Thursday, 24 March 2011

"The Man Who Saved Paris": Charles-Axel Guillaumot

The Idle Historian has always been fascinated with underground worlds, and the premiere among them must naturally be the tunnels, catacombs, and hidden mysteries that lie beneath the streets of Paris. My sole trip to the Catacombs was one of fascination and wonder, and I have since discovered that there is infinitely more underground Paris that one may yet discover. National Geographic recently had an excellent piece on the subject that I would recommend to your attention.

I also recently picked up a copy of the elegant and absorbing book Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb which, as one reviewer put it, is a "darker, stranger, more fragmented history, sprinkled with mystery and magic." One of the pieces early in the book is about Charles-Axel Guillaumot, an architect known as "the man who saved Paris" -- a man who has not been mentioned in any history of Paris in nearly two hundred years. Indeed it is difficult to find any English-language reference to him, save in searches referencing Robb's book, although there is a tiny piece in French on wikipedia listing the essential details of a remarkable life's work.

The piece in Parisians begins with the appearance of a giant sinkhole, one-quarter mile long, that swallowed many houses on the Rue d'Enfer in 1774. "Enfer" is of course the French word for "hell," and the hole in the earth became known as "the Mouth of Hell." In 1777 Guillaumot was a newly-minted "Inspecteur Général des Carrières" (Inspector of Quarries) when a second sinkhole appeared. Bravely lowering himself down to a depth of 84 feet into the 1774 collapse, and then inspecting the newest disaster, Guillaumot instantly grasped that these sites were ancient quarries dug by those "who had known nothing of the art of excavation." More ominously, he understood the problem was of such gravity that it might well endanger entire areas of the city.

His ten year mission to reinforce and map these vast spaces below Paris filled him with both mania and a sense of his own genius. He commanded vast resources, and his seemingly endless demands were never questioned by his superiors. Both those above and below him in status were in awe of his energy and vision. He divided his men into excavation, masonry, and mapping teams -- in the process devising a more precise and technical map of the tunnels below Paris than existed of the streets on the surface. As Graham Robb writes:
"Eighty feet below the Latin Quarter, he knew the silent joy of a man who devotes himself, body and soul, to a single passion... Far from the light of day, Guillaumot attained a sense of professional fulfilment in which the very notion of happiness had become irrelevant. His comprehension of the city's past now exceeded anything that could be found in books."
[The Catacombs. Photo courtesy of Justin Bengry.]

The vast cavernous spaces extended some 200 miles, which is the distance from Paris to the mountains of the Massif Central. When the problems of overflowing cemeteries and rotting corpses was brought to light, Guillaumot immediately suggested the establishment of a giant ossuary in the underground caverns. The first bones were moved there in 1786, followed by millions more, into the tunnels of the Left Bank called "the Catacombs." The dead "completed Guillaumot's masterpiece," just as the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror descended. The "man who saved Paris," fortunately for him, was saved from the Terror despite his associations with the ancien régime, and continued his work as Inspector of Quarries until his death in 1807. His gravestone disappeared sometime in the 1880s and, quite fittingly, his bones were gathered up to be laid alongside the sleeping millions who populate his eerie underground kingdom.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Monday, 21 March 2011

The Perfect Martini Blog Post Mixed Up at Being Manly...

A lovely reference from our friend Vir Beatum at Being Manly, and a fine piece on the art of mixing the martini, "Stirred, Not Shaken," which is exactly what the Idle Historian believes regarding the subject:
"The Idle Historian, who knows a thing or two about the consumption of alcohol, but never before lunch, advised me that he is ‘firm, of course, on it being stirred and not shaken. One cannot bruise the delicate, healthful molecules of gin... (and, of course, it MUST be gin, not vodka)’."

Quite. These are serious, weighty matters indeed. I endorse Plymouth Gin, a flavourful yet delicate concoction. There are many fine gins in the "unusual" (more expensive) category -- such as Hendricks and British Columbia's own Victoria Gin -- but Plymouth remains an excellent standard choice. The pleasures of the well-made martini are incomparable, whether enjoyed in company or on one's own at the end of a busy day. Find your perfect formulation and repeat as necessary.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

"Queen Victoria and Abdul: Diaries reveal secrets"

There have been a spate of recent reports regarding sources that have come to light about the close, and remarkable, relationship that Queen Victoria shared late in her life with her Muslim Indian servant Abdul Karim. It has made its way to a widely viewed story on the BBC website, "Queen Victoria and Abdul: Diaries reveal secrets":
"In letters to him over the years between his arrival in the UK and her death in 1901, the queen signed letters to him as 'your loving mother' and 'your closest friend'," author Shrabani Basu told the BBC... "It was unquestionably a passionate relationship - a relationship which I think operated on many different layers in addition to the mother-and-son ties between a young Indian man and a woman who at the time was over 60 years old."
[Abdul Karim, photo from the BBC story]

He taught her Urdu, instructed her in Indian culture and history, and introduced her to Indian cuisine -- she took particularly to curry dishes. The friendship followed on her earlier closeness as a middle-aged widow with a rough-hewn Scottish servant John Brown, famously captured in the film Her Majesty Mrs. Brown, starring Dame Judi Dench and Billy Connolly. Abdul Karim, however, was promoted beyond the status of a servant, while John Brown was not. Karim become Queen Victoria's private secretary and "was bestowed with many honours as the royal party travelled around Europe meeting monarchs and prime ministers."

