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Arts For Heart’s Sake November 26, 2012

Posted by markswill in Media, Navel Gazing, That's Entertainment.

Returning to Wales today I couldn’t help noticing the contrast between Britain’s post-industrial landscape and the one I travelled through in northern France yesterday aboard Eurostar. Here, nondescript clusters of empty, crumbling brick factories and warehouses sat forlornly skirting Midlands towns, interspersed occasionally with retail park blight, whereas in France the factories were almost uniformly big, white sheds shimmering beyond neatly ploughed fields. Of course those French factories may’ve well been dormant, too, although I rather hope the one whose identifying sign simply read ‘Potato Masters’ still had a life.

The news back home after a few days without it was, according to the Daily Telegraph, predictably grim: flooding across the country – plenty of evidence of that through my Virgin Voyager window – with higher food prices and home insurance premiums ahoy, shipyard closures imminent in Glasgow and Portsmouth, pubs still closing at the rate of seven a week, often bulldozed to make way for supermarkets using convenient planning loopholes and of course the inevitable and continuing recession which, we are now told, may mean wallowing in economic despair until 2018… probably much longer, if we can’t manufacture and export our way out of it, which we can’t. (But I was rather tickled by James Dyson whining about industrial espionage at the hands of an oriental mole, this being the same James Dyson lionised for his industrial savvy but who closed down his factories years ago in favour of outsourcing to… the orient).

Notwithstanding what may or may not have been going on in those shed-like factories, in France, or at least Paris which is where I’ve just been, things appear to be different, although that may well a tourist’s panglossian gaze. The glitzy shops in the Marais, where I stayed in a friend’s apartment, all seemed to be prospering and ditto the myriad restaurants, bars and bistros. The art galleries, which along with serious socialising were the main purpose of my trip, heaving to the extent that after queuing for two hours in the rain for the Edward Hopper show at the Grand Palais we could take it no longer and went round the corner to see The Bohemians after merely a ten minute queue. As my Paris-based companion pointed out, this was hung with a panache that the French seem to do particularly well which made up for the somewhat patchy quality of the works themselves, but there were other treats in store, most notably the Sarah Paulsen show at the very wonderful Maison Europeeene de la Photographie and the ever reliable Musée D’Orsay where a smallish show of Van Gochs, Vuillards and Bonnards (the latter whom I never quite get) alone justified the price of admission.

But slightly hungover from yet another night of over indulgence denied sufficient time to do justice to the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers before hightailing it to the Gare du Nord. This is one of the great neglected musées – it doesn’t even feature in most guidebooks – featuring an extraordinary four centuries-worth of scientific, industrial and architectural instruments, inventions and machinery curated with considerable aesthetic flair and intelligibility.

Now you may say that London and even many provincial British galleries, shops and restaurants are also doing gangbusters business despite the recession, and you may be right. But over here I sense a degree of desperation compelling us to get as much culture under our belts as we can before tightening them even further, and/or the arts lose even more funding and thus public accessibility. (On a tiny scale, I am already involved in trying to replace recently withdrawn government funding for local arts and education institutes here in Wales, with yet more to come).

Enough has been written about the civilising effects of the arts on society, often by me, for such concerns to be obvious to anyone with half a brain, but the plethora of publicly available culture in France – Paris has more museums than filling stations – does seem to be reflected in the mood of the Parisian demi monde who, just looking at the handsome smartly-dressed citizens striding the streets and packing the galleries, seemed somehow happier and more optimistic. Plus of course they let motorcycles park on the pavement – truly the sign of an enlightened society and the reason why so many are ridden round the city.

Still, this year I am again doing my bit to raise the cultural bar by appearing in our local pantomime, on this occasion playing the local county councillor, an aging, eccentrically attired ‘confirmed bachelor’  – typecast again I fear – who dies a hideous death as the second act opens. And talking of ugly demises, I’m currently and simultaneously reading Edward St Aubyn’s ‘Mother’s Milk’ and A.M. Homes ‘May We Be Forgiven’, both darkly hilarious, and both including grandmothers suffering dementia. Add to these ‘Amour’, cheery Michael Haneke’s latest flic which considers the incapacitating aspects of old age… and suddenly cognitive decline seems all the rage. I am tempted to say ‘Bring it on’ as it might provide blessed relief from all that ails us in the world, but for the moment at least, I prefer my oblivion bottle shaped, and let’s face it, the French do produce some remarkably good wines and spirits. Must get back there a.s.a.p.

