Category Archives: Paris

Paris in the Autumn – DADA, Punk and Pistachio Eclairs

It was strange to be back in Paris, not least because I’d had several months of clean sea air and was used to feeling constantly and rather pleasantly damp from a mixture of sea swimming and beach walking.  Just the day before I’d been swimming in the North Sea and now here I was on the steps of Sacre Coeur! (Below is a photo taken from the 8th floor of my air bnb building.)

One of my aims this time in Paris was to explore the live poetry/open mic scene a little more thoroughly.  I began by attending the launch of the latest issue of “Maintenant” a New York DADA magazine.  It was an extraordinary evening from start to finish, down in the basement of the Cave on rue Marcadet.   I’m a great fan of experimental poetry and pushing boundaries and could appreciate that a lot of what went on was doing exactly that.  The main joy of the evening, however,  was discovering new poets who had an innovative and exciting way with words while still remaining accessible, and who you are unlikely to come across on the page as they are largely performance poets.  Boni Joi, an American poet, gave a muscular, dramatic performance, full of the flavours of Europe.  The biggest discovery for me was Henrik Aeshna.  Glittering eyes, a feral presence and the feeling that anything could happen as he threw jets of whiskey around and pages of poetry across the stage, but amidst the posturing there were moments of pure poetic beauty.  I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for bad boys, you know, that Kurt Cobain, Pete Doherty, Sid Vicious kind of thing…

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Aeshna is described as  “the anti-prophet of SchizoPoP Manifesto.  Rebel, intense, provocateur; bastard, visionary vandal, anti-anti-hero with a thousand faces. Profane pirate of signs and Poltergeist poet of inspirational carpe diem. All and Nothing. Henrik Aeshna’s school notebook poems are radically innovative – a wild stream of words and sensations, an unstructured syntax flowing out of the musical mud and fierce effervescence of Free Jazz, Post-Punk, Avant-Garde & Experimental Cinema ( Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, Shuji Terayama, Jonas Mekas, etc. ), photography and street art, Beat Poetry, Dada-Surrealism & Situationism, and finding echoes in the travel journals and raging notebooks of outlaw adventurers such as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, Rimbaud, Villon, Li Po & Basho, Artaud, William Burroughs & Arthur Cravan…” .  To read more of this astounding description of his work and some sample poems go to: https://tsunamibooks.jimdo.com/poets-in-english-2011-issue/henrik-aeshna/

Other artists banged the on-stage piano in a brutal manner, used post-its to simulate copulation and enacted a rather engaging play across the room.  The evening ended in true DADA style with the final artist rubbing sweets on his genitals (yes, really, pants down stuff).  There was a point, but probably not one to share…

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My next venture was long-standing open-mic night Spoken Word at Au Chat Noir, a typically grungey and grafittied bar in Belleville, the old working class district which is now, with Oberkampf, the height of hip.  Spoken Word describes itself as a home for “creatives and lost anglophones”.  The majority of open-micers are American and the flavour tends to be quite young, political, stream of consciousness style readings. The emphasis tends to be much more on performance than it is in the UK.  One of the featured artists was Jennifer Blowdryer, who used to head up a punk band in New York in the 70s.  She was great fun, belting out songs and reading an essay about Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor from her new book.  The venue was an atmospheric basement space, with the calmest member of the audience by far being a short-eared rabbit who surveyed all that went on with a buddha-like tranquillity.  I read a couple of poems from Lumière to spread the word as it was thanks to my 2016 Arts Council funded residency in Paris that this pamphlet, a tribute to Paris’ cinematic heritage, came into being.

https://www.hedgehogpress.co.uk/product/sue-burge-lumiere-pre-order/

For my third and final exploration I went back to Culture Rapide, another grungey, graffitied bar in Belleville where I had read embryonic Lumière poems back in May 2016.  This meant I wasn’t heckled onto stage with cries of “Virgin! Virgin!” like other terrified newbies.  My slot followed Gertrude, a fabulous French transvestite who sang a song about working girls in Montmartre, resplendent in fishnets, beret and little black skirt.  And following me was the ubiquitous Jenny Blowdryer!   The featured act was Abdel Kader Wawi, aka 5919, a Lebanese calligraffiti artist.  The stage became an art studio as old film posters were stuck up and then covered with the most beautifully executed Arabic calligraphy of words suggested by the audience.  While he worked, two friends played guitar and sang, giving the performance a gypsyish/Moorish slant.

All three experiences were extraordinary and I felt privileged to have been a fleeting part of them.

I did, of course,  venture outside and went on long, sunlit walks on most days, sometimes clocking up around 10km in a go, but a further two highlights were both part of the thriving  cabaret scene in Paris.

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It was Paris fashion week and I decided the only way to properly celebrate this was to go along to the Folies Bergère and see Jean-Paul Gaulthier’s Fashion Freak Show – a cabaret spectacular which he had created to showcase his life in fashion, like peeking into his private diary.  Looking back, I don’t know how I managed to get a ticket as both Marion Cotillard and Paloma Faith were in the audience, along with other celebrities who I had no hope of identifying and a plethora of gorgeous men and women who all seemed to have modelled for J-P.  The show was fantastic, full-on dancing, electrifying music (chosen by Nile Rodgers), fashion shows featuring Gaulthier’s iconic confections and some brilliant projections including images of the young J-P watching Falbalas,  the 1945 film which was one of his earliest inspirations.  The film starred the gorgeous Micheline Presle as a woman seduced by a Parisian designer.  One of the highlights of the show for me was to see Presle in the huge on-stage projections, playing Gaulthier’s influential grandmother.  In one of those strange coincidences that makes life the colourful pageant that it is, I had a drink later in the week with my friend Juliette, who runs the fabulous Cine-Balade company and whose walks were hugely inspirational when it came to writing Lumière.  She had just interviewed Presle as she works for an organisation which restores old black and white films and one of Presle’s is hopefully slated for re-release.  Juliette had also worked with the team restoring Rue des Cascades which was one of the many films I managed to see while in Paris.  This 1964 classic is a little reminiscent of Les Quatre Cents Coups, very much seen from a child’s point of view and set in the Belleville/Menilmontant area.  It focuses on a boy’s reaction to his mother’s new boyfriend, who just happens to be black.

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The second cabaret experience, a visit to the Lapin Agile, is probably one of my all-time favourite Parisian experiences in the 40 years since I’ve been coming to the city.  You need to be able to understand French pretty well to really appreciate it, but just to go in and imbibe the atmosphere is worth the ticket price.  It’s a famous Montmartre cabaret dating from the 19th century.  It was bought by Aristide Bruant, comedian and cabaret singer, in the early 20th century to save it from demolition.  It became a favourite spot for struggling artists and writers including Utrillo, Picasso, Apollinaire and Modigliani.

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It also became famous for launching unknown musicians and singers on to greater things – singers like Georges Brassens and Claude Nougaro.  The evening starts with five or six singers and musicians around a table singing together, the songs are all French in origin and some date back to the fifteenth century.  Each musician has a solo turn, maybe with an accordion, a piano, a guitar.  There are songs by Piaf, Brassens, Bécaud and many more including Charles Aznavour, who, in his youth,  lived just below Montmartre in the 9th arrondissement and who died very recently at the age of 94.  The venue is dark, atmospheric, with old wooden tables and benches and paintings on every inch of wall space, including a copy of Picasso’s famous Au Lapin Agile.

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Paris, as well as staying the same in so many ways, is also changing rapidly.  The prevalence of street art is one of the most noticeable changes.  A great deal of tagging, but also, among the ordinary, the extraordinary:

 

 

 

 

 

And what about that eclair?  Well, I’m well-known for my predilection for réligieuse, those wonderful chocolate or coffee cream-filled choux pastry concoctions, but decided I should try something different as I wandered round the Batignolles area which seemed to have a delightful bakery on every corner.  Green is one of my favourite colours and the brightness of this pistachio eclair seemed to be calling to me.  It was one of those moments where, as a Frenchwoman I know says, “time stops on your tongue.

 

INTO THE ARK PART II

 

All photos courtesy of  The Ark: Center for Experimentation Grace Ndiritu Laboratories d’Aubervilliers, Paris

It was a strange feeling walking into The Ark for my first cooking duty before the other participants arrived.  I had had a busy day in Paris, gadding about and generally enjoying the urban buzz. How would I cope with being in Paris, but not in Paris?  The Ark took place in experimental arts centre Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, my home for the next 8 days. Aubervilliers is a traditional, industrial, working class commune, with a high proportion of African inhabitants.  Coming out of the metro Aubervilliers-Pantin-Quatre-Chemins, you’ll see people sleeping rough, cheap ethnic shops, lots of graffiti.  It feels edgy, urban, and very familiar.  As I entered the Labos premises I gave in my phone, camera, passport and money and mentally committed myself to the experience.  And what an experience it was!  The Ark was the brainchild of visionary artist Grace Ndiritu and, apart from myself, there were fourteen other participants from all over the world – Slovenia, Japan, Russia, Panama, France and the US.

