Monday, 29 November 2010


In the foreground, a building is being brought to the ground, naked except for a forlorn sign offering bargains on long since departed furniture stock. Behind, the giant Tour Courcellor is getting dressed up for a new decade. A curious contrast, but one which reminds us of a simple fact. In all construction there is first destruction.

The Tour Courcellor in Levallois has been an imposing hulk alongside the railway lines running into Saint Lazare since the 1960s. A remnant of the time when the town was Communist-led, it's clothes, dripping with asbestos, were no longer in vogue and are now being replaced.

Photo: raptor974 (Paris Skyscrapers forum)

Off comes the concrete and cladding, on goes shiny blue glass. At its feet, the smaller neighbours had no offer of a new wardrobe, and will simply be replaced by brighter, lighter units, clearly contemporary but not built to last.

The result is an artist's impression, rendered digitally perfect. Blue skies, happy people, fast cars. Yesterday was old hat. Doesn't everything look better dressed in the emporer's new clothes?

Friday, 26 November 2010

Something for the Weekend (26th - 28th November)

There’s a strong probability of snow this weekend, and with Christmas lights now on and windows dressed, there should be quite festive atmosphere.

So grab a grog and warm up with my list of recommendations on the Paris Weekends blog.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Les Catherinettes de la Sainte Catherine

November 25th is Sainte Catherine's day, otherwise known in France as the day of the Catherinettes. On this day, young women aged 25 who are not yet married have the opportunity to wear a hat and go looking for a husband!

Although the event has little relevance in today's society and is no longer celebrated (apart from in a slightly ironic manner or as a family rite of passage), it was a historically important occasion, and this has been captured by a sculpture in the Square du Montholon in the 10th arrondissement.

The sculpture shows five young working-class women, most probably from the hatmaking or dressmaking trades (of which there were many in the district) celebrating the Sainte-Catherine. It was an important tradition in these communities in French cities in the 19th century, giving young working women the opportunity to break away from the harsh conditions of the workshop. They would put on their best clothes (and a specially made hat) and attend organised balls and parties, events that were sometimes considered their last chance to find a husband!

In this sculpture, the work of an artist called Julien Lorieux, you can see five women linked arm in arm, each wearing an extravagant hat (although not as extravagant as in the photo above!), with two or three of the women also carrying orange blossoms or papier-mâché oranges. These young women have probably been caught by the sculptor at the moment they left their place of work before heading off to the evening ball, an event that they seem to be very much looking forward to.

Julien Lorieux didn't live to see his sculpture being unveiled. As with many men of his generation, he was to die prematurely during the First World War, and although he had created the sculpture in 1908, and sold it to the city of Paris in 1913, it wasn’t displayed to the public until 1923.

By that time, was the tradition already beginning to seem like old-fashioned folklore? The event was off course originally a religious one. Girls were traditionally thought to be under the protection of Sainte Catherine, while Saint Nicolas looked after the boys. On November 25th, girls participated in devotion groups where they created a headdress to place on her statue. Young women left the group when they got married, and therefore taking part in the ceremony became synonymous with still being single after 25.

Although developments in society saw first the religious elements dropped, then the need to find a husband at an early age, it is still pleasing to see a popular tradition commemorated in this manner. So, if you know any unmarried 25 year old women, don't forget to wish them a happy Sainte Catherine's day on the 25th!

Monday, 22 November 2010

Celebrating the life of Richard Wright

November 28, 2010 is the 50th anniversary of the writer Richard Wright's death in Paris. To mark the occasion, Julia Browne, the creator of Walking The Spirit tours of Black Paris, is asking those present in the city on that date to help her to create a collage tribute of photos and mementos. Here I ask her why she feels such a tribute is important, and for more details about the life and work of the man himself.

What would you like people in Paris to do on November 28th?
I am inviting people to make a trip to Richard Wright's final resting place at the Père Lachaise cemetery. Take a flower, take a poem, take whatever moves you. You’ll find his black marble marker in the Columbarium near the back of the cemetery. Look for plaque#848, in a corner, under the stairs.

