Monday, 21 September 2009

Who pays?

Apparently we saved the banks. Now it's time to face the question of who pays.

The political conferences are full of politicians competing as to who can be the most threatening, though Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, ditched the word "savage" at the last moment and chose instead to talk of "serious cuts."

The Confederation of British Industry, combined with university vice-chancellors, has decided that students should pay for the university through higher fees, higher interest and cuts in grants. Oh yes, and their degrees should do more to train them for work in industry. Leaving aside the question of why students should pay to be moulded in the way employers demand (shouldn't they develop a capacity for original thought that enables them to remake industry and shape the future?), there's clearly a problem in the economics of what the CBI and vice-chancellors suggest. The economy needs money now - the suggestion that students are lent more money from 2010 or 2011 won't bring in any repayments until 2013 at the earliest, even if all graduating students walk straight into well-paid jobs.

It's an uncomfortable time. There are plenty of shrieks of "Not me!" which is to be expected. But there's also a great deal of finger-pointing, usually at individuals and social groups. Comments in newspapers and on-line forums are directed at the usual groups: immigrants, asylum-seekers, single mothers, the poor, the unconventional. "Punish them!" editorials and commentators demand. Facts on how little the poor and needy receive in benefits are no use - anecdotes of luxury are everywhere. Nor does it help to point out that the poor have to spend most of the money they receive, thus returning it to the economy. Spending by the poor is instantly labelled fecklessness.

I don't have a solution - I can't see any way of finding these impossible sums without hurting the economy more and damaging even more individuals. (Withdrawing troops from Afghanistan would save money and lives, but it wouldn't be enough.) Every cut brings its cost. There are bound to be cuts in public servants who include nurses, teachers, ambulance drivers, cleaners, lollipop ladies, and many others on whom we rely. Most will be entitled to redundancy pay and benefits - and in many cases it won't be enough for the rent or the mortgage. The newly unemployed will become the newly desperate. They will cut their spending (savagely, of course) and this will have an effect on all the businesses which depend on selling services and minor luxuries. Lots of small and large businesses are just keeping going. With less money coming in they will first shed more staff - that's even less spending money in the system - and then collapse.

The government has to look for cuts which affect the fewest people and from which the economy can recover most quickly. Logic points to taxing the rich and inherited wealth - money that doesn't circulate in the system. It's not going to happen. There are too many millionaires and too few paupers in government. But even taxing the wealthy won't solve the problems. I don't know if the kind of redistribution and rationing employed in World War II would help. My mum remembers the Second World War as a time of plenty after the scarcity of the 1930s - rationing fed children who were used to going without. But I'd worry about the centralisation and trust in government that requires, particularly when I look at the way the three main parties are funded.

The more I listen to political debates, the more I realise that no-one has a solution. I hear stale rhetoric and the rehearsal of prejudices and realise these are going to influence what happens next. It's going to be nasty. I don't want to speculate any further. I'd rather not think about the future but it's lurking and waiting to hit me in the face.

Note: the illustration is by the street artist Meek. I hope s/he doesn't mind my use of it.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The writing on the wall

When I was small, I went to Madame Tussaud's eager for the Chamber of Horrors. I rushed past the rather dull waxworks of unknown famous murderers. I wanted to see something horrid and scary, and to stroll on unafraid. It was something to do with testing courage, I think.

Children still love dungeons and horrors. They read the Horrible History books and learn details of torture. They haven't quite grasped - as I hadn't - that torture hurt people like us. Turning torture into a tourist thrill with wax victims, fake blood and feigned screams suggests that it's not quite real and, if it did happen, it was a long time ago to people wearing fancy costumes who talked rather differently from us.

We tend to ignore other people's pain, unless we're revelling in it. I'm startled when I see a teenage girl got up for a party with a gold cross - even a gold crucifix - worn on a chain. The twisted body of a man tortured to death is so familiar that it's lost its power to shock. We don't attend public executions but I've watched footage from real wars while eating supper in front of the TV. True crime sells well even if misery memoirs have waned in popularity.

We're protecting ourselves, I suppose. If I think about killing, torture and suffering today - really think about it and try to feel what it means - the thought becomes unbearable. The degree of suffering threatens to paralyse me but I should take action and protest.