There’s a website in progress about the whole experience which might be of interest:

http://thearkcenterexperiment.com/THE-ARK

Our aims were to create a sustainable community, similar to Biosphere 2.  Built 25 years ago in the Arizona desert, Biosphere 2 was originally meant to demonstrate the viability of closed ecological systems to support and maintain human life in outer space, it lasted for one mission only as the eight scientists who lived there for two years experienced considerable difficulties.   The Ark referenced this project but in an artistic, creative and playful sense – exploring what it meant to be part of a community of likeminded people who are concerned about the planet and its future, or lack of it.  What does it mean to be living in the Anthropocene era, the period when we look back at humanity’s impact on the Earth and comprehend that we are the generation who has the most awareness of this impact.  How does it affect us physically and spiritually?  Everything about the week was geared towards this consciousness raising.

Here’s the Ark’s mission statement:

The Ark is a post-internet living research/live art project on an epic scale. Part – scientific experiment and part – spiritual experience and is inspired by Ndiritu’s own experiences during the last decade, living on and off in New Age communities. It focuses primarily on Plants, Biology, Shamanism, Meditation, Food, Philosophy, Communities, Education, Architecture, Future of Cities, Democracy and Activism. 

Each morning we had a meditation session and spiritual exercises after a silent breakfast.  These were led by Rebecca Farr whose warmth and generosity enveloped us all.  She was a giant security blanket in human form!

The sessions followed the ayurvedic chakra system,  which is very in touch with humanity’s connection with nature. In the kitchen I worked with chef Denise Palma Ferrante, who had designed an incredible menu.  If any of you have been on retreats or courses before you will know what to expect from the food – quite ordinary, carbohydrate heavy and, if you are a vegetarian, fairly predictable. This was its polar opposite – Denise had devised a vegan/vegetarian/raw food/macrobiotic menu featuring cuisine from all over the world – Korea, Japan, North Africa, Mexico, India…  It too, followed the chakra system but worked down the body instead of upwards.   My fellow sous-chefs were Maxime, an artist, and Julian, a radical gardener.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meat and fish were introduced once The Ark went public and we came out of our bubble and it was at this point I discovered I was, surprisingly, the only vegetarian.  According to organisations such as the European Health Parliament, the World Health Organisation, Oxford University research scientists and organisations concerned with climate change such as Climate Central, eating as little meat and fish as possible, if at all, will really help the planet to support a human population for longer.  Replenishing the ocean and using the land to grow crops for direct human consumption would reduce global hunger and water usage.  It takes 2,464 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. This is the equivalent of taking a seven minute shower every day for six months.  It takes 25 gallons of water to produce one pound of wheat.  It might also make us kinder, Ghandi said, ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spent most of my free time curled up with my writing pad, exploring ideas and experiences poetically, always my way of processing the world.  My favourite place to do this was the garden, an inspiring and imaginative urban space with herbs, vegetables and flowers.  Particularly striking were the giant cardooms and the whole space was enhanced by the presence of Josette and Margeurite, the resident hens.  The yard gates were the limit of our world and as we socialised in the garden in the evenings we could hear dance music from the theatre next door.  There was also quite a famous boxing club there and we watched the comings and goings from afar.

Every day there were talks by academics who were part of the community.  A very positive aspect of The Ark was that whatever our role outside, inside The Ark we worked together, both in and out  of our comfort zones.  We had talks on the biosphere, women’s co-operatives, Amazonian agricultural systems, identity, art, gender and the Anthropocene and the structure of cults.

In the afternoons we made masks and costumes, led by talented artists Urara Tsuchiya and Anna Tanner.  This was for the grand finale of The Ark project– a street carnival parade of extinct animals, reverse Darwinism in action.  I was on megaphone duty shouting slogans in French and English through the bemused but entertained streets of Aubervilliers, resplendent in tie-dye and blue face paint!

 

 

 

 

 

 

During The Ark I led a food poetry workshop.  The exercises I chose were designed to echo our experiences and the first entailed writing haiku.  This Japanese poetry form’s  minimalist, zen-like, focused style paralleled our spiritual practice. Haiku traditionally focus on a contemplation of nature and the seasons, very much in tune with our garden shrine and plant communication exercises. Haiku are deceptively simple, they are extraordinarily profound and can be tricky to write.  The second part of the workshop celebrated the never-ending, pleasure-giving stream of amazing food which came out of Denise’s kitchen.  Below is Gleb, our Russian academic, in mid-composition.

I used U A Fanthorpe’s  poem “Harvest Festival” as a prompt.  I was both impressed and moved by the poetry the group produced.  The Ark forced us to explore our vulnerabilities and poetry is an effective tool for such exploration.  Words, associations, emotions and ideas seem to bubble up from the unconscious.  In the workshop I also wanted to celebrate diversity by encouraging participants to write in their own languages and to enjoy the musicality of the unknown.  This led to poems in Japanese, Russian, Spanish and French.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also had a mini-cinema showing films which echoed the ethos and concerns of The Ark, such as Her, Into the Wild, La Jetee, Incendies, Solaris, Inception, Cloud Atlas, Kumare and many more – films which explore different ways of seeing the world, the future and survival.  One film which kept coming to mind was The Martian, partly because Biosphere 2 was geared towards exploring how such systems could be successfully established on other planets.  In some ways Biosphere 2 was revolutionary, but in others it was a disaster.  Perhaps the fact that William Burroughs was one of the movers and shakers behind it should have rung a few warning bells?

I loved the way our community developed – after no contact with the outside world  it was both a wonder and a shock to communicate with the staff at the Labos after days of smiling but not talking and then to venture further afield to interact with the local community.  By the end of the day we were also dancing like mad to a great selection of music, with Max and Julian DJ-ing  as the street parade was followed by a public barbecue.  The following day the Labos opened to the public for academic round-table discussions.  The timing was perfect, who knows what would have happened if we’d been Arkees for longer,  as over the week we had gone feral – enjoying the outdoor shower (it was a really hot week), spraying each other with water to cool down,  gradually losing our flip-flops to go barefoot, eating with our hands Southern Indian style, wearing more and more makeshift outfits to cope with the heat (I ended up wearing the bit of cloth I’d taken as a pillowslip as a sarong for most of the week!).

I cried, I laughed, I vented – there was a deep and eerie interconnectedness with everyone in the group and in everything we did.  I re-discovered a sense of fun and creative play, took risks and made, and am still making, extraordinary discoveries.  And I wrote and wrote and am still writing, including a kind of haiku journal – here are a few entries:

trees cast their doubles                                                         the scent of cedar

on the wall – a theatre set                                                   sage, tobacco and sweet grass

for shadow play                                                                       thickens the still air

                                        lavender flowers                                                    

                                        on yoghurt – calyx and corolla                          

                                        like fallen stars                                                        

The final evening, just as we had accepted that we would have to go back to reality, the heavens opened and there was an apocalypitc thunderstorm with torrential rain.  Perhaps it was a sign that we should stay in The Ark if we hoped to survive?!

Since the project, I have become fascinated with the idea of Dark Ecology.  Tim Morton, a philosopher,  coined the term in his book Dark Ecology – A logic for future co-extistence. Its basic message is that environmental catastrophe has already happened so we need to focus our energies in different ways in an age of radical awareness and, indeed, rethink the whole idea of ecology.  There’s a fascinating article below about Morton:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/15/timothy-morton-anthropocene-philosopher

If your appetite has been whetted and you want to explore further, check out

https://www.thevenusproject.com/

By a strange coincidence (although by now I should know there is no such thing!), my latest Poetry Book Society bundle included “Fast” by Jorie Grahame, here’s the book cover blurb:

In her first new collection in five years—her most exhilarating, personal, and formally inventive to date—Graham explores the limits of the human and the uneasy seductions of the posthuman. Conjuring an array of voices and perspectives—from bots, to a holy shroud, to the ocean floor, to a medium transmitting from beyond the grave—these poems give urgent form to the ever-increasing pace of transformation of our planet and ourselves. As it navigates cyber life, 3D-printed “life,” life after death, biologically, chemically, and electronically modified life, Fast lights up the border of our new condition as individuals and as a species on the brink.

It’s a tough, but really worthwhile and satisfying read.

I still feel I’m catching up on sleep after an extraordinarily enriching experience, which I wouldn’t have missed for the world, although I don’t miss my dorm bed!

