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Bob Giraud’s Le Vin des rues and Patrick Cloux’s Au grand comptoir des halles

Bob Giraud’s Le Vin des rues and Patrick Cloux’s Au grand comptoir des halles

There is a certain segment of time and space here in Paris that fascinates me. It’s that period just after the second world war. Now, a few months ago, just before the portcullis gates swung down (on st. Patrick’s day of all days) I bought Robert Giraud’s Le Vin des rues. A few weeks before that, I discovered by chance the “Librairie Le Piéton de Paris” and following the excellent recommendations of the shop’s owner I bought Patrick Cloux’s “Au grand comptoir des halles“. Over the next few weeks of the lock-down I read both books very closely. They both describe postwar Paris lucidly and entertainingly.

Les halles in the 1960s (Robert Doisneau)

The back-story is well known: for centuries Les Halles was the beating heart of Paris with an enormous market which attracted vast crowds at all times of the day and night. It was at Les Halles that food and produce was bought and sold for all of France. Eventually the narrow streets proved too limiting for the endless deliveries and in the 1970s the wrought-iron 19th century marché was destroyed and operations were moved to a more modern and convenient location at Rungis. The destruction was filmed and photographed; a quick tour on YouTube and you’ll find it all. As well as the above-ground wrought-iron market halls, Les Halles contained enormous subterranean cellars and by the time all that was excavated and removed an enormous hole was left gaping at the centre of Paris, the famous trou des halles.

For quite a few years nobody quite new what to fill it with. There was even a western adventure movie about Custer’s last stand made featuring the hole and surrounding wreckage. Well, of course later there would be a underground railway exchange for the new rapid train nework (the RER) but what else? A shopping centre, Forum des Halles, which is universally unloved. Meanwhile, the parking lot where the produce trucks idled was transformed into the Centre Pompidou. To a person walking around Les Halles today there is almost no trace of the past life. The ouside of the shopping centre looks a little better than it did when I arrived in Paris; it is now covered by the ‘canopée’. In an interesting bit of architectural short-shortsightedness for a city with Paris’ climate the canopé is not actually waterproof. There is at least much more space there than there was before; it is is now open on both sides.

These details you could have found on the interwebs. What Cloux’s book aims to bring back are the people, the conversations, the circumstances, something that is lost in a bare rendering of facts. It is wonderfully evocative. I’ve already written about Jack Yonnet. Girard and Yonnet, togethether with the humanist photographer Robert Doisneau, are probably amongst the better-known characters from that period. But there are many others in there too. There is Claude Signolle, an expert on the occult. Signolle meets a shady character, a man claiming to be practising witchcraft, who shows him the book that he uses to make sure his incantations work. It is one of Signolle’s own books!

Reading Giraud’s Le Vin des rues just after Cloux’s book I understood why this text was so important as a description of that epoch. Reading Giraud is like listening to him talking to you in the Parisian argot of the 1950s (which is not always easy to follow). A simple as a conversation, colloquial, slangy. You could indeed imagine him in front of you on the other side of the bar with a glass of wine in his hand. Giruad describes how hard life was in Paris in the early 1950s and all the characters he met during his walks across the capital. He must have known every homeless person in the centre of Paris, all the people on the fringes of society that polite people would hurry past. It was Giraud who introduced these people to Doisneau who then photographed them with such success.

Robert Giraud, 1950 (Robert Doisneau)

Everybody in Giraud’s book is trying to turn a trick to stay alive. There is the man, for example, who lives in a tiny narrow apartment on the roof and who catches pigeons to sell to fancy restaurants, telling the buyers that they were were caught on country estates. Similarly, once the tourist boats have left, a group of shady characters make night trips onto the Seine to catch fish with explosives which are then brought right to les halles to sell. The there’s the blind girl Girarud helps by collecting cigarette butts for her which she sells on to another character who reassembles them into full cigarettes. Then there is a Giraud himself, who hangs around les Halles at midnight because that’s the best time to look for work, they always need a helping hand unloading the produce trucks and it’s good money, even if you have to work straight until the dawn. (Both he and Yonnet were casually brave during the war. Yonnet led groups of men around Paris into buildings where they would set up clandestine radio antennae to broadcast information to the resistance. An incredibly dangerous activity in occupied Paris and Yonnet had to kill one of his own men who was on the point of betraying them all the the Nazis. Giraud only escaped his Nazi death-sentence when the town where he was being held was liberated by the resistance; he went on to edit a newspaper for them.)

The end: le trou des halles

The worlds that Giraud and Cloux and Yonnet describe are a vast distance from the established literature of the time, even if the you could walk in less than fifteen minutes from Giraud’s bars in the rue de Buci and rue de Seine to the Boulevard St. Germain. I don’t know if Cloux’s book will be ever be translated into English. it’s a dense, lyrical text that took me long enough to read. It felt strange to read these books and to know that, while I was reading them, not a single bar or cafe was open anywhere in Paris.

In Paris, Confined.

In Paris, Confined.

During the confinement I went out almost every morning for a walk and to buy some bread. I took my cameras with me. There was often beautiful sunshine. I like that low light and the way it shines on the buildings.

And on the streets,

A walk up the steps …

The street of the (alcoholic) artists

..and you could be sure that at that early hour, there would only be a few joggers. You didn’t see many people like myself.

Of course, no cafes or bars were open,

and the streets I liked to walk down were empty.

