Starry starry night

I am writing this on Sunday, December 24, and all I can think about is Vincent Van Gogh. Until recently, I had not realized that he’d cut off his ear on December 23 (which in 1888 was also a Sunday), and been discovered and taken to the hospital in Arles on the morning of December 24. Christmas Day would have passed for him in a blur of pain.

Of course, Christmas in 1888 in France was not the sentimentalized orgy of family togetherness we are told to expect these days, but I can’t help wondering about the timing of this event. Vincent was lonely and his housemate of only two months was not working out. Paul Gaugin, who had been staying with Van Gogh, beat a hasty retreat to Paris on Christmas Day in the company of Vincent’s brother Theo, who had made a rushed trip to see his brother, spending less than 12 hours in Arles.

By December 31, Van Gogh was feeling better, but he was still in hospital. During his stay, he painted the high-ceilinged ward that he shared with other patients, as well as a view of the cloister with its bare winter trees and evergreen bushes.

Although the paintings look fairly peaceful, for part of his time in hospital, Van Gogh was isolated in a small hut or cabanon, where he was strapped down on a bed, all freedoms removed, which must have traumatized him.

Vincent was not allowed out until January 4, 1889, and then only for a short visit to his house on the Place Lamartine.

On January 7, he moved back into the house and started to work again. In the painting below, the Yellow House occupies the centre of the picture and has green shutters.

The Yellow House is gone now. It was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1944 intended to knock out railway bridges in Arles. The house that stood behind it and the railway bridge, both visible in Van Gogh’s picture, remain. (It seems the bombs fell short of at least some of their targets.)

If you look carefully, you can just make out the back of a lozenge-shaped “Tabac” sign projecting from the angle of the building, just above the parking machine. Interesting.

In February 1889, as Vincent was trying recover and re-establish some peace of mind, thirty local people presented a petition to the mayor of Arles, claiming that Van Gogh was dangerous and should not be allowed to continue living in his house. According to Bernadette Murphy, a careful researcher who investigated this event, the petition was likely the work of one Bernard Soulè, the agent for the Yellow House, who had taken advantage of Vincent’s stay in hospital to sign a rental contract for the place with a tobacconist. He needed to get Van Gogh out of there, and persuaded friends and associates to sign a petition claiming that Vincent was a menace to women and children.

Van Gogh ended up leaving Arles in May 1889 for the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum in St-Rémy, where he remained for about a year, painting about 150 canvases, including Starry Night and Irises.

Another thing I did not know about Van Gogh until recently was how amazingly compressed his working life as an artist was. He expressed no desire to be an artist as a child, and as a young man he gave up work in a firm of art dealers to try his vocation as a teacher first, then as a missionary. He began painting only in 1881, when he was in his late twenties.

After that, he worked for a while in Paris, living with his brother Theo at 54 rue Lepic, where he repeatedly drew and painted the view from the window. More recent buildings have now filled in the view to the horizon, but in those days he could see a long way and would not have felt too closed in.

The move to Arles in February 1888 was intended partly as an economy measure, since it would be much cheaper to live there than in Paris, and partly as a way to focus on his painting in a quieter place, since he found Paris too hectic. At first he lived and worked in a hotel in Arles, then he rented part of the Yellow House as a studio, and finally he moved in fully to live and work there.

Paul Gaugin joined him in October 1888; for Gaugin it was also a way to save money, as well as an opportunity to improve his health in a warmer climate. For Van Gogh, the prospect of another artist to talk to and share ideas with was welcome, even though he barely knew Gaugin. What could possibly go wrong? And it worked, sort of, for a while, before the two clashed, culminating in Vincent’s violent outburst on December 23.

After about a year spent in the asylum at St-Rémy and a brief return to Paris, Van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise in May 1890. He died there in July of that year from a gunshot wound, most likely self-inflicted. His last days are evoked in a recent film, Loving Vincent, which magically recreates his paintings as animated sequences.

One image from the film that struck me was that of the church in Auvers. I realized that I had grown up looking at that picture.

When I was little, my father, who worked in publishing, received a Christmas gift from a printing company consisting of half a dozen prints of well-known paintings. He had four of them framed.* The Church at Auvers by Van Gogh hung above his desk. In the evenings, as I lay in bed, I could look across the hall, and if his study door was open and the light was on, I could see Van Gogh’s painting of the church. The wiggly roof lines seemed odd, and it looked as if the tower was about to fall over, but then, I was at the age when many grown-up things seem odd, and you accept them without necessarily understanding them. Seeing that church again in the film took me back to nights curled up in my bed in my parent’s home, looking at the little figure forever hurrying up the hill, probably late for mass.

For years, I didn’t know the story of the man who painted it, let alone how he spent Christmas in 1888. But after learning a bit more about him, “Now I think I know what you tried to say to me…”

Meilleurs voeux à tous nos lecteurs et bonne année.

Text by Philippa Campsie, images from Wikipedia and Google maps; quotation from Don Maclean’s song “Starry Starry Night.”

I highly recommend Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story (2016) by Bernadette Murphy, a fascinating account of meticulous historical detective work into Van Gogh’s time in Arles. I also recommend the movie Loving Vincent, which is still in cinemas.