RETURN TO PARIS – INTO THE ARK PART I

 

From 1-10 July 2017 I took part in a fascinating experimental art project at Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, the brainchild of talented and visionary artist Grace Ndirritu.  It was an incredibly enriching experience in so many respects – fascinating participants, inspiration for writing a substantial body of poetry, wonderful food and recipes, interesting discussions and, above all, a deep and profound acceptance of our interconnectedness as human beings.  The Ark will be the focus of Part II of this blog but in the meantime have a look at the social media connected to the project and then join me in a couple of weeks to discover more!  http://thearkcenterexperiment.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thearkgracendiritu/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/The-Ark-Centre-for-Interdisciplinary-experimentation-426940181009500/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/thearkgracendir

Tumblr: https://thearkcenter.tumblr.com/

The Russian mystic, philosopher and mathematician Pyotr Ouspensky was very much in my mind during The Ark experience – his idea that everything is connected, that every part of the universe is pulsing with consciousness and infused with spirit.  One of The Ark participants, artist and critic Kayla Anderson was a self-described animist and conversations with Kayla and the other participants got me thinking about my attitude to philosophy and philosphers.

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As a teenager I underwent the fairly typical trajectory devouring Sartre, Camus and Kafka and thinking of myself as an existentialist and an anarchist well into my twenties.  Inspired by this I signed up for a term of philosophy during my first year at the University of East Anglia but couldn’t make head or tail of the course.  My abiding memory is of our lecturer hiding in a cupboard, presumably trying to prove something about being and nothingness.

I had arrived at The Ark with Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café – Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails to read – it’s an insightful look at how Sartre and de Beauvoir developed their philosophies. Once The Ark project started we were not allowed to leave the premises or have contact with the outside world (no phones, laptops etc) but in the time before and after The Ark I had the opportunity to unleash my inner (and somewhat rusty!) philosopher in Paris.

First stop Montparnasse Cemetery and a brief and heartfelt moment at the grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir – note to self: re-read The Second Sex asap!  One of the films I have re-discovered and come to enjoy a great deal is Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo.  Based on Boris Vian’s 1946 novel  L’Ecume des Jours  and featuring a character obsessed with the life and work of Jean-Sol Partre, Vian encapsulates post-Second World War angst in a book which can be seen as celebrating the magic of liberation while at the same time being unable to escape the oppression of the Occupation.  Vian knew Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus and was a significant player in the Parisian jazz scene.  He played trumpet at the Hot Club de Paris and was instrumental in bringing Duke Ellington to Paris.  Vian was one of the first supporters of Serge Gainsbourg – Gainsbourg would come to Vian’s shows at Les Trois Baudets.  Coincidentally (or not!), Gainsbourg is also buried at Montparnasse Cemetery along with other greats such as the poet Baudelaire, who is influential in my constant attempts to write flaneur poems; Jean Seberg, star of one of my favourite new-wave films, Breathless; Henri Langlois who ensured that French film was preserved and celebrated in a way that befitted its importance by heading up the Cinemathèque Française and who was the revered and beloved mentor of FrançoisTruffaut and Jean-Luc Godard; and not forgetting Jacques Demy, film-making husband of one of my favourite directors, Agnes Varda.

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Corinne Marchand as Cléo finding the courage to transform in The Dôme

So, the logical next stop had to be a wander down the Boulevard de Montparnasse, home to so many of the iconic cafes where painters, poets, philosphers and writers would discuss, argue and scribe.  A quick coffee in Le Dôme, where one of my favourite scenes in Varda’s Cléo de 5 á 7 plays out.  This is the turning point for Cleo, spoilt pop princess and the object of everyone’s desiring gaze.  She suddenly becomes the observer, the subject, a woman coming to terms with her own existence and potential death.  Then on to Le Select, haunt of Hemingway, Picasso and Chagall for a light supper before looping up and round to Boulevard St Germain and the Café de Flore to pay homage to the place where Sartre and de Beauvoir made it all happen…

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Perhaps it’s worth mentioning here two very unusual novels which provide different ways into how philosophy and everyday life intertwine and interact.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog is by Muriel Barbary, a philosophy teacher.  Two narrative voices are present in the novel – Renée Michel, the concierge of a luxury set of apartments on Rue de Grenelle, is a widow and auto-didact who hides her love of culture and her erudition behind the prickly mask and drab demeanour of a typical Parisian concierge.  Paloma Josse, suicidal teenage resident and novice philosopher is the other narrative voice.  We learn so much about ideas, connectedness and being through these protagonists, a tough but satisfying read.

The other novel is Denis Thériault’s The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman which explores the idea of the haiku, inextricably linked to Zen Buddhism, and the concept of enso, this is a book unlike any other.  The French Canadian protagonist, Bilodo, is yet another character who hides his true self behind the mundanity of his profession.

As I wandered, thinking profoundly of course, towards the Seine, I noticed that the Ecole des Beaux Arts had an open studios weekend and popped in to see what the pupils of this prestigious school were up to – this is where Monet, Seurat, Renoir, Degas, Delacroix and Ingres, among many others studied and is a highly respected institution.

Philosophy feeds the mind but I do have a few recommendations for the stomach too.  For the first time I managed to a) find Du Pain et des Idées and b) not have to queue.  This gorgeous little bakery, dating from 1889, does the most delectable tarte aux abricots – the intensity of the flavours and the lightness of the pastry are worth every penny and the interior of the bakery is a joy to behold too with its beautiful toile de jouy style paintings.  Go here to find more on Christoph Vasseur’s philosophy (roots in the past but eyes to the future) https://dupainetdesidees.com/en/fabrication.html

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I spent a very contented morning at the beautiful Musée de Montmartre, this residential complex in Rue Cortot was where artist Suzanne Valadon and her troubled son, Maurice Utrillo, among others, lived.  The Renoir garden is a beautiful place for a coffee or lunch.  The buildings are among the oldest in Montmartre and with their shutters and natural gardens and view over the vineyards of Montmartre it feels as if you are back in the original village.   My goal for this visit was the Demarne Hotel – the building which houses the Museum’s temporary exhibitions.  Many impressionist painters lived and worked here as did Père Tanguy, the famous art dealer.  It was also home to Claude de la Rose, one of Molière’s troupe of actors but today it was housing the fantastic exhibition “Montmartre – Décor de Cinema” a celebration of the area as a cinematic location.  There’s so much to enjoy, it’s an excellently curated exhibition with a wealth of film clips.  There’s a whole space dedicated to Amélie, a look at Truffaut’s use of Montmartre Cemetery and Place de Clichy, but the two films which are now at the top of my wish-list were directed by Marcel Carné, La Porte de la Nuit featuring an incredibly detailed studio reproduction of the metro station at Barbès Rochechouart, which used to be my local, and Juliette ou La Clef des Songes which lured me in immediately with its air of doomed love.

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So, watch out for Part II of this blog when I’ll be in a very different environment living and working in an artistic installation and exploring ideas of community and sustainability.

 

 

Closing the Circle

 

A seven-day New Year trip to Paris to tie up a few poetic and cinematic loose ends made me think about circularity or boucler la boucle as the French would have it – a kind of “coming round full circle” or literally “looping the loop”.

What particularly made me think of this was where I was staying in Paris this time – for I was truly a poet in a garrett.  A teeny tiny apartment in a chambre de bonne, a maid’s room, on the sixth floor of one of those crumbling grey Parisian apartment blocks gathered around a courtyard.  I felt as if I were in a Marcel Carné film with Jean Gabin just about to burst in at his angst-ridden best…

If I pressed my cheek against the cold window-frame at a particular angle I could see Sacre Coeur…The flat was in Rue de Panama in the Barbès Rochechouart area, just round the corner from where I used to live thirty-six years ago.  I thought of my nineteen-year-old self, how naïve I was, what a rite of passage it was to come to Paris at that age and how the only advice the grown-ups gave me was “Don’t drink the water!” The whole area looks really shabby and threatening but isn’t at all.  My apartment block doorway above shows the run-down, gritty feel of the neighbourhood – there’s a very African/Arab vibe, great street markets and an incredible energy.  I particularly liked this hairdresser’s window round the corner!

 

 

 

 

 

Paris is changing, there are more people sleeping on the streets, more begging and heartbreaking ghettos of the latest refugees appearing, the equivalent to the bad old days when we had Cardboard City on the South Bank in London.  One of my friends who is living long-term in Paris has been brushing up on her Arabic and helping to run a Breakfast Club hoping that hot, sugary drinks and donated bread and nutella spread will mean that at least these destitute people start their day with some support and a shot of energy.  There are so many poignant stories, the two men with young children whose wives drowned as they made the dangerous crossing to Europe… and so many, many more…

One of the themes I was exploring this time was revolution and as well as a guided walk around the Odéon area with the wonderful Paris Walks http://www.paris-walks.com/   I visited the Conciergerie where Marie-Antoinette lived her last days.