Every so often the bleakness and pain of prisoners' lives reaches me. Wandering round the Chateau de Vincennes, I read notices which explained how the king's rooms had become cells where prisoners had sometimes been held for years. Usually prisoners find a means of scrawling or carving their names into the walls. There was less carving than usual at Vincennes. Instead the prisoners, who were often wealthy, had obtained paint and decorated their cells. This was no prison for paupers, whose lives were less important. The prison paintings of Vincennes are careful and accurate renditions of swagged curtains and lit candles on candelabras.

The plaster had begun to flake away before restoration was begun and I had to peer carefully to make out these creations of nostalgia and longing. There were words too but I couldn't make more than a fragmentary meaning:

"... ns la nuit de la tombe un jour desen... nos noms ................ ..............................monde .....................
.... mais .....................rite profonde .............
P0urquoi ......................................................."

[......?.. the night of the tomb one day..?.....
...................................?..our names ...............
...the............? ....................
Why ..............................................................]

And after that, there's a word which might be "larmes" [tears] - but the more I look the less sure I am. I can understand nothing.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Loving Paris

Arriving at the Gare du Nord, I was equipped with the carnet ticket that would take me to Montreuil. I like to keep fresh carnet tickets in my purse, telling myself that I have the tickets ready and therefore I must be back in Paris soon. I keep old tickets and use them as bookmarks so that every so often, when I pause in my reading, I'm reminded of journeys in the city I love.

This time I was over-confident. I didn't read the sign telling travellers to push their cases ahead of them. Instead I walked through the automatic gates pulling my suitcase behind me. They closed sharply and my case was trapped.

I was, of course, embarrassed. But a fellow-traveller, seeing my hopeless efforts to tug my case free, came to assist and quickly solved the problem. "You need a navigo," she told me (in French) and started asking other travellers whether they could help me by loaning one. Within a couple of minutes a young man realised what would work and laid his navigo on the panel that would recognize him as a legal traveller. The gates sprang open to admit him, the woman pushed my case through and went on when I'd hardly finishe stuttering my thanks.

It's hard to manage on the metro with a heavy case. The lines must have been built separately so the connections between them involve long tunnels, steep staircases and only occasional escalators or lifts. Sometimes I struggled alone but quite often people came to my help - smartly-dressed young people insisted on helping and so did one of the vendors of cheap toys and fluorescent Eiffel towers who left his pitch in the tunnel to run up a flight of stairs and help with my case.

Even with the help, my feet ached from the journey. Somehow they acquired small cuts and blisters which made walking difficult for the first part of the week. Perhaps the pain in my feet combined with my distaste for Versailles to make me less sympathetic than usual to the momuments to the French Republic.

I can't love the Panthéon. It's fine from the outside and when I stook in rue Soufflot under a dark grey sky with thunder crashing and lightning streaking across the sky the building came into its own. But the vast interior with its huge sculptural representation of the Convention doesn't grip me as much as the colourful Gothic delights of the much smaller Sainte Chapelle. Nor do I enjoy the collection of great men in the crypt (one woman is honoured there - Marie Curie was added in 1995). There are aspects to enjoy. I was amused by notices explaining how several people initially honoured at the Panthéon had later been demoted and buried elsewhere - even in death, it seems, the great men and their supporters were jostling for distinction. But it was good to see a memorial to Toussaint l'Ouverture and I could remember watching part of the ceremony in which the elder Alexandre Dumas was finally moved there in 2002. But it's part of the assertion of national greatness on a monumental scale which fails to touch me. In the same way, when I look at the Arc du Triomphe, so vast on its traffic island that it diminishes its visitors into insignificance, I feel regret rather than admiration.

Among all this neo-classical monumentalism, the Eiffel Tower is striking because it's so plainly linked to a people's Paris. It's a work of craft as well as art - whenever I see it I think of the skill with which it was designed and the hard work which created it. I've been to the top of the Eiffel Tower only once, when my son urged me to conquer my fear of heights. (That fear left me a year or so later but I faced my fear and got to the top - I still have the ticket to remind me.) But there's nothing intimidating about the Tower - it doesn't celebrate great men or the power of kings or state but human achievement in a city.

My favourite places aren't the great Haussmann boulevards, so convenient for crowds or armies and tanks. I like the small streets like the rue Mouffetard where people wander and work and shop and worry. I like places where the workers of Paris sit and talk at café tables the moment there's the faintest gleam of sun. I enjoy the everyday life of the city which can be rough as any city but which also has space for casual kindness. I'll remember all the sightseeing from my visit - and there's much I haven't mentioned here. But I'll also remember a comfortable basement cinema where the staff made viewers welcome, a hospitable African shop in Montreuil which serves - for 1 euro - the best espresso I've experienced in Paris, and a friendly Belgian pub near the Panthéon where happy hour starts at 4.00 p.m. so that draught Leffe arrives in double quantities.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Bare feet and unknown princesses

I was doing Paris on the cheap - and on my own. None of my friends were there but Anna offered the loan of her house in Montreuil. I needed to decide how to manage my holiday and make my money last.

