The Walls of the Rive Gauche

My walk down to the shops on rue de Buci is particularly rich in street art and graffiti.  The latest images of Serge Gainsbourg on his house on rue de Verneuil are particularly striking. The nostalgie for the smoke-ridden image of M. Gainsbourg hangs thick over this part of the Left Bank, as if Paris still mourns the passing of the last true Frenchman, who rubbed out his last cigarette more than 20 years ago.

The Rive Gauche is not only home the ghosts of Gainsbourg, Sartre and Boris Vian. It also hosts both houses of France’s legislature and many government ministries, and is in many ways the inevitable centre of all French politics.  The Parti Socialiste has its offices nearby on rue Solférino, comfortably distant from the quartiers populaires.

Yet this part of town generally seems to display a shrugging indifference to current affairs: preferring fantasy over realpolitik, and heroic elegance over hard economics.

The Economist this week was critical of the current presidential campaign in France, describing the candidates as being in a “state of denial” about the economic situation and the size of the government debt. Perhaps that’s because most candidates look elsewhere for inspiration – rather like this girl?

In recent weeks, images of the Front de Gauche candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon have been appearing on walls all over town – his drab green coat and his leftwards gaze recall images of Mao Tse-Tung… just as the current high poll ratings of Mélenchon seem to reflect a long-held nostalgie for the glory days of French communist and trotskyist politics.

Despite Mélenchon’s current wave of popularity, it’s difficult to tell whether his candidacy will ultimately make any difference in the race between Sarkozy and Hollande. And it’s highly doubtful that his policy ideas are implementable, let alone realistic in the current climate.  In the face of such uncertainty, the graffiti artists of the Left Bank, at least, prefer to watch the heavens…

Energy State: 4 Days in Saudi

Last December, I spent a few days in the Gulf – it was, as I mentioned at the time, a most intriguing experience.  Last week, I had the opportunity (and the visa) to go further down the rabbit hole: this time to Riyadh, the extraordinary capital of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh is extraordinary, in the sense that in ordinary circumstances, the city should simply not exist. In Riyadh, 7 million people – the population of one and a half Scotlands – live at 600m above sea level, in the middle of one of the hottest deserts on the planet, with neither a river, port or a strategic geographic setting to recommend it. One can barely imagine the energy required to bring water, food, fuel and power to the place. And yet the city still grows, and the traffic gets worse, year after year.

For visitors (who are either businessmen or expatriate workers, the Kingdom does not welcome tourists), there is virtually nothing to do.  Saudi Arabia offers neither bars nor cinemas. Alcohol is contraband, and the outside temperature in summer (40-50 degrees) makes sport simply impossible. If my experience is typical, visitors spend their days shuttling between air-conditioned hotels and offices, in air-conditioned taxis, climb to the top of the Kingdom Tower to count the mosques, and then jump on the next plane home.

Even the shopping malls are strictly regulated, to prevent single men and women mixing. There are separate floors for women’s shops, and “family nights” are reserved for wives, husbands and their families: single people are turned away at the door. At prayer time, we saw shopkeepers closing their shutters, and Mutaween cars cruising the streets with loudhailers, apparently berating the backsliders and infidels for not attending prayers.

My hotel thoughtfully provided a prayer mat, in a bedside drawer, along with a sticker pointing the direction to “Holy Makkah”. In the privacy of your hotel room, there are thankfully no Mutaween: the instructions to face Makkah can be heeded or not, as one wishes.

After four days in the Kingdom,  although I had been fascinated by the experience and deeply appreciated the generous welcome given by our Saudi hosts, I was very happy to depart. It is a privilege to live in a place where there are trees, public transport, and where the media consisted of more than just koranic readings, propaganda and football. Allah may not have blessed our western countries with almost endless oil wealth, but in our own way, we are very blessed indeed.

Christchurch, the Distant City

Christchurch, February 22nd 2011

Christchurch holds onto a small but indelible place in my imagination. I was born there,  as was my younger sister, but since then, the city has played only a minor role in my adventures.

We left Christchurch when I was small. To all intents and purposes if I have a “home town”, it’s Auckland. By birth a  South Islander, I quickly became a North Islander by habit and conviction.

However, my first verifiable memories are rooted in Christchurch. An image of my father, waving to me on his bicycle across the street in Riccarton, as I’m strapped into the child seat on my mother’s bicycle. In that image, the sun is shining, as it so often does in Canterbury.

Later, there’s the moment that I nearly bit my tongue off falling from a plastic toy tractor, and Mum and Dad rushed me to Accident and Emergency. Nothing the doctor could do. “We don’t stitch tongues“, he solemnly informed my parents. I survived.

And then we moved to Auckland, and Christchurch became a place viewed from afar, in the saturated colours of Super 8 family films projected on the family room wall.

Christchurch was a place of fleeting visits: summer Christmases with my aunt in her sprawling house in Avonhead, lounges full of bean bags, afternoons full of swimming pools and tether-ball on the back lawn.

Christchurch was a duck-blue rowing boat with Not-My-Real-Uncle Tony on the River Avon; the heat of January sun at Pigeon Bay on Lyttleton Harbour; and spotting UFOs from the back seat of my cousin’s car as we crossed the high road over the Port Hills.