One of the best things about Paris is being able to sit in cafes where the greatest thinkers and philosophers of our age have also sat.  I had  a coffee in  Café Procope, in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie,  the oldest café in Paris and a real gem.  This is where Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Rousseau, Danton (he lived nearby) and Robespierre would meet and discuss the issues of the day (not all at the same time I hasten to add as this would be chronologically and ideologically impossible!).  The café owns one of Napoleon’s hats which he gave to pay off a debt.  One of the causes of the 1789 Revolution was debt,  Louis XVI more or less bankrupted France helping out the Americans against the English in the War of Independence – without his help the War may have lasted a decade longer, but France may have been a very different place, perhaps with a monarchy still intact!  There are some wonderful films which reference the Revolution (although of course, there was more than one revolution as France was beset with them throughout the 18th and 19th centuries).  One of my favourites is A Tale of Two Cities – I’m a great fan of Dirk Bogarde and in this film he’s a potent combination of noble and dissolute!

To continue this revolutionary theme, I went to Versailles for the day and found that I couldn’t remember it at all although I’m sure I’ve been there quite a few times.  I love the scene in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is when frustrated Hollywood hack Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson, has to endure a day with Michael Sheen as an irritating know-it-all lecturer when all he wants to do is follow his flâneur instincts and just be there. Gil time travels back to the twenties and the Belle Époque and Allen’s film was possibly inspired by a famous incident in 1901 when two academics, Charlotte Moberley and Eleanor Jourdain, claimed to have timeslipped back to pre-Revolutionary Versailles.  My strangest encounter was with a muskrat … I did a very extensive walk in the grounds to think and write and there he was, grazing on a little island in the hameau de la reine where Marie-Antoinette lived out her peasant fantasies.  I have no idea what he was doing there, presumably an escapee, but I felt I’d arrived in a parallel universe, one populated by giant rats!

 

 

 

I walked miles every day and wrote reams.  One of the film locations I visited was Place des Fêtes just of the Rue de Belleville.  This is where one of the mini-films in Paris Je T’aime takes place, directed by Oliver Schmitz, a very poignant section of this great film where different directors celebrate different arrondissements (see below).  Belleville is one of my favourites.  I know people who can’t leave the Left Bank but it’s too pretty for me, I need grit!

I also went to the Pure Café where Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy chat in Before Sunset.  I wanted to try out their impossible geography and started at Shakespeare and Co where they meet at the beginning of the film.  It was great fun but took me hours (the joy of jump cuts!) so a much needed bowl of soup in this incredibly vibey local café was just what I needed.

Image result for le pure cafe paris before sunset

I did another excellent walk with the amazingly knowledgeable Juliette Dubois http://cine-balade.com/  on the origins of cinema .  As we strolled past the Opéra we talked about Audrey Hepburn as one of the iconic scenes in Funny Face takes place there.

Image result for audrey hepburn funny face opera

Audrey made seven films set in Paris and her relationship with the city is also the story of her muse-like status with designer Hubert Givenchy.  It’s hard to imagine Audrey in any other clothes.  I did a chocolate-tasting tour (I know, it’s a hard life!) in the first arrondissement and thought about Audrey as we passed all the wonderfully glamorous shops in this area.  I particularly liked the specialist cobblers next to the Christian Louboutin shop whose sole purpose (no pun intended…) is to put new red soles back on his shoes as they scuff so quickly!

A long-lasting obsession of mine is dolls (I’m not sure what an obsession is when it’s negative… a phobia I guess!).  I write about them quite a lot in less than complimentary terms.  Strolling through Montmartre I discovered La Halle Saint Pierre and in this old market hall, which is also an art gallery, an extraordinary exhibition by Gilbert Peyre who tells engaging and unusual stories through his electronic automata. I rather enjoyed his decapitated dolls but there were other treasures too.

Image result for gilbert peyre halle saint pierre

I really liked the installation Johnny Be Good where a dress shimmied and swirled and a pair of trousers shyly ducked and dived, although the peeing/flame-throwing teddy bear was rather marvellous too!

Image result for gilbert peyre halle saint pierre

So back to boucler la boucle… In a way, my obsession with film is all about coming full-circle as well.  I grew up in Kingston-upon-Thames which is where Eadward Muybridge was born in 1830 (and where he also died in 1904.  Muybridge is one of the early precursors to film as we know it today and Kingston Museum opened in 1904 to show his work.  Muybridge was a pretty colourful character.  He moved to America in his twenties and was a successful bookseller in both New York and San Francisco.  He moved back to England in 1860 to embark on a second career as a photographer.  He returned to the States and established a reputation as a very proficient photographer, taking some notable time lapse photographs of the San Francisco Mint. One of his passions was capturing movement photographically, you might know some of his famous sequences such as this one below:

Image result for eadweard muybridge

His growing reputation caught the attention of the Governor of California, Leland Stanford, who asked him to settle a bet.  Stanford was a racehorse owner and a businessman and the bet was, namely, whether a horse has all four feet off the ground when trotting and galloping.  Muybridge was able to settle the question (the answer is “yes” in case you are wondering!) by setting up a number of glass plate cameras along the track with the shutter of each being triggered by a thread as the horse passed.  San Franciscans are very proud of Muybridge and I’ve visited the site where his studio used to be.  San Franciscans lay a claim, along with so many others, to being the birthplace of film.  So what happened to Muybridge?  In true Wild West style he shot his wife’s lover but was acquitted on the grounds of “justifiable homicide”!  He carried on with his groundbreaking work of capturing motion, and that’s what film is all about really – capturing still images at such a speed that the eye is tricked into registering movement.  As Jean-Luc Godard said, “I want to tell the truth 24 times a second…” the number of frames our eyes process per second as we sit glued to the screen.

Well, I hope I’ve told the truth once a month for the thirteen months of this blog – this will be the last instalment as the Arts Council funded year draws to an end and I move on to different projects although I will always write poetry, watch films and drink good coffee in quirky cafes…  And I’m sure I’ll be back blogging under a different guise.  So maybe this isn’t  Au Revoir but A bientôt…

 

Nostalgia in the City…

 
My craving for Paris has finally calmed down after five weeks back in the UK, so I clearly fell hook, line and sinker for the old flirt yet again!  My wonderful Paris flat landlord, Jonothan Green (who knows all there is to know about slang, check out Green’s Dictionary of Slang  – fascinating…) reliably informs me that the black guys on Rue Chateau D’Eau are not dealers (see May blog), but touts for the many African hairdressers in the locality – who says truth isn’t stranger than fiction?!

henri_cartier_bresson_bicycle-645x432Understandably, I’ve been writing a lot about place recently and I’ve been contemplating whether we remember places in black and white or colour.  This has probably been further fuelled by a visit to the fantastic Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.  It’s a really well curated exhibition, spacious and meditative with peculiarly haunting images: boules players discussing strategy in the snow, ancient prams full of wartime finds, a photographer taking a group of gypsies, the heartbreaking faces of mourners after the Rue de Charonne massacre in the 1960s and this wonderful image of a cyclist and stairway.  Strangely, when I think of Paris, the colours are very muted, almost wintery, in my mind.  Other places appear in my memory in quite clichéd colours, so India is saffron and bright pink and Mexico memories are in earthy, sandy, almost terracotta colours.  Try this yourselves, poets, it’s a good exercise – the colour of memory…  It reminded me of all those films which play with the idea of black and white and colour – A Matter of Life and Death (where heaven is black and white and earth is in colour), Stalker – a Russian re-telling of the Wizard of Oz combined with the marvellous Strugatsky Brothers sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic – here the Zone is in colour (where your dreams come true) and the contaminated  Russian industrial-scape is, of course, black and white.

chemexAnd if you do happen to be passing through Norwich, check out two fabulous cafes with their own roasteries and excellent craft coffee.  Little Red Roaster is at 1a St Andrew’s Street, also 81b Grove Road and they  have a good sized stall on the market too (52/53).  Strangers Coffee Company on Dove Street are the new kids on the block and at present are  for takeaways only.  If you fancy tea (and cake!) the rather eccentric Biddy’s Tea Room is good for people-watching and writerly inspiration – tucked away on Lower Goat Lane, it’s got a slight air of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and has a monthly bake-off and a clothes swapping evening, both of which sound intriguing!