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1. xmoron - November 26, 2012
markswill - November 27, 2012

Phew Jan, that was worth a look. Oddly, indeed sadly, I didn’t see a sole XM the four days I was there – I guess even the French have lost patience with its fickleness – although I did get plenty of chances to re-kindle my somewhat perverse love for the Renault Twingo.

2. Paul Blezard - November 26, 2012

Sacré Bleu! Paris me manque! You’ve made me feel very nostalgic for all the time I’ve spent in Paris, Mark, and made me want to return again soon! But, having recently seen the wonderful St Pancras station & hotel for the first time since it was refurbished, does it not beat Gare du Nord into a cocked chapeau?

markswill - November 27, 2012

Mmmmn, that’s a toughie, Blez. The roofs are about equal, but I’d agree that the ‘retail experience’ – horrid term – is possibly inferior at the du Nord.

3. andy tribble - November 27, 2012

At least you got in after queuing! I queued to see The Pre-Raphaelites at the Tate in London and didn’t get in, they’d sold all the tickets for that day. Never mind, I saw the Ian Hamilton Finlay show in the same gallery for free (patchy, a bit repetitive, my son liked the guns), then went to Victorian Sentimentality (big fun). Also I found a free motorcycle parking space round the back, completely empty.
I’m not sure about desperation, it may mean that having less cash means that we spend it more carefully. Also disagree about arts funding. Basically that means redistribution. Taxes collected from the vast majority are spent to make pleasures cheaper for a minority. And I betcha that, apart from a few freakish council house exceptions, most art lovers are in the top half of the population in wealth terms. So we are taking money from the poor(ish) to give it to the rich(ish). There are much more gross examples, such as the way we subsidise the big opera houses, but we do that for a different reason, because at that level we’re in a sort of cultural arms race with the other European nations. It’s all very perverse. Once upon a time the arts either paid for themselves in business terms, or were paid for by rich people. So when socialistically inclined politicians got their hands on public money, they spent some of it on the sort of arts they liked, that didn’t have to make a profit or flatter the rich (though it’s surprising how much of rich people’s art is actually critical of rich people). But it’s still, at root, taking money from poor people – if not directly, it’s from the services they use – in order to reduce the cost of tickets for the middle and upper classes.

markswill - November 27, 2012

It’s been pointed out to me by someone who doesn’t like commenting publicly (!) that the Brit Art experience is superior to the French variety because so much of ours is free, whereas there’s is not. A good point but if this (and surely future?) govts. get their way, that won’t last much longer. As for rich folk being the main consumers of public art, I strongly disagree. My annual income struggled to reach five figures last year, and again this, but I take every opportunity I can to gallery-hop, and I know plenty like me. The opera situation I agree with and find faintly disgusting… but then I hate opera!

4. Linda Stokes - November 27, 2012

Its maddening of course, but the French simply Look Better doing austerity, or anything else…. glad you got to see so much Art.,
When you go somewhere, like Paris, but don’t live there, you get to see it, for how it looks, without adding in to the picture all the repulsive and intimate things you’d know about it, if you lived there. You are free to just observe, without prejudice…. but to compare the two places,without bias, you’d need a viewer from neither.. I’m thinking me, here.. or my Chinese cousin..
Hope the pantomime is going well.. cheers:)).. .

markswill - November 27, 2012

As ever Prof. Linda, you make a good point. Meet me in Paris, then. Or indeed, anywhere. Panto going fine thanks, although I badly bruised myself falling over dead in rehearsals last night: like Anthony Hopkins in the upcoming Hitchcock flic, I need a fat suit !

5. David Cobbold - November 27, 2012

Mark, Although your observations are justified, I think that there is always a touch of the “looking at the white horse and its rider on the horizon” syndrome in such comparisons. If you were to compare central Paris to central London, would you not get the same impressions? Living here (in Paris) I agree that the shops and galleries etc in the centre seem full and alive (and I am sorry that I was unable to help you with that wet and hopeless queue: next time bring a press card, it works…for one person only though!). But you should take a look at some places more equivalant to the Midlands scenery seen from your train. And the French love moaning and whingeing too, believe me.

markswill - November 27, 2012

Well I did admit that my views might be of the panglossian variety, but I’d actually disagree with you about our respective city centres. London’s West End is badly congested, filthy with litter, roadworks and lousy drainage and ridden with corporate retailing. Paris at least has a wider variety of more interesting shops and restaurants, arguably better architecture, and isn’t so dirty. As you’ll see on the 21st.