People don’t have to wait until the 28th though. In fact, then can go at any time during November. Take a photo of yourself or an impression, and email it back to me at At the end of the month I will create a collage tribute and publish it (note: I will provide a link to this when it goes live! Adam). If you can't make it to Pere Lachaise, it will be enough to pause outside his former home at 14 rue Monsieur LePrince in the 6th, or raise a glass at Wright's 'office' Cafe Le Tournon, on rue du Tournon near the Luxembourg Gardens. Send me your photos!

Photo: Monica Parnham

Who was Richard Wright and why was he important?

Richard Wright was America's first nationally acclaimed and best-selling African-American author. His 1940 groundbreaking novel 'Native Son' shocked the country because of its raw brutality, its straight up depiction of Black male powerlessness and subsequent rage, while at the same time proposing solutions for a more equal society. The book became the first by an African-American as a Book-of-the-Month selection. His work influenced post WWII authors, has been translated into dozens of languages, and continues to be a classic of American literature. In his later writings from Paris, he never hesitated to denounce social and political issues, be they Black, Diaspora or Third World.

Why did you want to celebrate this anniversary and how did you get the idea for this original way of doing so?

I wanted to celebrate this anniversary because 50 years gone, Wright's work is still relevant today and is still studied in schools at all levels around the world. Even my French mother-in-law read it before I did! I also wanted to make a significant effort to mark the moment because for the past 16 years I have been talking about Richard Wright through my tours. I have repeated his very words so many times as I follow the same streets he did that I often can apply them to my own life; I summarize his challenges and obstacles experiences in such a way that people get a glimpse into Wright's intelligence as he interprets and makes sense of his surroundings, the events swirling around him, the philosophers and celebrities and other expats that colored his life and his work. He is a fascinating role model of a committed life and how choosing exile brings confrontation and revelation to that commitment. I think all expatriates can identify.

The idea came to me as I fretted over the fact that I wouldn't be in Paris at the end of November but couldn't, under any circumstances, let the occasion go by without my input. I am in the situation of many Wright fans who are far from his resting place but would like to say some words there, all the same.

Although Wright was an American expatriate, he later became
a French citizen. Why did he choose to do this?
I don’t know the precise reasons but it is certainly linked to the fact that he outright refused to ever return to America with his family because he didn’t want to expose his children to conditions in America he opposed. The birth of his second daughter, in Paris, allowed him to become a naturalized French citizen.

He seemed to make a few enemies in his lifetime and his daughter claims that he was murdered. Why was this?
Even before he left America, Wright had come under the scrutiny of the FBI. In 1942 certain passages in his book ‘12 Million Black Voices’ provoked J Edgar Hoover to authorize research on Wright and whether his background, writing etc could lead to national sabotage. In Paris, Wright only too pleased that his vision of himself as a responsible, committed writer fit right into the same concept France held of its own writers. He considered himself the conscience and voice of Black America and made it a point to speak out against America’s treatment of Blacks and against racism against American Blacks in Paris.

Although the French and European press was eager to interview him, certain American magazines refused to publish his pieces that were critical of America. Also, as an ex-Communist, during the McCarthy period of the 50s, informants were said to be at every café table. In fact, listening devices were allegedly found in his apartment. After his death, his daughter Julia Wright said that The State Department had collected abundant files on his activities. He was a writer who refused to lay his pen down in intimidation.

He died while consulting with a new doctor for an ongoing intestinal bug; his regular doctor was unavailable. The official reason given was a heart attack. No autopsy was performed, the name of the doctor and the clinic remain a mystery. His body was cremated shortly after.

Where did he live and work in Paris and what traces remain?

The Wright family first had an apartment in Neuilly, but from 1948 to 1959 their main residence became 14 Rue Monsieur le Prince, in the 6th district, near Luxembourg Gardens. He also had a farmhouse in the village of Ailly, in Normandy, then took up residence in an arts colony, the Moulin d’Ande, also in Normandy. Besides at home, like many writers he worked in cafes. One of his favorites for quiet writing was known as the Monaco, near the bottom of his street Monsieur-le-Prince. Another, where he socialized was Le Café Tournon – the hub of expatriate life in the 50s. The Tournon is still going strong, of course, as a restaurant and wine bar. They proudly display clippings from their heyday of the 50s which mention Wright and others.

