Monday, 25 August 2008

Taking the tram

There's a point at which a new place ceases to be strange and foreign without becoming quite familiar. That's particularly true of places I love. There are places in Northumberland which I could explore with confidence. I might even swim in the North Sea off Bamburgh Beach without being particularly aware of the louring castle. I could direct a tourist to Grace Darling's grave or Barter Books in Alnwick, though it's years since I've been there. And, although I couldn't give directions, if I were in Edinburgh I would confidently find my way to the Grassmarket and negotiate the different levels, sloping streets and bridges.

I'm not quite so familiar with Paris, but I no longer feel exactly like a tourist. Going to the boulangerie remains a pleasure but the word "tabac" no longer produces a frisson of excitement. I haven't "done" all the tourist sites but I no longer feel so touristy that I need to do more. Instead of looking at galleries, I want to see exhibitions - Mantegna at the Louvre seems particularly tempting but probably not possible. Instead I want to absorb Parisien life. I may not be able to pass for a Frenchwoman, but I like to think I might become a temporary Parisienne.

I was restless and decided to spend an afternoon wandering. At Porte d'Italie I took the tram with no particular destination in mind. The Indispensible showed that there was an exhibition centre at Porte de Versailles so I decided I would get off there. Then I could walk or get a bus and perhaps head for the centre. One possibility seemed a Metro to Solferino and the Musee d'Orsay, but it was a little late and I wasn't sure I had the patience or concentration for art.

So far as I could tell, there were no tourists on the tram. I was the only passenger consulting a map. I gazed out of the window for places to visit on my return journey. The park at Cité Universitaire seemed a possibility. I admired the shiny exterior of the
stade Charléty, with its elegant curves, and briefly wondered whether to stay on the tram till the end of the line.

The tramway, circling central Paris, took me through areas of wealth, student quarters, places where people work hard for low wages and check the prices if everything they buy. I suppose people who ride the tram daily get used to those contrasts. I was being a tourist of everyday Paris and this struck me as much as the patience of people in queues and the tired helpfulness of drivers and shop assistants.

There was no exhibition at the Porte de Versailles. I hadn't expected one and headed in the direction of central Paris. I contemplated the Metro, which would take me quickly to the museums, the Ile de la Cite and the Seine, and decided to walk. I thought I might stop in a cafe for an espresso but many cafes were shut for the holiday season. Instead, I entered a Monoprix and browsed among the household implements before sitting down for a coffee. I lingered a while before walking further and devised plans involving buses towards the centre. Then I saw the bookshop.

I wasn't looking for books - and was trying to avoid stationery, which lures me into extravagance. But I stayed for a long while, buying a postcard, a book bag, a slim anthology of well-known French poems and a copy of Phedre. It took me back to a production by the Glasgow Citizens, some time in the 1980s - the last time I saw Glenda Jackson on the stage. But what I remember most is the voice of Robert Eddison outlining the tragedy and horror in the messenger's speech. That voice seemed to link back to the theatre of the past and conjured a link to the era of greasepaint, footlights and shattering emotion. No other voice in theatre has affected me quite so much, though Ralph Fiennes came close when he played Henry VI for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

I came out of the shop and emerged from my reflections to find it had rained. It was later than I'd intended - time to move on.

Instead of heading to the centre, I cut along another road, then another and bought olive bread in a boulangerie. Then I started to look at bus stops and found a route to connect with the tramway. (I was pleased with myself for remembering that a stop was called "George Brassens.")

Back on the tram, I had to stand. Two minutes after I boarded, the rain fell, torrentially, and I gave up my plan of walking in the park. Perhaps a beer at Porte d'Italie, I thought. But the rain continued and, when I left the tram, I was thankful that tram stops had places to shelter. I stood for a while, coatless, waiting for the rain to lessen, trying to be patient like a real Parisienne.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Bringing home the dead

It may be the middle of the Olympics but, when I turned on the TV, there were no sports and the news had been delayed. The state funeral for ten French soldiers killed in Afghanistan was carried live.

I don't approve of war and I don't usually like state ceremonies. I'm opposed to most of President Sarkozy's policies, including his pursuit of the west's unwinnable war in Afghanistan. But when I watched the end of the funeral ceremonies in the courtyard of Les Invalides, he seemed to have done something right.