*The other pictures were Carnival Evening by Henri Rousseau, which hung in my parent’s bedroom, a ballerina by Degas, which hung in my sister’s room, and the Seine at La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (also painted in 1888), which was in my room.

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The Auld Alliance

On November 8, 2015, I posted a blog about my great-uncles who died in the First World War: Raymond Hummel, who died in 1916 and is buried in France (shown on the left, below); and John Lonsdale Sieber, known as Jack, who fought in France and German East Africa, died in 1917, and is buried in what is now Tanzania.

During my research into their lives and deaths, I made contact with Jack’s school, Perth Academy in Scotland, which honours former students and staff who fell in the First World War on the 100th anniversary of each death. This project is known as “Flowers of the Forest,” the name of the traditional Scottish bagpipe lament played at funerals, and was launched by a retired teacher from the school, Dave Dykes.

In 2015 I resolved to be at Perth Academy in October 2017, along with as many members of my family as possible, to pay tribute to my great-uncle Jack Sieber. In the end, there were nine of us there on the day: Norman and I, my sister Alison and niece Alex, my cousin Jane and her son Andrew, and my cousin Ian with his wife Yvonne and her daughter Amanda. Ours is a small and scattered family and nine of us in the same place at the same time is quite an accomplishment.

The event actually took place 100 years and one week after John’s death, because the preceding week the school had been on its annual “tattie-hawking” holiday. As Dave Dykes explained, “Schools in this part of Scotland traditionally have a holiday in October so that the children can help with the potato harvest. In Scots, tattie hawking means lifting or harvesting the potatoes or tatties.”

The day began for us at St. Ninian’s Cathedral, the Episcopalian church my great-uncle’s family attended, which also has a war memorial on which he is mentioned.

When my niece asked about the difference between the layout of an Episcopalian church and that of a typical Church of Scotland building, the cathedral guide promptly walked us down the road and asked someone at a nearby Scots kirk to open up and allow us in. As we walked into the church, the man pointed to several plaques with the names of war dead on them – plaques from churches that were now closed, which had been brought to this surviving church. I wonder how many war memorials are lost when churches close.

We then visited the Black Watch Museum in Balhousie Castle. We were there because my grandfather, Alexander Campsie, who survived the Great War, served in the Black Watch. (After the war, he became a military chaplain with the Royal Navy.)

The Black Watch also commemorate their fallen in the First World War and my sister and I found ourselves placing crosses for two of the three men who were honoured that day. What you see is a fence into which individual crosses have been placed. This is just the Black Watch, just three years into a four-year war.

The cross I placed had the name Thomas Birch. I later looked him up. He came from a desperately poor family in Perth, spent time in reform school, and died from a gunshot wound in the Perth Hospital at the age of 19. It’s possible that he died as the result of a training accident. Not an illustrious career, but he signed up and he served, like all those commemorated.

The tour of the museum was led by a knowledgeable young man who focused his talk on events and objects that would be meaningful to those who might otherwise be unmoved by military history. As we came out of the museum, the sky cleared and the sun came out, and the rest of our week in Scotland seemed to be bathed in sunshine – not a common experience in autumn.

We had lunch together as a family and went to the school in the late afternoon. Perth Academy is a modern building on the outskirts of the city, not the building that my great-uncle would have known. And not just my great-uncle – both my grandparents on my father’s side attended the school, and a great-aunt taught there. Only recently have I realized what an important role the school played in the life of my father’s family.

The old school was on the edge of the downtown area, part of an elegant terrace facing a park called the North Inch.

The school’s war memorial was mounted on the façade (you can see the place it occupied between the ground-floor windows), but when the school moved, the memorial went with it, and is now in the assembly hall of the new building, where the ceremony took place.

The students read out a short biography of Jack Sieber and the history teacher who oversees the Flowers of the Forest project, Laura Hobson, read the letter sent by Jack’s commanding officer to his wife. My cousin Jane had brought “the King’s Penny” – the inscribed copper disk sent to the relatives of the fallen – to be part of the small display set up on a table in front of the war memorial.

Jane and I later talked about how we remembered seeing it for years at our grandmother’s house and not really taking in what it was or what it meant. Our grandmother always kept it brightly polished. She grieved for her only brother for a very long time.

After the short commemoration ceremony, there was an evening of food and entertainment called “Stovies, Songs,  and Stories.” Stovies are a traditional form of stew made with meat, potatoes, and vegetables, often served with oatcakes. Apparently there are as many recipes as there are Scottish cooks. These ones were good. There was Scottish shortbread to follow.

The band played, there was a piper, we all sang, the head girl and head boy read poems and letters, and there were presentations showing all the men and one woman from the school who gave their lives, as well as photographs from the students’ annual visits to the war cemeteries in France. I presented the library with copies of two Canadian books about the war (Vimy by Tim Cook and The Wars, a novel by Timothy Findley) as a thank-you for the welcome we had received.

Later, I found myself talking to some teachers, and one asked me if I visit Scotland often. I explained that as a child, we came to Scotland nearly every year to visit my grandmother in a village called Gifford (shown below).

It’s a pretty place, but rather quiet. I remember playing croquet in the minister’s garden, borrowing Miss Whitsun’s ancient clanky bicycle, or walking in the surrounding countryside, with occasional visits to Haddington, a small town with an enticing sweet shop. My cousins lived in Motherwell, an industrial town near Glasgow that seemed wildly exciting by comparison (there was a cinema). My grandmother died just before I graduated from university, my cousins scattered to different places, and somehow I never saw much reason to go back to Scotland. But I do now, and I will.

