Saturday, 18 August 2007


It’s Tuesday and there is the acrid smell of stale urine in the air so it must be Paris. Despite the abolition of the pissoir, that distinctive smell has not gone, just changed its location slightly. Here on the banks of the Seine it lurks by the bridges.

Outside the Musee d’Orsay an enormous queue snakes away from the entrance. We stop to look at the bronzes outside. The rhinoceros is striking. ‘J’s’ eye is drawn to a man in a large sombrero. He is holding up a rectangle of black paper and a pair of scissors and rapidly, with great dexterity, cutting out the silhouette of an Asian girl. It’s a ‘snip’ at three euros so ‘J’ is his next customer. When he finds she is English he explains that though the silhouette is a French invention it really took off on Victorian Britain before returning to France. A bit like that overrated tipple Champagne.

Over the other side of the river we make our way past the Louvre and along the plage by the river, passing sunbathers, rock climbers, water gardens that literally soak you, and stop for Ice cream.

Beyond the plage we cross a lock and there under the shelter of a road overpass is an encampment. Rows of tents designate bedrooms and old armchairs, supermarket trolleys and a table, the living room. Over the other side of the river, along a small strip of garden are many more tents, plastic tables and chairs. Has the French obsession with ‘Le Camping’ got out of control? We enquire of our Parisian companion. She explains that the tents were donated to the homeless during the winter but have since served to make the problem worse and also to give it an air of permanence, like the beginnings of a shanty town in a third world city. We pass a group playing boules beside a roaring fire in an oil drum.

The garden expands a bit now and the tents disappear, to be replaced by sculpture in stone, concrete, cast and sheet metal. For a while we stare at a particularly nice kinetic piece. It is made of rectangular sheets of polished steel with a slight bend in each one. They are pivoted in the middle and the frames that hold them also pivot and move with the slightest breeze. The sculpture rotates and moves, seemingly randomly and the rectangles reflect constantly changing images, mostly of the blue sky above and the scudding Constable clouds.

On Wednesday we go to the Musee du Quay Branly, Jacque Chirac’s answer to the Pompidou centre, a museum of ethnic art from around the world. The building is quite interesting from the outside especially one façade which, apart from the windows, is covered in a vertical garden. Inside I’m not so impressed. The colour scheme is black and brown and the lighting dim for the most part. I am not quite sure why as most of the exhibits do not seem to be the kind that require low lighting to conserve them.

The exhibitions are divided into regions and we start with Oceania, work through Asia, Africa and finish with the Americas. Although there are some old pieces, much of the collection dates from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There is lots of astounding stuff, far too much to absorb properly in one visit, let alone describe here. I tune into faces and masks and the great variety of ways different cultures depict them. The gap between them and the imagery of much modern art seems very small, although that may be down to the fact that they are on exhibition rather than in use.

After about four hours we stagger out into the daylight and head for the café, which instead of being situated in the gallery, a logical place to give one the chance of a break from all that cultural input, is just about as far away as they could get it whilst still on site. A tea is an astronomical five euros and I am too appalled (and tight) to have one. My companions have two coffees, which for nine euros is, as I point out, one euro more than the book I have just bought with eighty fine photos of masterpieces in the collection, together with some very interesting snippets of background info on the objects pictured.

On Thursday J and I give our French friend, what I am sure, is a welcome morning rest from her role as tour guide and visit a local park at Sceaux. The avenue leading up to it is stunningly lined with clipped Lime trees, which teams of men are in the process of trimming. As the trees are thirty or so feet tall and there are four rows of them up a road that must be half a kilometre long, this is no mean feat. The main tool is a circular saw, mounted on the side of a cherry picker that is slowly slicing its way down a row.

At the top of the avenue we reach the chateau and pass it into the formal gardens beyond. Here are lawns, clipped yew cones and low hedges containing herbaceous borders. The planting is interesting; the flowers are limited to red, white and the occasional purple with much of the variety coming from variegated and purple foliage.