Certainly the funeral included rhetoric about the heroism of war. The the French President - and most of his cabinet - faced the ten coffins and watched saw the grief of the families of the dead. Wives, children, parents clutched one another and cried. In turn they stooped over the flag-draped coffin that held the familiar flesh and kissed it - some once, some many times. No-one could erase their pain - it was part of the ceremony.

Soldiers, ministers and families faced that grief as the band played the Marseillaise.

There was a strange ceremony - strange to me, though I think it's familiar in France. Sarkozy stood at the foot of each coffin in turn and appointed each dead soldier, by name, a knight of the Legion d'Honeur. So far as I could see, he had no notes. He had to speak the name of each soldier in turn before pinning the medal on a red cushion at the foot of the coffin. I couldn't help recalling what happened when Maya Evans and Milan Rai read the names of the British soldiers killed in Iraq at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

Of course, there were gaps. The debate about the war and the funerals of the Afghan dead take place elsewhere. But it seemed right that a President should name and honour the dead while his cabinet stands with head bowed. It seemed right that the leader who pursues a war should pay homage to the men he sent to kill and be killed in pursuit of his policy. It seemed right that a country should see mourning and grief on live TV.

So far, 116 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan. 176 have died in Iraq. I haven't noticed any state funerals, though there have been public messages of condolence to the families. Sometimes the funerals have been reported. Sometimes these are intimate family occasions with uniformed soldiers joining the congregation. On other occasions they are full-scale military events. Sometimes there are no coffins because there are no remains. Some funerals include denunciations of the war and attacks on government policy.

The absence of British cabinet ministers from the funerals of dead soldiers seems a kind of cowardice but perhaps it's just the usual concern for image and spin. In the United States this goes further. President Bush has attempted to prevent journalists from acquiring any photographs of the coffins coming home.

At the end of the French state funeral I saw something else surprising. There was a soldier in a wheelchair. His comrades were helping him over the cobbles. In Britain we don't see much of the injured. A group of severely injured soldiers wanted to join the Remembrance Day ceremonies at the cenotaph last year. At first they were encouraged to take part. Then they were told they weren't welcome because serving soldiers aren't allowed.

They do things differently in France.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

In the queue

I allowed plenty of time. I had forty minutes between arriving at the station and my appointment with the optician so I reckoned there would be no problem in strolling to the Post Office and sending a parcel to my mum and dad. It wasn't an urgent parcel - just a small holiday souvenir and a book about the tenor James Johnston. Dad heard James Johnston sing in his amateur days and only recently learnt of his subsequent fame. And at least the Post Office was still in its grand Edwardian building and not crammed into a W.H. Smith's basement. And late afternoon is usually a good time to avoid queues - at least in my local Post Office.

I'd forgotten the effect of Post Office closures. There must have been forty people in the queue when I arrived: some elderly, one on crutches, some parents with small, hot, hungry children. There were five counters open. Evidently the Post Office is economising by cutting back of staff - miserable for them and miserable for their customers.

After fifteen minutes of standing in line, I began to wonder if I should give up and go away. I looked at the resigned patience of the people ahead. Some must have been in pain from standing so long. A small child was crying in the exhausted, hungry way that made me aware of my own helplessness as a new parent. No-one spoke. We stood and waited. Behind me, the queue lengthened. I stayed.

Twenty-five minutes after I arrived, I reached the counter. I remarked on this to the woman who sold me stamps and took my parcel. "It's always like this," she said, glancing tiredly at the queue.

I did the sums. Forty people waiting twenty-five minutes. Isn't that 1,000 minutes in total? That's 16 hours and 40 minute of people's time lost in queuing every during the twenty-five minutes I stood in line. How much is lost in a day? in a week? How many people with disabilities suffer pain? How many working people lose time they need? How many parents and children endure the discomfort of the queue?

And what will it be like at a busy time? I wonder how early I can post for Christmas.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Tube trains and cab drivers

I photographed this Isle of Wight train for my dad. He has a personal connection with it. This was part of the stock he kept running in his work as a fitter for London Transport.

We took the Fastcat to Ryde. Then the little tube train hurtled us along the track to Sandown. I remember taking a steam train there, when I was very small - at least, I think I remember. It was probably part of a Sunday School outing. But in 1967 the Isle of Wight railway was electrified and the tube trains arrived, freed from underground tunnels to trundle through fields and past houses.

I've posted a few comments on swimming in the sea elsewhere so I shan't write about that particular pleasure here. I liked the Isle of Wight and wondered if it would be a good place for holidays in another year. I'd like to trace the literary connections.