Obviously, being alone, I wouldn't need to eat out. A regular morning coffee and the occasional pression - Leffe, by preference - would be bound to keep me going. And in Paris you can almost always find a boulangerie when you need one. I could have a good breakfast in the mornings and make myself an excellent salad with wine when I returned home.

I decided the time had come for the kind of tourism I'd been putting off for years. A web investigation told me a 6-day museum pass would be a good investment if I was serious about sightseeing. It costs 64 euros but many of the places I wanted to visit cost between 8 and 10 euros, and I reckoned I'd probably visit two or three in a day. It has the additional advantage of letting the holder bypass the long queues for tickets.

The metro was easy too. Thanks to Gerard, I already had a navigo (the French equivalent to the London oyster card) and had been educated in how the pricing systems work. I checked the zone map on the internet. Versailles was in zone 4 so it would be sensible to go on Sunday, using a 4-zone mobilis which allows flexible travel for the day. Then I would load a 2-zone weekly carte orange on my navigo from Monday. The carte orange, which is now virtual and therefore no longer orange, always starts on a Monday. It's a bargain for anyone staying for most of a calendar week. For just over 17 euros I could travel by bus, metro, the regional RER trains (some of them double-deckers) and even a little ferry on the Seine - the voguéo. While my museum pass made me feel like a tourist, the navigo let me think of myself as a true Parisienne.

But it was hard to settle into sightseeing after the oppressive grandeur and gilding of Versailles. I thought I'd better follow the Marie Antoinette trail to the Conciergerie, where her former cell is now equipped with a TV. There were expiatory mouments too. Louis XVIII was keen that the French people and the Parisiens in particular should repent of executing a monarch and his consort. I had more sympathy for the victims of the Terror of whom nothing was known but their name. All those guilloutined - more than 2,000 of them, which was fewer than I'd thought - were listed; the Terror was conducted along carefully bureaucratic lines. Former titles and professions were written down but there were many who had nothing but a name to record that they had once been sentenced to die quickly and in public. Of course I looked for familiar names - Madame Roland, Charlotte Corday, Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Philippe Egalité - but then I lingered on professions. There was an actress, a tailor, a servant. I wondered if they'd really cared for the ideals of some revolutionary or counter-revolutionary group or if they were victims of a local grudge. And how about all those people with no rank and no profession? What circumstances brought them to the tumbril, the abuse and the rough but efficient blade? They could have been anyone - rough-sleepers, immigrants, the destitute. Most regimes have their favoured victims on whom suspicion for all disruption and disorder rests. Even Robespierre had his special white plaque and many of the famous prisoners - including criminals killed slowly in pre-guillotine days - were recalled in pictures, words or sculpture. But my mind kept returning to those of whom nothing was known but their name.

After the Conciergerie, the colourful Gothic exuberance of Sante-Chapelle was a delight. But soon I'd left the Ile-de-la Cité and was in Saint-Denis, heading past the children playing football in the square to enter the church and its necropolis. (Katie had told me I shouldn't miss it.)

The first thing I noticed was the bare, marble feet. At the centre of the huge marble monument effigies of the almost naked monarch and consort lay, the soles of their feet facing tourists as they entered. At last I saw the human vulnerability of the monarchs. It was only later that I saw the fully-dressed king and queen kneeling in prayer, their children behind them, on the high top of the monument.

I wandered among the dead kings and queens. There was Marie Antoinette again, slightly larger than life and kneeling elegantly next to husband. And there were the plainer, earlier kings, from Clovis onward, looking stiff, still and much the same as one another.

Wandering among the royal monuments, I caught sight of a notice on one of the stiff mediaeval ladies: "une princesse inconnue" - an unknown princess. She may not have been a very significant princess but presumably, a long time ago, she thought herself an important person in the world. And now she was just a monument, much like all the others, and no-one even knew her name or which of the many dead princesses she was.

Beyond her lay another, smaller monument, no longer than a five-year-old but a miniaturised adult in polished white marble. I leant over to look at the notice - another "princesse inconnue."