Saturday, 21 May 2016

Vichy, and the importance of the comma

Wednesday 18th May, 2016

The view from the A75 motorway is spectacular as it wends its way through the volcanic cones of the Auvergne, more so even than yesterday when we hopped across the gleaming plateau of the Causse; nevertheless the journey was uneventful and a tad tedious. This is a good thing, as a driver I like uneventful and tedious days having had too many driving days in Italy which were remarkably eventful and characterised by tedium being randomly relieved by suicidally minded Vespa and Alfa Romeo owners. The extent of our tedious Tuesday can only be evidenced photographically by a lack of pictures. Only a couple Gill's effort to record the snow-capped Puy from the cab, and my portrait of her sense of her unbridled ebullience next to the pasta shelves in the Carrefour Market in Clochmerle-twinned-with-Tadcaster. After a moment of deep personal crisis sparked by the suspicion that Fettuccine was unknown in France, I was delighted to be on hand to record Gill's utter delight at finding the last packet of this under-appreciated pasta in the Massif-Central.

Gill, overjoyed by Fettucinne
Our two days in Vichy have not been tedious at all. I felt compelled to communicate this to my architecturally impoverished American cyber-pals on Facebook, posting a clutch of photos of the town's Art Nouveau gems, accompanied by the message, 'Vichy France was great!' A moment or two later it dawned on me that I had inadvertently asserted, not a passion for fin de siècle buildings, but a hitherto undisclosed enthusiasm for Petain's Fascist puppet state. Thankfully the addition of a humble comma was enough to set the record straight, and the edited caption now read, 'Vichy, France was great...' and it was and is. 

From Camping Bellerive across the river, it is an easy cycle ride along small roads and bike lanes into the town. The route runs through a pleasant park alongside the Allier, then crosses over a couple of streets before reaching another green space where the famous Opera, Casino and Thermal Baths are situated. We locked the bikes and went walkabout. Here is a selection of the 150 photos that the pair of us took in the space of half a day or so wandering about Vichy's delightful parks and streets.

1. Fin de Siècle architecture

What makes the Art Nouveau buildings of Vichy unique is their surprising restraint. Given French Architecture's tendency before the Modern era to delight in exuberance and decorative motif, it might be expected that the curving natural forms associated with Art Nouveau would result in buildings that are a cornucopia of busy details. However, this is not quite the case. The Opera has beautiful detailing in its architrave, corbels and decorative ironwork, yet the proportions of the building itself have a grandeur based on classical proportion.

Vichy Opera House - Classical proportions, art nouveau detail

The adjacent Casino was rather more typically 'fin de siecle'

Similarly, the Thermal Baths are a delightful mixture of intricate detail and more plain, light-washed spaces that exude calm and tranquillity - an ambiance, one supposes, that formed an integral part of of 'the cure'.

A covered walkway connects the Opera at one end of the park tothe Therman Baths at the Other.
Oriental influences on the Thermes building

Beautiful light-filled interior spaces

2. Good late 19th century sculpture and paintings.

3.The Town Centre: quirky Shops, old arcades and buildings in contrasting styles.

Window shopping
Designer chocolate shops seem to be the thing..
and fancy cakes
..and odd gelitine based sweets

The Mairie looks like it pre-dates the majority of the Spa developments by a decade or two - Second Empire exuberance!

La Poste - not the most beautiful building in Vichy, but interesting if you are a fan of 20th Century Architecture...
 an interesting mix of Art Deco an Modernism,

The French never quite got the hang of Gothic revival - not quite Pugin is it?
What can you say...?

So what about Vichy France?

I suppose that it is not surprising that there is scant evidence of Vichy France In Vichy, France. On the the Casino a small plaque commemorates a moment in July 1940 when a group of 50 French Parliamentarians made a brave declaration in support of liberty and the French Republic. Their subsequent fate under the the emerging pro-Fascist regime of Marshal Petain is not recorded. 

In a small tree lined square near the Opera,stands the town's large war memorial erected after WW1. Its relief sculpture depicts a a battle scene mixing gritty realism with idealistic flights of patriotic fancy. A panel on the side lists the new or the town's fallen from WW11 to Syria. 

The only reference to the darkest moment in Vichy's history was a nearby small rectangular headstone of black marble inscribed with a short message of remembrance for the 800 people from the town sent to their deaths by Petain's regime. Half were political opponents of the Fascist regime, the remainder local Jews transported to Germany's death camps. The simplicity of the headstone was in marked contrast to the grandiose War Memorial, and reflects how combatants are glorified, but civilian casualties dismissed as collateral damage. Both are victims of war; we should remember them with equal respect I feel.

Gill began to chat to some municipal workers planting flowers in the memorial garden. One young women spoke excellent English, it transpired she had spent three years as a student at Glasgow University. She was able to translate the inscription on the the headstone about the victims of the Vichy regime, but it was clear she had no idea who Phillipe Petain was, her colleague even speculated that Petain was in charge of the Resistance! We wondered if such ignorance about occupied France was common among young people, it certainly seemed a little surprising coming from residents of Vichy.

We had bought a couple of quiches and mini-patisserie, and sat in the park by the opera for a somewhat late lunch. We remarked on how well maintained Vichy's Spa buildings were in comparison to Spa in Belgium, Montecatini Terme, and the lamentable state of the Spa buildings in our home town of Buxton. A bit of park bench googling helped answer the conundrum. It seemed that some measure of income comes into the town from sales of Vichy water, and the cosmetic brand associated with it. 