One of the attractions of the Isle of Wight is good public transport. There seems to be a good bus service as well as the trains, and there might be an opportunity to hire bicycles. And if my heel recovers, I could do plenty of walking too.

I was planning to use buses in Southsea and Portsmouth until Bryn, the guest teenager, pointed out that, with four of us, minicabs would probably be cheaper. So we took to using Aqua Cars and saved time as well as cash. They were splendidly prompt and efficient, except on the last day when a sudden downpour raised demand.

We never had the same cab driver twice. But mostly they were friendly and all were helpful. Occasionally music on the radio wasn't to our taste but we all enjoyed listening to The Now Show while heading to Portsmouth Harbour Station on our way home. There's something very cheering in finding that a cab driver laughs at the same jokes.

Cab drivers gave us advice about local shops and pedestrian walks. They helped us load and unload shopping. And, to my delight, one turned out to have a wide knowledge of English literature.

I discovered this when I asked about the book he was reading. He wasn't reading while driving but the book lay face down beside him with his place marked - he was evidently reading it between fares. It was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and the driver outlined its themes with enthusiasm. The subsequent conversation led our driver into brief discourses on a range of topics including the rise of the graphic novel, American fiction, the pleasures of postmodernism (introduced almost apologetically with a clear one-line explanation), the contrast between the playful experimentation of Sterne's Tristram Shandy and what the driver insisted was the materialism of Richardson's Clarissa. I fear the driver was disappointed in my preference for Richardson and my acknowledgement that I have read Clarissa three times.

I didn't want that journey to end. I wanted to know more about the cab driver's tastes and get further book recommendations. But I expect he wanted to get back to his book.

I've now bought Kavalier and Clay and am planning another attempt on Tristram Shandy - perhaps it's time to stop dipping and read it from cover to cover.

Now I'm back to buses and trains. Unfortunately bus and train drivers have fewer opportunities to share their literary tastes with passengers.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

A killing machine

"Will you see the Victory?" everyone asks.

A trip to Portsmouth is unthinkable, it seems, without a visit to the historic dockyard. So we went to the dockyard. I found money-off vouchers at the tourist information office and bought annual season tickets, which meant that we could spread our visits out over the week.

The Victory came first.

In traditional British history, HMS Victory is iconic - the flagship where Nelson died while leading the British fleet to victory over the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar. I'm of the generation that can quote Nelson's phrases: "England expects every man to do his duty" - his message to the fleet before the battle, and "Kiss me, Hardy" - his final words. (The respectable version says that his last words were, "Thank God I have done my duty" - perhaps that version is true.) I also recall that Nelson left his beautiful mistress, Emma, Lady Hamilton, as a "bequest to the nation". The nation, as usual, averted its eyes from this evidence of Nelson's scandalous misbehaviour and Emma Hamilton died as she was born, in poverty. The nation was more concerned in the return of Nelson's body in a cask of brandy to St Paul's Cathedral where, after a period of laying in state, public mourning and processions, it was buried. It's still hard to escape Nelson memorials - the most famous if Trafalgar Square in London, where a stone Nelson stands high on his column.

The romance of Nelson takes over from the reality - the small sailor, blind in one eye, with one arm amputated, never free of seasickness. The glamour cheered Britain in later wars - Winston Churchill was a fan of the 1941 Alexander Korda film Lady Hamilton in which Laurence Olivier played Nelson and Vivien Leigh was Emma.

Visiting the Victory took me away from the myth - to some degree at least, although the decks are scrubbed and the cannon shine. The ship seems spacious - big enough to take 200 tourists at once - but its full crew was 850 men. Much was made in my school history lessons of the opportunities for advancement offered by the navy - and there were certainly chances for the midshipmen who joined at the age of 11 or 12 from their middle-class families. But midshipmen had it easy compared with the common seamen who were often taken by the press gang. These took turns to sleep in hammocks between the cannon and were punished by brutal naval discipline if they broke any minor rule.

The Victory, like all warships, was a machine for killing people. But it maintained class distinctions. The captain's cabin was lavishly furnished and he had special supplies - as did other officers. The men had no space that was their own. They were fed and provided with water so that they could, when necessary, play their part. Each cannon needed 10 or 12 or 14 men to load and fire it. Cannon balls had to be stored carefully and gunpowder was sealed away in barrels. A single rat getting into the gunpowder could cause a spark that would destroy an entire wooden ship.

