A Chair At The Café De La Paix
( Originally Published 1918 )
The Green Hour — In the Stalls of Life — National Contrasts and the Futility of Drawing Them — The Concierge — The Bénéfice Hunters — The Claque — The Paris Theatre — The Paris Music Hall — The Everlasting Joke — The Real French — A Country of Energy — A City of Waiters — Ridicule — Women — Cabmen — The Levelling of the Tourist — French Intelligence — The Chauffeurs — The Paris Spectacle.
AND now since it is the "green hour" — since it is five o'clock — let us take a chair outside the Café de la Paix and watch the people pass, and meditate, here, in the centre of the civilised world, on this wonderful city of Paris and this wonderful country of France.
I am not sure but that when all is said it is not these outdoor café chairs of Paris that give it its highest charm and divide it from London with the greatest emphasis. There are three reasons why one cannot sit out in this way in London: the city is too dirty; the air is rarely warm enough; and the pavements are too narrow. But in Paris, which enjoys the equable climate of a continent and understands the æsthetic uses of a pavement, and burns wood, charcoal or anthracite, it is, when dry, always possible; and I, for one, rejoice in the privilege. This "green hour" — this quiet recess between five and six in which to sip an apéritif, and talk, and watch the world, and anticipate a good dinner — is as characteristically French as the absence of it is characteristically English. The English can sip their beverages too, but how different is the bar at which they stand from the comfortable stalls (so to speak) in the open-air theatres of the Boulevards in which the French take their ease.
At every turn one is reminded that these people live as if the happiness of this life were the only important thing; while if we subtract a frivolous fringe, it may be said of the English that (without any noticeable gain in such advantages as spirituality confers) they are always' preparing to be happy but have not yet enough money or are not yet quite ready to begin. The Frenchman is happy now : the Englishman will be happy to-morrow. (That is, at home; yet I have seen Englishmen in Paris gathering honey while they might, with both hands.)
But the French and English, London and Paris, are not really to be compared. London and Paris indeed are different in almost every respect, as the capitals of two totally and almost inimically different nations must be. For a few days the Englishman is apt to think that Paris has all the advantages : but that is because he is on a holiday; he soon comes to realise that London is his home, London knows his needs and supplies them. Much as I delight in Paris I would make almost any sacrifice rather than be forced to live there; yet so long as inclination is one's only master how pleasant are her vivacity and charm. But comparisons between nations are idle. For a Frenchman there is no country like France and no city like Paris; for an Englishman England is the best country and London the most desirable city. For a short holiday for an Englishman, Paris is a little paradise ; for a short holiday for a Frenchman, London is a little inferno.
Each country is the best; each country has advantages over the other, each country has limitations. The French may have wide streets and spacious vistas, but their matches are costly and won't light; the English, even in the heart of London, may be contented with narrow and muddy and congested lanes, but their sugar at least is sweet.
The French may have abolished bookmakers from their race-courses and may give even a cabman a clean napkin to his meals, but their tobacco is a monopoly. The English may fill their streets with newspaper posters advertising horrors and scandals, but they are permitted now and then to forget their vile bodies. The French may piously and prettily erect statues of every illustrious child of the State, but their billiard tables are still without pockets. London may have a cleaner Tube railway system than Paris, but Paris has the advantage of no lifts and a correspondence ticket at a trifling cost which will take you everywhere, whereas London's Tubes belonging to different companies the correspondence is expensive. Again with omnibuses, London may have more and better, but here again the useful correspondence system is to be found only in Paris.
Landon may be in darkness for most of the winter and be rained upon by soot all the year round ; but at any rate the Londoner is master in his own house or flat and not the cringing victim of a concierge, as every Parisian is. That is something to remember and be thankful for. Paris has an atmosphere, and a climate, and good food, and attentive waiters, and a cab to every six yards of the kerb, and no petty licensing tyrannies, and the Champs-Elysées, and immunity from lurid newspaper posters, and good coffee, and the Winged Victory and Monna Lisa; but it also has the concierge. At the en-trance to every house is this inquisitive censorious janitor — a blend in human shape of Cerberus and the Recording Angel. The concierge knows the time you go out and (more serious) the time you come in; what letters and parcels you receive; what visitors, and how long they stay. The concierge knows how much rent you pay and what you eat and drink. And the worst of it is that since the concierge keeps the door and dominates the house you must put a good face on it or you will lose very heavily. Scowl at the concierge and your life will become a harassment: letters will be lost; parcels will be delayed ; visitors will be told you are at home; a thousand little vexations will occur. The concierge in short is a rod which, you will observe, it is well to kiss. The wise Parisian therefore is always amiable, and generous too, although in his heart he wishes the whole system at the devil.
