Read Leading the Blind Online

Authors: Alan; Sillitoe

Leading the Blind (5 page)

BOOK: Leading the Blind
7.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

For those who would wander freely, a paragraph was provided concerning public safety: ‘In the E. quarter are numerous manufactories and the dwellings of those who work in them. Here was the hotbed of insurrection and the terror of Paris in troubled times.' Baedeker remarks that the annual consumption of wine in Paris was thirty-nine million gallons, or thirty gallons a head for the whole population. He also tells us that the Parisian police ‘are so efficient and well-organised, that street-robberies are less frequent than in most other large towns. Beware, however, of pickpockets, who are as adroit as the police are vigilant, and are particularly apt to victimise strangers.'

Our traveller on his perambulations may think to pick up a trifle or two at an auction, but Baedeker has another word in his ear: ‘Strangers are cautioned against making purchases in person, as trickery is too frequently practised, but a respectable agent may be employed to bid for any article they may desire to purchase.'

Should the traveller wish to go to the theatre, warning is given against ticket touts, ‘who frequently loiter in the vicinity and endeavour to impose on the public … The attendants of the cloakrooms are often troublesome in their efforts to earn a “pourboire”. One of their usual attentions is to bring footstools, for the use of ladies; and they have a still more objectionable practice of bringing the cloaks and shawls to the box before the conclusion of the performance in order to secure their gratuity in good time.'

The theatre is said to present a highly characteristic part of Parisian life, but, in some, ‘ladies are not admitted to the orchestra stalls'. Murray tells us that most of the forty theatres in Paris are devoted to light comedy with music, but ‘the subjects and treatment of many of the pieces render them unfit for the ears of English ladies'.

As for the
cafés chantants
, spectators sit in the open air, and ‘listen to singing and music by performers outrageously overdressed … The company is not the most select, and the performance tends to be immoral. Respectable people keep aloof.'

While the farces at the Théâtre du Palais Royal are said to be of a character ‘not always exceptionable', the concerts of the Conservatoire de Musique ‘enjoy a European celebrity. The highest order of classical music, by Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, etc., as well as by the most celebrated French and Italian composers, is performed with exquisite taste and precision.'

Our traveller might well look in at one of the many balls given in the summer because, though the society ‘is by no means select, they deserve to be visited by the stranger on account of the gay, brilliant, and novel spectacle they present. The rules of decorum are tolerably well observed, but it need hardly be said that ladies cannot go to them with propriety. Dancing takes place every evening, but the place is frequented by different people on different evenings when many handsome, richly dressed women of the “demimonde” and exquisites of the boulevards assemble here, while on the other evenings, when the admission is 3 francs, and women enter without payment, the society is still less respectable.'

Bals Masqués du Grand-Opéra
took place every Saturday evening, and presented ‘a scene of boistrous merriment and excitement, and if visited by ladies they should be witnessed from the boxes only. The female frequenters of these balls wear masks or dominoes, the men are generally in evening costume.'

Should our gentleman-traveller wish to call at the Stock Exchange, the Bourse, he may walk along boulevards which were once paved, but ‘as the stones had frequently been employed in the construction of barricades, they were replaced in 1850 by a macadamised asphalt roadway'. The Municipal Authorities of Barcelona, it was once said, solved that problem by numbering the cobblestones so that they could be put back in the correct order after each
pronunciamiento
. In Paris: ‘The trees with which the boulevards are flanked are a source of constant trouble to the municipal authorities, being frequently killed by the gas lamps'.

The Bourse is open for business from midday, we are told, but visitors are admitted to the galleries from nine o'clock onwards. Numerous private carriages drive up, and ‘the money-seeking throng hurries into the building. The deafening noise, the shouting, the excited gestures of the spectators, and the eager cupidity depicted in their features, produce a most unpleasant impression on the mind of the neutral spectator.'

Baedeker's
Paris
, 1874, appeared only three years after the upheavals of the Commune, but as soon as order had been restored the tourists flocked back. England had always been much like a box at the theatre, from which heads wagged censoriously at disturbances on the Continent.