The ship is kept clean and tidy for tourists. But I was reminded of battle by a notice which drew attention to the role of the ship's carpenters. During battle, a corridor was kept free for them so that they could run up and down the side of the ship, stopping the holes torn by cannon balls.

57 men on the Victory were killed at the Battle of Trafalgar or died of their wounds shortly after. 102 further men were wounded. They came from England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and eighteen other nations. For most of them the Victory must have been entirely unromantic - the place where they worked. The sea stopped them escaping from their workplace. And most of the corpses were slid overboard before the Victory returned with Nelson's body. And of all those killed in battle, Nelson's is the only name I know.

Sea views

I love seaside towns. Not big, brash holiday parks or tasteful resorts but run-down places with high-ceilinged apartments and quiet hotels. These are the places where grandparents take grandchildren, where a jogger or cyclist passes along the seafront every quarter hour and a swimmer is cause for comment. Here the piers are not quite deserted – but they close early if it rains. Half the ice-cream stands are boarded up and the pubs offer quiet corners, even on Saturday nights.

We came to Southsea where I'd booked an apartment with huge rooms, high ceilings and sea views. It was what we needed. In the mornings we slept late then watched the yachts strung out from the Isle of Wight. We read and played cards. There was no internet connection.

We meant to explore but did less than we intended. Occasional walks tended to take us along the sea front to Portsmouth, though we did try wandering through Southsea itself. I missed the two literary sites I'd hoped to explore: the house where Arthur Conan Doyle began his medical practice and Dickens' birthplace in Portsmouth. The teenagers weren't particularly keen and I lacked the energy for solitary exploration. Perhaps another time. In any case, the ghosts of Doyle and Dickens walked with me as I wondered how the quiet of Southsea and the military bustle of Portsmouth had seemed to them.

The beaches at Southsea are stony and all week the sea was calm. While there was rain elsewhere, we had occasional drizzle but mostly the sun shone.

Along the coast lay the memorials of war past and preparations for future war. We walked past tanks, an anti-aircraft gun, the D-Day Museum, ships crafted for battle from the Napoleonic Wars to the Falklands. (Nobody mentioned Afghanistan or Iraq.) In the shipyard, men worked on the huge aircraft carriers, some of which had been sold abroad. The navy and past deaths were marketed as a tourist attraction. We became tourists.

I looked at the young parents pushing buggies on the front, the preparations for war and the gently implacable grey waves. In the leisurely August sun I could find no point at which those three worlds met.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Not on the long list

I’ve looked at the Booker longlist. I haven’t read any of the books, which isn’t surprising as I rarely read hardbacks. I’m not sure whether I’ve read any novels by any of the authors. This is encouraging, I think, as there’s a good chance I’ll find one or two delights there. I particularly want to read the John Berger – perhaps because his early Booker winner, G, was one of the very few books in my school library that I didn’t read.

I did, however, treat myself to one hardback as holiday reading – James Kelman’s new novel, Kieron Smith, Boy. I had to justify the extravagance to myself and thought up a list of excuses: I could teach it one day (not this year – the paperback isn’t due out till April), I might discuss it with students, it would put an Amazon order into the “free postage” category. But the real reason was simple. I wanted to read it.

Somewhere – I can’t remember where – I found the first paragraph. And that was it. It took me into the world of a small boy growing in Glasgow with such immediacy that I wanted to know what happened next. This wasn’t the appeal of a thriller or sci-fi, where I wanted to read the next event – I wanted to live in this boy’s world and know it better.

This is how the novel begins:

"In the old place the river was not far from our street. There was a park and all different things in between. The park had a great pond with paddleboats and people sailed model yachts. Ye caught fish in it too. Ye caught them with poles that had wee nets tied at the end. But most people did not have these. Ye just caught them with yer hands. Ye laid down on yer front close into the edge on the ground. Here it sloped sharp into the water, so ye did not go too close. Just yer shoulders reached that bit where the slope started. Ye rolled up yer sleeves and put yer hands together and let them go down it. Just slow, then touching the water and yer hands going in. If ye went too fast ye went right in up yer arms over yer shoulders. Ye only went a wee bit, a wee bit, a wee bit till yer hands were down as far. Then yer palms up the way, holding together. If a fish came by ye saw it and just waited till it came in close. If it stayed there over yer hands, that was how ye were waiting. It was just looking about. What was it going to do? Oh be careful if ye do it too fast, if yer fingers just move and even if it is the totiest wee bit. Its tail whisked and it was away or else it did not and stayed there, so if ye grabbed it and ye got it and it did not get away. So that was you, ye caught it."