An honorary plaque for Richard Wright was dedicated at his Monsieur-le-Prince residence in Februrary 9, 1992 during the African-Americans and Europe Conference. The conference was organized by the late Professor Michel Fabre, (the eminent Wright scholar, author of ‘From Harlem to Paris – Black Writers in Paris 1848-1960, founder of the Centre for African-American Studies at the Sorbonne), and Harvard University. The plaque was the first in Paris honoring an African-American. (The second is for Josephine Baker on Boulevard Edgar Quinet).

Photo: Alexis Smith

These venues make up part of your Walk the Spirit tours. Can you tell me a little about this venture, the reasons behind starting it and how it works today?
I started doing the tours after taking a class with Professor Michel Fabre in 1992, which opened my whole awareness to this history I knew very little about. I was already deeply interested in literature, history and Paris so incorporating Black history was a natural. With his book, ‘A Street Guide To Black Americans in Paris’, in hand, I started following the footsteps, beginning in my own neighborhood. Imagine my thrill to discover that Langston Hughes had lived mere blocks from me in the 17th! I snuck into the building, past the concierge and up to the sixth floor garret where he had written poetry. I mean, I sure couldn’t have done that anywhere else, and the connection was made. In my excitement I began sharing my findings with friends, who eventually asked me to give them a tour.

So, cue cards in hand, that’s how I started in 1994. This was before internet. I used to contact travel agents in the States by snail mail and they’d wonder why on earth anybody would be interested in Black history in Paris. Well, word of mouth and an article in the Wall Street Journal brought interested folks who were just as passionate and thrilled as I. Today, 16 years later, Walking The Spirit Tours offers in-depth walking tours and packages in the Latin Quarter, St.Germain-des-Pres and Lower Montmartre. In the past few years we’ve added a very popular Spirit of Black Paris bus tour that allows participants to take in so much more with minimum physical effort, including the Josephine Baker Place. It combines with the walking tour so that people can still get up close and familiar with the vibe of the Latin Quarter neighborhood – its market, shops, bookstores, institutions.

I have two guides who live in Paris and who do the tours on a regular basis but I also make the trip several times a year and do tours myself. I just had the privilege of laying out the bus tour route and doing a bus tour for the Toni Morrison Society biennial conference. As head of operations, I also create highly personalized itineraries for groups and individuals – it’s great fun to share my home of the heart.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Privatising imagination

I was happy to learn on Friday that the crime author Lalie Walker was acquitted of all charges in the trial that pitted her against the owners of the Marché Saint Pierre. The management at the tissue store had accused her of harming the image of the shop, simply because she had set one of her stories, 'Au malheur de dames', in the establishment and had not changed its name.

Earlier this year, I had walked past the store with the author Cara Black and mentioned the case to her. She was intruigued because she too had set a scene here. In her story, 'Murder in Montmartre', the heroine Aimée Leduc manages to escape from her pursuers by diving into the delivery chute of the shop. The chute (see Cara Black's picture above) was just an interesting feature that she had noticed when researching the story, and which she had been keen to incorporate into the novel.

If the outcome of this trial had been different, would she have had to become more careful about using such features in the future? The President of the Communist group on the Paris City council had an interesting reaction after the announcement of the verdict, declaring that there had been a "risque d'une privatisation de l'imaginaire tout à fait inacceptable" (a completely unacceptable risk of privatising imagination).

Is the subject so clear cut though? The worlds of the imaginary and the real in cities often seem to overlap, and sometimes the fictional seems more relevant than the factual. We all know where Sherlock Holmes lived, but do we know where Arthur Conan Doyle lived? Paris is no different, and walking tours 'in the footsteps of the Inspector Maigret' are common, giving you the opportunity to see where he lived (it has no front door!), eat the sandwiches he ate and drink the same beer.

The idea of experiencing a city at once in its physical and fictional state is one that fascinates me. Authors have cast magic before us, telling stories from stones, bringing life back to the dead, and perhaps transforming cities forever. The imaginary may well therefore have more power, but this certainly does not mean that we should restrict its use. The right conclusion was written here in a court in Paris, and the only losers are the owners of the Marche Saint Pierre. They had demanded 2 million euros in damages, but ended up having to pay the author 3,000 euros themselves!

Friday, 19 November 2010

Invisible Paris Walks - now available on Windows 7 smartphones!