One thing you noticed quickly was that the signs and posters didn’t change. In the city we are used to continual change. The posters for the municipal elections held just before the lockdown started stayed up for weeks. I watched them slowly degrade with time. Mr. Campion is about the kind of person you would imagine him to be, based on this photograph. He is a Parisian attractions-park mogul and is responsible for all those tacky fake-wooden chalets you see around the city at Christmas.

In each arrondissement, his picture appears with an equally improbable figure (the local candidates).

You would find messages in the street sometimes, like this one: “thank-you rubbish-collectors”.

Or this one, helpfully written in English:

Of course there were always lost cats.

And dog-walkers.

Crossing the street was certainly easier.

It was a great relief when the parks finally opened after being closed for two months. We went right down to Montsouris on the morning that it had been opened. In some parts of the park, the grass hadn’t been cut for more than two months! Quite undheard of for a Parisian park.

Luxembourg was empty. It was lovely to hear bird-song coming from all around, and not just from the window.

We are not out of this thing yet. Now, today in Paris, because of holidays the city is even more empty. I hope I’ll be able to take some more pictures of people once again!

In the bardo

In the bardo

So how much longer will the confinement last? That’s what everone here wants to know. According to the Bardo Thödol a soul must wander for seven times seven days after death before being re-born (or, if you you are lucky, pass to a higher level of consciousness). So that’s it ! We have just over three weeks left. Let’s see what happens: we wouldn’t want to find ourselves re-incarnated as some lesser creature (say, an insect). One thing is certain is that our lives after won’t resembles our lives before. While in the Bardo, holy men try to talk to the soul of the departed to provide advice and guide them to a “good” reincarnation. Here in our Bardo however we have zoom. The thing is, most of the people we are talking to don’t realise that they too are also in the Bardo…

“An apocalypse with French characteristics”

“An apocalypse with French characteristics”

You see, a few weeks ago, I had invited friends and family from the four corners of the globe to come to Paris for my birthday at the end of the month. Of course, I didn’t expect that the celebrations would be disrupted by a full-on Earth Abides-type situation, but that is precisely what has happened. I didn’t expect that that little protein-coated bundle of RNA straight outta Wuhan (only 20,000 base pairs!) would arrive here so rapidly and have such a pervasive effect on our everyday life.

George R. Stewarts’ Earth Abides, for those of you who don’t know it, is one of the most classic romans d’anticipation of all time (the French term for SF is just so much better; here I feel that SF is treated with respect). It is also a work of poetry and literature. I read the book when I was 17 and again in my 20s, and it has stayed with me ever since. The protagonist is a graduate student in geology who is up in the hills getting data for his thesis (as you do) when he is bitten by a snake. He falls ill, then falls ill again. In his fever, two men come into his shack, see him lying there, and then leave quickly. Were they really there? He imagines that it is a dream. Eventually, he recovers and comes down from the mountain to discover that he is (almost) the only person left alive. The world’s population has been decimated by a highly contagious and lethal disease which he was protected from by his snake-bite. That is the start of the book.

Stewart’s day job was a forestry ranger with the parks service and what the book is really about is the relationship between man and his environment. How natural systems have been perturbed by humans and how they will change when humans are no longer there. It is also about the relationship of humans to their culture. In Stewart’s book nobody is battling to save civilisation like desperate scientists in a laboratory surrounded by zombies. Civilisation disappears and the few people who are left have a hard time remembering what was the point of it, actually. Stewart’s character, Ish, valiantly tries to keep the Berkeley public library in order and the books in good condition but nobody is too interested in reading and pretty soon nobody can read. His goal of preserving culture and learning recedes and by the end of the book he is happy to have passed on a few suggestions on how to make weapons that don’t depend people using up their rapidly-depleting stock of ammunition.

All of these thoughts have been running through my head over the last few days. Like many places in Europe, our lives have been put under an increasingly severe series of restrictions in order to slow the spread of those RNA base-pairs . The main immediate effect of these restrictions is to greatly reduce the volume of traffic in the centre of Paris. Our apartment, which faces a long tree-lined avenue, normally vibrates imperceptibly to a slow background rumble of cars and lorries. But now, nothing. Opening the window, a car can be heard passing every few tens of seconds, if not less. On the street below one can now hear people’s voices. Birds can be heard signing. Just after the latest restrictions came into force, I leaned out the window and saw a rat the size of a squirrel scuttling from the bushes in the middle of the avenue and to the pavement and back again. In the middle of the day!

A homage to a certain photographer. But I don’t have a watch.

A quick walk around the neighbourhood reveals the fuller extent of our apocalypse with French characteristics . Unlike in Spain or Italy, we are not in total lock-down (this was written three days ago; enforcement is much more vigorous today on Saturday morning). You are still allowed to leave the apartment for a range of reasons, providing of course (this being France) you have a signed piece of paper explaining why you are not at home. Not all businesses have closed. The supermarkets are open (and the shelves slowly being re-stocked after the panic-buying of the last few days). In my very short walk on Thursday morning I met a few joggers and elderly ladies walking their dogs. I saw delivery vans bringing produce and electronic goods from Amazon warehouses to people’s homes. Everyone studiously is maintaining a nervously safe distance from everyone else. This morning it was quieter than the quietest day of the year, the 15th of August. Many people have left the city, those wealthy Parisians who have secondary homes in the countryside. We are all supposed to be working diligently at home (teletravail is what’s called here), thanks to the wonder of the internet. Yes, it’s not exactly Earth Abides. The idea that life should continue as normal, electronically, in the midst of all that suddenly seems strange to me. In some ways we are lucky that our lives can be abstracted away like this, converted into bits. But is so sad to see this great city empty of people.