I don’t know exactly what caught me: the language, the voice, the precise physical details, the sense of character. But I knew I had to read on.

I read half the book avidly – then life got in the way and it was a couple of weeks before I returned to it. I regret that gap. I’d like to have sat down and read the book cover to cover without stopping. Not that Kieron Smith’s world is enviable . Like most people’s worlds, it’s mixed. There are elements of love, affection, cruelty and neglect, as there are, I imagine, in every childhood. But the setting is precise and a time is evoked without reference to dates or public events.

If I were to compare Kieron Smith, Boy to any other book, it would be James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But it doesn’t have the same sense of self-importance – unlike Stephen Daedalus, Kieron Smith doesn’t think he is special and has no sense of artistic destiny. And although Kelman’s narrative is just as carefully shaped, it isn’t structured into six episodes with culminating epiphanies. The sections run into one another so that Kieron gradually grows from a small child to an adolescence with no major events. The period is sketched only as events and trends concern Kieron – the move into a housing scheme flat, selective secondary schools, a keenness to wear and be seen in denim.

In one of his essays, James Kelman talks about the way working-class Glaswegians are seen – as violent drunks who lack any “rich inner life.” While Kieron and his family are not exemplary – they have the prejudices of their time, place and culture - Kieron Smith’s story is told with an awareness that a rich inner life is not the preserve of the rich and powerful – it is what marks our common humanity.

Kieron Smith, Boy may not have made the Booker longlist but I have a strong suspicion that it will be my personal book of the year.

Friday, 1 August 2008

To the Bois de Vincennes

I spent the morning in Ivry on an errand for a friend. I'd never been there before and found it delightful. There were no tourist sites - or if there were, I didn't notice them. What I discovered was a small town within the Paris metro, apparently peaceful and cared for by its inhabitants. For a while I wished I could live in Ivry.

My errand included an inspection of a highly-recommended boulangerie/patisserie. I spent a euro on one of their specialist baguettes, put it in my bag and headed towards the Bois de Vincennes.

The word "bois" was enough to attract me as the heat increased. I dreamt of breezes in woodland. The chateau had also been recommended - I'd heard it was the scene of Henry V's death and thought that perhaps I'd sign up for a tour. But my first stop was close to the Porte Doree, where the Palais originally called the Musee Coloniale has now become a Museum of the History of Immigration, with, for historical reasons, an aquarium in the basement.

The palais is a glorious example of inter-war architecture, but the reliefs and murals recall the prejudices which were endorsed by the French government when the Palais opened as the central hall of the Colonial Exhibition of 1931.

The new museum has taken those prejudices as its starting point in mounting a splendid exhibition - about the exhibition of 1931. The Colonial Exhibition was a huge, popular spectacle. Indivdually, many of the exhibits told of complex cultures and artistic achievement. However the effect of showing all France's colonies together diminished this element. The powerful and the banal were jumbled together, offering a vision in which the overpowering impact was of quaintness and difference. Talented citizens from the colonies took part but the exhibition as a whole glorified French colonial power and took for granted the superiority of the French to their colonial subjects.

Reflecting on 1931, the current exhibition doesn't permit a simple response - it would be too easy to say "Things were bad then," and pass on. But the exhibition, which merges with the permanent exhibits, shows the complexity of what the exhibition offered and what it achieved.

There are films, installations, sculptures, photographs, information boards. And there are the identity cards and simple records of people accepted - or rejected - for residency or citizenship. Each entry in a register, each tiny photo represents a whole life.

The exhibition explores ideas about race and immigration before the exhibition, the protests against the exhibition (which led to an anti-colonial exhibition, and the influence the exhibition had on the arts in France. There are the histories of different groups of immigrants. The lucky were accepted as French but the less fortunate, who included Sigmund Freud and Pablo Picasso, had their applications refused. There's one chilling photograph from the early 1940s: a group of men stand in front of a hut, looking towards the camera. Without the caption I wouldn't have known its purpose. The picture was taken for a major French newspaper during the occupation. The men, photographed in a concentration camp, had been selected to demonstrate different semitic types - presumably so that French citizens could identify and denounce their neighbours.