The HurstI have just returned from an Arvon residential writing course taught by the most inspiring and generous poet-tutors one could possibly hope to have – Caroline Bird and Kei Miller.  Kei is a Jamaican poet and we did a lot of work on ideas around place in his sessions, fitting in beautifully with my current obsession (he was very patient when I started every sentence with “In Paris…”); while Caroline stretched our perception of what poetry can do to an alarming and quite brilliant extent.  All this took place in John Osborne’s old house, The Hurst, in the rolling English countryside near Clun.  Heaven!

Claire, Mon 1London, now there’s a place I always see in sepia… And most colour-appropriately I stayed there recently at an Airbnb in Bermondsey with two friends, Claire and Monika, who I hadn’t seen for around twenty-five years.  We’d all been in Israel together, kept in touch for an intense seven or eight years and then drifted apart.  We had a great weekend of catching-up and it felt as if we’d seen each other weeks rather than years ago.

So, three of my favourite places in London for caffeine, for just general amazingness or for writerly inspiration:

(Taken with my mobile phone.)

Verde and Company Ltd – gorgeous old-fashioned café and deli in a restored Georgian building opposite Spitalfield Market in Brushfield Street. It’s owned by writer Jeannette Winterson who wanted to keep the traditional spirit of the area going.  It’s a member of the Slow Food movement and is everything that the big coffee chains are not… Inside there’s a big communal table, a few tiny tables and lots of old Georgian silverware, outside there are benches.  The coffee is excellent and there are walls of translucent and expensive marmalade to reflect what little light sneaks in.  I love this area, it celebrates diversity from the Huguenot weavers who escaped persecution, the Irish weavers escaping famine, Jewish settlers, Bangladeshis in Brick Lane – it’s one of the liveliest, most happening areas of the capital.

  • Dennis-SeversWhich brings me neatly to my second London gem a stone’s throw from Verde and Company – Dennis Severs’ House at 18, Folgate Street. It’s not easy to describe this place and, be warned, it’s not open often, just Sundays and Mondays and your visit will be in complete, candlelit silence.  Severs was an artist who lived in this house much as its 18th century inhabitants had before him and thirty years ago he decided to share this experience with visitors.  The house is like a stage set and a time capsule, a series of paintings you stumble in to, seemingly just as the inhabitants have left – gaming dice flung on the table, a glass broken on the floor, a clock chiming, wistful traces of Huguenot weavers, the smell of oranges in the air…  Each room creates a different mood and evokes different inhabitants. The house’s ten rooms harbour ten ‘spells’ that engage the visitor’s imagination in moods that dominated the periods between 1724 – 1914. Your senses are your guide. Severs called this experience “still-life drama” and it works beautifully.  I’ve been going annually for years (I could swear the same black cat – yes, it’s definitely live! – skulks around the kitchen and front room, perhaps attracted to the cheeping of the stuffed canary…

I find it a profoundly moving experience every time I visit and would urge you to go, there’s even a pub opposite called The Water Poet where the Overlook Film Club meets…

  • Wilton's Music HallAnd the third treasure is Wilton’s Music Hall in Graces Alley (about 10 minutes from Tower Hill tube station). The Victorian Music Hall itself is well worth a visit.  I saw a fantastic production of The Great Gatsby there a couple of years ago, it’s a wonderful shabby chic space that takes you back to the Good Old Days!  Best of all are the series of bar areas at the front of the music hall.  Wilton’s started life as a series of five 17th century houses, the largest of which was a pub and  which were later combined and subsequently bought and revamped by John Wilton in 1850.  The Music Hall he built was popular for around thirty years, with acts like Champagne Charlie (check out the 1944 Ealing comedy Champagne Charlie with Stanley Holloway and Tommy Trinder.) treading the boards.  There’s a good history of the site on the Wilton’s website www.wiltons.org.uk  Nowadays it’s a great bar space, recently refurbished but losing none of its nostalgic charm.  The cocktails are excellent, there are great bar snacks and the space always gives me that goosebumpy “treading on history” moment…  And if you think it looks spookily familiar then it may be because it was one of Louis Lester’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hiding places in Stephen Poliakoff’s fantastic BBC series Dancing on the Edge.

 

 

Paris Part III – The Lumière Project

 
Sue on the rooftopsMy five week stay in Paris is over and I’ve written thirteen new poems.  This is more than my average annual output so I’m feeling very pleased and slightly smug.  The combination of one of the most beautiful and inspiring cities in the world, the thematic starting point of considering films set in Paris and my own strong relationship with this city have all done the trick in more ways than I could have hoped.  I feel incredibly privileged to have had this opportunity thanks to the grant I received from the Arts Council to develop my writing over the next twelve months.  I was so excited by this opportunity that I’d already written the first of the thirteen new poems by the time the train pulled in to the Gare du Nord on Day 1!

Sue's Parisian StudyMy wonderful rented apartment in Cité de Trevise in the ninth arrondissement was just round the corner from Les Folies Bergeres in Rue Richer.  In one direction it was a15-minute walk to République along the Rue Chateau d’Eau which, at certain intersections was like a scene from The Wire, although thankfully far less threatening with cool black guys on the corners doing  lots of amicable shouting to each other, the giveaway being the large wads of money they were clutching….  Fifteen minutes the other way and I could be at Opéra Garnier and the Grands Boulevards or Montmartre and Pigalle.

julien2I spent hours wandering the streets checking out film locations, discovering that Julie Delpy’s flat in Before Sunrise was very close to mine in the hard to find Passage des Petites Ecuries.  One of Edith Piaf’s favourite restaurants Julien, a belle époque gem where I had a lovely lunch, was just round the corner.  Marion Cotillard got to sit in Piaf’s favourite booth when they filmed La Vie en Rose.

 

I did eight guided walks, five by the excellent company Paris Walks www.pariswalks.com where I gained a real insight into the history, development and personalities of the city;  and three by the wonderful Juliette of Ciné Balades www.cine-balade.com who visits film locations in specific areas, explains the history of the area and shows extracts of films on her i-pad as we stand in the very spot where they were shot. truffaut 2 One of my favourites was the Truffaut walk.  I began my stay in Paris looking for Truffaut’s grave in Montmartre Cemetery and after several fruitless, but very enjoyable, visits gave up until Juliette pointed me in the right direction and I finished my stay in Paris by finding him.  Strange how things come full circle…

The Paris Walks were in English, the Ciné Balades in French so, needless to say, one of the bonus elements of my stay has been the great improvement in my somewhat rusty spoken French.  Those of you who know me well will be able to imagine me launching into conversations with shopkeepers, security guards, swimming pool attendants, anything to speak French!  Ah yes, swimming pool attendants.  On my final night I swam 30 lengths in the wonderful pool in Rue de Pontoise, the very pool where Juliette Binoche tries to swim out her grief in Krystof Kieslowski’s Blue. Pontoise Swimming Pool Paris It was interesting to see how intensely blue they had made this environment in the film (otherwise it’s just a normal swimming pool colour).  It’s an art deco pool with two-tier changing rooms and rather an eccentric method of accessing them, hence the long conversation with the attendant – we ended up arguing which city was more beautiful, London or Paris.  Paris of course!

I met a really interesting artist and writer, Grace Ndiritu (check out www.gracendiritu.com) as well as two talented prose writers, Rosemary Milne and Isabelle Llasera.  I was also very fortunate that the fabulous Irish poet and academic Mary Noonan was staying very close by on a sabbatical researching aspects of French theatre along with the equally fabulous Matthew Sweeney.  Paul Stephenson, soon to move to Brussels, was enjoying his last few weeks in Paris so I was able to get plenty of creative stimulation talking to these wonderful poets.

Shakespeare-and-Co.-Paris-BookstoreI first met Grace at Shakespeare & Company at the launch of Emma Beddington’s We’ll Always Have Paris, a witty memoir about failing to live successfully in the city.   I would strongly recommend checking out the events listings for Shakespeare & Company.  The new cafe next door has the best expresso in town and one of the best views (opposite Notre Dame no less!) and it’s a truly iconic bookshop with a fascinating history.  Sadly, the founder, George Whitman, died recently but his daughter Sylvia is carrying on the very good work.  I went back towards the end of my stay for a poetry reading by Jack Hirschman and Heather Hartley.  Heather Hartley’s excellent Adult Swim is well worth a look and Jack, well, he’s just a legend.  A Beat poet, sacked by UCLA for encouraging his students to dodge the draft, he read from The Viet Arcane, a collection that has been many years in the making. His delivery was pure Beat and after each passionately delivered poem his French translator took the stage and read beautifully crafted translations.  As we staggered outside we noticed that there were chairs in the little courtyard with relay speakers…. so my other recommendation is, always get there early for S and Co readings!