And here I ought to say that although one is thus conscious of certain of the defects and virtues of each nation, I have no belief whatever in any large inter-change of characteristics being possible. Nations I think can borrow very little from each other. What is sauce for the goose is by no means necessarily sauce for the oie, and the meat of an homme can easily be the poison of a man.
The French and the English base life on such different premises. To put the case in a nutshell, we may say that the French welcome facts and the English avoid them. The French make the most of facts; the English persuade themselves that facts are not there. The French write books and plays about facts, and read and go to the theatre to see facts; the English write books and plays about sentimental unreality, and read and go to the theatre in order to be diverted from facts. The French live quietly and resignedly at home among facts ; the English exhaust themselves in games and travel and frivolity and social inquisitiveness, in order to forget that they have facts in their midst.
One always used to think that the English were the most willing endurers of impositions and monopolies; but I have come to the conclusion that a people that can continue to burn French matches and use French ink and blotting-paper, bend before the concierge and suffer the claque and the French theatre attendant, must be even weaker. Only a people in love with slavery would continue to endure the black-bombazined harpies who turn the French theatres into infernos, first by their very presence and secondly by their clamour for a bénéfice. They do nothing and they levy a tax on it. So far from exterminating them, this absurd lenient French people lias even allowed them to dominate the cinematoscope halls which are now so numerous all over Paris. I sit and watch them and wonder what they do all day : in what dark corner of the city they hang like bats till the evening arrives and they are free to poison the air of the theatres and exact their iniquitous secret commission. The habit of London managers to charge sixpence for a programme — an advertisement of his wares such as every decent and courteous tradesman is proud to give away — is sufficiently monstrous ; but I can never enough honour them for excluding these bénéfice hunters.
Whatever may be said of French acting and French plays, there is no doubt that our theatres are more comfortable and better managed. A Frenchman visiting a theatre in London has no difficulties : he buys his seat at the office, is shown to it and the matter ends. An Englishman visiting a theatre in Paris has no such ease. He must first buy his ticket (and let him scrutinise the change with some care and despatch) ; this ticket, how-ever, does not, as in London, carry the number of his seat: it is merely a card of introduction to the three gentlemen in evening dress and tall hats who sit side by side in a kind of pulpit in the lobby. One of them takes his ticket, another consults a plan and writes a number on it, and the third hands it back. Another difficulty has yet to come, for now begins the turn of the harpies. Why the English custom is not followed, and a clean sweep made of both the men in the pulpit and the women inside, one has no notion; for in addition to being a nuisance they must reduce the profits.
I mentioned the claque just now. That is another of the Frenchman's darling bugbears which the English would never stand. Every Frenchman to whom I have spoken about it shares my view that it is an abomination, but when I ask why it is not abolished he merely shrugs his shoulders : "Why should it be ? — one can endure it," is the attitude; and that indeed is the Frenchman's attitude to most of the things that he finds objectionable. They are, after all, only trimmings; the real fabric of his life is not injured by them; there-fore let them go on. Yet while one can understand the persistence of certain Parisian defects, the long life of the claque remains a mystery. Upon me the periodical and mechanical explosions of this body of hirelings have an effect little short of infuriation. One is told that the actors are responsible rather than the managers, and this makes its continuance the more unreasonable, for the result has been that in their efforts to acquire the illusion of applause, they have lost the real thing. French audiences rarely clap any more.
