Monthly Archives: June 2012

Bars, brothels and the bals-musette…

THE SECRET PARIS OF THE 30S, by Braissaï, English translation published in 1976 (original Le Paris secret des années 30)

Bookcase 7, shelf 2, book 22

From one classic to another, and I was tempted to say that they couldn’t be more different – except that the night is a central feature of both. Oh, all right; they couldn’t be more different. This book is also a legend, though, an inspiration for generations of photographers and stylists (If you know The September Issue, the documentary about Vogue magazine, you’ll know that Grace Coddington uses it to spark a series of fashion shots).

Brassaï (it’s a nom de plume derived from his birthplace, now Brasov; he was actually Gulya Halasz) was a Hungarian immigrant in Paris, whose love of photography developed from his love of the city at night – and his first book, Paris de Nuit, was published in 1933. It was a great success…

But one of the reasons for the success of this particular title is the text. Some photographers can write; some cannot – and Brassaï falls wholeheartedly into the first category. His text combines perfectly with the images, creating a complete picture of a vanished world. This isn’t surprising, really; he actually started as a writer who used his photographs to illustrate articles. Brassaï’s photographs are much more than illustrations, though. They stand alone, a highly atmospheric testimony to a world which disappeared not long after they were taken.

Brassaï loved the hidden side of the city, and its more secretive inhabitants. These might be people whose occupation was purely nocturnal, such as the cesspool cleaners above, or those who chose to live mostly by night, the prostitutes, petty criminals and barflies. His concise and misleading reputation is as a photographer of streetwalkers, but these shots are a relatively small section of his work. Of course they’re in here; they were an essential part of the nocturnal city which he documents. And so are the madams…

This is the madam of Suzy,

‘…a small brothel in the Quartier Latin, on the Rue Grégoire des Tours. At night, with its coloured windows, it looked like a chapel lit up for midnight mass … At Suzy, a bell went off as the client opened the door, and he found himself in a kind of booth, as though he had gone to vote. The madam appeared with a wide, salacious grin. She would clap her hands and call out, “Choosing time, ladies!”…’

There was another side to her (but of course), and Brassaï came to know her better and was invited to spend an evening behind the scenes, celebrating her saint’s day. She also had a little salon, quite apart from the ‘work rooms’ upstairs ‘for good clients who just want to drink some champagne with the girls’…

That conforms to the shorthand image of Brassaï’s work, but there’s much more to it. His portraits of individuals are wonderful: people like La Môme Bijou, an extraordinary bejewelled drinker; the beggar in his top hat, and again with his cat Doudou; the cross-dressing drinkers at Le Monocle… There are photographs taken in an opium den, behind the scenes at the Folies-Bergère, at the Foire du Trône, in gay bars and at the notorious artists’ balls. This was a largely undocumented Paris, well known to its habituées but brought to a much wider audience by Brassaï.

Generally, he worked alone. He did run into problems but not as many as might have been anticipated, given that at the time ‘no one had heard of night photography’. He expresses surprise both at how many doors were opened to him, and at not being shot. The police hauled him off for questioning only three times: they ‘refused to believe that anyone might want to take pictures by the canal at three a.m., and were more inclined to think I had been dumping a body into the greenish water.’ He eventually took to carrying some finished photographs to prove the truth of his tale should it prove necessary.

And through all the book runs an elegiac tone, most apparent in the more general shots of the city in the dark. From up on one of the towers of Notre-Dame, a gargoyle watches over the night-time city; crowds on the terasse of a brightly lit cafe are indistinguishable as individuals from Brassaï’s viewpoint high in the building opposite, and a cop and passerby exchange words under a street light.

Even at the time the photographs were originally taken, there was an air of teetering on the edge of an abyss. Away from the night-time streets, and frequently on them, this was a world of uncertainty and inflation, of widely polarised political opinions and the build up to the Spanish Civil War. Plus, of course, the Occupation – often referred to as ‘les années noires’, the dark years – was just around the corner…

I’m so glad the roll of the dice picked this book for me to read. I’d not looked at it for a while, and it was like running into an old friend.