From the Bourse our traveller might make his way to the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, where public executions occurred up to 1830. ‘Hither,' Murray said, ‘Catherine de Medici and her son came in 1574 to see the torture and death of Montgomeri, for having accidentally slain in a tournament Henry II her husband. In 1676 the Marchioness de Brinvilliers, the notorious poisoner, was burnt here. Madame de Sevigné, a spectator, describes the scene in one of her letters. Cartouche the robber was broken alive here in 1721: and Damiens, so late as 1737, was put to death under the most protracted tortures (torn asunder by 4 horses), for attempting to assassinate Louis XV. In 1766 Lally Tollendal, the brave antagonist of the English in India, was hurried to execution with a gag on his mouth.'

Accounts of horrors abound in all guidebooks of the period, and indeed the various French upheavals were in a traveller's living memory, as the Second World War is with us today. At the Place de la Concorde the ‘
Guillotine
was erected, Jan. 21, 1793, for the execution of Louis XVI. The scaffold was raised a few yards to the w. of the pedestal. The king commenced an address to the people, but was not allowed to finish it; on a signal from Santerre, who commanded the soldiers, the king was seized from behind, bound to the bascule, or setting-plank, and thrust under the axe. No sooner had the head fallen than the crowd rushed in to dip hands, pikes, or handkerchiefs in the blood.'

And then on 16 October Marie-Antoinette, ‘the once beautiful queen, the most maligned of her sex, but innocent of all moral guilt; she preserved her calm dignity to the last … The blood thus shed like water remained in pools around the spot for the dogs to lick up, and on one occasion the oxen employed to drag a classic car in one of the theatrical processions of the Convention stood still in horror at the tainted spot.'

Baedeker reminds us that from 1793 to 1795 ‘upwards of 2800 persons perished here by the guillotine'. He also recounts that the last stand of the Communards, in 1871, took place – conveniently – in the Père Lachaise cemetery, where several hundred insurgents took up their position and ‘planted cannon near the tomb of the Due de Morny and the conspicuous Beaujour monument, using the latter as their guard-house. A few days later the batteries of Montmaitre opened their fire upon the cemetery, destroying seven or eight monuments and injuring others. On the 27th the defenders of the cemetery, as well as those insurgents who on being driven back from the barricades of the Château d'Eau and the Place de la Bastille had sought refuge here, were compelled to abandon it, many however, being captured and shot. Near the wall of Charonne, which bears numerous marks of bullets, 147 National Guards, who had been taken prisoner at the barricades, were shot a few days later.'

From the cemetery it is not far distant to the famous morgue which, Murray tells us, ‘is a place where bodies of the murdered, drowned, or of suicides, are exposed until they are recognised. On entering, a glazed partition will be seen, behind which are exposed the bodies of men and women found dead or drowned, and unowned. They are stretched naked, with the exception of a piece of leather over the loins, upon black marble slabs; the clothes found hang on pegs above them, and a stream of water is trickling over the bodies. Each corpse is exposed for 3 days, and there are usually 3 or 4 at a time, often hideously bloated and distorted, the majority being taken from the river. About 200 are carried to the Morgue every year on average, of whom about one-sixth are women and one-sixth new-born infants. The greatest number are found in June and July, the fewest in December and January. Gambling at the Bourse is the most fruitful cause of suicide. 15 fr. is paid for every corpse brought in. The larger proportion are never claimed by their friends, and are buried at the public expense. A perpetual stream of men, women, and children pour in and out of this horrible exhibition, to gaze at the hideous objects before them, usually with great indifference.' Baedeker adds: ‘The painful scene attracts many spectators daily, chiefly persons of the lower orders.'

Baedeker also devotes a section to the Catacombs, which used to be quarries, and date from Roman times, extending under a great part of Paris, with sixty entrances in different suburbs. Several streets in the southern part of the city, situated above these quarries, having begun to show symptoms of sinking, ‘steps were taken by the government in 1784 to avert the danger by constructing piers and buttresses where the upper surface was insufficiently supported. About the same time the Council of State ordered the removal of the bodies from the Cemetery of the Innocents, and others, which were closed at the period, to these subterranean quarries. In 1786 the catacombs were accordingly converted into a vast charnel-house. During the Revolution and the Reign of Terror, immense numbers of bodies and bones brought from various quarters were thrown into these cavities, in confused masses; but in 1810 a regular system was organised for the more seemly disposition of these remains, and the preservation of their resting-place. New pillars have since been erected to support the roof, excavations made to admit more air, and channels dug to carry off the water. The galleries and different compartments are completely lined with human bones, arranged with great care, and intermingled with rows of skulls.'