In later years, Christchurch became even more mysterious. It was a place passed through on skiing trips to the Southern Alps, a gig here and there at the Dux de Lux. A city glimpsed briefly in between airports, roadmaps and twilight hours.

one million dollars on tour – Cathedral Square, June 2004

Today, Christchurch is again a city viewed from afar: via a flood of hasty Twitter messages, shaky iPhone video taken through clouds of dust, and an expanding litany of bad news on the world’s websites.

French news anchors pronounce “Christchurch” as if spitting out the overly prussian name of one of Bismarck’s generals. Flat-vowelled kiwi accents are overdubbed into Parisian Media French. Al Jazeera interrupts coverage of Gadaffi’s final madness to earnestly report on New Zealand’s destruction – from their Kuala Lumpur bureau. Afar has never quite seemed so far.

My aunt is safe. But New Zealand is a small place, and Christchurch even smaller. Our stories link together strongly. The cathedral where friends of mine sang in the choir is in ruins. The cliff at Sumner has collapsed. We ate once at a suberb beachside restaurant below it, called “Scarborough Fare“.

People are sleeping in tents in Hagley Park, while others spend the night still trapped under collapsed buildings, hoping for rescue. Some are digging in the rubble, or organising food and water supplies, or looking after neighbours.  Others still lie silent, awaiting discovery and burial.

When you’re a New Zealander, the chance that you know one of these people personally is very strong. I can’t be anywhere but Paris right now, but for the moment, my imagination is back in Christchurch. Kia kaha koutou nga morehu o Otautahi.

Radio France Internationale

It’s fair to say that France doesn’t have a international broadcast news service of the stature or popularity of the BBC World Service… and France’s international TV service in English, France24, (a pet project of Jacques Chirac instituted in the last days of his presidency) is worthy but rather under-resourced, and frankly looks and sounds like a struggling local cable news from Minnesota.

However, one of the small pleasures of living in Paris is tuning in to Radio France Internationale (RFI) on 89.0 FM. For news in the morning, I find it a much better source for a roundup of international news than the local news stations. Like the World Service, RFI is jointly funded by the state broadcaster and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and most of the time, seems to maintain its editorial independence.

France Inter, France Info and the private stations RTL and Europe1 are often thoughtful and interesting. But they are dominated by big-name media stars and an interminable analysis of domestic French politics that often leaves me longing for something that isn’t Eric Woerth’s latest scandal, more speculation on the imminent cabinet reshuffle, or wall-to-wall coverage of French sailors in the Route du Rhum.

By contrast, RFI seems refreshingly free of big-name media stars, and is just as likely to spend 15 minutes examining the US mid-term elections as it is to interview a foreign relations expert on Burma, or cut to live to a reporter in Ouagadougou to talk about their recent International Festival of Contemporary Theatre.

The Maison de Radio France, by the Seine in the 16th arrondissement

RFI broadcasts in 19 different languages overseas, but its French service is unapologetically focused on sub-Saharan africa, where it enjoys the largest audience of any Francophone radio station in the world – between 30 and 45 million listeners. Listening to RFI opens up a continent of politics that is rarely discussed in English language meda: for example RFI’s coverage of the recent elections in Guinea and Ivory Coast was fascinating.

Among Parisian listeners, the station caters largely to an audience in the suburbs. While France Inter often sounds like the 6th arrondissement arguing with the 7th arrondissement, RFI’s focuses on events happening in the often unloved swathes of le 93 and le 94:  film festivals in Montreuil, schools in crisis in Aulnay-sous-Bois, or the plight of the homeless in Chelles. It makes for fascinating listening, and provides a very different image of the city than one gets from most of the French mainstream press.

Bethany and Leanna – an update

I wrote last year about my chance meeting with Leanna Mills and her family in Montpellier. I was particularly moved by their story and have kept in touch with the family since.

With more surgery upcoming for Leanna and her sister Bethany, the family arrived back in France this week. They passed through Paris briefly on their way to Montpellier.

On Thursday evening I caught up with the girls and their father Nic for dinner. Afterwards we went down to the Eiffel Tower for some sightseeing. I’m still not much good at driving a wheelchair, and the evening crowds didn’t make it easier! Their little sister Olivia came with us, and had a lot of fun with the souvenir sellers…

Bethany, Nic, Leanna and Olivia in Paris

Bethany’s surgery is routine but still dramatic – she is getting the batteries replaced for the brain stimulator device that keeps her alive. The technology is slowly improving, and doctors  hope that her new batteries will last longer than two years. Bethany uses a wheelchair, but thanks to continuing surgery she remains fairly mobile and independent.

On the other hand, Leanna is facing a much grimmer challenge. In addition to her primary dystonia, she has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease – terrible news for a 15 year-old girl.  Leanna now requires significant care, and the outlook does not look good for much improvement.

Mills Sisters Registered Charity

The Mills family currently need help raising funds to buy a block of land in Newcastle, Australia and to construct a disability-friendly home for the girls. They have a registered charity, and donations are accepted online at their MyCause page. These donations are tax-deductible in Australia.