Cafe Culture RapideBoosted by Grace I went to the zany Café Culture Rapide in Belleville where they have open mic evenings and tried out two of my new poems on a very supportive audience, although slightly freaked out by the ritual that if it’s your first time there they shriek “Virgin! Virgin!” as you battle your way to the stage.

As well as following my nose and wandering like a true flâneuse, I also visited specific locations and one of my favourites was the Café des Deux Moulins where Amélie Poulain works in Amélie.  My top tip if you are in a hurry or broke, or both, is to stand or sit at the bar and knock back your drink.  My expressos were all around a euro using this method.  And my other tip is, if you can’t decide whether to have dessert or coffee or both then opt for a caée gourmand – you’ll get a selection of mini desserts from the menu all tastefully grouped around an expresso.

my placeDid I find a substitute for Le Charlotte en L’Isle (see Paris Part II – Rue de Lappe)?  I did indeed, the wonderful My Place in Rue St Lazare, bursting with Parisian shabby chic and lovely home-made food.

 

I saw a dozen or so films during my stay, partly because I wanted to visit cinemas which had appeared in French films (a particular trait of New Wave directors who loved to pay homage to the world of cinema).   One of the highlights was Cinema MacMahon, just off the Arc de Triomphe, a real gem of a cinema in glowing red velvet with the original ticket booth.  It’s the only cinema I can think of where it’s more essential to visit the ladies toilets than to see a film – this is where Jean Seberg climbed out of the toilet window to escape the cops and rejoin Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless.  They were having a John Ford season so I saw How Green Was My Valley.

studio 28On the 11 May I met Jack Toye (Picturehouse Cambridge Marketing Manager) and Sarah McIntosh (Cambridge Film Festival Short Film Programmer) for a strong early morning coffee at Gare du Lyon and then waved them off, slightly green-tinged with envy, as they sped southwards for ten days at the Cannes Film Festival.  I compensated by going to iconic cinema Studio 28 in Montmartre to see the Cannes opening ceremony followed by a preview of the opening night film Woody Allen’s Café SocietyWhat’s so special about Studio 28?  Ah, so many things, for a start it has wacky chandeliers designed by Jean Cocteau and it’s the cinema Amélie goes to watch the audience rather than the film.  It was one of the first arthouse cinemas in Paris, opening in 1928 with Abel Gance’s Napoléon and the scene of a riot in 1930 at the première of Buῆuel’s L’Age d’Or.

luxourA short walk from my apartment was the Luxour which soon became my local cinema.  It’s the most gorgeously restored 1921 picture palace opposite the elevated metro at Barbès Rochechouart so it could have been my local cinema  when I lived there in the 1980s but at that time it was the largest gay nightclub in Paris.  One of the many films I saw here was The Extravagant Mr Deeds, with my oldest friend and fellow cinephile Sally, during the cinema’s Capra season.

Lumiere BrothersI did a one-day research trip which was really enjoyable – a quick zip down to Lyons to check out the Institut Lumière, one of the places that can truly claim to be the birthplace of cinema as we know it today.  I stood on the spot where the cinematograph had been placed to film the Lumière factory workers leaving their shift, one of the earliest films and one which was included in the nine films shown to the first paying audience at the Salon Indien in the Grand Café (now the basement conference room in the Hotel Scribe on Boulevard des Capucines).

Site of the Lumiere Factory
Site of the Lumiere Factory

 

 

 

 

 

 

And finally, a very nice bonus was my friend and poetic mentor, Heidi Williamson, coming to stay to look through what I’d written and offer support and feedback.  Heidi is an excellent mentor and also a writing coach.  She gave me a really insightful coaching session on the way forward with my current work and ideas – check out her website www.heidiwilliamsonpoet.com.  And in return I did a Sue’s Parisian Highlights Tour, watch out Paris Walks, there’s a new kid in town!

Paris flat tea

Paris Part II – Rue de Lappe

 
By the time I decided that university probably was a good idea after all, I’d lived and worked in London for several years, back-packed round Europe for a few months, lived in Israel for a year working on a kibbutz and a couple of moshavs and spent a very frugal month in Egypt sleeping on the beaches in the Sinai.  This was in the early 80s, just after the Israeli occupation of the Sinai had ended.  There was no tourist infrastructure at all, literally a beach.  We bought flatbread in the local village (often seemed to contain camel hair and dirt too, but probably because it was rolled on boards on the ground!) and trekked a mile or so  into the desert to buy tomatoes from the bedouin, and that was it – I got very thin!  Today Sharm-el-Sheikh, Dahab and Nuweiba are, of course,  big tourist resorts and I feel privileged to have seen their previous incarnations.

Paris-Nord_2_-_Vue_aerienne_02By 1986 I’d completed my second year at the University of East Anglia studying French language, linguistics and literature with a teacher training module or two thrown in.  A year abroad in Paris held no fears for me until I discovered that I’d been assigned a really rough secondary school in the banlieue in Villepinte.  It wasn’t quite La Haine and there were some great kids in the school,  but I was locked in a cupboard, pushed down the stairs and had my naughtiest boys driving mopeds straight at me as I tried to walk to the RER station.  I later discovered that the most unpopular teacher who, coincidentally, had the most difficult class, had divided up her class in order to give me the most problematic elements of the whole school.  I remember the Directeur (head teacher) telling one of these boys off and the older brother coming in after school and beating him so badly he ended up in hospital.  I survived fairly unscathed and it helped me realise I probably wasn’t cut out for teaching children…

CalenticaI gave a few private lessons as well – I had a man with no voicebox who wanted to perfect his English pronunciation and also the wonderful Nicole, a pied noir  (French but born in the colonies).  We met in the queue for free tickets for the Folies Bergères.  She lived in a dreadful HLM (habitation à loyer modéré – sort of equivalent to our inner cities) in the suburbs with her four sons – Nicolas, three, Pascal, 13, Patrice, 15 and Jean-Paul 17.  When I went round after work I was never quite sure which son I’d be teaching.  It was good practice, a bit of pocket money and she always cooked me weird and wonderful food – wheat rissoles and calentica (an Algerian dish made with chick-pea flour) were my favourites!

paris_11_rue_de_lappeI rented a flat in Rue de Lappe, just off Place Bastille.  I had a few pots and pans, a mattress borrowed from a friend of a friend, an old school chair which I’d brought back on the metro from Villepinte, a folding table and a couple of boxes with scarves draped over as side tables.  I’ve just been watching Chacun Cherche son Chat (1996 dir. Cedric Klapisch) – made a decade after I lived there but still recognisable as this very run-down working-class district.  It was just beginning to gentrify when I arrived, artists’ studios and art galleries so I was constantly going to vernissages (first nights) for free wine and canapés (which is what the lads do in La Haine (1995 dir. Matthieu Kassovitz), although I was much more English and polite!).

imagesI’m starting to write about this time as part of the Arts Council project.  I’ve become very interested in creative geography, Lev Kuleshov’s (Russian film theorist in the early 20th century) idea of putting together different geographical locations, filmed at different times, as if they are all one seamless, unified geographic whole.  A really good example of this is the new film version of Macbeth with Michael Fassbender – his castle is Bamburgh Castle on the outside, all rugged and Northern, and Ely Cathedral on the inside, gothic, candlelit lines which don’t fit at all with the outside but the illusion is persistent…

When I think of Rue de Lappe and the surroundings I see my life as a series of geographical vignettes – the bakery, the corner café, the market, the local late-night cinema, Père Lachaise cemetery  – but somehow in my mind they make one of those cute maps where everything takes a few minutes to walk to, all the boring bits and building sites (this was a the peak of Mitterand’s grands travaux, pretending to be Haussmann the Second with his President’s projects) are cut out.  And poetry is like this too, it has to cut so much out to work its magic…

3 LA VITRINEPsycho geography is both similar and different to creative geography, your own personal mood map of your local area… The place I feel most nostalgic about from this period in Paris is  La Charlotte de l’Isle –  a tiny  café and chocolatier on the Isle St Louis where I spent much of my free time writing endless letters (Chris and I had just got together) and notes.  Sadly, the café was taken over by new owners in 2010 after 38 years of pure magic and it’s now completely different and utterly unmagical…   Sylvie Langlet, eccentric chocolatière and poetess ran the shop and the teashop which were full of treasures, carnival masks, witches on broomsticks, gnomes and marionettes.  As well as proper hot chocolate, served in the front room and tiny parlour, she would also serve turkish coffee from an authentic shiny copper turkish coffee pot into tiny, delectable handleless cups.  Going to the loo meant you got to see the magical kitchen where Madame would use her antique moulds to make sculptural chocolate concoctions as well as fabulous chocolate dipped florentines.