More interesting than the Catacombs was the network of sewers. Just as the Victorians thought it important to pay attention to the stomach, and what frequent and copious sustenance was put into it, so they were interested in how the detritus was carried away in the common cloaca, such fascination perhaps reinforced by their recognition that the only possible equality on earth afforded to human beings was in the disposal of what their biological systems ejected. The Paris sewers were, said Baedeker, ‘so admirably constructed and well ventilated that parties, including even ladies, have frequently been formed to explore them. This system of drainage has been so beneficial to the public health that the annual death rate has been been reduced to 22–25 per thousand. If these statistics be correct, Paris is the healthiest capital on the continent, as indeed one would expect from the fact that, with the exception perhaps of Hamburg, it is the only continental city provided with a complete system of underground drainage.'

According to Baedeker a stay of a fortnight or three weeks was enough to give the traveller a superficial idea of ‘the innumerable attractions which the city offers, but a residence of several months would be requisite to enable him satisfactorily to explore its vast treasures of art and industry'.

We will assume, however, that he is ready to leave, and continue his several months' tour of the Continent and the Middle East. In the sitting room of the hotel he will unfold the cloth-bound and dissected map of Central Europe which opens elegantly from the form of a book, engraved by B. R. Davies, and published by Edward Stanford of 6 Charing Cross in 1873. The British always journeyed with good maps, and the beautifully coloured and engraved specimen no doubt carried by our gentleman-traveller showed ‘all the Railways in use with the Stations. Also the principal roads, rivers and Mountain Ranges', in a coverage extending from the Atlantic to Russian Poland, and from the Mersey to Bosnia (then part of the Turkish Empire). The scale of twenty-four miles to an inch makes its size somewhat awkward for unfolding in a crowded diligence or railway carriage, but most convenient for planning purposes; with a one-franc bottle of wine to hand, our traveller's finger moves languidly towards Switzerland.

In 1874 a first-class railway ticket from Paris to Basel cost sixty-three francs, the distance of 328 miles being covered in twelve hours. If our Victorian traveller intended stopping along the way he will have noted the following in Murray's handbook:

‘It has been the custom of the English, who traverse France on their way to Italy or Switzerland, to complain of the monotonous features of the country, and to ridicule the epithet
“la Belle France”
, which the French are wont to apply to it. By a “beautiful” country, a Frenchman generally understands one richly fertile and fully cultivated; and in this point of view the epithet is justly applied to France. It is also most fortunate in its climate. Many of its vineyards, the most valuable spots in the country, occupy tracts of poor, barren, and waste land, in appearance, which in our climate would be absolutely unprofitable … In France, the features of nature are broad and expanded, and you must often traverse 50 or 100 miles to encounter these pleasing changes which, in Britain, succeed one another almost every 10 miles.'

The writer goes on to say that, in compensation for this supposed dullness of terrain: ‘… glorious monuments of architectural skill and lavish devotion are far more stupendous in their proportion than the cathedrals of England, but have this peculiarity, that scarcely one of them is finished: thus Beauvais has no nave, Amiens has no towers, Bourges no spire.'

It was a time, we are reminded, when French provincial towns were being improved for the social convenience of their inhabitants, many completely remodelled, with straight streets and handsome shops replacing narrow and crooked lanes: ‘There are many institutions and establishments in French towns,' said Murray, ‘deserving high commendation and imitation in England: such are the Abattoirs, or slaughterhouses, always in the outskirts; the public Cemeteries, always situated outside the walls: even the Public Walks to be found in every French town, though not suited altogether to English ideas of recreation, yet show an attention to health and enjoyment of the people which would be worthy of imitation on our side of the Channel.'

BOOK: Leading the Blind
7.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Shopaholic to the Rescue by Sophie Kinsella
The Day He Kissed Her by Juliana Stone
Perfect Match by Byrum, Jerry
A Christmas Family Wish by Helen Scott Taylor
Pellucidar by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Shadows of God by Keyes, J. Gregory
Bear Treble (Highland Brothers 4) by Meredith Clarke, Ally Summers
Barbara Metzger by A Debt to Delia
Someplace to Be Flying by Charles De Lint