Monthly Archives: November 2015

No words. Or too many…

I’ve only been to Paris once in my life.

It was in 1984, when I and my school cohorts were in the middle of our French O levels. We took a coach from Kent down to Calais, took the ferry (this was years before Eurostar), then drove down to the City of Lights. We stayed in a grotty hotel just off the Rue de Clichy, a stone’s throw from the Folies-Bergère – about forty from my all-girls’ grammar, plus about the same number from another, co-ed school somewhere in the north of England.

I remember the bustle of Montmartre, and the contrasting stillness of the Sacré Coeur. Touring the Louvre: the crowd of people around the, in the flesh, strangely tiny Mona Lisa; sitting outside in the coach sharing a baguette and a round of Camembert from the market with our tour guide. (Best. Lunch. Ever.) The gardens of Versailles (which is where I was in the photo below), and the chamber of mirrors. A conversation with an old astrologer in the square outside the Pompidou centre, who remarked on my deep blue ski pants – ‘Jupiter!’ – and was delighted when I turned out to be une Sagittaire.


We were going to head to the Latin Quarter for dinner. Unfortunately, the coach breaking down, a depot fire, the resulting boredom coupled with vast quantities of cheap vin rouge, the unexpected checking-in of a hockey team and all that implies for sixteen-year-old female hormones, unseasonal snow, and a gastric bug that went through our party like, well, a gastric bug, resulted in the rest of the trip being a bit of a blur. (Some of our parents attempted, unsuccessfully, to sue. And when the same tour guide happened, totally coincidentally, to be on our A-level art class trip to Amsterdam a couple of years later, she greeted us with ‘Oh no…not you lot again!’ Yes, we were that memorable.)

Over the years, every now and again, I’ve kept meaning to go back to Paris. There are so many things I didn’t get to see properly. The Tour Eiffel, obviously. The Champs-Élysées. Notre Dame. The Musée Gustave Moreau. The flea markets (CHOSES BRILLANTES!!!). Somehow, circumstances have always conspired to get in the way. But the rather unpromising outcome of that other trip never put me off, and still hasn’t.

Why am I telling you any of this? Because what a place means to anyone will depend on many things. Who they are, what they’ve done in that place.

Right now, after the terrible events of last Friday night, many people for whom Paris means romance, or culture, or education, or meeting up with friends and enjoying food, conversation and good times, or simply home….are in shock and mourning. I won’t link to any of the news stories here; you’ve seen them, ad nauseam, over the last few days. Neither am I about to speculate on the ‘appropriate’ retaliation; we’re getting rather too much of that right now, as well.

When anyone dies, it takes time to get used to the loss. When a collective tragedy like this hits, it also takes time. Time which some people will claim we don’t have. I recall being online just after 9/11: the shock, the outrage, the anger. People wanted to blame something, anything, for the atrocity they’d witnessed.

But there was also, first and foremost, the grief. How we deal with death has been one of the big questions ever since we became human.

The shrines – candles, flowers, stuffed toys, written messages – at the sites of the attacks are becoming the default way for people in our culture to respond to the deaths of people they may not have known, but feel a connection to, a need to acknowledge. Perhaps the first big outpouring of grief in this way here in Britain was the banks of tributes that carpeted Kensington Gardens in the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, but it wasn’t unknown before then. People called it, and still do, over-emotional and even tacky, but it obviously strikes a very deep chord.

Social media has also been responding in its own way. Cartoonists and artists of all stripes, recalling the Charlie Hebdo killings of January this year, have created their own tributes. Perhaps the most tweeted and shared of all of them is this image from designer Jean Julien:


There have been calls to ‘pray for Paris’ – and the response that prayer is the last thing Paris needs, and that it’s more about love, life and champagne. But I think both are appropriate. We need to affirm the power of faith, the real faith, whatever its names or forms, that reaches out to our fellow humans in unity, against the warping of belief that only destroys. And we need to re-affirm what they were trying to destroy, which is love and life and champagne and (literally in this case) rock n’ roll, and people coming together and being human together. We need prayers and affirmations and defiant love and, as Mr Rogers famously said his mother told him, to look for the helpers. We need candles and open doors and the assurance that the people whose lives were torn apart on Friday night mattered, and that all of us matter, more than any doctrine or ideology.

Words are cheap. Many words will be spoken about this, I’m sure. Retaliation more destructive than words has already been unleashed. Bombs have been dropped, doors slammed, hate spewed. Before any more of that happens, perhaps we need to stop…breathe…think.

Two years after my trip to Paris, I started A-level French – for a few months (it was my fourth subject, which proved to be too much). At that level, French ceases to be about la famille Lefêvre, and starts to be about social issues.

France, having held territory in North Africa, has had a fair minority of Muslims for some time, and like many immigrants in many places, they’ve often not been treated particularly well. In one lesson we were played this song, which I recalled this weekend – and, by the wonders of the Internet, managed to find. It’s a reminder that there are people out there who’ll be blamed, sadly, for the evil of a tiny minority of people who identify with their religion; and who, in places we forget about, are themselves becoming the victims of this unholy conflict. Let’s not add to that.