6. John Rushworth - November 27, 2012

Hooray! An uplifting blog, in comparison to the last and just in time for the pending misery of Christmas. Even the title had a few cc’s of whimsy. As my 59th year dawns today, I’m beginning to think old age might be even be fun. Next time can we have a piece on French wine. More useful than art, out here in the islands of Scotland.

markswill - November 27, 2012

Take your point John, and thanks for the undue praise. However I wouldn’t dare write about wine when there a risk that grande vintner David Cobbold (see above) might read it and excoriate me. Indeed much better to read HIS blogs: http://www.morethanjustwine.blogspot.com

7. Prosper Keating - November 27, 2012

I think we should all be worrying about what our rulers and their hobgoblins will do when the bad news runs out. A mate here in Paris had a possible foretaste: a parking ticket on his motorbike, parked on the pavement. Just as well it was on British plates and registered to some well dead old codger. Ah yes, Paris looks OK but after four years of Neo-Thatcherism and now a period of Neo-Socialism under Comrade Normal to look forward to, Ronald MacDonald will be electable here next time.

markswill - November 27, 2012

Oh dear Prosper, I didn’t realise that the bastards had started ticketing bike on pavements dans Paris. Clearly my gaze was panglossian after all. Still it was great to see you there which was, after all, another good reason for the visit.

David Cobbold - November 27, 2012

Paul is dead right to underline St. Pancras vs Gare du Nord. And for all you wine lovers out there, the match in this department is akin to a 60-0 rugby victory for England. Next time any of you take the Eurostar London to Paris just compare the wine offer and service in the two stations: “pas de photo” as they say here.

paulblez - November 30, 2012

Confirmation, this very jour from mes vieux amis at motomag.com , that not only are motorbicycles being fined for parking sur les trottoirs in gay Paree, but les salauds are now doing it without even letting the rider know that it’s happened at the time of the parking, numeriquement (digitally) rather like the congestion charge cameras in London. No actual ticket left on the bike at all! “Le contrôle et la verbalisation des “infractions” au stationnement sont de plus en plus sauvages dans la capitale. Surtout avec la généralisation des PV numériques, qui ne laissent aucune trace. Le 22 novembre, un membre de l’équipe de Motomag a stationné sa moto sur un trottoir, le long des emplacements 2RM qui étaient tous occupés, rue du Faubourg Saint Denis dans le 10e arrondissement. Le soir, il repart comme si de rien n’était. Deux jours plus tard, il reçoit un avis de contravention pour infraction au stationnement. 35 euros ! Aucun papillon, aucun avis sur sa moto le jour même… Le problème c’est qu’avec ces méthodes, il est impossible de contester, de prouver sa bonne foi. Vous avez dit racket ?” NB 2RM = deux roues motrices = PTW, powered two wheeler. PNB

8. hed maginnis - November 27, 2012

You have to love French culture, driving technique, wine and protesting lesbians. I’m not sure having more museums than petrol stations is a measure of the arts. More a sign of the times. Belfast has twice the museums to petrol station ratio. (There aren’t any petrol stations in city centre Belfast).
Good to see you sounding so chipper. Be careful of the pantomime.
‘It’s behind you’
‘What is’
‘Your career’
Looking forward to the Christmas message.

markswill - November 27, 2012

Hahahahaha, my career was behind me over a decade ago, I fear.

9. WTK - November 27, 2012

I say sell the art and feed the poor or burn the art and warm the homeless. Or as Spitting Image quoted Michael Heseltine: “It’s good art. The paint is really thick.”

markswill - November 27, 2012

Hmmmn, I’m pretty thick too, Mr T, so does that mean I’m good and arty?

10. Pete - November 27, 2012

Love Paris but there are some bits of the banlieues that would give the UK midlands on a wet Friday a run for their money. If the capital of a country can’t seduce the visitor then it doesn’t deserve the name. But, aah, Pareee…. – she’s a fickle temptress, especially with the lights on pre-Christmas.

markswill - November 27, 2012

And they were, they were… Does that explain the lyrical waxing, d’you think? In truth, I don’t think they were any better than Regent Street’s, although they did have the edge on Presteigne’s! So it must’ve been the wine, the women and… the shoe shops.