I chose the title “The Auld Alliance” for this blog because it is the name for a 13th-century agreement between the Scots and the French (against the English, of course), and the name of a pub in Paris on the rue François Miron in the Marais, the only link to Paris I could think of. Perhaps we will venture in on our next visit.

Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs by Philippa Campsie, Dave Dykes, or from the Perth Academy Flowers of the Forest Twitter feed. Our thanks to Dave Dykes, Laura Hobson, and the student members of the Flowers of the Forest project for a warm welcome and a memorable occasion.

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The Rise and Fall of the Visual Telegraph

Sometimes we go looking for blog ideas, and sometimes they come along and tap us persistently on the shoulder. This one did – three times.

First, I spotted an “advertorial” in a 1912 issue of a small American magazine called The Philistine. It was a two-page item on “Napoleon’s Visual Telegraph: The First Long-Distance System” and it was sponsored by American Telephone and Telegraph. The illustration looked vaguely familiar.

A few days later, I was hunting for a postcard in our collection and I ran across this one of “La Tour du Télégraphe” in Montmartre, sitting on top of what appear to be the ruins of a church. But I still wasn’t sure what I was looking at. What was that thing on the tower?

Finally, out of the blue, my stepson Alex sent us a link to an article from The Economist about “the world’s first cyber-attack” featuring this same telegraph system.

When I mentioned this to Norman, he looked thoughtful and went to find a history of telegraphy called The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage as well as Volume IV of the Oxford History of Technology. And so I came to read about Claude Chappe (1763–1805) and the world’s first telegraph system.

Claude Chappe, whose intended career as a member of the clergy was derailed by the French Revolution, became obsessed with finding a way to communicate at a distance. His first effort, with his brother René, used sounds that corresponded to numbers that could be decoded into messages. But he soon realized that visual methods would allow for communications over even longer distances. So he experimented with a large disc painted black on one side and white on the other that could be used to transmit numerical information; if the receiver used a telescope, the information could be detected 16 km away. The brothers demonstrated their invention in 1791, and a friend of theirs suggested the name “télégraphe” – meaning “far writing.”

Still, the process of transmitting numbers with a simple black/white, on/off system and then decoding them into words was cumbersome, and Claude Chappe kept hunting for a better method. He eventually came up with the “optical telegraph,” which consisted of a vertical post on which was mounted a hinged arm, with smaller hinged arms at the two ends. (It is sometimes called a “semaphore” system, which reminds me of my days as a Brownie, when we had to pass a test in semaphore; I was hopeless at it and had to take the test several times before I passed.)

The central arm of Chappe’s visual telegraph could be set in four positions – vertical, horizontal, and at two 45-degree angles – and the two smaller arms could be set in seven different positions, allowing for 98 possible combinations, each of which corresponded to a letter or number. The system also allowed for abbreviations of whole words, to speed up communication.

A clockmaker, Abraham-Louis Bréguet, developed the control mechanism for the device, which was connected by pulleys to the actual transmitter. An operator inside a building could manipulate a scale model, and the pulleys attached to it controlled the full-scale version on the roof of the building.

An early attempt at a demonstration in Paris came to grief when a Revolutionary mob attacked Chappe and demolished his device, believing him to be using it to communicate with the imprisoned Louis XVI.

But in 1793, Chappe was invited by the government of the day (the Convention) to demonstrate his invention, for which three prototype towers were constructed. The first was in Belleville-Ménilmontant, in the northwest of Paris, where there is a prominent hill. The next was 18 km due north in Ecouen, where the chateau commands a panoramic view of the countryside. This is how it looks today.

The third was in Saint-Martin-du-Tertre, another 12 km north-north-west of Ecouen. Saint-Martin-du-Tertre commemorates this event by using an image of the telegraph on its municipal coat of arms.

The experiment was judged a resounding success, and the Convention realized that Chappe’s device could help the central government direct events across France from Paris. The first line of telegraph towers to be completed went north as far as Lille, more than 200 km away. By 1794, it was being used to report on battles with the Austrians and Prussians. A second line connected Paris to Strasbourg to the east – also in the direction of a war zone.

When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, he wanted even more telegraph lines. A new line went southeast to Dijon, Lyons, and on into Italy. That way, Parisians could get rapid news about his military conquests there. Napoleon even asked Claude’s brother Abraham to plan one that would cross the English Channel, to report on his invasion of England. He got a little ahead of himself there.

But it seemed that the more his idea spread, the more Claude Chappe was beset by rivals, claiming they had had the idea first, or that they had a better idea, or that the clockmaker Bréguet was the real genius behind the invention. In 1805, suffering from depression, he committed suicide by throwing himself into a well at the main Telegraph Administration, which at that time was on the rue de l’Université. He was buried in Vaugirard cemetery, but when it was closed in 1824,* his remains were transferred to Père Lachaise, where a remarkably ugly funerary monument displays his invention.

Claude’s brothers René and Abraham continued to run the system until the 1830s.

