in cafe and sat sipping coffee and congnac watching people run in the rain.

    You do write very well, enjoying this already.

    1. Thanks, Ian. Mostly for my own benefit, it helps when sorting out the photos. 2000 plus and counting!