Thursday, February 16, 2012

An afternoon in Paris

The pretty girl stopped suddenly in front of me as I walked beside the Seine. With a gasp, she bent down and picked up a chunky gold ring. "Is this yours?" she asked.

Wondering first why she might think that I have such little taste, I answered in the negative and walked on, ignoring her repeated shouts. I had read about the Parisian gold ring scam before and didn't want to waste my time, although it might have been interesting to let it pan out before, perhaps, throwing the ring into the river.

Paris holds several happy memories for me. It's where my wife and I got engaged in 2004, in a corner of the Tuileries gardens, and we were there two years ago when my wife was two months pregnant with our daughter. Last weekend, I went alone on business, to cover the France-Ireland rugby match that was called off because of a frozen pitch ten minutes before the scheduled 9pm start.

There are worse places to be when the temperature is several degrees below zero than Paris and having arrived several hours before kick-off I enjoyed a bracing long walk beside the river, past the ring-scammers and the tat-salesmen, flogging what they claimed were ancient manuscripts from green bins for a handful of euros apiece.

I made the mistake of visiting Notre Dame, when I should have headed up to Montmartre for the singing nuns at Sacre Coeur. For all the beauty of Notre Dame's facade, it has been vandalised inside by tourist parties, who churn through the aisles looking at nothing yet photographing it all.

Why do so many people need to record every moment of their life in photographs? Can they not see a church as a place of contemplation, of spiritual uplift? You do not need to be religious to find peace in a church, but in Notre Dame none exists. Just a constant snap, snap, snap. Religion through a viewfinder.

I spent all of ten minutes there and headed for another temple where the visitors at least use their own eyes. Down the river to the Musee D'Orsay, a greater treat than the Louvre, with its fine collection of impressionism and sculpture. A marvellous array of bottoms and breasts (if a month early for an exhibition on Degas and the Nude), of portraits and pointillism.

An exhibition on 19th-century orientalism (then meaning the Middle East and north Africa, not the Far East) caught the immediate attention, almost as immediate as Manet's La blonde aux seins nus and I finished with the Signacs and Seurats, admiring the patience and focus needed to conjure a spectacle in dots. But I'm drifting into Pseuds Corner territory...

North, then, via a decent onion soup and a barely passable spaghetti bolognese, to the Stade de France for the rugby. It may have been -6C when I got there, with the mercury heading quickly down, but we had no inkling that the game would be off. They had tested the pitch the day before, we were told, and all was fine. What they did not mention was that the inspection had been mid-afternoon rather than at 9pm when the game would start.

Sat in the stand, fingers turning blue, word came via Twitter that the match was off. No it hasn't, I replied. I'm here, the band is standing in the middle and there has been no announcement. Such is modern journalism and age-old customer relations that you have more chance of getting the news from someone watching the TV in London than you do from being there.

At ten to nine, those watching the game on TV were told the match was off. It took 20 minutes before any such announcement was made in the stadium and when it came it was met with whistles and jeers. Mind you, the French jeer even when a match is being played, even when their own team is about to kick.

The pitch was frozen in patches, making it dangerous to play, yet still no one had told the band. They stood there, shivering, until 9.30pm before being allowed to march off. The temperature had dropped to -10C by then and the press had moved indoors to write their post-mortems.

A wasted trip? Not really, I can hardly complain at the company paying for me to spend an afternoon looking at Renoir's nudes ...

Thursday, February 02, 2012

They'll be banning Bloody Mary next

It baffles me how some people go in search of things to be upset about. You would have thought that there are plenty of genuine inequalities in the world that Kate Green, shadow equality minister, could choose to bring up with the Government, but today she used parliamentary time to lobby for the removal of a beer from the Strangers Bar in the Commons.

A bar, incidentally, into which she says she has not set foot in almost two years as an MP, but which sells beer at a taxpayer-subsidised £2.70 a pint. Those of us who have to pay getting on for £4 elsewhere in London might suggest that there are other forms of inequality she should be worried about.

The beer, one of those guest ales that pubs buy in from time to time, was called Top Totty - which is surely better than Middle-Ranking Totty, as Tracey Crouch, a Tory MP, tweeted - and offended Ms Green not just for its name but because the label on the pump features the image of a cartoon bunny girl and has such advertising phrases as "stunningly seductive" and "voluptuous hop aroma". So she got it banned, for that is what Labour MPs exist to do.

It's not witty or even that classy - isn't that the point of guest ales? - but it was apparently a good beer and other MPs, including women, liked to drink it. Top Totty was first stocked in 2007 and sold out in three days, which is surely good news for the small brewer that makes it. Not any more.

What next? Should all copies of The Sun be banned from the parliamentary estate because of page 3? Or how about taking on other offensive drinks? Spitfire tastelessly glorifies conflict; London Pride neglects other parts of the country and as for Bishops Finger...

Nor should we stop at beers. Cocktails are definitely offensive (if we must use a filthy body part then give it the unisex renaming of Genitails) and surely it is time to ban the Bloody Mary out of respect for Catholics.

Incidentally, when I worked in Parliament more than ten years ago, the Strangers Bar used to make the best Bloody Mary in London. "You want it cooked?" asked the barman. Cooked meant it came with extra Tabasco, lime and Lea and Perrins. Curry in a glass.