Around that time, twin brothers in Bordeaux, François and Louis Blanc, came up with a plan to bribe telegraph operators between Paris and Bordeaux to introduce “typos” (the French use the delightful word coquilles) into messages sent across the system; the coquilles indicated the direction of the Paris stock market each day. This allowed the brothers to beat the Bordeaux market in government bonds. They were eventually caught, and even tried, but since they had not broken an existing law (laws generally lag behind new technology), they were not punished. So the two happily went off to Monte Carlo to run the casino.

The optical telegraph remained in use until 1852, when it was superseded by the electric telegraph system. By then, the network consisted of 556 stations covering more than 4,800 km. The towers were everywhere. In Paris, even St-Sulpice (shown below) and the Louvre had Chappe telegraphs installed on them.

Paris gave Claude Chappe his due in 1893, on the hundredth anniversary of his successful demonstration, erecting a statue to him, posed in a jaunty attitude, at the intersection of the boulevards Raspail and Saint-Germain.

Alas, the statue was removed during the Second World War and melted down as scrap metal. Paris en Images even has a photograph of it just before it disappeared forever.

However, many Chappe towers are still visible, as I found on French Wikipedia, where an enthusiast has posted a catalogue of the remaining ones, including six that have protected heritage status. A few are even in working order.

The one on my postcard has gone, though. It was on a church called St-Pierre de Montmartre, which stands immediately to the west of Sacré-Coeur. The church had been badly damaged during the Revolution, but in 1794 the ruin was used as the base of an optical telegraph tower that remained until 1840. The church has now been restored. Before the basilica was built, St-Pierre probably had the best view of any church in Paris. A little farther down the Montmartre hill is the rue Chappe, a steep street with a great many stairs, and the Café Chappe at the bottom. We plan to go there on our next visit and raise a glass in his honour.

Other traces of Chappe can be found in Belleville, on the rue du Télégraphe, where a plaque near the cemetery commemorates one of the first towers constructed. Another Chappe tower is part of the ensemble of buildings at 103, rue de Grenelle, which became the headquarters for the telegraph system in the 1840s. A memorial to Chappe has been installed inside the main building entrance. There is even a website devoted to the inventor ( Chappe might be comforted to know that he is not forgotten and nobody now disputes his achievements.

Text by Philippa Campsie, images from Paris en Images, Gallica, Wikipedia, and Google Street View.

*There is still a Vaugirard cemetery in Paris, but it is a different one. Chappe was buried in a cemetery located where the Boulevard Pasteur and the Lycée Buffon are today.



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Gustave Eiffel did not sleep here

On a recent visit to Laywine’s, our favourite pen and stationery store in Toronto, Philippa picked up a desk pad made by the French paper firm Exacompta, and found the following note on the front:

Made in the heart of Paris for over 50 years in a workshop built by Gustave Eiffel, the FAF (feuille à feuille) pad is a practical and highly functional desk pad.

A workshop built by Eiffel? Really? We know the Exacompta building, which sits beside the Canal St-Martin on the Quai de Jemmapes. Here is a picture from Wikimedia. It’s a handsome industrial site, and the fact that the building is still in use for industry in the middle of Paris is astonishing. But Gustave Eiffel…?

Actually, no. Saying Eiffel designed a building in France is like saying “George Washington slept here” in the United States. It impresses people and occasionally it might even be true. But in this case, the architect was one Paul Friésé. We cannot account for the Eiffel myth, but in laying it to rest, we had a chance to consider an unusual building and its history.

The building at 132-134 quai de Jemmapes was commissioned by la Compagnie Parisienne d’air comprimé (the Paris Compressed Air Company). In France, compressed air has a long history as an energy source, but the Quai Jemmapes building was to be a coal-powered thermal electric generating station. This may come as a surprise, because the photo above does not suggest electricity generation, does it?

In the late 19th century, electricity was an exciting new technology and Paris embraced it with enthusiasm. Electricity gave a whole new meaning to the words “City of Light.” At first, a range of private companies generated and sold electrical power. Since the Paris Compressed Air Company already had a reputation for supplying energy, it was quick to venture into this new energy source.

In 1889 the City of Paris gave the company the right to build a thermal electric generating station on the quai de Jemmapes and to supply the eastern part of Paris with electricity. It was a massive project. As a leading industrial architect, Paul Friésé was an obvious choice.

He was a graduate of the École des Beaux Arts whose wide-ranging projects included other electrical stations, such as an enormous generating station near the Gare de Lyon where the RATP offices are now, and several impressive Paris substations that are still standing.

The selection of a canal site made sense. Thermal generation of electricity depends on steam to power the turbines that in turn drive the generators and that means massive amounts of coal to heat water in boilers. The canal St-Martin site has lots of water and its barges could deliver a seemingly endless supply of coal. The picture below was taken from the top of the building in 1920, showing the view northwest; note the many chimneys in this formerly industrial area.

Friésé also had to work within some strict requirements. Given the limited electrical transmission technology of the day, the generating station had to be close to its intended market. And that meant that Friésé’s building had to fit into a tight site in a dense neighbourhood that included the St-Louis Hospital. In this image, also taken from the roof of the station in 1920, you can see the hospital to the left, with its rows of identical dormer windows.

Another limit was on the size of the generators. They were constructed in Belfort by the Société Alsacienne de Constructions Mécaniques (now Alstom) and brought in on trains and enormous wagons, but the need to transport them such a distance limited their size. In this image from Le Génie civil, you get a sense of the scale.