To the left of this area and below stretches a large rectangular lake. We make our way down to it and it becomes apparent, as we walk round that there are two large circular pools connected either side of it, halfway down its length. We circumnavigate it anticlockwise and coming to the second pool, which is made more secluded by surrounding trees, find a powerful single fountain jet in its centre, a solitary angler, two beautiful sculptures of groups of larger than life deer and a stairway of water that feeds the lake, descending from the gardens we had left above.

In the late afternoon we go back into the centre of Paris, book advance tickets at the Musee d’Orsay for the next day and then go to the Orangerie to see Monet’s Water lilies. They have been re-sited in 2006 and are now on a purpose built floor at the top of the building so that they are once again (as they were when they were originally exhibited) illuminated by diffused daylight, coming from above, The rooms are not too crowded and there are spaces here and there on the central seats in the two rooms, to sit and contemplate. The pictures have a wonderful energy of light and movement, yet at the same time, tranquillity.

Downstairs is a collection of impressionist and post impressionist pictures. Of particular note for me, is a small Cézanne version of ‘Le Dejeuner sur la Herbe’ and three delightful Soutine portraits.

Outside we look at some Rodin Bronzes, including a version of ‘The kiss’ and a very good Henry Moore reclining woman.

Friday is Musee d’Orsay and thanks to our pre booking we waltz past the queue, which is already a pretty long snake at ten in the morning. The building is a converted railway terminus and lends itself well to its new life as an art gallery with the central hall, where the trains stopped, open to the glass-covered roof. We make our way to the fifth floor and the Impressionist and Post Impressionist collection. Although we are fairly early the first few rooms, with all the big name paintings and sculpture, are horrendous. Guided tours in various languages speed through to selected paintings, which are then monopolised while the guides deliver their spiel. These rooms pass for me, as a kind of claustrophobic blur. Some images stand out, the Degas dancers and a beautiful Monet of the Gare Saint Lazare, but despite the fact that I am surrounded by brilliant paintings, most are swept away in a cacophony of people. Fortunately it gets better; as we progress deeper in to the collection the crowds thin. Seemingly many have just come to tick certain images off, like filling in an I spy book, been there seen that. We come across some good Gauguins and a Dournier Rousseau with its magical jungle world.

We break for lunch in the level six café and re-charge our sensory batteries before descending to level two. Here it is even quieter yet there are stunning paintings by Bonnard and Vuillard amongst others, sculpture by Rodin and a superb collection of Art Nouveau furniture including reconstructions of whole rooms.

By the time we have finished this floor we are too saturated with imagery to attempt the ground floor with its Pre Impressionist collection. It must await another visit.

Saturday is the grand finale with a trip out to Versailles to see the gardens. Normally these are free which, given their huge size and the incredible amount of maintenance, is a real bargain. However on Saturdays, from April to September there are ‘Les Grandes Eaux Musicales’ when twice a day the fountains are turned on to the accompaniment of music. There are lots of spectacular water features and the event is worth ever penny of the seven euros admission.

Versailles was, of course, the palace of Louis the Fourteenth, the Sun King and the huge gardens were laid out under the direction of his minister Colbert and the architect Andre Le Notre. The main features of the garden were to be water and fountains, despite the fact that the site chosen was conspicuously lacking in this resource. Sculptors, architects, engineers and craftsmen were employed, together with a workforce of 30,000 downtrodden serfs who laboured for over twenty years to realise the project. It is a tribute to them that the original hydraulic system, gravity fed water features and fountains all still work 350 years later.