When it comes to the consideration of the French stage, there is again no point in making comparisons. It is again a conflict of fact and sentiment. The French are intensely interested in the manifestations of the sexual emotion, and they have no objection to see the calamities and embarrassments and humours to which it may lead worked out frankly on the boards or in literature : hence a certain sameness in their plays and novels. The majority of the English still think that physical matters should be hidden : hence our dramatists and novelists having had to find other themes, adventure, eccentricity and character have won their predominant place. That is all there is to it. The French stage is the best — to a Frenchman or a gallicised Englishman ; the English stage is the best — to the English. The English go rather to see; the French to hear. In other words a blind Frenchman would be better pleased with his national stage than a blind Englishman with his. The blind Frenchman would at any rate not miss the jokes, which, though he knew them all before, he could not resist; whereas the Englishman would be deprived of the visible touches of which the personae of our drama are largely built up. In a drama of passion, whether treated seriously or lightly, words necessarily are more than idiosyncrasies.
In the Paris music halls the comic singers merely sing — they have little but words to give. London music hall audiences may have an undue affection for red noses and sordid domestic details; but they do expect a little character, even if it is coarse character, during the evening, and they get it. There is little in the French hall. Personality is discouraged here; richness, quaintness, unction, irresponsibility, eccentricity such gifts as once pleased us in Dan Leno and now are to be found in a lesser degree but very agreeably in Wilkie Bard — these are superfluities to a French comic singer. All that is asked of him is that he shall be active, shall have a resonant voice and shall commit to memory a sufficient number of cynical reflections on life. A gramophone producing any rapid indecent song would please the French more than a hundred Harry Lauders. (And yet when all is said it must be far easier to live in a country where decency, as we understand and painfully cultivate it, has not everywhere to be considered. The life at any rate of the French author, publisher, editor and magistrate, to name no others, is immensely simplified.)
But from my point of view the worst characteristic of the French music hall and variety stage is the revue. The revue is indeed a standing proof of the incontrovertible fact that however the hotel proprietors may feel about it, the Parisian does not want English people in his midst. (Why should he ?) The revue in its quiddity is a device for excluding foreigners from theatres; for it is not only dull and monotonous, but being for the most part a satire on Parisian politics is incomprehensible too. I am not here to defend the English pantomime, but not all its agonies (as Ruskin called them) reach such a height of tedium as a revue can achieve. A Frenchman ignorant of English at Drury Lane on Boxing Night might be bewildered and even stunned ; but he would at any rate know something of what was happening and his eyes would be kept busy.
An Englishman at a revue knows nothing, for there is no story and very little money is spent on the stage picture: it is just a steady cataract of topical talk. I have endured many revues, always hoping against hope that someone would be witty or funny, that some ingenious satirical device would occur. But I have never been rewarded. No matter what the nominal subject, the jokes have been the same: the old old mots à double entente, the old old outspoken indecency.
The stream of people continues to be incessant and of incredible density -- all walking at the same pace, all talking as only the French can talk, rich and poor equally owners of the pavement. Now and then a camelot offers a toy or a picture postcard ; boys bring La Patrie or La Presse; a performer bends and twists a piece of felt into every shape of hat, culminating in Napoleon's famous chapeau à cornes.
One thing that one notices is the absence of laughter. The French laugh aloud very seldom. Even in their theatres, at the richest French jokes, their approval is expressed rather in a rippling murmur counterfeiting surprise than a laugh. Animation one sees, but on these Boulevards behind that is often a suggestion of anxiety. The dominant type of face seen from a chair at the Café de la Paix is not a happy one.
It is when one watches this restless moving crowd, or the complacent audiences at the farces, or the diners in restaurants eating as if it were the last meal, and when one looks week after week at the comic papers of Paris, with their deadly insistence on the one and apparently only concern of Parisian life, that one has most of all to remind oneself that these people are not the French, and that one is a superficial tourist in danger of acquiring very wrong impressions. This is the fringe, the froth. One has only to remember a very few of the things we have seen in Paris to realise the truth of this. Never was a harder-working people. Look at the early hours that Paris keeps : contrast them with London's slovenly awakening. Look at the amazing productivity of a notoriously idle and careless set — the artists : the old Salon with its miles of pictures twice a year, and the other Salons, hardly less crowded, and the minor exhibitions too. Look at the industry of the Paris stage : the new plays that are produced every week, involving endless rehearsals day and night. Look at the energy of the French authors, dramatic as well as narrative, of the journalists and printers. Think of the engineers, the motor-car manufacturers, the gardeners and the vintners. Think of the bottle-makers. (But one can-not : such a thought causes the head to reel in this city of bottles.) No, we are not seeing France, we foreign visitors to "the gay capital." Don't let us labour under any such mistake. The industrious, level-headed, cheerful French people do not exhibit themselves to the scrutinising eyes of the Café de la Paix, do not spend all their time as Le Rire would have us believe, do not over eat and over drink.