I didn't emerge with an easy solution or simple summary in response to all the prejudice and hatred. I became aware of a multitude of perspectives and numberless experiences. I wanted to read more but was growing tired. The effort of reading in French and trying to follow a largely unfamiliar political and economic history, was lowering my concentration. I paused for an espresso, then headed out, baguette in hand, to eat as I walked through the Bois de Vincennes.

I got as far as the entrance to the zoo and looked at the outside of the chateau. I decided that hiring a boat or bicycle must wait for another visit and simply wandered through the paths, enjoying the cool breeze, drinking water and eating torn hunks of bread.

Eventually I turned back, only to realise that I was on a different path. Inidispensible in hand, I worked out a new route back to my friends. It involved changing buses, taking a metro and catching another bus. Luckily this was Parisien public transport - regular and reliable. I had one wait of more than ten minutes but the route worked perfectly.

I was welcomed by the offer of tea or a drink, followed by one of Jana's splendid meals.

I think it was over supper that I learned that my hosts' son, who was born in Paris,has never lived anywhere else, and speaks French as his first language, missed his right to automatic French citizenship by a month, under the reforms of 1992. Although they are long-term residents, neither of his parents is a French citizen. Though their son takes an interest in the countries of both his parents, he is plainly, above all, a Parisien - but not, it seems, French.


I'd heard about Paris Plage but never been there before. This year there wasn't much publicity. I couldn't find a separate leaflet so settled for a more general leaflet about summer events in Paris. It didn't tell me much but, after a delicious Lebanese lunch in the Carrousel of the Louvre (the food court is excellent for travellers on a budget), I headed past the glass pyramid to the banks of the Seine. There the blue banners directed me towards the "plage".

It's not a real beach. Apart from the month of Paris-Plage, it's a fast road. But from mid-July to mid-August, traffic is diverted and replaced by sunloungers, boules pitches, showers, and sports activities for children and adults.

I'm not someone who lounges in the sun. My skin parched in the heat despite occasional breezes so I welcomed the showers where water was dispensed in a fine mist which drenched eager children but also supplied a barely visible sprinkling of moisture to passers by. There were fountains too, where we could fill water bottles.

Wandering alone, I was an observer rather than a participant. What I saw was Parisiens' Paris - the place where the locals relax and enjoy the summer if they aren't lucky enough to join the big getaway.

Later I found my way to the Hotel de Ville (the Paris City Hall). The square in front had been transformed into a temporary (ephemeral) garden with green plants and lakes, to promote the ecological gardens of the city. There was mini-golf for the children and stand dispensed Paris water, free of charge, with fresh mint or lemon added. I joined the water-drinkers at their tables, sipping and savouring my water - and trying to swallowing the huge sprig of mint in the glass.

I need to be economical this year - the trip to the Comedie Francaise was my big extravagance - so much of my exploration consisted of walking around Paris. However, I'd invested in a Navigo, which meant I could take buses, trains or metros when I wished - and the guide called the Indispensible made it easy for me to find the best routes. But every so often I wandered freely, finding unexpected views, with a sense that I was walking through history.

On a sunny day, history seems calm and distant. It's easy to forget the real violence - or that pain and grief were felt as acutely in preceding centuries as they are now. It's too easy to treat Paris like any theme park that nourishes nostalgia - and forget the history which links the city to the world. But the history of Paris has affected the way people understand their human condition. I know too little of it but have picked up episodes like a series of snapshots: the theological debates in the time of Peter Abelard, the Revolution, the Napoleonic era, the siege and commune, the occupation, liberation, Sartre and de Beauvoir in a cafe.

In the past couple of years I've been acutely aware of signs recalling the occupation and its atrocities. Pausing on my calm, sunny progress, I saw another plain memorial:



That's too close to be the safe past. I have met some of the few survivors who have camp numbers tattooed on their arms.

I was impressed by the acknowledgement of complicity. I thought of the children deported from Britain with their families after their claims for asylum have been turned down. I recalled what I had read of dawn raids. Children are easy to locate and deporting a whole family helps the authorities meet government targets. What happens to those children who suddenly vanish from British schools, who are bundled onto flights to unfamiliar lands where they face hatred and oppression?

Perhaps one day Britain will erect memorials to them too. I wonder if the British will be as honest as the French. Will the British government and people acknowledge even partial responsibility for what happens next?