11. Rik - November 27, 2012

Mark your bleak assessment would give eeor and Martin the paranoid android a run for their money. No less true though. I am off to Normandy for a few days where I plan to shift some calvados. However, not all things French are superior, outside of the metropolis the whole bloody place shuts down about 5pm and try to get any decent vegetarian food and you’ll be very lucky indeed. It still feels like 1972 when I lived in France, give me south London anyday…

markswill - November 27, 2012

You can have South London anytime, go on, just take it away. Please! As for France beyond London, well I can’t speak for vegetarians, but I’ve been to a few other provincial towns and cities and whilst they’re not exactly Croydon ion a Friday night (thank god), there’s usually summat going on, summat involving food, drink and s-e-x. Condom, in Gascony – I kid you not – was particularly groovy in this respect.

12. John Rushworth - November 27, 2012

Re wine experts Mark. Praise is indeed due to all experts. I trust your judgement. Whilst checking through your links, I now think it best you stick to what you know best, which has always appealed to me. Your friends seem to know wine well, so I shall consult. All I know about Nantes is the Muscadet vineyard which I visted as a Royal Navy apprenctice. I had no artful wine tasting skills. All drinking was driven by testosterone. Now as regards art and the rich. It may trouble you to know that the ‘rich’ art on our island is owned by one Johnny Dumfries (F1)aka http://www.mountstuart.com/ All the art I have seen is indulgent family portraits. The great art is created by the impoverished jobless here, not the one time Cardiff owning, Glamorgan annexing Marquess and heirs. Anyhow why live in Monaco when you can live on a Scottish island? Now you know where the Welsh mining money went….

13. Dave Lancaster - November 29, 2012

I think Mark’s right about Paris. Like everywhere, it’s not as good as it was. But compared to most cities, it’s a gem. The outside? The outside is normally shite, and yes it’s very bad outside the centre of Paris.
What can we do?
We can’t sort out our own suburbs, so should we carry the guilt all the way out there, and all the way back? About theirs and ours?
Or should you, as Mark’s done, allow a moment of intellectual and aesthetic and alcoholic refreshment to wash over you? Walk the streets, spot the bikes, spot the people. Eat some good food, drink some good wine?
We didn’t wreck the economy or build the suburbs’ brutalist monsters, or promise people more than our centres can really offer. Well, I didn’t.
France is changing. I’ve been visiting there – mostly motorcycling, on the back of the old man’s bike during the 70s – almost every year of my life. The D roads are smooth, well plotted and mostly deserted. The road furniture lets you read ahead, the towns welcome you after a nice long ride – and yes, the drivers are sometimes fucking crazy… but we know that. Most of the crazy ones are on the Route National or the motorways.
And try stopping in a small town in the UK and eating well!
In the UK, you need to plan. In France, yes perhaps just, you can still mostly pitch up, park without penalty, have two of three decent courses, a small carafe, a coffee, and be on your way for a half decent sum. Most of the town is doing the same.
Of course, there are the exceptions we all know, but in the UK for the most part the bike’s not safe and/or will get a ticket; the food will be crap or poncy, sometimes both; and the wine will poor and costly. Needless to say, the coffee will be appalling.
To travel in, France still takes some beating in Europe (though in my middle, more conservative years, I’ve been worryingly taken with Little Switzerland during my last two visits…)
In France, most areas retain some quirky shops, a good butcher, a bread-maker, some independent restaurants and wine merchants. The shops close early, the restaurants late. Maybe we’ve got it the wrong way round here?

markswill - November 30, 2012

Dave makes good points on all scores, especially about biking beyond the capitals of the two countries. I’d add Italy to my (very short) list of delightful countries to ride and eat in, too, although these days I rarely get the chance… but maybe that’s because I’m older, poorer and more timid?

14. Andie McGrath - March 11, 2013

amour. yes. did you actually see it? at the time i felt incredibly moved by it, but a short while later i was telling someone how good it was and i started to feel like i’d been had- or at least cynically manipulated.

markswill - March 11, 2013

No, I deliberately DIDN’T see it and for the reason your touched on: I didn’t want to be manipulated as some of my friends who saw it felt they were. BTW, how come you’re trawling through my back catalogue, although I am of course flattered?

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