Engineering projects of this era often combined the gigantic with a sense of politeness and attention to appearance and context. Friésé created a building that did not overwhelm the neighbours and yet had a sense of gravity. He won a medal during the 1900 Exposition for this design. This is how the building looked in its heyday. Note that coal is being unloaded from the canal barge in front.

Despite Friésé’s achievement, his magnificent generating station had a relatively short productive life. In 1896 the Paris Compressed Air Company started supplying electricity to customers. But the administration of Paris soon decided to have only one company supplying electricity, in this case la Compagnie Parisienne de Distribution d’Électricité (CPDE). In 1910 the Paris Compressed Air Company’s concession was terminated.

There was little else to do but sell the company, and in 1914 it was purchased by the CPDE. What had been one of the most up-to-date electrical generating plants in France was taken out of operation by its new owners, and the massive generators fell silent.

For several decades after that, the site had a chequered career. The chimneys were demolished, as they were no longer needed. The luxury shoe manufacturer Saderne took over some of the space, but suffered a fire in 1917. Saderne went bankrupt in 1927. For a while, the Labor company manufactured workers’ clothing there (such as the once-ubiquitous blue overalls and smocks that so many French workers wore).

Finally, in the 1950s, Clairefontaine bought the site, as well as buildings to the north of the former generating station, and it has been there ever since. The company is now known as Exacompta-Clairfontaine, as many French paper businesses have consolidated (Rhodia notebooks and Mignon cards and G. Lalo stationery are all brands of the same giant paper organization based here).

The former generating station was declared a historic monument in 1992, but the generating machinery has undoubtedly long since disappeared. It is hard to know anything for sure, though, as access is forbidden to outsiders. The best we can do is show a Google Earth overview of the site. In addition to the red-roofed building facing the canal, the ones behind it and on the left are also part of Exacompta.

As for the architect, he died in 1917, during the First World War. He was from Alsace (born in Strasbourg in 1851), and when the First World War broke out, he volunteered to serve, even though he was 63 at that point. He was deployed in the reserve army as a translator. He was wounded in the Battle of the Chemin des Dames, and died shortly thereafter. He is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery. A book about him is due out from Memogrames next month (November 2017) in honour of the centenary of his death.

Text by Norman Ball, contemporary photographs from Wikimedia, historic photographs from Gallica and Paris en images. Thanks also to Denis Cosnard, whose detailed blog, “Des usines à Paris,” provided helpful information. To see more photographs and an interesting analysis of the building, see the graduation report by Merle van Marissing from TU Delft University, in which the building is re-imagined as a library.

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Exploring an imaginary Paris suburb

Rereading a well-loved children’s book can be risky. Some hold up well – my adult niece is currently enjoying Anne of Green Gables all over again. Others, well, you need to be a child to appreciate them properly.

So I hesitated to re-open The Street Musician (Le Piano à Bretelle) by Paul Berna. I needn’t have worried. The story engaged me once again, and I remembered what it was about it that had so attracted me as a child.

But first, a little background. Paul Berna is the pen-name of Jean Sabran (1908–1994), author of more than 30 children’s books, about half of which have been translated into English. He also wrote adult novels under three other pseudonyms – Bernard Deleuze, Paul Gerrard, and Joel Audrenn. He used different names for different types of books, and avoided using his own name because he did not want to be confused with his brother Guy Sabran, who was also a writer. He was ferociously prolific, especially considering that his career as an author started when he was in his forties.

His “breakout” children’s book appeared in 1955. In French it is called Le cheval sans tête (known in translation as A Hundred Million Francs). It was translated into about 20 languages and reprinted many times. Walt Disney even turned it into a film called The Headless Horse in 1963 (making changes to the story that the author disliked).

A Hundred Million Francs tells the story of a gang of ten children of various ages living in the imaginary working-class suburb of Louvigny-Triage, who stumble across a crime and end up thwarting some ugly villains.

Gaby, Marion, Fernand, Juan, Berthe, Mélie, Zidore, Tatave, Criquet, and Bonbon range in age from about 12 down to about six or seven. They spend their free time together, at large in the streets of Louvigny after school and on weekends. They do have parents, but the parents stay firmly in the background.

Paul Berna, like many other children’s writers, found that in fiction, children need to be on their own, away from their families, to display personality and initiative, which is probably why so many protagonists in children’s fiction, from Anne of Green Gables to Harry Potter, are orphans. He gives his fictional creations great independence – so much so that an earlier book, Vacances en Scooter, published in 1952, about a teenaged boy and his eight-year-old sister who take off together on a scooter, caused a flap. Parents were worried it would encourage other children to do the same thing.

A Hundred Million Francs keeps the children close to home, but courting danger nonetheless. The headless horse is the remains of a rocking horse mounted on a tricycle undercarriage without pedals or brakes, and the children take it in turns to career down a steep hill.

The horse shot down the rue des Petits-Pauvres making the most appalling noise from its three iron wheels. It was wonderful and the cross-roads gave the ride a spice of danger that made it even more glorious. Then, right at the very end, the road made a steep climb, taking the horse and rider on to the bank round the Clos Pecqueux. As you breasted the rise you could see nothing but empty fields stretching grey to the horizon, so that for two seconds you felt as though you were flying. But if you failed to brake with your heels, you were over the crupper and flat on your back.

