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All the bumpy things under the rug
Maypril in Paris
I hope you’ve had a good week.
Thank you to those people who wrote back to last week’s letter, which was in some ways a love letter to Hounslow, the borough I grew up in and the town I grew up close to. More than one person told me my letter made them want to come visit Hounslow for themselves, which brings me significant joy. I write often about travelling in Paris and what you can do here, but in many ways the city’s reputation precedes it entirely, and it sells itself. Not so with Hounslow. But if you do decide to visit, please let me know. I am happy to offer recommendations.
Sunshine and dissonance
We finally have finally had some SPRING-LIKE DAYS here in Paris, which is delightful! Spring arriving on time here used to be such a sure bet that Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong felt quite confident to sign about it in April in Paris.
I never knew the charm of spring
I never met it face to face
I never knew my heart could sing
I never missed a warm embrace
Till April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom
Holiday tables under the trees
April in Paris, this is a feeling
That no one can ever reprise
April in Paris
Whom can I run to
What have you done to my heart
It’s an odd thing to process how haywire weather is now. It used to be the most mundanely friendly way to communicate — to talk about the weather, but now it’s accompanied by a background sense of alarm. Friends staying in Arles in the south of France this week have reported chilly temperatures — it shouldn’t be chilly in the south of France in May. Things are going wrong, and we don’t know what to say and how to feel and what to do.
Zadie Smith writes about this in her 2018 essay collection (one of my most returned-to books) Feel Free, in an essay called Elegy for a Country’s Seasons.
“There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words. Is that surprising? People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise the guilty and ashamed. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: ‘The new normal’. It’s the new normal, I think, as a beloved pear tree, half drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train line to Cornwall washes away – the new normal. We can’t even say the word ‘abnormal’ to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before. Better to forget what once was normal, the way season followed season, with a temperate charm only the poets appreciated.” — Zadie Smith
Despite the nagging sense of dissonance, I and other Parisians are delighted deep in our bones to have a few uninterrupted days of proper spring sun. Balcony plants are blooming, terraces are full and people are in better moods. Yesterday I went to meet my friend Rosie and her two young children in the Tuileries Garden, the ornamental park that was once the private grounds of the Louvre (when it used to be a royal palace) and are today a very elegant public park, complete with ornamental parterres, pretty fountains, sculptures, cafés etc.
There were plenty of people out, a mix of locals and tourists overspilling from the Louvre’s courtyards. Rosie’s kids, C and L, are two of my best friends under five, and were characteristically charming. We ate packed lunches on the green metal chairs that dot the park while they chatted away in franglais (their mother is English and their father French). We ended the afternoon watching the kids take a ride on the manège, or merry-go-round. These old-fashioned rides are everywhere around Paris – in the larger parks, but also in local squares and by various Métro stations. They are a staple of the lives of every young Parisian; if you ever wish to win over a Parisian toddler, come equipped with a pocketful of manège tokens.
After the park, I ducked into Smith & Sons on Rue de Rivoli, which is just a revamped WHSmith (a high-street bookshop in the UK). It’s an odd place, in some ways: they sell a 5-euro can of baked beans and an 11-euro jar of Marmite, aimed at Anglophiles with cash to burn, but I do like it there nonetheless. I wandered around the aisles for a good hour, throwing eight different books into my basket. I felt a little bit frenzied for a few minutes by the heft of my would-be purchase, but eventually managed to talk myself down to leaving with only one. And perhaps not the most sexy one, BUT, I have been consumed by it ever since! I’ll elaborate in the book section below.
Thirty-second book club
So, this weekend I have been reading a book called Economics: The User’s Guide, written by Ha-Joon Chang, a South Korean economist who’s a professor at Cambridge University and London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). I am very interested in society, culture and politics but/and I sometimes feel I lack rigorous knowledge when it comes to the economic aspect of all those things. It’s something I have even thought I could do a Master’s degree in at some point…but after leafing through Chang’s book on Rue de Rivoli, it was clear that his was exactly the kind of smart but accessibly written book that could give me at least the underpinnings I’ve been seeking. It was expensive at 20 euros, but far cheaper than almost any Master’s degree!
What I have read so far is excellent. First the author defines, to the degree it’s possible, what economics is and isn’t; then he takes the reader on a brief tour of economic history, from the Middle Ages up until 2014 (when the book was written), and next he lays out different economic theories and approaches, including the most prevalent today, the Neoclassical School (nothing to do with Roman-style columns, as it turns out). I am relieved, in a way, that I know a bit more about these topics than I thought, and also comforted to read it all laid out so plainly and thoughtfully, like: “Money is a symbol of what others in your society owe you, or your claim on particular amounts of the society’s resources.”
Last night I had a drink with friends who live nearby. As it often does en terrasse, conversation turned to the state of the world, politics etc. The friends I was with, a couple, are business-minded and entrepreneurial, they’re not historically left-leaning people – but both expressed shock at rising inequality, the rate of inflation and the impunity/untouchability of people and corporations rolling in huge profits. “It’s going back to how it was 100 years ago,” said Sam. “There’s going to be a super-rich elite and a huge underclass.”
It does feel that way, and reading through Chang’s economic history helped elucidate all this. He describes the changes in the economy in Western Europe and the US after WW2, and how they thrived thanks to technological developments and also, in many cases, thanks to the dilution of the profits-before-everything approach of the capitalist model with elements of state intervention, like state-backed healthcare, transport, energy etc etc.
When Thatcher came into power in the UK, she dismantled, or began to, many of the socialised elements of the economy, starting a process of eroding what UK citizens came to expect from their government. As I’ve written about before, while the French economy has also become more globalised and profit-focused, the French have not yet given up on expecting their government to use the power and tax income it has to guarantee certain dignities, including time to rest during and after working life. I think many are so incensed about the raising of the retirement age to 64 because they see it as the start of the end for the years of state-guaranteed quality of life, and that is something they are ready to fight for.
What the economics book makes clear/reminds me, too, is the utter reckless devastation that came from the financial crisis of 2008, which took place in my first year at university and cast a shadow over the early adulthood of my generation. And all the while we’re expected to get on, keep going, stay positive etc etc. Podcasts, books and posts abound about how we can ‘hack’ our lives, be mindful, optimise our time etc. But the stress of our lives often comes from these factors that are outside of our control.
It’s like we’re trying to stride resolutely along, but there’s a rug under our feet that is undulating with all the clutter stuffed under it. In some ways, it’s a similar dissonance to that described by Zadie Smith. “There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words.” I appreciate Chang’s book for linking the theoretical to the world.
Et voilà ! That will do for today. Thank you for reading this letter about springtime in Paris, dissonance, hope and merry-go-rounds.
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I will write next week. Have a good few days until then!