4 CHARLOTTE DE L'ISLE INTERIOR6 OUR TABLE

The Musee d’Orsay opened in 1986 while I was there and one of the perks of being a teacher was having a free Museum Pass.  I wrote my year abroad dissertation on the Musee d’Orsay, which completely captured my imagination.  A state of the art gallery in a disused railway station.  One night I went to see a string quartet inthe cafe at the top of the building.  They played silhouetted against the huge glass clock face -it seems like a dream memory now,  so purely cinematic that it’s  hard to believe you actually lived it.

Clock at musee d'orsay

And, of course, I was going to see endless films.  The most memorable were Down by Law (1986 dir. Jim Jarmusch), Betty Blue (1986 dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix)  and Blue Velvet (1986 dir. David Lynch).  I was already a big David Lynch fan but Blue Velvet was something else… I was so sure I had misunderstood it (I went to the version dubbed in French rather than the original subtitled in English by mistake) that I went back a second time, accompanied by Lawrence Norfolk who was my best friend’s ex and happened to be in Paris too, just for reassurance that the story was as mad and bad as it seemed to be the first time around! (It was…)

So, it’s with these memories that I count down the days until my next Parisian adventure begins… Paris Part III will be coming in mid-May and I’ll have news of how I tackled five weeks dedicated to writing poetry!

 

Paris – Part I – Rue des Poissoniers

 
KCFE

I spent the autumn and winter of 1980 in Paris. Just about to turn nineteen, newly graduated from my bi-lingual secretarial course at Kingston College of Further Education, I thought the world was my oyster. Was Paris ready for me and my brand new skill-set?

Well, apparently not…there was no work to be found for young, naïve, inexperienced English girls. We (my college friend Diana and I) clocked one job between us in three months and got poorer and poorer but it never really impacted on us due to a stroke of luck in our first week in Paris.

Disoriented and confused in the Hotel St Placide Paris_Saint_Placide_Metro_280109(which I later realised briefly appears in Truffaut’s poignant Antoine et Colette…) we perused the papers for work but instead found an advertisement calling all lonely out-of-towners to a meeting in a café on the outskirts of Paris. There, we discovered an amazing selection of people with varying motivations for coming along. Some had moved from the countryside to work in Paris, others had lived in Paris all their lives but were pieds noirs (ie French but had lived in the French colonies so were culturally very different) or second generation Paris-dwellers from immigrant families who didn’t quite fit in, and, strangest of all were a couple of chic Parisiens, very BCBG*, who seemed to look on the whole adventure as a kind of “feeding time at the zoo” experience.   Nevertheless, we all bonded with varying degrees of success and spent the next few months meeting up and having makeshift dinner parties at each others’ flats and generally living in each others’ pockets, literally in the case of D and myself as we were thrown out of our hotel for reporting a theft (long, long story…) and slept on various floors until the wonderful Jean-Paul from Brittany rented a flat at Barbès Rochechouart with room for Diana and me to sling our sleeping bags in a more permanent manner.barbes rochechouart

Our new home was on the corner of the Rue des Poissoniers in the North African quarter, opposite an Arabic grocers.  Bare boards, two rooms, one sink, trestles and huge plywood boards for tables, food on the window-sill for a fridge, no hot water but it was heaven to have our own space and I fell in love with the area.

arabic sweet shops paris

 

P1320975_Paris_XVIII_rue_des_Poissonniers_Nxx_rwkThe restaurants were mostly cheap couscouseries with windows full of brightly coloured Moroccan sweets. Women in beautiful African fabrics swanned up and down the roads and I can’t count the number of times the police stopped me because it was too dangerous for a white female to be walking around the area at night – I hated hearing the inevitable barrage of insults when I said I was on my way home…

But what about poetry? My diaries from this time were scattered with doom-ridden verses. I don’t remember being particularly unhappy and I’m glad these little fragments are no longer around, but what is happening is that I’m remembering more and more of my first experience as a pseudo Parisienne as I prepare for my current trip to Paris, and I’m beginning to write about it with more maturity and perspective (I hope!). One very strong memory that I’ve turned into poetry is sitting in JP’s 4CV outside our flat while he went to fetch something  (we were on our way to his parents’ farm in Brittany). Within minutes every surface of the car had been turned into a market stall – the local prostitutes leant on it and the guys who seemed to spring from anywhere and everywhere with things to sell festooned the bonnet and windscreen with exotic looking rugs (well, I assume, I could only see the underside of course). Jean-Paul unearthed the car expertly a few minutes later and off we went. I firmly believe that if he hadn’t been so quick I would have been sold along with the car!

Paris viewHowever poor we were, there always seemed to be money for the cinema. Brought up in Kingston-upon-Thames, a stone’s throw from London, and then studying languages, I’d always been a prolific cinema-goer, particularly of foreign films. Jean-Paul was a bit of an international cinema buff and I remember catching up on Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzula and Costa Gavras’ Z and the The Blues Brothers as well as Loulou and Mon Oncle d’Amérique, the latter perhaps flagging up the forthcoming golden age of Depardieu…  And, of course, the more I saw of Paris the more I came to appreciate what a truly cinematic city it was, a film-maker and photographer’s dream.

SONY DSC

Above you can see the shameful addiction I developed at this time… the wonderful and wholly French patisserie – the religieuse – at that time in came in only two flavours, coffee or chocolate and if ever we managed to knock together a few extra francs Diana and I would buy one for each other.

My French improved as our circle of friends widened and, with Jean-Paul’s car constantly breaking down I had an excellent (for a non-driver) car vocabulary. I particularly remember Jean-Yves, the telephone engineer, who was an unexpectedly amazing cook; Jamel, who never stopped singing and Jacky, who lived in a tiny maid’s flat with a shower over his kitchen sink. Everyone seemed to live up endless flights of stairs in the tiniest rooms imaginable.

I started volunteering for three days a week at Amnesty International, typing, translating, filing, setting out the communal meal, learning more about the world than I ever thought possible.  I still have the reference they typed for me on that evocative headed paper…

AnarchyJean-Paul joined the OCL (Organisation Communiste Libertaire) which sounded very exciting – a French anarchist organisation for goodness sake! I went along a few times but, for anarchists, they certainly loved their endless meetings about “action”…

John Lennon was assassinated in December that year, and yes, I remember exactly where I was, stock-still in our bare flat, freezing cold in a huge Italian jumper I’d bought from the flea market , oversize man’s checked shirt and an ex-boyfriend’s too-big jeans, unable to believe what I was hearing. The Maze hunger strikes were on and I started to get more and more interested in left-wing politics, but also in art, in food that wasn’t all one colour… couscousBy the time my nineteenth birthday came in the November of that year I had a weltanschauung which was totally different to most of my contemporaries and this hunger for knowledge has never really left me. My second long stay in Paris was equally character forming and who knows what this third trip will bring!

And my hybrid knowledge of French continued – back in London I worked for the Royal Academy of Dancing as a PA and was their main translator for French and Belgian History of Dance and Dance Anatomy examination papers. This meant that when I joined a French t’ai chi class I was one of the few in the room able to move the right bits, but more of that in Paris Part II which will be posted in April.

*BCBG – bon chic, bon genre (eg stylish) – Paris  slang – almost the first phrase I learnt, but there’s a ruder version which was often applied to these two Parisiens…

Wide-eyed in Berlin…

 
WIDE-EYED IN BERLIN

Last September we spent 10 days in Berlin. It wasn’t my first time in this city and it certainly won’t be the last as it’s become one of my favourite European destinations. Every step you take feels as if you are walking on history, our history, the events that changed and shaped our world, changes which are still in evidence today.

Remnants of the Wall...
Remnants of the Wall…

I love the fact that Berlin is not a pretty city. It has some wonderful buildings and very pretty squares, but overall it has a gritty, urban, streetwise feel that doesn’t try to pander too much to mass tourism if you exclude the fact that Berlin has a museum on everything (Currywurst Museum anyone?), sometimes several (The Wall)…

And, of course, it’s a wonderfully cinematic city. As we walked around I thought of the angels in Wings of Desire, Wim Wender’s dreamy black and white depiction of West Berlin just before the Wall comes down, with Bruno Ganz as an angel who wants to be human, and Peter Falk (aka Columbo) as an already fallen angel…

Angels in Berlin...
Angels in Berlin…

One of the angels accompanies an old man as he wanders through the rubble and bare ground near the wall which can’t be built on (this site became the super futurist Potsdamer Platz, replacing a bombed square of the same name).