And that’s a typical adventure before the villains get hold of the horse.

What I love about that passage and many others, is the vividly evoked landscape of a suburb at the edge of the city, where the fields begin. And I love the names in the book – the Rue de Petits-Pauvres, the Clos Pecqueux, the Faubourg-Bacchus (where some of the children live), the inevitable Square de la Libération and rue des Alliés, and the rue de la Vache Noire.

Berna has a gift for evocative descriptions.

The sun was going down quickly. Darkness was covering the town like a flood, drowning the slums of Louvigny-Cambrouse, the sidings, the factories, and the smoky railway tracks where the coloured signal lights sprang up as though by magic and stretched away into the distance. All of a sudden it got colder.

The illustrations, by Richard Kennedy, fit the mood perfectly.

As a child, I also loved the fact that the setting was urban. Although I enjoyed stories about rural life (Anne of Green Gables in particular), I couldn’t identify with them. I grew up in a city. My surroundings consisted of streets and buildings and my pleasures came from public transit and museums and department stores. Rural was for holidays; urban was home. My surroundings weren’t as industrial as Louvigny, but I recognized a familiar landscape.

Berna’s fully realized imaginary town is probably the reason I actually prefer the second novel about the Louvigny gang, The Street Musician (the French version is called Le Piano à Bretelle, which means “The Accordion”). Published in 1956, it is a mystery more than an adventure, and the puzzle at its heart is not so much a crime as a tragedy.

It begins in the Square Théodore-Branque – I’m sure you know it, or somewhere just like it. The gang is restless after the exciting adventure of the headless horse, until Marion (she is not the leader, but she is often the brains of the organization) has an idea:

“Adventures only happen to people who take the trouble to look for them… There’s plenty going on in town: let’s keep our eyes open, take a good look round and I bet within a couple of days we’ll have sniffed out an adventure just as exciting as the one the horse led us into.”

Indeed, by staying alert, the gang notices something strange – a blind accordion player who goes to a different part of town every day, playing a random selection of pieces, but always ending with the same haunting gypsy tune. He even plays in deserted streets where there is no one to hear him or give him a coin. What is more, he is accompanied by a dog who has been deliberately dyed black. Marion knows, because she rescues injured and abandoned dogs, and this was one of hers.

Following the musician requires the gang to go up and down every street in town, to the point at which the reader feels it might be possible to draw a map of Louvigny. One illustration contains the beginnings of such a map. And the mystery hinges on the geography of the town, and the discovery of a road that has been hidden since the war. As a child, I used to draw maps of imaginary towns and cities, so that’s another reason this book appealed to me so much.

As I read it again, I found that the story holds up well, and so do the characters and the setting. In part this may be because Paul Berna put his own childhood into his books – he actually had a headless horse on wheels, and was part of a large family that must have felt like a children’s gang at times. Admittedly, the books are period pieces (especially in light of today’s helicopter parenting), and the language is that of the 1950s, translated into 1950s English in my elderly Puffin editions (yes, I still have the original copies I had when I was eight or so).

But one day I shall read Paul Berna in French. And perhaps one day, I shall find myself in Louvigny, or something just like it, and I’ll know my way around immediately.

Text by Philippa Campsie, book illustrations by Richard Kennedy.

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A walk in the snow led us to Paris

Our first trip to Paris together was only about 20 years ago, but already it seems to belong to the distant past.

It all began with a walk in the snow. We are Canadians of a certain age, so the words “a walk in the snow” have a special meaning. When the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, father of our current Prime Minister, was wrestling with whether or not to run for office again he famously took a walk in the snow on February 28, 1984. During that walk he decided not to run for the prime minister’s office again.

We too had our walk in the snow. During our walk we decided to go to Paris.

It was late March, and it was not snowing when we set out for a stroll in a part of Toronto called Rosedale. We had only recently become a couple and we had a lot to talk about.

Philippa had long been in love with Paris and had studied in France for a year. The only time Norman ever flunked an exam in school was first-term grade-nine French. Nevertheless, Norman was catching the Paris bug. As we walked through the gates of Craigleigh Gardens, snowflakes began to swirl around. Norman turned to Philippa and said, “Why don’t we go to Paris?”

Philippa asked “When?” Norman thought for a moment. “Next week?” Well, that wasn’t possible, but we went in September.

In those pre-web days, finding a hotel was a bit more complicated than it is today. Philippa located a book called Cheap Sleeps in Paris in the Albert Britnell bookshop (which later closed and is now a Starbucks, although the old name is still visible on the facade). She didn’t want to buy the whole book when we needed only one hotel, so she consulted it then and there, memorized the name of a hotel, wrote down a number on her hand (she had a ballpoint pen but no paper), and went home to send a fax.

We travelled on an airline that no longer exists: Canadian Airlines. Those were the days when (a) Norman had lots of air travel points and (b) points actually got you a wonderful deal for next to no money. It was our only trip to Paris in business class. What a way to start a new adventure.

We dressed for the flight with what now seems to be extraordinary formality. Philippa wore a dress with pantyhose and Norman wore a shirt, jacket, and tie.