Around and about one all the time, as one watches this panorama, the swift and capable waiters are busy. Everyone carries away from Paris one mastering impression upon the inward eye : I am not sure that mine is not a blur of waiters in their long white aprons. At the Paris Exhibition of 1900, over the principal entrance at the south-west corner of the Place de la Concorde, was the gigantic figure of a young and fashionable woman in the very heyday of her vivacity, allurement and smartness. She personified Paris. But not so would I symbolise that city. In any coat of arms of Paris that I designed would certainly be a capable young woman,but also a waiter, sleek, attentive and sympathetic.
Paris may be a city of feminine charm and domination; but to the ordinary foreigner, and especially the Englishman, it is far more a city of waiters. Women we have in England too : but waiters we have not. There are waiters in London, no doubt, but that is the end of them : there are, to all intents and purposes, no waiters in the provinces, where we eat exclusively in our own houses. And even in London we must brace ourselves to find such waiters as there are : we must indulge in heroic feats of patience, and, once the waiter comes into view, exercise most of the vocal organs to attract his notice and obtain his suffrages. In other words, there is in London perhaps one waiter to every five thousand persons; whereas in Paris there are five thousand waiters, more or less, to every one person. Or so it seems. It is a city of waiters; it is the city of waiters.
Still the people stream by, and one wonders whence the idea comes that the French are a particularly small race. It is not true. Look at that tall boulevardier with someone else's hat (why do so many French-men seem to be wearing other men's hats ?) and the immense beard. Look at those two long-haired artists from the Latin Quarter, in velvet clothes and black sombreros. In England they would be stared at and laughed at; but here no one is laughed at at all, and only the women are stared at. It is interesting to note how little street ridicule there is in France. The Frenchman mocks, but he does not, as I think so many of the English do, search for the ridiculous; or at any rate it is not the same kind of ridiculousness that we pillory. In England we bring such sandpaper of prejudice and public opinion to bear upon eccentricity that everyone becomes smooth and ordinary — like every-one else. But in France — to the superficial observer, at any rate—individuality is encouraged and nourished; in France either no one is ridiculous or everyone is.
Someone once remarked to me that never in Paris do you see a woman with any touch of the woods. It is true. The Parisian women suggest the boudoir, the theatre, the salon, the sewing-room, the kitchen, and now and then even the fields ; but never the woods.
One misses also in Paris the boy of from fifteen to eighteen. Younger boys there are, and young men abound, but youths of that age one does not much see, and very rarely indeed a father and son together. In fact the generations seem to mix very little : in the restaurants men of the same age are usually together : beards lunch with beards.
And the road is dense too. There is a block every few minutes, while the agents in the centre of the carrefour do their best to control the four streams of traffic. It is odd that a people with so much sense of order and red tape should fail so signally to produce an organiser of traffic. Certain it is that the stupidest Kentish giant who joins the Metropolitan police force has a better idea of such a duty than any of these polished gentlemen in caps. Partly perhaps because in London the police are feared and obeyed, and in Paris the drivers, particularly the cabmen, care for no one. The words Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité are not stencilled all over our churches and public buildings, you see.
The cabmen ! My impression now is, writing here in England, that the Paris cochers are all exactly alike. They have white hats and blue coats and bad horses and black moustaches, and their backs entirely fill the landscape. Also one seldom sees an accident, although they never look as if they were going to avoid one. That is partly because they are a weary and cynical folk, and partly because in France the roads belong to vehicles, and not, as in England, to foot-passengers. In England if you are run over you can prosecute the driver and get damages ; in France if you are run over the driver (one has always heard) can prosecute you for being in the way.