It’s a city of so many faces – Red Berlin, Hitler’s Berlin, Weimar Berlin, Bauhaus Berlin. In Aeon Flux, the sci-fi film starring Charlize Theron, the buildings look like an expensive Hollywood film set, but they were all filmed on location in Berlin, some old, most new – futuristic visions which mock Hitler and Speer’s dreams of a classical city.

The wind tunnel - Berlin/Adlershof
The wind tunnel – Berlin/Adlershof

 

 

 

 

 

 

We go on a guided walk to hear more about the extraordinary grafitti that covers any spare inch of blank space in the streets.

Graffiti - East Side Gallery
Graffiti – East Side Gallery

 

 

 

 

 

Suddenly, there, on Schlesischestrasse is  a complete blast from the past.  Barbie Deinhoff’s Fugidivafreundschaftclub. I visited this place years ago but feared it was one of those Berlin pop-ups (bars, cafes, squats) which are notoriously short-lived. But here it is, looking just the same although daubed in several more layers of thickly painted graffiti. I was so struck by this club that I wrote a poem about it – it’s in Kreuzberg, very near where the Wall would have been.

Barbie Deinhoff's Fugidiva Freundschaftsclub
Barbie Deinhoff’s Fugidiva Freundschaftsclub

The Divine Decadence of the Fugidiva Freundschaft Club, Berlin

Where East met West there’s a street of bars :
time-capsules of Wall-era deco.
At the fifth and final portico,
as the moon starts to sink,
a transvestite doorperson fondles us barwards.
Grubby Barbies impaled on the walls;
spangly pink t-shirts on plastic hangers
dangle like tarty chandeliers
in a smoky wonderland of pierced punks
perched on children’s chairs
and purple funfur ottomans.

There is no more vodka.

She drinks her tequila like a drunken angel,
laughs, and slowly licks my palm, and then
we, too, are divas for one fugitive night,
sealed with an unrepeatable kiss.

I insist on going to the street where the Coca Cola sign unfurls in Goodbye Lenin. Chris bravely shoots off with the camera to crouch on various traffic islands and gets a great shot.
goodbye leninI love this film, it’s so moving. Alex’s mother has a heart attack and goes into a coma just as the Wall comes down. She regains consciousness in a new Germany but mustn’t receive any shocks or she will die. Her son recreates East Berlin all around her, to save her life, for she has been a staunch but humane supporter of the regime. In tribute we go for a daytrip to Lübbenau so I can buy some Spreewald gherkins;  Alex searches the newly Westernised supermarkets for these as his mother is craving them, but ends up filling an old Spreewald jar with Western gherkins.

I start writing several poems but none of them are any good. I often write about places I’ve visited weeks or months after the event, letting the places ferment and settle until a line or two starts to rise to the surface.   And that brings me to the big question – what stimulates us to creativity? Silence? Coffee? Pots of tea? Nature? Absinthe!? I write best in cafes, it’s important for me to have a background buzz and to be able to observe everything that’s happening – I can spend all day doing this, ordering endless coffees and pots of tea (just as well given my upcoming Paris project of capturing Paris’s cinematic and literary legacy through poetry, as well as my decades long personal relationship with this city). My favourite local haunt is Peacock’s Café in Ely (around 100 loose-leaf teas to choose from…) – I’ve written so much there and the poems I write there all seem to get published – my lucky café! http://www.peacockstearoom.co.uk

Chris’s obsession with the third wave coffee movement (cafes which have a close relationship with growers and who brew using either aeropress or pourover methods which results in astoundingly tasty coffee) takes us to the wonderful Bonanza, right near the Mauerpark and, more importantly, right near the fantastic Mauerpark fleamarket where we discover Charity Children singing their wistful songs in what used to be no-man’s land in the Mauerpark.

Charity Children 2

Bonanza is too cool to write in, as you can see from the minimalist, slightly mad professor lab feel in the picture below. I’m too short to be comfortable on a bar stall and narrow counter arrangement and can’t effectively drink a coffee without spilling it, let alone wield a pen successfully, but it’s a great place and the staff were delighted at our enthusiasm for their coffee, plying us with the very expensive coffee rejected by a departing customer.

Bonanza
Bonanza

I’m still bringing up lines of possible poetry and am hoping to write a prose poem sequence about Berlin. Prose poetry has been an absolute breath of fresh air for me (move over Baudelaire!) and for the past two or three years I’ve been exploring the possibilities of this form and falling more and more in love with it.

But more of that next month as preparations for my five-week stay in Paris loom…

In the beginning…

 

Sue at Impala Cafe, Schonhauserallee, Berlin
Sue at Impala Cafe, Schönhauserallee, Berlin

It was as I wandered, over-stimulated, heart in-mouth-excited, through the gritty and graffitied streets of Berlin that I realised I could combine my three loves – strong coffee, cinema and poetry into one supremely self-indulgent blog post a month. More of Berlin later, but first, of course, in true storyteller tradition, once upon a time…

…there was a girl, a girl who loved to travel and who ended up doing international marketing for her university department as well as going on exotic far-flung holidays back in the days when she was a salaried lecturer and not a struggling poet …

One of my earliest published poems (Mslexia issue 31) was a meditation on the endless souvenirs I would buy on my travels, beginning with a stolen artefact when I was very young and very irresponsible. It was probably worthless, but I still feel a flush of shame decades later when I relive this moment, can still feel my guilty hand closing over the terracotta shape in the original bat-black darkness…

My Life in Souvenirs

A rough terracotta pot from a cavetomb in Luxor,
disturbed bats streaming behind me as I sprint
on blistering red sand, back to the river.

A necklace of coins from the souk in Jerusalem
spreading its heaviness around my throat,
my collarbones, like a shackle,
in less than a week the clasp has broken.

A skinny child in Guatemala sells me ceramic animals:
a perky, spotted dog
clenching a stolen tortilla, round as the moon, in his jaws;
A bird of prehistoric proportions;
A portly pig with flowery markings;
A tortoise flattened by the weight of the world.

A blue and white cotton yukata from Kyoto
transforms me into a giant geisha.

Japanese mask
Japanese mask

Even though it’s Autumn, I buy a waxy parasol
for blossom-viewing days, and a happiness mask.

The stone Buddha-head from Vietnam
fits perfectly in my cupped palms.
I sink slowly to sit among the long shadows,
close my eyes in perfect imitation and,
with a serene half-smile,
wait for the sun to set.

As I began to teach film studies in ever greater depth as a freelancer my interest in film locations grew and I currently teach a series of day schools, for Cinema City in Norwich and evenings for the King’s Lynn Community Cinema Club, on films set in London, Tokyo, Paris, Berlin… hopefully the list is endless. So, yes, I have drunk whisky (Suntory, of course!) in the New York Bar at the top of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on more or less the same seats as Bill Pullman and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation.

Lost in Translation
Lost in Translation

I even went back for a blossom cocktail during the day so I could actually see Tokyo rather than being all moody and jazzy in the dark… I’m not sure what it is about being in the place where scenes from my favourite films have been shot but the feeling is totally inexplicable – one of connection and the vicarious excitement of being part of this very exclusive world for a few minutes (or hours in this case…)

So, what can you expect from this blog? Thanks to a very generous grant from the Arts Council I’ll be spending five weeks in Paris researching and writing a poetry collection which explores Parisian film locations as well as the culture and cafes of Paris, so there’ll be at least a couple of postings from there as well as postings about zombie encounters in Hebden Bridge, dodgy divas in Berlin, City Lights in San Francisco and so on.   And prepare to share our (husband Chris will have guest appearances) increasing obsession with the third wave coffee experience that is taking over the coffee-lovers’ world.

I’ll be posting on the last day of every month and if you join me I can guarantee you’ll increase your dvd collection, your taste for coffee and café culture in general and pick up some great urban travelling tips.   And I’ll be sharing my poetic finds as well as my own poetry, written on the move.  Poets (I’m sure I don’t speak just for myself here…) are often found in cafes, scribbling on plain serviettes with borrowed biros as we live up to our absent-minded reputation and realise that all those gorgeous notebooks we got from supportive friends for Christmas are still under the tree…

Travelling Through Bookshop

 

And finally, a place which brings everything in this blog together – the marvellous Travelling Through Bookshop www.travellingthroughbookshop.co.uk in Lower Marsh Lane near Waterloo which has shelf after shelf of books about travel, a great café with fabulous cakes and really good coffee and that’s not all!  It regularly hosts workshops organised by the fantastic Hercules Editions www.herculeseditions.wordpress.com.   I recently did a day workshop with brilliant poet and tutor Claire Crowther on writing a horror poem which included a screening of “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”, one of my favourite German Expressionist films.  So next month’s post has to be a focus on Berlin!

Dr Caligari and Cesare the Somnambulist
Dr Caligari and Cesare the Somnambulist