Certainly both friendships were frowned upon by the Queen's family and advisers, and most particularly that with Abdul Karim. Following Victoria's death her son, Edward VII, ordered letters and evidence of the relationship destroyed, and Karim was dismissed from Royal service.

So what exactly did the very unconventional figures of John Brown, and then Abdul Karim, provide for the widowed Queen? Companionship certainly, and a certain safety in their status as subservient figures -- for all their personal charm and endearing qualities. They may have, however, been "equals" to the Queen in another sense. Perhaps both parties identified as marginal figures, living somewhat detached from their worlds -- as if observers of their own lives. While it may seem rather odd to refer to the Queen of England (and Empress of India) as a "marginal figure," during this period of her life she was well entrenched into her 40 years of dour widowhood, cossetted in the Royal estates, and rarely emerging to preform ceremonial duties. She was a figurehead, the mother of the nation -- but mostly in photographs, swathed in black, frozen in time in the age when her dear Prince Albert was still alive. As "Other" figures, Brown and Karim quite possibly allowed the Queen to step out of the expectations of her role. The opprobrium of advisers and family (particularly her son Bertie -- Edward VII -- whom she blamed for her husband's premature death) may have merely strengthened this feeling.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Friday, 4 March 2011

Winston Churchill, F.E. Smith and "The Other Club": Doing One's Own Thing with Aplomb

As the Idle Historian, I wrote somewhat recently on the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks at Eating Like an Edwardian. The existence of these societies are but one example of the importance of clubs and being "clubbable" to the British upper classes. The area of Pall Mall and St. James in London still serves as the preserve of these august clubs, and their names are legendary: The Athenaeum, The Reform and Carlton Clubs (political in nature), White's, Brooks's, and The Traveler's Club.

I recently came across a lengthy reference to "The Other Club" in Juliet Nicolson's book The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow, England in 1911. The Club was created by the young Home Secretary Winston Churchill (a Liberal) and his friend, the
Conservative MP F.E. Smith, after they were refused entry to the prestigious group known simply as The Club (founded by no less than Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Johnson.) The Other Club was designed to be composed of 12 Liberals, 12 Conservatives, and 12 "distinguished outsiders," and to dine fortnightly during the sitting of Parliament. The Club was meant to promote cross-party conviviality though the last of its 12 rules, brilliantly acerbic in tone, was contributed by Churchill:

"Nothing in the rules or intercourse of the Club shall interfere with the rancour or asperity of party politics."

In other words, no plotting of coalitions was to be even contemplated during Club meetings -- present events might certainly have turned out differently if David Cameron and Nick Clegg were members of a society such as The Other Club (although the original Club has not dined for something on the order of 40 years).

Winston Churchill's personality, grand exploits, and the mythology of his Prime Ministership during the Second World War, need no retelling here. F.E. Smith, on the other hand, is remembered largely for his connection to the great man. But he himself was a bold, larger-than-life character on the political stage.

[F.E. Smith, caricature in Vanity Fair from 1907, soon after delivering his fiery maiden speech in the House. Note the similarity of this caricature to that of contemporary Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, which serves as the avatar for the Idle Historian.]


Smith was tall, slim, debonair, ambitious, and his maiden speech -- in contradiction to the tradition of mild-mannered and deferential offerings -- was a challenge to the government over their tactics in the previous election. He was so forthright and occasioned such comment that one distinguished society lady was said to remark: "Who is this Effie Smith? She can't be a modest girl to be so talked about."

These characteristics, mirrored by his friend Churchill who was bold, brash, indefatigable -- and always well fortified with copious quantities of champagne, claret, and brandy -- served the two well in their adventures and lifelong friendship.

The first dinner of The Other Club was held at the Savoy on 18 May 1911. As Juliet Nicolson describes:

The membership was essentially made up of those who were young, witty and unconventional, several of them only hovering on the decorous fringes of the Establishment... The chairmanship of The Club was to be rotated between the members of the two political parties. It was said that a waiter was co-opted to make up the number in the event that only 13 guests turned up to diner -- until it was realised that he could not be trusted to keep his mouth shut, and a large wooden black cat was imported to fill the extra seat in his stead. 'To Dine' was the ostensible object of The Other Club, but at £2 a head, the equivalent of a week's wage for the average working man... it was an expensive evening. Churchill always ordered 'off the menu' when it came to the dessert course. His choice of Roquefort cheese, a peeled pear and mixed ice cream never varied... The Club offered a refuge, a place where conviviality thrived and a tolerant exchange of views was encouraged... The Club was a symbolic manifestation of the friendship between Winston Churchill and F.E. Smith. The first evening was considered a triumph by everyone who attended, and all agreed to gather again at the Savoy... [Nicolson, p. 47-8]
The Other Club, born as a wry and witty means to spite the Establishment that had been spiteful towards them, was an expression of Churchill and Smith's personalities and aplomb. It represented a freewheeling devil-may-care attitude and bipartisanship that, sadly, is quite missing in the stage-managed sound-bite world of contemporary politics. It is a relic of the class and era of its legendary founders.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils
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