One very comfortable trait of the Parisian cocher is his readiness to go anywhere, no matter how far or difficult; but he never seems so ready as when one directs him to the Place Pigalle or Place Blanche on Montmartre, or even the Moulin de la Galette on its most precipitous slope, nor does his forlorn steed ever show more alacrity than in breasting this acclivity.
No matter with what fervour is the entente fostered and nourished, the Parisian cabman will see to it that the hatchet is never too deeply interred, that the racial excrescences are not too smoothly planed. Polite hotel managers, obsequious restaurateurs, smiling sommeliers and irradiated shopkeepers may do their best to assure the Anglo-Saxon that he is among a people that exist merely to do him honour and adore his personality; but directly he hails a cab he knows better. The truth is then his. Not that the Parisian cocher hates a foreigner. Nothing so crude as that. He merely is possessed by a devil of contempt that prompts him to humiliate and confound us. To begin with he will not appear to want you as a fare; he will make it a favour to drive you at all. He will then begin his policy of humorous pin-pricks. Though you speak with the accent of Mounet-Sully himself he will force you to pronounce the name of your destination not once but many times, and then very likely he will drive you somewhere else first. You may step into his cab with a feeling that Paris is becoming a native city : you will emerge wishing it at the bottom of the sea. That is the cocher's special mission in life—subtly and. insidiously to humiliate the tourist. He does it like an artist and as an artist — for his own pleasure. It is the only compensation that his dreary life carries.
The French, I fancy, are not less capable of stupidity than any other people. There is an idea current that they are the most intelligent of races, but I believe this to be a fallacy, proceeding from the fact that the French language lends itself to epigrammatic expression, and that every French child dips his cup into the common reservoir of engaging idioms and adroit phrases. This means that French conversation, even among the humblest, is better than English conversation under similar and far more favourable conditions ; but it means no more. It gives no real intelligence. The incapacity of the ordinary Frenchman to get enough imagination into his ear (so fine that it can distinguish between the most delicate vowel sounds in his own language) to enable it to understand a foreign pronunciation is partly a proof of this. But take him at any time off his regular lines, present a new idea to him, and he can be as stupid as a Sussex farm labourer. It is the same with America. Just as the French language imposes wit on its user, so is every American, man or woman, fitted at birth with the mechanism of humour. Yet how few are humorous !
But the cocher is not the only cabman of Paris : there remains the driver of the auto. The motor cab has not elbowed out the horse cab in Paris as it has in London, nor probably will it, for the Parisians are not in a hurry; but for Longchamp and such excursions the auto is indispensable, and the motor cabman be-comes more and more a characteristic of the streets. Our London chauffeurs are sufficiently implacable, blunt and churlish, but the Parisian chauffeur is like fate. There is no escape if you enter his car : he lights his cigarette, sinks his back into his seat, and his shoulders into his back, and his head into his shoulders, and drives like the devil. He seems to have no life of his own at all : he exists merely to urge his car wherever he is told. The foreigner has no hold whatever upon the chauffeur; he arranges the meter to whatever tariff he pleases, and before you can examine the dial at the end of the journey he has jerked up the flag. When you keep him waiting his meter devours your substance. Always terrible, he is worst in winter, when he is dressed entirely in hearth-rugs. The old cocher for me.
But it grows chilly and it is dinner time. Let us go. Yet first I would remind you that we chose the Café de la Paix for our reverie only because it is the centre, and we were intent upon the centre. But the pavement chairs of all the cafés of Paris are interesting, and it is equally good to sit in any populous bourgeois quarter where one can watch the daily indigenous life of this city, which the visitor who remains for the most part in the visitors' districts can so easily miss. The busy, capable girls and women shopping — their pretty uncovered heads all so neatly and deftly arranged, and their bags and baskets in their hands; the chair mender blowing his horn ; the teams of white horses, six or eight in single file, with high collars and bells, drawing blocks of stone or barrels of wine; the tondeur de chiens, with his mournful pipe and box of scissors; the brisk errand boys; the neat little milliners with their band-boxes; now and then a slovenly soldier and a well-groomed erect agent. Paris as a spectacle is perpetually new and amusing.