The Grand Hôtel de Balcons on the rue Casimir Delavigne near the Place de l’Odéon was an excellent choice. It, at least, is still there, with its attractive Art Nouveau woodwork, pretty window boxes, and cosy yellow breakfast room. As soon as we arrived – we took the Metro from the airport – we unpacked and then went for a walk in the neighbourhood. We spotted a restaurant called Le Petit Prince (we think it was on the rue Monsieur le Prince), walked in, and made a reservation for that evening.

There is still a Paris restaurant called “Le Petit Prince de Paris,” which is in the 5th arrondissement, but it is not the same. The one we remember has gone. Unlike its namesake, which is all red velvet and plush, the interior was spare and a soft blue, decorated with illustrations from the St-Exupéry books, along with models and mobiles featuring the Little Prince’s aeroplane. Other than a grapefruit sorbet that finished the meal, neither of us can remember what exactly we ate, only that it seemed to be the most delicious meal either of us could remember and the service made us feel welcome and respected.

The following day, we wandered through the street market on the rue de Buci, buying a baguette, St-Nectaire cheese, and pears. Then we took the Metro to Montmartre and got out at Lamarck-Caulaincourt. Not far away we found a little square with a statue of a man and a woman leaning in towards each other, dedicated to the artist Steinlen.

We stopped and ate our picnic on one of the benches.

We have since revisited the site several times, once in the snow.

The streets of Montmartre seemed almost deserted in the early Sunday afternoon. We made our way towards rue Cavallotti. Norman had read in a (now defunct) design magazine about a group of shop owners on that street who had invited artists to decorate their shutters to prevent graffiti. We wanted to go there on a Sunday when the shops were closed and the shutters were down.

We were not disappointed. The top two images below are photographs we took that day, with Norman’s camera, on film. Alas, the murals are mostly gone now and the graffiti has returned, as Google street view shows in the bottom two images.

But that day we spent a happy time looking at the painted shutters before wandering on to the Cimitière de Montmartre. Again, it seemed as if the rest of the world had taken a nap and the two of us had the place practically to ourselves.

On Monday morning, we headed to the Place d’Opéra and American Express, to cash our travellers’ cheques. As one did in those days. When we walked around the Opéra building, which was undergoing renovations, we saw a sign for visits backstage. This had not been an option when Philippa lived in Paris and she was thrilled to explore les coulisses. There was also a display of costumes in the grand stairway at the front.

We spent most of the week walking. We did not ascend the Eiffel Tower or take a boat on the river or enter the Louvre. In fact, we did not go to a single museum all week. The weather was cool and there were sprinklings of rain, but we did not want to go indoors except for meals and sleeping. There was too much to see on the endlessly fascinating streets and in the peaceful parks. Perhaps this is why the city didn’t seem as crowded as we had expected. We weren’t hitting the big tourist draws.

Looking in our photograph album, we are surprised at the small number of images from that trip. Perhaps three dozen. We were too busy looking at and experiencing the city firsthand. And of course, with film, each time one pressed the shutter button one could hear the faint ring of a cash register, and we were being economical. We did buy postcards. We even went to the post office for stamps so we could send some to family and friends. (Actually, we still do and always have.)

After our first-night extravaganza, we ate in places recommended by Cheap Eats in Paris. Some were tiny little holes in the wall that we might not otherwise have noticed. All were good.

Norman kept marvelling at how clean things were. One of the photos he took from our balcony was of a city employee sweeping the street with the green plastic replacement for what were originally twig brooms. (Does anyone know where we can buy one? We seriously covet them.) Norman, who is a historian of technology and once edited a book on public works, kept stopping to examine street cleaning equipment and the water system for cleaning the gutters. He eventually wrote about that system in a blog that has become our most popular post ever.

Because of his interests, Philippa started to notice things she had never noticed before. She had long been familiar with the “Défense d’afficher – Loi du 29 juillet 1881” signs, but she had never noticed the “Gaz à tous les étages” that Norman now pointed out.

Norman also has a strong interest in design and it seemed the shop windows were filled with things he had seen in design magazines or read about in a history of design or technology. We spent an afternoon going in and out of the boutiques in the Palais Royal, which included some up-to-the-minute decor, and some elegant but timeless spaces that seemed to have been unchanged since the 18th century.

But even everyday shops were a revelation. Everywhere we looked, the attention to detail and presentation were astounding. We lingered over corner store outdoor displays where fruit and vegetables were beautifully stacked, where colours seemed to be carefully chosen.

And it wouldn’t be a visit to Paris without Norman being distracted by the great variety of cars and motorcycles. He remembers walking on the Champs Elysées, hearing a wondrous mechanical roar, looking for the source of the sound and proclaiming, “I love it, but I don’t know what it is.” Hope springs eternal and he thinks it will come back so he can get another look. So we just have to keep going to Paris.

Philippa was more familiar with the city, and wanted to show Norman some of the things she remembered, such as the Faculté de Medicine near the hotel, where she once sat on a hard bench for two back-to-back two-hour university lectures. The city held many memories.

But that visit was the start of new memories and new experiences. This month marks the seventh anniversary of “Parisian Fields,” and we still enjoy the way the blog allows us to re-experience favourite moments and follow up on questions that arise as we walk along Paris streets.