The gardens are laid out in a formal and symmetrical grid and subdivided into flower gardens, fountain areas and a large number of Bosquets. These are wooded areas further divided with paths in various patterns, many of them containing fountain or water feature centrepieces. Without a map one would become hopelessly lost, as in combination they form a kind of maze. I can only imagine the lubriciously decadent affairs and intrigue that happened within them. Women in huge crinolines and piles of false hair, the heavily bewigged men, curls cascading to their waists, lacy flounces everywhere, shoes with points so long the tips had to be tied back so they could walk and both sexes heavily plastered with makeup. Peering round the corner “Now was it the Bassin de Bacchus or the bloody Bosquet des Bains de Apollon, and where exactly am I now anyway?” There is a wonderful variety of spouts, columns, jets, walls, curtains and staircases of water, both formal and informal. The gardens are big enough that, despite the huge numbers of people there, they do not seem crowded; indeed some places are quite secluded. With a well planned route all the fountains can be seen in the hour and a half they are working, yet this is just to skim the surface of the gardens, for beyond them is a huge lake and the whole is surrounded by landscaped countryside walks. There is also a large and entirely separate kitchen garden on the other side of the town, which provided the fresh fruit and vegetables for the huge palace.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

The Russian Soldier

This is cobbled together from a half remembered Radio 4 play heard many years ago that was based on a Russian Folk Tale..............Or is it?

The Russian Soldier

Several hundred years ago a Russian soldier was returning from the wars. As he tramped along a path in the countryside he came across an old man begging by the roadside. The man looked careworn and half starved. This was not surprising as the winter had been hard and there was a shortage of food in the land. The soldier had some dry biscuits in his pockets and touched by the old man’s parlous state he took them out and gave them to him.

After he had walked another mile or so he came across another old man in a similar state to the first. He had no more food but he had a couple of pennies so he gave these to the old man instead and continued on his way.

He came to a third old man and said, “I’m sorry but I have nothing left. What I had I gave to two old men further back along the path.”

“Don’t worry my boy,” the third old man said, “I know of your charity and I also know you have given all you had, a generous act in times as difficult as these. So I have come to give something to you in return. You gave twice so I have two gifts for you. The first is this set of dice. When you play with these dice you will always win. The second gift is the more precious, it’s this bag.” And he passed the soldier a large shabby looking canvas bag with a big flap that buckled over it as a lid. “ I know the bag does not look like much but it has special properties. If you say the words ‘Into the bag’ at whatever you point it at and name when it is open, that thing will go into the bag.” The soldier took the dice and the bag, thanked the old man and continued on his way thinking to himself ‘Well mate you met a right one there. Magic dice and magic bag eh. Whatever next.’

After he had walked another mile or so he saw a fat goose waddling along in the distance. He was feeling quite hungry now; it was close to sunset and a long time since breakfast, the last time he had eaten. ‘Well it can’t do any harm to try the bag’ he thought to himself and unslinging it from his shoulder, he opened the flap, pointed it at the goose and shouted “Into the bag goose.” There was a thump, some furious thrashing and honking as the bag jumped around in his hands. Quickly he pulled the flap over and buckled it up and the goose went quiet. ‘Well that’s supper taken care of,’ he thought surprised and impressed.

He continued on his way for a bit and spotting some houses in the distance decided to see if he might get a bed there for the night in exchange for a share of the goose. Sure enough there was a small Inn at the village and, times being what they were, the Innkeeper was only too happy to cook the goose, add some vegetables and throw in a bed and a bowl of porridge for breakfast in exchange for a share of the bird.


In the morning whilst chatting over breakfast the soldier learnt that there was a palace nearby that was owned by the Tsar. He never came there or used it any more and neither did anybody else as it was haunted by the most ferocious devils and anybody who had dared to spend the night would be found the next day gibbering, mad. The soldier was immediately interested, asked for directions and despite people begging him not to, vowed that he would spend the night there.

He went out and using his magic bag caught a pheasant and returning to the Inn bartered it for some lunch, some bread and cheese for the evening and the loan of a blanket. Then he set out for the abandoned palace. It was a magnificent building, with all its furnishings, fixtures and fittings still intact, although somewhat damp and dusty, as it had remained unused for many years. The soldier commenced a thorough exploration and eventually settled on a bedroom to spend the night. He had located some stumps of candles, the bed still had a mattress, so he ate his simple supper in the flickering candlelight then made himself comfortable on the bed.