Someone said to me that I seemed to enjoy all the books the dice selected for me, and questioned whether or not I’d just been picking my favourites. No, I haven’t, but of course the dice have been ‘selecting’ books I like. They’ve already been pre-selected. Anything I don’t like goes straight to Oxfam; not much chance of that happening to this one. Now that would be an exercise of faith, reading only from local charity shops. Hmm…

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Alas, poor Fred

FRED, by Posy Simmonds, published 1987

Bookcase 5, shelf 3, book 7

This book is a legend. I love it. I can even recite parts of it, but that’s not surprising: it’s not the longest work in the literary canon. It’s magnificent.

Ahem.

Yet again the dice have given me a children’s book. They keep landing on bookcase 4, shelf 3, and that’s where I have some kids’ books. But they’re not all children’s titles; it’s also where I have my bandes dessinées and Fred resides with those, next to Posy Simmonds’ other books such as Tamara DreweGemma Bovery and the collections of strips she did for the Guardian.

So what – or who, rather – is Fred? Well, if you don’t already know, Fred is a cat. But he’s not just any cat, as becomes evident after his death.

Sophie and Nick, the children to whom Fred ‘belongs’, are very sad about the death of their beloved pet.

He didn’t do much (he liked sleeping, as you may have gathered), but they loved him deeply, and most of the people they tell think of him fondly too: ‘He used to sleep on my dustbin’, ‘We’ll miss him, he used to sleep on our wall…’

But then night comes, and Sophie is awakened by a strange noise outside. Not surprisingly, she is so astonished by what she sees that she wakes her brother and drags him into the garden. Well, it’s not every day you see a cat in a top hat, and one that looks normal – in as much as that is possible. It’s Mrs Spedding’s Ginger, in fact, dressed like a Victorian undertaker.

Sophie approaches. ‘Puss… puss… ‘ and is immediately rebuffed: ‘I BEG YOUR PARDON!’ This is not a world in which you talk down to cats, because they talk back.

Especially this night.

It is, you see, Fred’s funeral. That’s his proper funeral, not the one the family had earlier, the one where they buried him underneath the buddleia and Sophie made a little paper gravestone with ‘Fred’ written on it. That was hopelessly inadequate. Because Fred, it transpires, was a rock star.

Posy Simmonds once described him as the ‘Roy Orbison of the car world’. (His band, incidentally, are The Heavy Saucers.)

A large crowd of mourners, including two dogs and three mice as well as the two humans, gather for the ceremony. Most carry flowers, some clutch laurel wreathes, a sniffling kitten holds an album sleeve. Everyone joins in the funeral song (‘Meeeow! Meooooo! O Caterwauley wailey-woe!) and, one by one, they lie flowers on the grave. Sophie and Nick don’t have anything, so they contribute – Sophie makes Nick contribute, that is – Nick’s ‘special wabbit’, his soft toy.

And then they all go off to the funeral tea in the dustbins, it being the eve of rubbish day, taking a short cut through the children’s house. The celebrations are beautifully drawn, as is everything, with meticulous attention to detail – the teddy-boy cats in brothel creepers, a couple of mice in leather jackets (while I’m on details, the endpapers are worth looking at, too). All drawn, of course, with Posy Simmonds’ wit and touch, which avoids the twee, the sentimental and the cloying. Completely.

The noise of the wake brings an inevitable end to the ceremony as it wakes up the street (‘Oh, those blessed cats!’, ‘What an unholy din!’, Here, I’ve got a saucepan of water…’). The cats disappear and the children trail back to bed.

And in the morning? It’s all very odd. There’s a trail of muddy paw prints through the house. The daisies have all been picked. Nick’s rabbit is in the garden – and Sophie’s improvised grave marker has been replaced.

(The observant will notice, looking back at the scene, a ginger cat walking away along the wall. Mrs Spedding’s Ginger, no doubt.)