So here’s that song – and a rough translation of the lyrics, in as much sixth-form French as I can recall:

‘Saïd and Mohamed’ – Francis Cabrel

She changes the hotel linens
Fingerprints on the trashcans
Little swallow among the crows
Singing ‘Desperado’
Me, I’m sleeping late
Laid low by the sun
On the other side of the corridor
She’s making the mirrors sing

I spent one hour of her life
An hour under the Algerian sun
Under the tracks of the planets
There are moment you regret
Behind her half-closed eyes
I saw more grey than rose
And when I left,
I knew I’d lost something

Her kids do nothing at school
Their pockets full of tubes of glue
And nobody gives you any help
When your name’s Saïd or Mohamed
It’s a corrugated sky
It’s the third-floor window
It’s your ears full of the neighbours yelling
And the hours of poor sleep

But if anyone around
Understands the evil French Muslim
Under the tracks of the planets
He’s right to be worried
Before their eyes explode
They’ll overdose on grey
And when I left, I knew
We could be doing something

You send ten francs
For the kids in India
Because you see pictures that disturb you
You send ten francs
For the kids elsewhere
Because you see pictures that scare you
And you pass her by outside your place…

When I returned to Marseille
Her friends had no news
Too many swallows, or too many crows
She had to find another ghetto
And I know too well
She’ll be changing the linens in another hotel
More fingerprints on another trashcan
On the other side of another corridor
She’ll be making the mirrors sing…

The moments that change us

The Magpie was down in the West Country a few weeks ago, following the ley lines (OK, the A303) to Glastonbury and back. On the way, Mr Magpie and myself took in some of the more usual places of interest (like Stonehenge and Avebury), and a few more unusual ones (like Watership Down, below – yes, the book is set in a real place, not far from Newbury in Berkshire. And yes, though you can’t see them in this photo, there are rabbits there! I just caught the scuts of some small white tails moving around on the steeper part of the slope.)


At some point on the road home, I can’t recall precisely where, the song ‘Solsbury Hill’ by Peter Gabriel came on the radio. While I’m not a big Genesis fan, there’s always been something about this song. It wasn’t until I got back and was thumbing through a book I’d bought along the way – The Gentle Arts of Aquarian Magic, by Marion Green – a great little book if you can find it) that I came across reference to Bladud, the legendary British king, who’s supposed to have been cured of leprosy by bathing where he saw his pigs wallowing, and so became the founder of the healing spa the Romans called Aquae Sulis, and which we know as Bath. Bladud’s royal seat was said by some to have been the Iron Age hill fort that sits atop….Solsbury Hill. Which contrary to popular belief is nowhere near Salisbury (which we also visited), or Silbury (which we drove past, just outside Avebury) – it’s at Batheaston, just north of Bath.

Which was about when I started kicking myself for not having looked it up sooner. As you can gather, the Magpie quite likes visiting places that get a mention in artistic works, whatever the medium. While we did visit Bath (which is much like Seattle in that travel guides, deceptively, fail to mention the steepness of some of the hills the tourist must endure…thanks, guys!), we stayed in the city and didn’t go out in that direction. Ah, well, you can’t see everything. (And we did also get to see Lacock Abbey, where parts of the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Eerily, there are statues in the Great Hall that sport, no kidding, wizard hats…dating back to 1755. The National Trust blames time travel.)

Anyway. The song, ‘Solsbury Hill’, describes what sounds like a mystical experience on top of the hill one night. Gabriel said, when interviewed about the lyrics, that the song is about ‘being prepared to lose what you have for what you might get’. Because of its timing – it was his first single after leaving Genesis – it’s naturally been connected with his leaving the band, but it can be more broadly applied to any situation where you experience what Joseph Campbell, describing the hero’s journey, refers to as The Call to Adventure: when something happens and you realise that if you respond, life can’t be the same again.

Myth and story, Campbell knew, is full of moments like that. Moses encountering the burning bush. Arthur and his knights experiencing the vision of the Grail. Luke Skywalker meeting Obi-Wan. Gandalf informing Frodo Baggins that he’s in possession of the One Ring (and years earlier, a bunch of dwarves turning up at his uncle Bilbo’s door). Hagrid turning up at the door of the hut on the island and saying ‘Yer a wizard, Harry’. They’re the moments that initiate the action of a story.

But in our own lives, too, we have moments that set us off on a new course. In my own life, I’m thinking of being in the arena at Earls Court in 1994, watching Pink Floyd play ‘Comfortably Numb’, standing next to my first husband and knowing, for certain, that our marriage was over. Of standing on a bridge over a river in Norfolk on Christmas Day in 2004 and knowing that someone in my life had to play a much smaller role for me to survive as my own person. Of being at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle in April, 2005, and knowing this was where I belonged.

Sometimes, of course, it’s not a particular moment, but a series of small increments that lead you towards the tipping-point. Sometimes it’s only in retrospect that you realise there was a point at which everything changed, or at any rate, you did. For me, at least, I can often point to particular times and say: Here. Yes. This was when it happened.

We tend, as human beings, to remember and ritualise and mark the big, red-letter events in our lives: birth, marriage, death, retirement, all the things they make greeting cards for. But the smaller moments that can pass unrecognised (at the time) are worth acknowledging too. Because, while they may not always be as dramatic as letters from Hogwarts – or, for that matter, nocturnal hilltop encounters with taking eagles – they’re the moments that change us.

(Note: No, I have no idea what any of this video is about, or what the significance of the girl in the cabbage dress is. Mr. Magpie suggests, unkindly, that this may be related to another green plant Mr. Gabriel might have been imbibing at the time. It’s a very cool dress, though.)