In other developments, the sisters now have their own website. With permission of the family, I also have set up a Facebook page – so you can follow them if you’re on Facebook, and I hope to post regular updates there as I hear news…

Don’t Rain on My Parade

The 14th of July (which NOBODY in France calls “Bastille Day”, by the way) dawned bright, promising a hot day with sun shining benignly down on the amassed weaponry parading down the Champs-Elysées. Shorts, sunglasses, sunscreen and digital cameras seemed the essential equipment to enjoy the day.

How wrong we were. As we took up our position in the roof garden of an office building just a block back from the Arc de Triomphe (friends with high places, naturally), and while snipers from the Gendarmerie stared at us through binoculars, clouds started moving in from the east, looming darkly over the Eiffel Tower.

The storm held off long enough for us to watch the French Air Force roar down the length of the Voie Triomphale, from La Défense to the Louvre. It was an impressive sight.

New Zealand’s airforce consists of a handful of Vietnam-era helicopters, a few transport planes that occasionally drop boxes of aid to cyclone-stricken Pacific islands and a part-time brass band. France has, er, a few more planes than we do:

And then, as soon as the jets got out of the way, the heavens opened. Paris was hit by a month’s worth of rain in three hours. We unsuccessfully dodged the showers and – strangely – found ourselves in a bar in time for lunch. We were wet, but seemed to be doing something right.

L’Ecluse specialise in the wines of Bordeaux. We ignored the bottle of 1979 St Pétrus on their wine list at €1227 and opted for a €25 Château Margaux instead. After drying out over a few glasses and an “Assortiment de cochonnailles” (a plate containing variations on pig), I sensed that the rain was easing and that I should make a dash for the métro.

My expectation of improving weather proved of course to be hilariously and liquidly wrong. As I reached the bottom of Avenue Georges V, another torrential downpour hit. By the time I took this video of a Leclerc tank rumbling onto the Pont de l’Alma, I was soaked to the skin.

The rest of the day was spent drying off, wandering around the Marais in the newly resurgent sunshine, and then heading up the tower of the American Cathedral (yes, more friends with high places) for a few drinks and to watch the fireworks over Trocadéro at 11pm. But that is another episode…

Assortiment de cochonnailles


Image: U.S. Army (Creative Commons)

I commend to you this interview with writer and historian William Dalrymple. A long-time observer of south Asia, (Born in Scotland, Dalrymple has lived in India for twenty years), he outlines concisely why western military intervention in Afghanistan is destined to failure, as has every foreign invasion of the country for at least 200 years.

The first half of the interview covers Dalrymple’s life story and his latest book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. But the meat of the conversation is in the second half hour, where Dalrymple describes his latest trip to Afghanistan. Essentially in Dalrymple’s view, NATOs current strategy in the country is not working and will never work.

David Cameron in Afghanistan, June 10, 2010 (Downing Street: Creative Commons)

In our haste to liberate Afghanistan from the odious clutches of the Taleban, we tend to forget that the military strength and political clout of Islamic extremists in south Asia were largely creations of Western intelligence agencies in the 1980s in their clandestine war with the Soviets.

Many things that have happened since – mujahadeen fighting in Bosnia, years of violent theocratic rule in Afghanistan, terrorist training camps – are simply massive blowback for the meddling of years gone by.

Image: US Army (Creative Commons)

What is remarkable is how pessimistic Dalrymple is. He sees the only solution will be to negotiate with the Taleban, bringing them and more ethnic Pashtoun elements into the Afghan government. Without such a move he predicts the collapse of the Karzai régime within nine months. And if failure in Afghanistan leads to the collapse of nucelar-armed Pakistan, Dalrymple agrees with the recent prognosis of Salman Rushdie: “we’re all fucked.”

How to Report the News

I spent much of today out in the rain, collecting footage for a little video project I’m helping with. With a video camera in your hand, it’s amazing how quickly you come to consider the city as your own private film set.

Pedestrians, traffic and background noise constantly interrupt your shots, and it gets a little frustrating. Next time, we’re going to call the police to shut down a couple of streets for us.

To help us construct a storyboard, we used Charlie Brooker‘s indispensable guide to “How to Report the News” as inspiration. Even if you’ve seen it before, it’s always worth watching again, because it’s very clever:

Brèves de trottoirs

Something to watch out for in 2010: Brèves de trottoirs is a new web-documentary project lead by journalist Olivier Lambert and photographer Thomas Salva. The objective is to bring together a collection of short documentaries focused on personalities met on the streets of Paris.

Their first subject was Elie, the famous “Papy Dance” who dances outside the Italie 2 shopping centre in the 13th arrondissement. His performances have made him an internet star, but his life story is far more poignant… (this video is subtitled in English)

Also recently released is the next short film, an interview with Violette, a florist on Place Monge in the 5th arrondissement.

Brèves de Trottoirs provides an interesting example of how journalism, film-making and internet are coming together to create new modes story-telling. It’ll be fascinating to watch the project develop during the year. You can follow their Twitter feed or their blog.