The Invisible Paris self-guided walks, previously available in PDF format and as downloadable iPhone guides are now also available for those with Windows 7 based smartphones (see screenshots below)! The three tours currently available are the following:
  • From Sainte Rita to Saint Lazare - women in Paris
  • Contemporary architecture
  • Street art in Belleville
Click here to download the walks in Windows 7 format.
Click here to download the walks in iPhone format.

The smartphone versions of the walks are not free downloads, but for just a couple of dollars, euros or pounds, you get all three walks and access to any future walks I publish (and I'm working on it, I promise!). If you don’t have a smartphone though, don’t forget that PDF versions of the walks are still available - for free - at

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Something for the Weekend (19th – 21st November)

Despite the probable post-Beaujolais hangover, Paris will be staying up late this weekend. Find out why - along with the full list of other suggestions - on the Paris Weekends blog.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

La maison de Jean Veber

At the end of a row of attractive townhouses on the Boulevard Pereire stands one that seems to have come from another place and another time. If this is the case, it is also true for the home's original owner, the painter and caricaturist, Jean Veber.

Born in Paris in 1864, Jean Veber was trained as a painter before being tempted by his brother Pierre into producing caricatural sketches for various publications. As a fervent patriot, Veber began by attacking Otto von Bismarck before moving onto his favourite target – the English.

Veber worked at a time when anglophobia was prevalent in France, but the behaviour of the British army in the Transvaal during the Boer war gave him ample material to work with. He was particularly scathing of the 'reconcentration camps' they created, and was quick to contrast his brutal images with the misleading words of the British leaders. Veber went as far as sketching the features of Edward VII on the buttocks of Britannia, an image that was censured and which not surprisingly caused something of a scandal.

Lord Kitchener portrayed as a toad, praising the 'pacifying' effect of the reconcentration camps.

Veber himself would later gain first-hand experience of war, signing up himself for action in the First World War despite being aged 50 when the conflict broke out.
He published a book of letters and memoirs about his experiences in the trenches called J’y étais – un peintre dans la guerre which was much praised and is still available today. He was eventually discharged in 1918 after being severely gassed, an affliction which would eventually bring about his death – in this house on the Boulevard Pereire – in 1928.

If Veber's life and work has been well documented, little has been written about the house in which he lived. Today there is just a small and barely legible plaque marking this building out as his home, and it doesn't seem to be earmarked as a heritage spot to protect. It is owned today by an architect, but remains in a pleasingly scruffy condition, irratating its smarter neighbours with its irreverence. What is most remarkable about the building though is the presence of a mashrabiya on the second floor. It is not clear why this feature is here, but then little about the building is ordinary.

The lower floors seem to be the living quarters, secondary in importance with their small windows, but the reason for this house's existence is the top floor studio with its mysterious mashrabiya and glass roof. Veber continued to paint throughout his life, producing a series of often odd and disturbing canvases, and this atelier would have been where he spent most of his time. He has been viewed as something of an inspiration to the surrealists and science-fiction writers who came after him, and looking at his home, it is easy to see why!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The ugliest sculpture in Paris?

I'm a self-proclaimed fan of brick, but I have never really been convinced by its usage in public art. A good example of the reason why can be seen with Pierre Sabatier's wall of lava next to the Porte de Champerret.

The installation is not without merit. The juxtaposition of forms and textures are interesting, and there is a certain organic feel to the piece - especially now that nature has clamped itself onto the creation - but the ensemble to my eyes is ugly almost to the point of repulsiveness.

Perhaps it is unfair to class the creation as a sculpture at all. It was placed here in the early 1970s, and was part of an urban regeneration project that also included the covering over of the périphérique and the construction of an underground exhibition centre. It is a fully-functional wall, marking the outer limit of a small park (more a kind of scrubby urban plot that attracts only city outcasts), but it is impossible to overlook the sculptural aspect of the piece.

But just what are these strange forms? Sitting alongside the Square de l'Amerique latine, the wall is apparently supposed to represent the Andes mountain range, with its peaks, depressions and volcanic flows. An interesting idea, but one that seems to have born poorly executed. Perhaps though it is simply a creation that has come to the end of its life-span. The lava flow certainly looks today like a cast off from a low budget science-fiction filmset, and the brick wall is in a very sorry state.

At certain points chunks of brick are missing, but the biggest crime against the material is that several different colours have been used in the various repair jobs performed over the years. Diluted tags and grafitti have left traces across the surface, and even the lava seems to have been put in the wash with something of a clashing colour.