At exactly the stroke of midnight there was a hideous cackling sound, a whoosh of air and a thunderous voice shouted, “Who dares to trespass in the Devil’s palace?” A grotesque crowd of imps and demons materialised in the room and, in their centre, the malevolent form of Beelzebub. The soldier kept his cool and replied, “That’s odd I thought it was the Tsar’s palace and I have come to get it back for him.” After some violent argument the soldier challenged the devil to a game of dice, his soul against the return of the palace. The game began and of course, as the soldier was using his own dice, he trounced the devil. Beelzebub, who had never been beaten before, rose up in fury, but quick as a flash, the soldier picked up the magic bag, pointed it at the devils and shouted the words “Into the bag devils.” Due to its magical properties all the devils were squashed into the bag and the soldier buckled them in. He then began pounding the bag with a large stick until the devils inside were pleading for mercy. At this point the soldier did a deal with Beelzebub. He was to leave and take his imps and demons with him, never to darken the door of the palace again. As he had already won this fair and square with the dice, he extracted a further promise from the devil that should he ever need help he had only to call and Beelzebub would come at once. Having got this signed and sealed he let the devils free and they rushed off swearing and cursing straight back to hell.

The soldier slept the few remaining hours of the night, and in the morning was roused by a hubbub of voices outside. The people were amazed when he came out calm, unruffled and perfectly sane. He told them he had banished the devils and the palace was perfectly safe now. Word soon got round and the Tsar, who was in the area, turned up. When he found out that the soldier had rid his palace of devils he was overwhelmed with gratitude and richly rewarded the soldier with a large farm and bags of gold. The soldier settled down and became a farmer.


Many years passed of the soldier living in contentment when rumour spread of a dark plague travelling the land. Soon it was amongst the people where the soldier turned farmer lived. People came to him in desperation as he had a reputation for sound advice. After pondering for a while the soldier remembered the devil’s promise to help him if he called, and summoned him. He explained the problem and asked the Devil if there was anything he could do. “You cannot alter the fate of the sick people. “ said the Devil. “All I can do to help is to give you something that will allow you to know whether the sick person will die or recover, but if I do that makes things even between us and you can never call me again.” The soldier agreed and the Devil gave him a glass. “You must fill this with water and stand at the foot of the bed of the sick person and look through it. You will see a woman in the glass. If she seems to be standing at the foot of the bed the person will get well, however, if she is standing at the head of the bed then they will die.” Then with a flash the devil was gone, leaving just a whiff of sulphur in the air.

The plague dragged on with many people falling sick and the soldier who had become a farmer now got a reputation as a doctor as he was unfailing in his diagnosis of whether a person would live or die. One day the Tsar’s son fell ill with the plague and the Tsar having heard of the soldier’s reputation called him to the palace to examine his son. The soldier produced his glass, filled it with water and looked through it at the boy tossing and turning on the bed. To his horror death was standing at the head of the bed and seemed to be about to take the boys life. Without thinking the soldier unslung the bag from his shoulder and pointing it at the woman shouted “Into the bag Death”.

Taking the bag with him the soldier journeyed to the far north and just where the trees gave out he selected the highest one, climbed it and tied the bag to the top. Then turning wearily, he trudged back home.

As time went by word got around that the soldier had trapped Death. Sure enough no more people were dying and the Tsar’s son got better. However people still got older and after a few years some of the oldest began to complain. Many were living in pain and discomfort or had lost their sight, ability to move or worse. Eventually one old lady who was desperate to die, having lived well beyond her allotted span, went to the soldier and pleaded with him to bring back Death. The soldier could see that things were not quite as simple as he had thought and that there was sense in what she was saying so he agreed to go back and find Death.

He retraced his steps, taken all those years ago and climbing to the top of the tree and undid the bag and brought it down. “Death, Death are you there. Can you hear me?” He shouted to the bag. “Yes.” Came her calm reply. He explained what had happened and how people were pleading to die and then let her out of the bag. Death stood before him and looked him in the eye. “When you trapped me you did a terrible thing and upset the natural order of things.” She said. “I will now return to my work, but because of what you have done I will never come for you. You are condemned to wander the world forever and without rest.”

Which is how I come to be here to tell you this story today.