We imagined how much a better state Buxton would be in if a bit of cash came into the town from every bottle of its spring water sold. Instead the brand is owned by a multi-national - Nestlé, who are utterly disinterested in the town that provides the brand's identity. The fabric of Buxton spa is falling to bits as complex arrangements involving English Heritage hand-outs and deals with dodgy property developers never seem to come to anything. It's the story of two countries and two approaches to managing heritage and national assets. Here in Vichy, some measure of local control has helped secure the future of its superb architectural heritage; Control of Buxton water was handed over into the private sector decades ago, eventually being absorbed into a a remote, disinterested multi-national conglomerate. Buxton's thermal baths are boarded up and the grade 1 Regency period Crescent enmeshed in a decades long saga involving the Local Authority, English Heritage and private property developers which never quite seems to result in the promised refurbishment actually coming to fruition but remains forever 'work in progress'. It's tempting to extrapolate the saga into a wider context, and reflect on how, compared to our European neighbours we have simply stood aside as onlookers and watched authorities of all persuasions asset-strip national resources that are part of a collective heritage and should belong in the public domain. 

We cycled back to our pitch next to the Allier, and were entertained by members of the local rowing club being terrorised by their resident trainer who tracked each group of rowers in his rubber dinghy, yelling at them in gattling-gun French through a megaphone. 

River bank fauna...

As evening fell the rowers and coach went home and peace was restored. It is very peaceful here, despite being less than two kilometres from the town centre. Evening light, a big river with a slow swirling current, bits of twig, a scattering of pink petals, a half submerged fridge - stuff drifts by. After a day immersed in history, it's almost inevitable that the river seems a metaphor for passing time. 

Yesterday, the BBC reported that Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party acknowledged for the first time on the 50th anniversary of the start of the cultural revolution that the whole thing might have been a 'mistake'. Their statement was couched in gloriously arcane Marxist-Leninist mumbo-jumbo, containing the phrase 'History inexorably moves forward' - I am still trying to decide if the phrase is deeply profound, or utterly inane. Staring at the Allier, considering it as a metaphor for history seems to make more sense than some other contemporary Western notions -such as Fukuyama's idea that Liberal Democracy represents 'the end of history' or various cyborg visions of the future like Transhumanism.

Somewhere like Vichy makes it is difficult to ignore that we exist within a larger 'stream' of history, and my sense of this was magnified on reading more about Marshal Petain. He was born in 1856, and in a sense he typifies the values of the autocratic, imperialist Europe of the late 19th Century, resistant to universal suffrage, fearful of communism and relentless in imposing Western values on other cultures. 

Vichy is part of that world. It's gracious spa architecture, casino and opera house typify a place where the monied and political classes of the period spent their leisure time. It's fame was assured when Emperor Napoleon III became a regular visitor in the 1860s. This privileged world did not survive WWI, and in a sense it is here that the relationship between Vichy and Petain becomes most interesting. He was not merely a product of the world that Vichy represents but a key defender of it. As one of the commanders of French forces during the Battle of Verdun in 1916 he was hailed as a hero of the French Republic, however, his vision of the Republic was staunchly conservative, harking back to the autocratic traditions of the previous century. As a military strategist, however, he was far from conservative, advocating in his later life that the French army adopt the use of fast moving armoured divisions. Perhaps if his advice had been heeded the invading German panzers would not have simply out-manoeuvred the Franco-British expeditionary force in the battle for France in 1940. Their defeat led to the fall of Paris, and France being divided, the Germans ruling the northern part directly, and Petain administering a Fascist puppet state from Vichy. 

Once you understand his background, Petain's actions may never be regarded as laudable, but they do become more understandable. He believed that German military superiority would result in a swift victory, Britain would sue for peace, and he would strike a deal with Hitler putting himself at the helm of a reunited France with Paris as capital. This vision of a return to Europe as a collection of autocratic 'Great Powers' may have seemed to many conservatives in 1940 the most likely outcome - with Fascist regimes in Spain, Italy and Portugal, Stalin in Russia, Nazi Germany in the ascendancy, France defeated and Britain isolated - it is easy to see how Petain took the actions he did as an act to 'save France'. Without Churchill's belligerence, the actions of the 'few' and America's subsequent involvement, then a Europe of dictatorships could well have been the outcome of a some peace treaty hammered out in the autumn of 1940. 

As it happened, Petain got it wrong in every respect. The Vichy regime colluded with Germany and many atrocities occurred throughout France. Rightly he was held to account after the liberation of France, escaping the death penalty on humanitarian grounds - he was now aged 88, and somewhat demented. He was imprisoned, but lived the last few months of his life under house arrest. On his death in 1951, President De Gaulle intervened. Petain's death certificate described his occupation as 'no specific profession' in line with his official 'disgrace'. Charles de Gaulle decreed it should read 'Marshall of France' respecting Petain's role in the defence of Verdun.

So, sitting here by the Allier at twilight, what have I learned today? That a river is an imperfect metaphor for history, because its flow is largely predetermined by a habitual course, and as the events of 1940 show, though history, as the Chinese committee asserted, may move ever forward, it's direction is uncertain. Perhaps a raindrop trickling down a window pane is a better analogy.

What else have I learned? Vichy is a place of grace, beauty and tragedy... and of course, I was reminded of how important it is to understand where to place a comma.


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