Riding into the recent past

STOPPING-TRAIN BRITAIN, A RAILWAY ODYSSEY by Alexander Frater, photographs by Alain Le Garsmeur; published 1983

Bookcase 9, shelf 3, book 8

I have to confess a weakness for trains.

No, nothing truly embarrassing like a tendency to fondle steam engines or collect large pieces of railwayana: I just like trains. Admittedly not the 7.15 to Blackfriars, but happily those commuting days have gone since I upped sticks and left London with cries of glee and a big party. Now, when I use a train, it’s the Cambrian Coast Line. By a curious coincidence that is one of the railway lines featured in this book, which I encountered years and years before I ever dreamed of actually using the line myself.

This book grew out of  a series of articles in the Observer. Alexander Frater wrote for them and, trains or no trains, I would have picked this book up anyway because he had written it. I often reread his Beyond the Blue Horizon – following the route of Imperial Airways Eastbound Empire service – and Chasing the Monsoon, which does just what it says on the tin. He’s an excellent travel writer, curious and sympathetic, and his style is one I find clear and equally sympathetic.

Stopping-Train Britain was written at a time when many local railway lines were still under the shadow of more Beeching-like cuts. Cars were dominant; by and large you only used a train if there was no alternative, or if you needed to commute to school or work. Green issues were not a factor and oil would last for ever or, if not forever, for the foreseeable future. Local railways either had no future or only a limited one, and an elegiac note pervades the book. ‘Many rural railwaymen,’ says Frater in the introduction, ‘are convinced that within a decade or so, they will have no trains left to operate.’ Now, three decades on, the Settle to Carlisle line is secure; the Cambrian Coast Line is busy with people going to the doctors or out to a celebratory lunch or visiting the market in Machynlleth…

This is a journey back into a recent past.

Frater started off rather romantically – he always does; it’s one of the things I love about his writing: a realism, but a romantic realism – with Edward Thomas’s Adelstrop ringing in his ears. (‘When the country trains have finally gone, that, I suspect, is how many of us will choose to remember them – the last survivors of an age of innocence,’ he adds.) He also started rather haphazardly, which is why the lines he and Alain Le Garsmeur took are somewhat random, both the famous and the more obscure. And they’re not spread across the country either; there’s a collection in the north-west, a couple in Scotland and here in Wales, one in Norfolk and one looping around north London.

But the lines they followed weren’t always like those of Seigfried Sassoon’s or Edward Thomas’s pre-WW1 journeys. A surprising amount remained of those rural lines alive with birdsong, of small trains pottering through woods or over high moorland, but the more modern world had intruded. One line largely owed its survival to the transport of nuclear waste from Windscale (aka Sellafield); another ran though a bleak landscape of abandoned mills and dilapidated housing. And whatever the landscape, the photographs are just right.

Each journey is much more than a simple record of a trip from A to B. It’s the people as well as the lines, the people who both work and travel on rural railways.

Travelling by train gives you time to observe, time to reflect and time to chat, and it’s particularly the latter that brings this book to such vivid life. Frater discovered a community of railway people he liked and admired, people with ‘a strong sense if identity … They had good stories to tell. Patagonia? Who needs it? For a writer there are equally rich veins waiting to be worked in East Anglia or the Western Highlands.’ The other thing he discovered was a deep admiration for the railways:

‘And the more they talked, the more I became aware of the astonishing complexity and richness of railway history, lore and language. It slowly dawned on me that the little diesel rattling along between, say, Shrewsbury and Hereford, is only doing so because for a century and a half generations of engineers have been obsessively solving millions of problems in the cause of a single principle. Every artefact … has been considered, reduced to its logical elements and then resolved, often with surprising elegance and simplicity.’

Maybe I should start collecting railwayana (the spellchecker keeps changing that to ‘railwayman’ – now there’s a thought)… or maybe I should simply celebrate the fact that those railwaymen were wrong when they predicted a fairly swift end for rural rail. Thirty years on from the publication of  Stopping-Train Britain I can take a ten-minute walk down the hill, raise my hand to stop the train and go and do my shopping.

Hooray!