We have even walked in the snow in Paris, on a night when the buses had gone home to the garage to escape the un-Parisian conditions. We walked along the boulevard in the snowy night without complaining. That was on a December trip many years later. But we were still as excited as on our first trip to Paris together.


Text and photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie; 2017 street images from Google Street View.

We would be delighted to hear from readers about their own experiences of visits to Paris in the days before the Internet, selfies, love locks, mobile phones, and Airbnb.

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Get thee to a library

On our last two trips to Paris, much of our time was spent in library research. Here is a picture that our friend Mireille took of us in the library of the Association Valentin Haüy.

It consists of one large room with books and documents on three sides in tall glass-fronted cabinets with wooden cupboards underneath, also filled with boxes of documents. The fourth wall is all windows, which open on to a quiet side street. Even in June’s heat, it was reasonably cool there.

As you can see, we are using a variety of printed and archival materials. These are not available digitally. You have to go there and look at them yourself. It is a unique collection, focused on the education of the blind, including a range of associated subjects, from linguistics to technology to fiction. We met two other researchers during our visit. One was studying the autobiographies of blind people, and the other researching the history of sounds.

We enjoyed our weekday routine of library work in the morning, lunch in the canteen, more reading, transcribing, and photographing in the afternoon, and home again with plenty of time to pick up some fresh food for dinner. We would recommend the place to you, but we cannot. The library, along with the associated museum, closed when the conservatrice responsible for both retired at the end of June. The Association is looking into ways to offer continued access to researchers, but the future of the museum and library is by no means certain.

In an earlier blog, we talked about the gradual loss of Paris bookshops. What about libraries? The much-anticipated reopening of the Labrouste reading room in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France Richelieu complex suggests that libraries are prized. But although they may seem stable, specialized libraries and archives can close quite suddenly. For example, we were told that the archives of the Quinze-Vingts (the refuge for indigent blind people founded in the 13th century, now an eye hospital) is no longer maintained or accessible.

Given the fragility of so much documentation, we were delighted at one point to find a tiny survivor of what was once a network of Parisian lending libraries.

Norman was hunting for a book that he needed for his research, and Mireille suggested we try the library of Les Amis de l’Instruction on the rue de Turenne in the 3rd arrondissement. It was open on Saturday afternoons only. Wisely, she added that even if they didn’t have the book, it would be well worth the journey there. She was right.

We nearly missed the place, with its modest sign.

Notice the words “prêt à domicile.” This was a lending library – Paris’s first.

When we found the right door, we walked through and straight into the 19th century. Two friendly volunteers ushered us into the main room, with its central table and book-lined walls.

One volunteer checked the card catalogue for the book we wanted. It wasn’t there, but at this point, we didn’t mind a bit.

They showed us around the warren of small rooms on two levels lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

The library occupies part of a much older building, which dates from the 1650s, known as the hotel de Gourges for Armand Jacques de Gourges, marquis de Vayres. He bought it in 1707, but lost the building (and his own head) during the Revolution, at which point, the house became public property. It is still owned by the City of Paris.

The library’s founder was a lithographer called Jean-Baptiste Girard, who had spent time in prison for the crime of belonging to a labour union and taking part in a demonstration. In 1861, he and a group of like-minded workers created a new type of institution: a private lending library open to all – women included.

Library users paid a membership fee (about 50 centimes a month) that gave them the right to participate in the running of the place. The library maintained a list of requests, to allow members to suggest acquisitions. Although this seems a benign sort of venture, in the 1860s, it was quite subversive. At a time when labour unions were suppressed, self-organization of this sort was frowned upon by the authorities, who would have preferred literate members of the working classes to read only materials approved by the ruling classes.

The original register of members from the time of its founding shows that its adherents included not just workers, but architects and lawyers, artists and students, and people from other parts of the city, such as Auguste Rodin. Clearly there was a demand for this kind of open access to books.

And the idea spread. At one point there were 14 of these libraries spread across the city, and one in the suburb of Asnières, offering books, lectures, and even excursions.

The books we saw all date from before 1940, when the network of lending libraries started a slow decline. Gradually, all except this one closed down. Many of the libraries that closed offered their books to the remaining library in the rue de Turenne, which accepted as many non-duplicates as possible, cramming them into every available space.

Yet quaint and anachronistic as it may sound, the library is not a time capsule. At one point, we rounded a corner to find a desk with a computer on it.

Les Amis de l’Instruction also maintain an extensive website, which includes access to taped versions of monthly talks held in the downstairs room, many of which are on the history of the city (if you are around in September 2017, there will be one on the lost river of the Bièvre). You can view old catalogues, listing books in various branches of the sciences, as well as history, geography, literature, and commerce. There are even links to free online copies of some of the 19th-century books in the collection.

Before we left, one of the volunteers took Norman’s e-mail address and offered to follow up with a friend who might know the whereabouts of the book we sought. The place is well named: its members really are the friends of instruction and knowledge. We wandered back out into the rue de Turenne, marvelling that such a fragile entity had survived for more than 150 years, hoping it would be there again on our next visit.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie; opening photograph by Mireille Duhen.

La Bibliothèque des Amis de l’Instruction is at 54 rue de Turenne, 3rd arrondissement, Métro Chemin Vert or Saint-Paul. It is open Saturdays from 3 to 6 p.m. or by appointment. Telephone or e-mail


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