Can the artist be blamed for the condition of his creation 40 years after its installation? I find it difficult to believe that it was ever attractive, but it certainly could have been looked after better. I think it unlikely that it will get a second chance, but I imagine that few people would mourn its passing if it was replaced in its turn by another urban regeneration project.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Something for the Weekend (12th – 14th November)

A long weekend for many in France this weekend following a public holiday on the 11th, but also one that promises to be cold and wet. Perfect then for a weekend of crime novels, film noir, prisons and science fiction!

See the list of events on the Paris Weekends blog.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Some corner of a foreign field

When Rupert Brooke wrote his poem 'The Soldier', the foreign field he imagined would surely not have looked like this. It is easy to picture his field as a burned and toxic land, today reclaimed by nature and heavy with oppressive silence, but altogether more difficult to think of his soldier reposing in a rumbling corner of Parisian suburbia.

So why are there 29 identical graves here in the Levallois municipal cemetery,
lined up to attention beneath a gently fluttering Union flag? Rich earth it may be, squeezed between a noisy railway line and the bustle of building sites, but it is far from the classic image of isolated military cemeteries.

Far too from the scenes of battle and the trenches, far from the regiments and far from home. These are the graves of 29 victims from the British Commonwealth (including individuals from Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies and Canada), whose deaths spread over a period of six years (from 1914 to 1920, two years after the end of the war). How did they end up here? The answer is the Hertford British hospital situated on the other side of the town.

These were those who were battered and broken by war, but who didn't turn to dust on the battlefield. G.F. Roberts, a name that strikes a personal note, was a driver. B. Button died only a month after war was declared, but George Fernandez, an Australian, died five days after the Armistace was signed. There is even a female nurse from the British Red Cross here, Olive Craggs, who died in 1915.

All would have been taken injured from the field, and placed in a bed at the Hertford hospital. Theirs was a death not instant, but one which gave them time to think of the sights and sounds of home. Like millions of others though, theirs was a life which nevertheless ended, hearts at peace, in some corner of a foreign field

'The Soldier'
Rupert Brooke

IF I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Marche des Ternes

I love Paris when it does scruffy. I was born in English suburbia, and my upbringing was a voyage around the ordinary, a trip decorated with poor town planning and minimal frills. I guess that this is the kind of environment where the inner me still feels most at home.

Paris, with its highly polished shops and tempting displays of beautifully crafted goods, is of course a constantly heart-lifting experience, but deep down I know that I'm an intruder in this world. Naturally then I was delighted to discover the Marche des Ternes, a place that positively breathes the homely banalities of my youth.

The building that houses the market is already more typical of a post-war British city than of a district in Paris that is in shouting distance of the Champs Elysées. A 1970s block in a colour that the French would describe as 'caca d'oie' (duck crap), it can hardly be classed as attractive, but the market is clearly comfortably installed inside.

Inside and outside. There seems to be no principal entrance to the market, but on all four sides of the block it spills out into the streets, with tables from a cafe or signs for a flower stand occupying the surrounding pavement. I'm drawn inwards, unremarked, but not unwelcome. I can take my time, wander around, compare prices. Nobody here is forcing their daily specials on me.

"Libre service, servez vous", announces a sign, not forgetting to also politely tag on a 'merci'. Onions, potatoes, garlic overflowing from boxes, pots bubbling with the recipe of the day and sausages hung up on strings. Colours clash throughout, reflected in mirrors, burning in the gleaming glow of artificial light.

In all honesty it's a mess, and yet its undeniably human. Nobody arrives here because they've seen it mentioned in a guide book, but instead it is an integral part of the community in which it sits. A market, not a supermarket, but equally as useful and convenient.

Choosing fruit from one of the stalls, I don't feel like I'm sullying the produce just by standing near it and I don't have the sensation that I've somehow made the wrong choice by not selecting whatever is this season's star product. As unpretentious as its decor, it feels like home to me.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Something for the Weekend (5th – 7th November)

With November being the ‘Mois de la Photo’ in Paris, the city will be home to a whole host of exhibitions as well as the large ‘Salon de la Photo’ this weekend. You'll also find a few other events listed on the Paris Weekends blog to keep you warm as the days get shorter.
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